King of the Sideshow Shares What It Takes to Sell Weird

“The  strangest of them all is a seventeen-year-old girl from Leslie, Minnesota. Her name is Angela Perez. Angela has a normal head and an absolutely beautiful face, but that is all that is beautiful and normal about her. Because from the neck down she has a body that looks like a tarantula spider. It’s not pretty. It’s not nice. When you look at her it may shock you. But you will never forget the spider girl.”  — Ward Hall on the bally stage, from the book “Fringe Florida”

When I met Ward Hall a few years ago it was after much build-up. Carnie folk spoke of the showman in reverential tones, referring to him as “King of the Sideshow.” Even still, given that he had made his living off people and animals with deformities (he once charged people to see what showmen refer to as “pickled punks,” faux fetuses in a jar),  I had expected to find a grizzled old man who might sell his baby brother for $2. But as in most cases during my research for my book Fringe Florida, I found Ward pleasantly defied my preconceived notions, or at least any callous ones. Ward is possibly the world’s greatest salesman, but he’s also so charming you’ll overlook that his baby brother is actually a Cracker Box toy.

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Ward’s a master of many sideshow arts. He and his partner Chris Christ own World of Wonders, reportedly the last traveling 10-in-1 sideshow, that’s show-talk for 10 acts at one price.  Beginning tonight (Thursday, Jan. 30) and continuing through Feb. 1,  Ward, Chris and a few other industry experts will share their sideshow craft and its colorful history with all who pony up the seminar price, of course. That’s $125.

For someone who wants to learn how to sell the fantastical or is just a hardcore sideshow fan, the 2nd Annual Seminar of Sideshow Arts is a bargain. Ward, now in his 80s, is a walking encyclopedia of the sideshow and will share stories, photos, and film tonight. Friday starts with a Sideshow swamp meet. (I’ll be looking for a human-size tarantula body.)  Afterwards sideshow pros will lecture on everything from sideshow banners to how to handle a tough crowd.  The final day is filled with field trips, including one to the Florida State Fair for a behind-the-scenes look at the World of Wonders show. The seminar ends with a big performance on Saturday night.

For those who just want to be entertained by sword swallowers, magic acts, and men who pound nails up their nose, tickets to only Saturday’s “Big Show” are $15 online. See the schedule and buy tickets onThe Magic Emporium website.

The curious of strange can also catch the World of Wonders and the freak animal sideshow, Tampa-based Jim Zajicek’s Big Circus Sideshow , at the Florida State Fair beginning Thursday, Feb. 6.  (Yes, I said freak animals, but that’s a story for another time.) Don’t miss seeing Spider Woman at the World of Wonders while you’re at the fair. You may have seen scarier things at Wal-Mart, but you certainly won’t forget her.

 

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Typical Florida Weekend: Drunken Pirates, Swamp Buggy Races, and Horrifying Ink

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This time of year in Florida you can hardly step outside your door without tripping over fringe in full regalia. Case in point, Tampa’s Gasparilla Pirate Fest. This past weekend much of downtown and Bayshore Boulevard were overrun with socialites gone cosplay crazy and the drunken every-man who fought for tossed plastic beads in between chugs of beer and peeing between parked cars. Mind you, the grand Gasparilla parade occurs before a string of mansions including the home of MacDill groupie Jill Kelley whose Gasparilla parties are legendary.

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The Gasparilla event is named for mythical buccaneer Jose Gaspar, who if he had existed, would have never stepped boot onto the Disneyfied vessel that bears his name. He probably wouldn’t have been invited aboard. The ship is owned by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, a club of predominately white rich guys. I say predominantly because the club of around 750 didn’t initiate a few members of color until after it’s all-white, male status almost cost Tampa the Super Bowl back in 1991.

2014 swamp buggy races

Farther south in Naples, crowds celebrated a more redneck version of Gasparilla. Swamp buggies were the Joie de vivre. The amphibious vehicles are Florida’s contribution to motorized transportation and have been raced in Naples since the 1920s.

swampyNaples swamp buggy fans have their own parade, furry mascot, and a queen who is ceremoniously dunked in mud by the winner at end of the races.  (Side Note: A former queen contestant who turned buggy racing champ was recently released from probation after being convicted of severely beating a woman over a man.)

