1. Narratives
  2. /
  3. WriteLane

Finding great ideas, part one: WriteLane podcast

Elmer Wright, wearing a "Jesus Saves" belt buckle, wooden cross, red cowboy hat and American Flag shirt, gets ready to head to The Pier and sing for the tourists. [JAMES BORCHUCK / Times]
Elmer Wright, wearing a "Jesus Saves" belt buckle, wooden cross, red cowboy hat and American Flag shirt, gets ready to head to The Pier and sing for the tourists. [JAMES BORCHUCK / Times]
Published Sep. 10, 2018|Updated Jun. 11, 2020

Today’s podcast focuses on story ideas and how to find great ones.

Read the stories mentioned in the podcast here:

Still shining

By Lane DeGregory / Times Staff Writer

On the south side of the city pier, across from the hot dog stand, the old man parks his pushcart. He pulls out a metal folding chair, ties two corduroy cushions on the seat, unloads an amplifier, a microphone, a fistful of cords. Then he takes out his battered guitar.

It's a sunny Friday, about 2 p.m. A light breeze is rippling the bay. Sea-green trolleys are clanging by. Hundreds of people are parading past the old man.

Fake feathers sprout from his red straw cowboy hat; striped paper clips and painted hearts circle its blue ribbon brim. Thick, square glasses magnify his milky gray eyes. His nose is long, his ears oversized. His head looks too heavy for his body. It seems to sink into his stooped shoulders, maybe from the weight of his hat.

He says he's just under 5 foot 6. (Just six inches under.) All angles and joints, 108 pounds. He's having to wear his yellow ruler suspenders plus the JESUS SAVES belt just to hold up his dirty dungarees. But he's drinking more buttermilk, hoping to bulk up.

Says he's still got a lot of songs to sing.

He’s 86 - and a half.

"Howdy!" he shouts, leaning into the microphone. "I'm Elmer Wright. And if it's all right with you fine folks, I'd like to sing a few songs. . . ."

No one seems to notice. Wright starts strumming.

Oh, when the saints, come marching in. Oh, when the saints come marching in. . . .

His voice crackles through the speaker. Wind carries it across the water.

Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number. When the saints come marching in. . . .

A constant among change

Maybe you’ve seen him. More than 3-million people have.

He has been performing on The Pier in St. Petersburg since 1939.

He has sung for free through four wars and 10 presidential administrations. Through 30 years of caring for a sick wife, through raising two daughters. Through countless jobs as a cook and house painter, through five renovations of The Pier, six grandkids.

"He's a fixture of St. Petersburg, just like the green benches," says Julie Seward, who promotes the five-story Pier, its restaurants and gift shops. "Only he has outlasted them, too."

When the new pier opened in 1973, Wright was grandfathered in (so to speak) with a special permit from the city. Other people ask to play on The Pier almost daily, Seward says. "We tell them, "No. Only Elmer.' "

His guitar is covered with Jesus stickers and a paper dove, and it's out of tune. Wright is losing his hearing, can't keep time, can't read music. He can play only three chords: C, F and G major. "All you need to know," he says.

He has written 200 songs and covers 83 others.

His voice has a raw, twangy edge _ like an old John Prine or Doc Watson. And he's always interrupting himself.

"The old rugged cross. The old rugged cross . . . Take a tape! They're free!" he cries, sliding a padded cassette holder across the concrete toward a middle-aged man. "The old rugged cross . . . Go ahead, you might like one!"

The cassettes are red. "The color of Christ's blood," Wright says. He gives away a case each month.

He won't ask for donations, but he opens his guitar case. Sometimes, people pitch in quarters. After a good gig he deposits $10, maybe $12, into an Ovaltine can.

He plays at The Pier at least three days a week, no matter how hot it is, no matter how much he's hurting.

"Oh, I got arthritis in my neck, in my back, in my right leg terrible. I broke my hip last year. Sometimes, I just don't feel like going," he says. "But I get up, wash myself and shave, strum up my guitar a bit and go.

"I'll sing as long as I got breath. And when my voice dies, I'll still be here humming."

Most people try to avoid Wright, walk by quickly and avert their eyes. Others think he's nuts, dismiss him as a Jesus freak, a has-been, a hobo. Some laugh in his face, make fun of his music.

So why is he still singing?

