Thinking of running away to join the sideshow? Now there’s a seminar where you can learn to eat fire.

Sideshow artists past and present will mingle with those attending the Tampa event, be they passive fans or people seriously interested in a career.
Published February 8
Updated February 8

GIBSONTON — Chris Christ and Tommy Breen learned their craft from books. A lot of people do, but these men work in sideshow entertainment — eating fire, swallowing swords, and such.

“It was a lot of poking and prodding,” said Breen, 38. “It was not the best way to learn.”

Now, Breen runs World of Wonders, based in Gibsonton and the last of the traveling carnival sideshows. Christ used to run it.

And they’re working to improve training for the next generation of entertainers like them — hoping, in the process, they can help ensure there will be one.

For four days later this month, Feb. 21-24, Christ and Breen will put on a seminar at The Magic Emporium, 4429 Gunn Hwy. in Tampa. The cost is $100. They’ll cover the history of the industry and offer live presentations on, yes, how to eat fire, swallow swords and throw knives.

Sideshow artists past and present will mingle with those attending, be they passive fans or people seriously interested in a career.

And at 7 p.m. on Feb. 23, the teachers will put on a full sideshow performance that’s also open to those not attending the seminar.

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When Breen and Christ held a similar seminar five years ago, one of those attending came from the state of Washington.

He ended up taking a job as a ticket taker with World of Wonders. The performers later taught him to throw knives and swallow swords and today, under the name "Dizzy Diamond," he is part of the show.

Overall, World of Wonders has four full time performers and brings in part-timers when needed.

"We are always looking for new faces," Breen said. "But even if you don't work for the World of Wonders, this seminar is a good way to network and meet people and see different jobs in the sideshow business."

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Breen, 38, and Christ, 70, started young.

As high schoolers, they learned sideshow skills through books from the library — Breen in Buffalo, where he picked up sword swallowing, and Christ in Little Falls, N.J., where he learned fire eating.

They honed their skills and took off to join a sideshow, eventually signing on with World of Wonders.

What does it take to make it in the sideshow business?

“A burning desire to entertain and a 'want to' attitude," said Christ, who ran World of Wonders for over 50 years with its late-founder Ward Hall. "You give me a group of kids like that and I can turn them into a crew.

"When you get older you want to pass on some of your knowledge," he added. "That's what I want to do."

By doing so, Christ and Breen hope to revive a dying form of live entertainment.

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"Today, people prefer to go on Google or YouTube," Christ said. "What can't you find there? But I promise nothing replaces seeing it live."

The sideshow industry hit its peak in the 1930s, said David Denholtz, a sideshow historian who is taking part in the seminar.

During that era, he estimates, there were 300 traveling sideshows touring the nation.

Back then, human oddities, or "freaks" as they were called by promoters, were among the attractions. When the touring season was done, many stayed in Gibsonton, earning the south Hillsborough County community national renown as "Freak Town."

"The number of traveling shows dropped to maybe 100 in the 50s, 10-20 in the 70s, to today where there is just the one," Denholtz said

In interviews before he died last year, Hall blamed the decline on a couple of factors — what he called political correctness in driving unusual humans from the shows and the difficulty in shocking audiences who have access to the internet, television and movies.

Still, Denholtz believes a revival may come.

"But it is not going to happen at a carnival," he said. "It will happen in small venues like where the local music scene goes. It's already happening in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore."

He is confident crowds will rediscover the fun of seeing a live sideshow.

"The great thing about a sideshow is that everything you see other than the illusion show is real," Denholtz said.

"They are really swallowing swords and eating fire and throwing knives. They are really doing dangerous stuff live for your amusement."

Seminar of the Sideshow Art

When: Feb. 21-24

Where: The Magic Emporium, 4429 Gunn Hwy, Tampa

Cost: $100 in advance, $125 at the door.

Live sideshow performance

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 23

Where: The Magic Emporium, 4429 Gunn Hwy, Tampa

Cost: $15 in advance, $20 at the door

Information: themagicemporium.net

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes

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