Meanwhile, another mud-loving crowd converged at Redneck Yacht Club in Punta Gorda for the Gone Jeep Country Weekend.  Apparently, a little more sedate crowd than usual, however, it was limited to Jeeps.  Look for the rowdier swamp buggy and four-wheel-drive muddin’ crowd to converge at RYC’s annual Mud Bash on Feb. 7-9 and the St. Lucie Mud Jam on Feb. 21 & 22.

St. Lucie Mud Jam https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=503422316388884&set=pb.184709354926850.-2207520000.1390936081.&type=3&theater

St. Lucie Mud Jam     https://www.facebook.com/mudjam

Up north in the Florida Panhandle, Pensacola tattoo enthusiasts finally got their freak on at their first Immersed in Ink Tattoo & Horror Festival. (Fest also appears in other larger cities)
The photo and cutline from the Pensacola News Journal says all you need to know.

"Amber Rupp and her 3-month-old son Spencer, get their photo taken with actor Tony Moran, who played Michael Myers in the 1978 horror classic Halloween, Sunday during the Immersed in Ink Tattoo arts and Horror Festival at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds" -- Pensacola News Journal photo by John Blackie/jblackie@pnj.com

“Amber Rupp and her 3-month-old son Spencer, get their photo taken with actor Tony Moran, who played Michael Myers in the 1978 horror classic Halloween, Sunday during the Immersed in Ink Tattoo arts and Horror Festival at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds” — Pensacola News Journal photo by John Blackie/jblackie@pnj.com

South Florida being South Florida, doesn’t need weekends to roll out the fringe. What, with butt-injection parties and celebrity street racing, what could go wrong?

Justin Bieber arrested for DUI and driving without a license after Miami cops caught him street racing.

Justin Bieber arrested for DUI and driving without a license after Miami cops caught him street racing.

 

 

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“Chubby Chin Barbies,” Twirling Chihuahuas, and 13 Other Weird Fringe Florida 2014 Predictions

 

Just when you think life can’t get any stranger in Florida, it always does. Now, I typically don’t focus on “weird” breaking news stories as I’m more interested in fringe subcultures and the stories behind the news stories. But I just couldn’t resist gazing into my plastic Dixie cup for hints of the weirdness 2014 holds for my sunny state. Cheers to another year of madness and ever-evolving fringe!  

  1. In efforts to stamp out illegal voting by immigrants, the Florida Legislature allows registered voters to carry assault rifles to polling places.
  2. Mons Venus strip club owner Joe Redner opens an adult theme park adjacent to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando. For a $1,000 entry fee, park goers can get unlimited nude lap dances, free Cigar City beer and rides on the Mons Venus, a roller coaster that dives into a giant replica of a woman’s vagina.
  3. Swamp buggies are allowed on Interstates.
  4. Former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is a late independent entrant in the Governor’s race, but leaves the state in disgrace after it is revealed that he sleeps with an inflatable Jesus doll.
  5. Pasco County opens the nation’s first public nude golf course.
  6. The Koch brothers purchase 1,000 acres near Live Oak with plans to develop the retirement village Tea Party City where the only currency is gold and silver and the help wear all white.
  7. A new AMC reality show, “Chubby Chin Barbies” follows a Lake Wales banker who wears a rubber Barbie Doll mask and injects Miami Socialites’ necks with helium after chubby chins become the latest beauty fad in South Florida
  8. Governor Rick Scott is photographed nude hula hooping at Swing Fest 2014.
  9. In preparation for rising sea levels due to global warming, Fantasy Fest organizers move the parade to the water and feature cross-dressing windsurfers, topless mermaids and the Twirling Chihuahuas, a male baton-twirling, water-skiing troupe who wear only leashes and dog ears.
  10. Owners of big cats, monkeys, and constrictors open Heavenly Zoo, an exotic animal cemetery beside Coleman federal prison. Admission is $45.
  11. Florida voters approve the medicinal use of marijuana and Attorney General Pam Bondi goes granola, stops bleaching her hair, and becomes the state’s largest pot farmer.
  12. Tampa socialite Jill Kelley sues CNN for ignoring her.
  13.  Two members of an outlaw motorcycle club and an undercover ATF agent accidentally set themselves on fire while attempting to blow up a rival MC’s clubhouse for the sixth time.
  14. The first annual Trial Groupie Convention is held in Orlando.
  15. A skunk ape is captured in the Big Cyprus Swamp Sanctuary and found to be merely Brittany Spears gone feral.
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Holy Mother of Rubber Mary