Riches beyond compare

He lives alone in a downtown rooming house, in the same apartment he has rented since 1970. He moved there from a few blocks away, after his wife's legs got bad. He pays $260 a month, water and electricity included.

"I ain't never spent a night on the streets," he brags constantly. "Been close. Been real close. Been out of money. But somehow I'd always get me a place.

"Oh, I'm rich now. Rich as I been. Plus, I'm famous."

He still talks about the time he got paid $2 to play for 10 minutes on the radio, in 1939. Still has a video of himself from the time he got to sing on a Christian cable access program 15 years ago. But he doesn't listen to the radio anymore, or any music other than his own. Doesn't have cable TV or a VCR or CD player.

His cluttered rooms are dark and hot, with low ceilings and small windows and walls so thin you can hear the neighbors sneeze. A single bed and saggy sofa sit by the door.

Nine portraits of Jesus, some framed, some pierced by poster nails, peer down from dingy walls. A 1981 calendar hangs above the stove _ Wright hasn't changed it since his wife died.

"Didn't really get into making my tapes till after that," he says. "Then I got too busy."

Each month for the past 19 years, Wright has recorded a new 30-minute gospel cassette. (April 2001, which is in the works, will be his 226th release.)

He scribbles his set list on Wal-Mart tablets _ originals and cover tunes, seven or eight for each side. Then he turns off the space heater so it won't buzz. Carries his guitar into his "studio."

He shuts the toilet seat and sits down.

Ribbed undershirts drip-dry into the clawfoot tub by his right elbow. A portable Optimus tape player sits on a wooden chair by the bathroom door.

Before each recording session, Wright strums a few bars, clears his throat. The tape player has a built-in microphone.

"I can sing into there and not bother the guy next door. And it sounds great," he says.

"It's makin' me world-wide."

A place in the sun

Wright was born in the bluegrass hills of Kentucky, in a sharecropper's shack. It was 1914 _ the same year St. Petersburg's first Municipal Pier opened. Wright made it through seventh grade, then quit school to help his dad. He and his six siblings picked tobacco and corn, forked hay on other people's farms. At night, they'd sit on the porch listening to their mama sing hymns.

The summer Wright turned 16, he earned $2.50 selling possum pelts and bought a beat-up six-string from a girl down the road. Carved a new back out of barn wood, nailed it on with horseshoe nails. His big brother Onie showed him how to pick out a scale.

One winter night almost a decade later, a man his dad knew showed up at their shack, tanned and smiling. He showed off a postcard with pelicans and palm trees and the Million Dollar Pier printed on the front. "St. Petersburg, Fla.," was scripted on the back.

"The place is paradise," the man told Wright.

"I'm going there," Wright said. "I'm going where it's warm."

He packed his only suit in a cardboard box, slung his guitar over his shoulder, kissed his mama goodbye. Two dusty days and nights later, a Greyhound bus dropped him on Fourth Street.

He asked the driver for directions and walked straight to the pier. Propped his guitar on a bench, stripped off his flannel shirt and shoes, dove into Tampa Bay with his overalls on. He'd never owned a bathing suit. Never tasted saltwater.

He was 25.

He dried off, lunched on mackerel and corn bread, then started strumming. "Oh, I was so happy," he says. "I just sang my heart out."

He has lived downtown ever since.

In 1940, Wright married a 16-year-old St. Petersburg girl named Carolyn. He joined the Army that year, slung hash for the medical corps in France through the war. When he came home, he took a job cooking at the VA hospital.

He hasn't left Pinellas County since 1945.

"I don't need a vacation," he says. "Nowhere else I want to go."

He and Carolyn had two daughters, Kitty and Mary. After Mary was born, in 1950, Carolyn had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. She started drinking, got diabetes, went into the hospital again and again.

Wright quit cooking and started painting houses so he could spend more time with his little girls. He took them to church and Sunday school. Some Saturdays, they'd sing with him at The Pier.

"Oh, he was the perfect dad," says Kitty, 58, who lives in St. Petersburg and works for the Salvation Army. "He used to read us all kinds of stories. And he'd sing to the trees. He loves the outside and the sunshine and the water. He's just so full of joy, so positive all the time."

