A weather-beaten statue of a sad-faced clown marks the entrance to Ward Hall's Gibsonton home. Along the walls of the entrance to his mobile home hang fading newspaper clips of his glory days.
Journalists used to call him the king of the sideshow, he says. I take his word for it.
He started as a teenage clown, making himself up with shaving cream and lipstick. He juggled, performed magic, swallowed fire.
Ask him, and he'll explain how it's done. Although Hall makes it sound like rolling off a log, I definitely would not recommend trying this at home.
As long as you're not caught in a wind, he says, "fire only travels in one direction, and that's straight up. So you hold your head back, moisten your lips, open your mouth wide, then put the torch in and pull it back out." Finally you exhale, he says, to blow whatever flames remain out of your mouth.
Hall sits in a big stuffed chair as he talks. His voice is crisp and prone to melodramatic turns. Every question I ask prompts him to tell a story. He is a walking history book, and somebody better come and write it down.
Hall's performing days are over. He is 73 and going deaf. His sideshow is up for sale.
Sideshows were the detours full of shock and wonder that crisscrossed the country with circuses and carnivals for years. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus comes to Tampa every January and the church down the street still holds an annual carnival fundraiser, but the sideshows are mostly gone.
With them goes the rich language of men such as Hall. A "talker" stood outside the tent and prodded the crowd, called the "tip," to come in and see. The "bally" was a small stage in front of the sideshow tent where a few acts performed for free to get the crowd's attention. The sideshow was called a "ten-in-one" because it had 10 acts. A "gazoony" was a man who put up and took down the show.
Fading, too, are the sideshow's greatest displays: the human freaks. In Hall's show, there was Penguin Man, whose feet were connected to his hips with no legs in between; Percilla the Monkey Girl, who was covered with hair; and Schlitzie the Pinhead, who was mentally handicapped.
We no longer tolerate human displays like this, and medicine catches or treats such abnormalities. Conjoined twins can be separated. The mentally handicapped are less likely to be cast off by their families.
But the memory of these people lingers, perhaps because they fascinate us, in a morbid way. Whoever buys Hall's show will be buying evidence of those days. Two dozen wax figures of freaks are part of the package.
When Hall looks back on the years when the freaks were on stage, he makes no apologies. He doesn't think for a minute he was exploiting them. The impulse to get up close to the freaks was no different than the desire to get close to a rock star or the president, he says.
As for the freaks, they wanted to be in the sideshow, he says, and he paid them very well.
They had a special bond, these misfits thrown together on the sideshow circuit. It was more a family than a business, he says, and I don't doubt that part.
Hall shares his home with an elderly and deaf dwarf who once performed in his shows, Norbert Terhurne. They have been together 51 years. Hall calls him Little Pete.
Little Pete has his own easy chair, made of soft purple fabric. The chair, not much more than child-size, is positioned right next to Hall's in the living room.
In his years traveling from city to city with his sideshow, Hall rarely got to see more than the circus grounds. He missed every local landmark, and he would like to see what he missed. So he plans to travel now and then as long as his health holds out.
One of his regular stops was the Florida State Fair, which is held every February in Tampa. This year, another, much younger promoter will put on the show.
Hall will stay home and enjoy his quiet pleasures, such as admiring the bougainvillea that grows along his frontyard fence. He wants to watch until the blooms cover every inch _ blooms as red as the lipstick he used to draw his first clown face when he was a boy.
_ Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelonesptimes.com or 226-3402.