Just when I think  I have a handle on the most bizarre fringe in Florida, another morphs to surface. Thanks to colleague Craig Pittman, a chronicler of weird Florida, for forwarding me a Daily Beast piece on Maskers.  Maskers are typically men who cross dress in rubber masks and suits, taking on the appearance of a creepy living rubber doll. They may take the, uh, rubbersona of Wonder Woman, a French maid, and of course, Barbie. 1235248_626935767351367_1747132303_n

I actually spotted a masker at Fetish Con in Tampa several years ago, but at the time wasn’t aware of the term. The man looked like a blow-up Orphan Annie and was mentioned in passing in my book Fringe Florida.  I found him a little creepy, what, with the human eyes peering out of a rubber face. Think Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the Lambs” crossed with Baby Tender Love.

While masking is an obscure fetish, Florida apparently is a significant address in the kinky world of human rubber dolls, and I’m not speaking of Rubber Doll, the latex fetish performer who lives in South Florida. The DB piece profiles a masker, Robert a.k.a. Sherry, who lives in Orange County, Florida and was featured in the documentary Secrets of the Living Dolls which premiered Monday night on Britain’s Channel 4.  Robert, who by the way is a property developer, said he buys his rubber doll suits from a Wildwood, Fla business called FemSkin.  DB says FemSkin is “a family-owned and -operated business running out of Wildwood, Florida, where Barbie Ramos and her three sons build and deliver $1,800 realistic custom-made skins to clients across the globe.” That’s right. The matriarch of the rubber doll business is named Barbie.

Stay tuned. Something stranger is always just around the bend of the Florida imagination.

 

 

 

 

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Dark Side of Florida Fringe, More to Come!

Dear Fringe Florida Followers,

Apologies for the conspicuous absence. I’m in the midst of renovating my nest.

Stay tuned for more!

 

 

 

 

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Pony Play, Old and New Fringe Florida-style

A good friend who read my book “Fringe Florida: Travels Among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles,” passed along this photo of an exotic dancer from the 1890’s.

erotic dancer from 1890s

Not sure of the provenience, but it’s a safe bet the pony girl wasn’t in Florida, at least not at the time. There were less than 400,000 people living in the Sunshine State then. But if you read my book, you will find that Florida is a hotbed of pony play these days.

Some semblance of pony play has been around for centuries. An ancient frieze implies that Aristotle was into it with his wife Phyllis even though some scholars believe the image to be only metaphorical. The antiquity shows Phyllis riding on Aristotle’s back as if he was a horse. The pose was recast by several other artists over the centuries including a wood engraving and a brass pitcher that I was able to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York while researching the book.

Of course, with digital photography there’s no shortage of images of pony play including this one of Florida’s International Pony Play champs, Foxy and Sherifox.

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Foxy puts Sherifox through her pony play paces at a fetish dungeon in Largo, Fla.

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“Cassadaga” Horror Flick Plays off Florida Spiritualist Community

spiritOn it’s face, Cassadaga has long been ripe for a horror flick. After all, I was told by the desk clerk at the community’s only hotel not to be alarmed if a lingering spirit left toys in my room; the historic hotel is said to be haunted by former guests which include a young boy.

At long last, a horror film uses the town as a setting for a story of closure gone bloody wrong. In “Cassadaga,” a young girl tries to connect with her murdered sister, but instead resurrects a deadly demon — a serial killer, no less. Directed by Anthony DiBlasi and starring Kelen Coleman (from “The Newsroom” and “The Mindy Project”) the film debuted in limited markets including Orlando on Oct. 11. Mainstream reviews are mediocre at best.  New York Times critic Miriam Bales called it “sloppy” and “humorless,” but still sufficiently frightening if only because it plays on the fears of  “evil puppetry, haunted homes and overly generous hosts.”

