Ward Hall got his first job at age 14 — as a circus clown. Within three years, he was managing a sideshow and went on to own a traveling sideshow business. Now 81 and living in Gibsonton, the "king of the sideshow" talked to Florida Trend about the perils of being a knife thrower's target, his thoughts on people who try to protect "freaks" and the impact of fat people on his business.
One advantage of being so old, Hall said, is "you can tell stories and write things, and you're able to embellish things a little because all the other people who were there are all dead. There's nobody to dispute what you say."
For years, I partnered with a marvelous knife thrower. I was a ventriloquist, but I also stood in as his knife-throwing target for 17 years. I was hit in the head. I was hit in the nose twice, once in each arm and once in each leg. I'd light a cigarette and hold it in my mouth, and he would throw the knife and cut the cigarette in half. When I got hit in the nose the second time, that was it, and we never did the cigarette trick again. The act kept getting shorter and shorter because anytime I got hurt, we'd take that trick out of the act.
Gibsonton, Fla., used to be the worldwide home of the freaks. There were 75 to 85 human oddities who lived here at the peak, everyone from Sealo the Seal Boy to Priscilla the Monkey Girl. We had alligator-skinned people, fat men, fat ladies, dwarfs, giants, people with claws, people with no arms. I can introduce you to all the freaks now in 10 minutes. I'll take you to the cemetery. That's where they're all at.
I had just turned 15, and I answered an ad I saw in the Billboard newspaper that they wanted a sideshow magician and fire-eater for the Dailey Brothers Circus. It was a small circus, and I thought it would be a good place for me to learn, so I answered the ad. I got a telegram back from the sideshow manager offering me the job, and the old nosy landlady in the walkup we lived in didn't give it to me. She waited until my father came home and gave it to him. So he looked at the telegram and he said, ''Well, what in the hell is all of this about?" I said, ''Dad, I'm not asking you. I'm telling. I'm going to go with the circus." He said, ''Well, you might as well go ahead and do it. You'll get it out of your system and be home in two weeks." Well, I'm 81 years old now, and my two weeks still aren't up.
Here's how I started my business. It was 1948, and I left one circus because I wasn't getting paid and I joined this other circus. The manager of the sideshow at that circus had a nice family, two little kids, and his wife was a sword swallower. But he was a terrible alcoholic, and about every three or four days he would get drunk and couldn't work. One time, he was drunk and I saw the need, so I stepped in for him and called the bally (calling people to the attraction) and opened the show.
Afterward, the circus owner came to me and said, ''You know, Ward, I can't have that guy getting drunk all the time, and if he does it again I'm going to fire him and I want you to become the sideshow manager." After about three or four days, the guy got drunk again, and I was the sideshow manager at the age of 17.
I moved to Gibsonton in 1967. Before that, I lived in Miami Beach for a while. In all of those years, because I'm on the road so much, I only spent three summers in Florida. No one should ever have to live in Florida in the summertime.
My family? Yes, I have a big family. All of those oddities. They were my friends.
My first job, I was 14 and I got hired as a circus clown. Now, I knew that the clowns put something on their face, but I wasn't sure what it was. So, I put on what I thought were some funny-looking clothes and went out and bought a pound of Crisco. I put that Crisco on my face, which made me look more hideous than funny.
I used to love to dance. I'd rather dance than eat. Priscilla the Monkey Girl and I used to spend hours on the dance floor. She was a marvelous dancer and her husband, Emmett Bejano, the Alligator Skinned Man, didn't like to dance.
We call them the do-gooders, the people against the freak shows. But those people have never talked to a human oddity. If they did, they would know that 99 percent of the human oddities who appeared in sideshows were hams at heart and they loved the applause.
Today, the carnival is all about the rides. There are so many rides, so many big rides, that there's no longer room for a sideshow. They don't even have room for all of the rides. That's what's really killing the sideshow.
I wouldn't give you 50 cents a week for a fat man today because you can go to any buffet restaurant and in two hours see more fat people who would have qualified to appear at a sideshow than you actually would see at a real sideshow.
When I was about 8 years old, I did get to see my first circus. When I got home, I'm telling my grandparents about the circus and about what I saw and my grandfather said, "Ward, that's what you ought to do. You ought to join a traveling circus." I never forgot that.
This interview originally appeared in Florida Trend magazine's December issue. To read other Florida Trend Icon interviews, go to floridatrend.com/people_icons.asp.