All through the '40s, Wright sang other folks' songs: country and cowboy standards, mostly. One night near the end of 1950 he went to a tent revival in Pinellas Park. Above the minister's chanting, above the congregation's wailing, he says, he heard a voice:

"You're a gospel singer," God told him. "Sing some gospel!"

A mission of music

He writes songs in the kitchen, mostly. Just the words. No music.

"I don't even have to try. I'll be eating watermelon here at the table and it'll just come to me, "That's got to be a song!' I'll start singing even without the guitar: Who put the water in the melon? Who put the sugar in the honey? Who put the sun in the sky? Who put gold in the streets of Heaven . . . " Wright stops and slaps his thigh. "Now, you know, that makes sense," he says.

"God give us all that. I'm just passing it on, putting a tune to it."

The words in Wright's songs seldom have more than two syllables. The imagery is obvious, the chord progressions elementary. But the hooks are catchy, the beats bouncy _ sort of like a Veggie Tales soundtrack. Some of his songs, you can't seem to get out of your head (no matter how hard you try).

Wright's December tape has a tune titled They've Really Made a Mess out of Christmas. He wrote one called The King Is Coming _ and I Don't Mean Elvis. He even paid tribute to his hero, Johnny Cash: "I know Jesus loves me all the time. Because he's mine, I'll walk the line."

A company in Orlando copies Wright's tapes _ 200 for $200. When he's not picking guitar or painting houses, Wright distributes his cassettes around St. Petersburg. He leaves them in public bathrooms, newspaper boxes, phone booths. He gives them to the waitresses who ladle extra gravy on his roast beef at Picadilly Cafeteria. Hands them to boys who bag his groceries at Publix.

He finds them in Dumpsters, under benches, floating in the bay. "I found a few of my tapes stepped on, actually smashed on the street," he says. "Must be Communists or something."

At least someone took the tape in the first place, he points out. Maybe one person heard one of his songs.

He tucks a business card inside every cassette case. In his bathroom studio, he has a box with 178 letters, postcards and handwritten notes. Fan mail.

"Dear Brother Elmer," Bobby Paradise wrote in May 1994 from Chattanooga, Tenn. "I really enjoyed the tape I got last month from you. It's a wonder I did not wear it out playing it so much."

"Dear Elmer," Rosalyn Serino of Winthrop, Mass., wrote on Oct. 26, 2000. "I listened to your tapes at night as I rested and the Lord really strengthened and encouraged my spirit through your songs."

Wright leafs through these letters every month and mails a new cassette to everyone who writes him. He addresses manila envelopes to Boston, Atlanta, Honolulu. He has been sending his songs to some folks for almost two decades.

"Oh, I know hundreds of people. Thousands of people know me. I'm a celebrity. But I'm almost always alone. I had a homeless guy come home with me from The Pier one night. But he ate my last can of beans, drank my Scope. . . .

"No, I don't get much company.

"So when it's nice out, I play on The Pier. Can't never be lonely on The Pier."

Comfort, found on the edge

All his life, he has lived on the edge _ of poverty, of isolation, of obscurity. He has little beside his guitar, a cupboard full of Campbell's soup and what he believes is a God-given talent.

That's enough, he says. More than a lot of folks have.

St. Petersburg is a city full of solitary old people living out their days in stuffy rooms and marking time on 20-year-old calendars. More than 78,000 people over age 65 live alone in Pinellas County. After their husbands or wives die, many close their doors and never open them again.

Instead, Wright reached out. He started going to The Pier every Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon instead of just once a week. Started making tapes in his bathroom studio so people could listen at home.

So what if no one ever offered him a recording contract or took him on tour or even paid him to play? A few folks recognize him at the post office or driving around town in his baby-blue Oldsmobile station wagon. "Aren't you the guy who sings on The Pier?" they ask.

That makes his day. Makes him feel famous.

"Should I pass away before morning, I'd leave thousands of songs here," Wright says. "My music would reach people I've never met. I want to leave something worthwhile. Not no blues songs. I want something that'll make folks happy, bring them closer to Jesus."

He wants to be immortal. He also wants to help.

He gives away the quarters he collects in that Ovaltine can. Every month, he sends checks to 25 different charities. Some he has supported for 20 years. Bread and Water for Africa, the International Children's Fund, Food for the Poor, Native American Emergency Relief, Bibles for China, the Christian Appalachian Project _ he mails each $5 a month, plus a new red cassette.

