Ward Hall was 8 when he attended his first circus.
Impressed by the boy’s enthusiasm for the Big Top, Hall’s grandfather suggested, "You ought to join a traveling circus."
Eight years later, Hall decided to follow the advice.
"Get it out of your system," his father told him. "You’ll be home in two weeks."
As it turns out, he never came home again, Hall told the Tampa Bay Times in one of a number of interviews with the newspaper through the years.
Hall joined a sideshow that featured "freaks" of human nature and later started his own. He traveled the United States, Canada and Mexico, producing for Ringling Bros. and performing in Carnegie Hall.
By the time the Trenton, Neb., native finally retired in Gibsonton, his home since 1967, he had earned the nickname "King of the Sideshow."
Hall died Friday at 88 after a prolonged illness, according to Chris Christ, his partner of 53 years in their World of Wonders sideshow. Now under new ownership, the show is still based in Gibsonton and continues to entertain audiences at state fairs and carnivals.
"He was a one-of a-kind, never-ending gregarious person," said Christ, 70, who lives in Gibsonton. "He was someone you could wind up and turn on and for 72 hours he’d never stop telling stories."
Before taking the reins of his own sideshow, Hall learned how to perform the acts — magic, sword swallowing, fire eating, standing still for the knife thrower and stepping into the lion cage.
"That’s how he trained me," said Thomas Breen, 37, who now runs World of Wonders. "Ward’s big thing was someone might leave in the middle of the night or get sick, but the show must go on. So, you have to know how to do everything so you can fill in."
For years, the stars of Hall’s shows were men and women called freaks for their physical abnormalities.
There was Schlitzie the Pinhead, who had a "head no bigger than a grapefruit," Hall said. Percilla the Monkey Girl "had long, silky hair growing over her face, head and body."
Sometimes, Hall created his own freaks. In the 1950s, he bought two rubber dolls, popped the head off one and glued it to the other, then shoved the hybrid into a pickle jar filled with iced tea.
"I didn’t tell them they’d see a real baby," he said. "I told them they’d see a two-headed baby."
It was a different era. Crowds weren’t ashamed to point and stare at the stars of the freak show. Photos of Hall and some of his cast members were featured on the cover of the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street in 1972.
Come winter each year, many of the human attractions lived in Gibsonton, earning the south Hillsborough community national renown as "Freak Town."
But the show eventually dwindled away.
Hall had two theories on why.
Tattooed ladies and fat men, he quipped, walked the aisles of Walmart.
"It is almost impossible to shock anyone these days."
He also blamed what he saw as political correctness — people railing against the exploitation of those who are different.
Hall saw it differently.
"Do-gooders run things. I’m telling you, this life was very good for freaks. These kind of people made money. Who’s putting a bearded lady or a one-armed girl in a leading lady role on Broadway? This way they lived a great life. No more. It’s ridiculous."
Today, World of Wonders features sword swallowers, fire eaters and magicians.
"We keep the feel of the strange and unusual," show owner Breen said.
World of Wonders was getting ready for the opening of the Cumberland County Fair in Fayetteville, N.C., when Breen learned of Hall’s death. As Hall would have wanted, Breen said, the show went on that night.
Even his funeral will wait until November, when touring season is done.
"He was a guy who enjoyed what he did," said partner Christ. "It wasn’t just a vocation; it was his life."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.