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True to horror flick fashion, the real Cassadaga community far differs from its depiction. True, the community is home to dozens of mediums who communicate with the dead and the official Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is so quaint, yet strange, that residents characterize it as “where Mayberry meets the Twilight Zone.”

DiBlasi told Examiner.com that he shot the film in and around Cassadaga, even though his interpretation of the locale is a little loose. Cassadaga is an unincorporated community dominated by the 57-acre Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp and no film was shot there.

 Not surprisingly, some residents are insulted by the film’s characterization. One commented that the movie is the “biggest bullshit I’ve ever seen put to film.” Another just laughed.

Although one of the fringier places I visited while researching for my book “Fringe Florida,” I found it a cheerful New Age backwoods, a place more likely to be home to wood nymphs than creepy demons. Furthermore, although Spiritualists believe in God, they don’t believe in Satan. Death isn’t creepy or scary in Spiritualism. It’s merely a passing from one form to another. But hey, a late plumber floating around as an orb isn’t as theatrical as a surreal killer coming back to life and turning people into marionettes.

Think I’ll pay psycho Cassadaga a visit for Halloween. I’m referring to the film, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author Lynn Waddell Launches the Fringe Flag High

The time is near for a celebration of Florida’s rich tapestry of subcultures and the book that features a slice of them. The fun begins at 6 pm Saturday at Beak’s St. Pete, a bar and restaurant eclectically decorated with Florida kitsch.

In addition to a reading by the author Lynn Waddell, there will be a few special guests from the book in attendance. Nudist/Lifestyler Angye Fox will display her Canvass Cleavage artwork, which she paints with her breasts, and will share why she creates them.

The event is hosted by Keep St. Pete Lit, a book club that preserves the city’s literary past and fosters its future. Books will be available for purchase and signing by author. Kris and Jason from Beak’s will serve tasty complimentary hor d’oeuvres and they are offering drink specials including Fringe Florida Sangria.

Start Saturday night off with a bang. The party runs from 6-8 pm. Afterwards grab dinner inside and catch the live music that begins at 8 pm.

 

Beak’s St. Pete

2451 Central Avenue.

Read more about it today in Creative Loafing Tampa’s write-up online.

 

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Fringe Florida Now Available As Ebook

Kindle, Nook, and Ipad readers, Florida’s fringe has now gone digital. Kobo and Amazon are selling an ebook version of “Fringe Florida.” Hardback copies are also available online and at major and independent bookstores.

Remember, although ebooks are convenient, they can’t be signed. Come to the book release party hosted by the Keep St. Pete Lit book club on Oct. 5 at Beak’s St. Pete in downtown St. Petersburg and Inkwood Books in Tampa on Oct. 8 for a personalized signed copy and a free Fringe Florida tattoo.

Rocking Fringe Florida tat with new friend Matt at Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in NOLA

Rocking Fringe Florida tat with new friend Matt at Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in NOLA

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No Fringe Like Florida Fringe

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Fringe doesn’t respect city limits or state lines. Sometimes it showboats where you least expect it. Other times you anticipate its slap and it lands like a light breeze across your cheek.  Taking Fringe Florida on the road to New Orleans, I found Crescent City filled with the breezy variety, albeit one that carried the scent of stale beer and bodily functions I prefer not to think about. Shirtless men painted silver head-to-toe, a skeleton-face mermaid, Satan in platforms — they all literally worked a fringe look, hustling for dollar bills, change, cigarettes, and beer on and around Bourbon Street.

I stayed in a small guest cottage in the French Quarter, nearly a mile from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Trade Show where I was a featured author. I wanted to soak up the fringe of the hedonistic, historic enclave

silver manof the European-style architecture, gritty jazz and blues bars, and voodoo shops selling rabbits feet and tarot card readings. But in short order, I discovered the fringe was authentic as Mickey Mouse, or perhaps more appropriately, Duval Street in Key West.

satan with irish

After an inspiring day at SIBA meeting talented authors and friendly small bookstore owners and signing books, I trudged through the cacophony of Bourbon Street bar bands and drunken football cheers to our temporary abode. Along the way I shot photos of the fringe-for-hire until I ran out of dollar bills.

In case you missed yours truly’s interview with Rob Lorei about the book last week on WMNF 88.5 FM RadioActivity show, you can catch it here on podcast.

 

 

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