Any extra change he hands to homeless people he knows around the city.

"I have no worries for myself," Wright says. "No wants, no regrets. I told you before: I'm rich."

The end of the day

About 6 p.m., the sun slips behind the skyline, turning the bay into a molten mirror. A sliver of moon smiles above The Pier. A pelican swoops off a piling, stalking its supper.

The air tastes like fish and salt and fading daylight.

Wright is starting to get cold. His left hand is going numb. Between songs, he's coughing.

"If you're going to write about this old guy, you better do it soon," a man whispers.

Elmer sings on, oblivious to the remark, or ignoring it. He handed out eight tapes today and collected $7.46. He checks the song list he taped to strong cardboard, drops it into his guitar case, clears his throat.

He has time for one more: "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine . . . Take a tape!" he calls after two teenage boys slurping sodas. "They're free!"

"They should be," a man in a Bucs sweat shirt says to his buddy. "You hear that guy? He sings like me."

Wright barely misses a beat. "Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine. Hide it under a bushel . . . Take a tape!" he tells a 20-something couple dressed in black. "I'm gonna let it shine . . ."

The guy in black edges up to the microphone, reaches into Wright's cassette case, takes a tape. "We take picture?" he asks tentatively, in broken English. "You will sign autograph?"

"Why, sure!" Wright says, sliding his guitar around his back. The girlfriend walks up, slips her arm around Wright's thin shoulders. Everyone smiles for the camera.

"Now, you be sure to take yourselves a tape," Wright says, resuming his song. "Won't let anyone blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine . . ."

"Yes," the guy says over the music. "I will bring tape home, to Germany. Play it there, make new audience for you."

Wright's enormous grin grows. He is worldwide. Darkness descends on The Pier as his song crescendos.

“Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine . . .”

The Last Sideshow

By Lane DeGregory / Times Staff Writer

First, the sword swallower left to joined a Renaissance Fair. Then the fat man got sick and started losing weight. The midget has high blood pressure, so he can eat fire only a couple of times a day now.

It's tough trying to hold onto America's last sideshow.

Past the Tilt-a-Whirl, over by the air brushed T-shirts, Ward Hall is sitting in his van, in the dark, petting his old dog, Springer. He's parked in the empty space where his sideshow is supposed to be.

They should have been here by now. Chris and Jimmy and Pete, the midget. They should have set up the tents, built the stage, dusted off the Living Half-Girl.

Ward pulls off his Panama hat, runs his fingers through his thinning hair.

He drove four days from Gibsonton to get here. He had to sell some of his treasures to buy gas: the two-headed duck and a shrunken head. He got $50 for his six-legged frog.

He pulled into Pennsylvania at daybreak. It's almost midnight now, and he's still waiting for his sideshow to show.

Ward unbuttons his red polyester jacket. He loosens the knot on his American flag tie. He keeps watching out the windshield, hoping for headlights.

Through the open window of his van, he smells chickens. This year, fair organizers stuck him out by the poultry barn.

Born freaks, learned freaks

Ward's sideshow used to be at the beginning of the midway, where it smells like funnel cakes. He would set up right under the Ferris wheel. Those crayon bulbs would spill spotlights across his sequined blazer while his honeyed voice cried out across the carnival.

But that was long ago. Back before bearded ladies discovered electrolysis.

Ward is 73 now. He's been on the road for 57 years.

He traveled with Schlitzie the Pinhead: "Her head was no bigger than a grapefruit." He threw a retirement party for Percilla the Monkey Girl: "She had long, silky hair growing over her face, head and body." He found insurance for the fire-eating midget.

He worked for Ringling Bros., for Cole Bros., even for the Smithsonian. He crisscrossed the country countless times, took the stage in every state except Alaska. He toured Canada and Mexico. Headlined the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall.

On this evening in late August, he's getting ready to open at the Great Allentown Fair. After a half-century of swallowing swords and having knives thrown at him and hawking human oddities, the P.T. Barnum of his time is hanging up his top hat.

This is Ward's last gig.

So while the Blockhead hammers an ice pick up his nose and the midget wrestles the python and the fat man just sits there being fat, Ward will be out front by the ticket booth, doing his final ballys.

He'll get a chance to relive his past. Then he'll get a surprise visit from the future.

And along the way, he'll reveal some sideshow secrets. Now that he's ready to retire, Ward is willing to tell you how much the fat man really weighs, whether the midget was actually a Munchkin, who married the Monkey Girl.

He'll tell you what the Ossified Woman used to laugh about. And why anyone would want to be a part of this weird world.

He'll explain the difference between born freaks and learned ones. He'll show you how to turn a tip.

Then he'll tell you about human nature, and the best $3.50 he ever spent.

Help wanted

Just after 7 a.m., while the sun is changing clouds into cotton candy, two tractor trailers pull into the parking lot behind the poultry barn.

Chris and the midget climb out of one, drinking Diet Pepsis. Jimmy Long jumps down from the other. He tells Ward he had to wait at a weigh station for hours while transportation officials inspected models of the dog-faced boy, the pop-eyed man, the mule-faced woman.

Ward checks his watch. "The fair opens in 10 hours," he says. "We've got to find some help."

Years ago, when sideshows were the main attraction, Ward took 20 men on the road to set up six tents. Now, he hires three teenagers off each carnival lot to set up the only tent the sideshow still uses. Jimmy spends all day teaching the boys how to drive spikes into the asphalt, how to raise canvas and tie ropes.

Just before dark, Ward sets a stool beside the stage. He used to do his ballys standing. But now he's too old, too tired. After doing 30 shows a day, 12 hours a day, seven months a year, for a half-century, a man needs to sit down. He clears his throat and clicks on his microphone.

It's time for the Strangest Show on Earth.

A family of black sheep

Ward had never seen a sideshow until he joined one. He grew up in Nebraska during the Depression. He signed on with his first circus in 1946, when he was 15.

"I was a terrible clown. I wasn't funny," he says. "I was trying to get away from my dad."

Ward's father had a bad limp and an even worse temper. As a child, his dad had suffered from polio. As an adult, he blamed his handicap for every hardship.

On sideshows, Ward met a legless man who walked on his hands.

He also knew a woman who didn't have any arms, who could eat with her feet. He found a Frog Man who rolled his own cigarettes. A Turtle Man who fixed stereos with his teeth.

In the hot, dusty tents behind circuses and carnivals, he formed a new family.


"Now, ladies and gentlemen, you're standing in front of the largest fairground show in the world, the World of Wonders. And if you'll all please take a look from way down there," Ward says. He points with his right hand, to a painting of a two-headed girl that towers above the trailer. "To way to down there," he opens his left arm, toward the portrait of the man with three eyes and two noses. "You'll see just some of the anthropomorphic freaks that you'll find here inside our show . . . "

Ward never went to high school. He has no idea what that five-syllable word means. His lawyer told him to add it to his pitch, as an out. Plus Ward likes how smart it makes him sound.

It's opening night at the Great Allentown Fair.

On the midway, parents are pushing strollers. Teenagers are pushing each other. Folks are crunching kettle corn, cradling stuffed animals, trailing silver balloons. Rap music from the roller coaster is drowning out the calliope.

Ward is wearing his last sequined blazer. Tonight, he has pinned a yellow carnation to the lapel.

"Now, ladies and gentlemen, before you step inside our big show here, we invite you to watch a couple of our performers," he says in a slick, thick drawl. "Poobah here is 73 years of age."

The midget climbs on a milk crate. Then onto the stage. He pets the python, surveys the growing audience.

"Poobah comes from, uh, Beverly Hills, California," Ward says. Actually, the midget lives with Ward, in Gibsonton, just down the road from the Showtime Bar & Grill. "And Poobah has been performing in show business since he was 9." Ward found him when he was 24, washing dishes in a diner. "He was the youngest Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz." The midget didn't even see that movie until he was much older. "After that, he was seen in 27 other movies, 114 television shows and three Broadway musicals." Every time Ward tells this story, the numbers change. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, if you all are ready, I'm going to ask Poobah to eat the fire."

Poobah's name is Pete Terhurne. He hands the snake to Ward. He dips a torch into a coffee can and lights it. He twirls the flame, until its glowing orange streamers are taller than he is. Then he drops his head back. He opens his eyes and mouth wide. He eases the fire down his throat and smacks his lips.

No one claps.

Freaks like us

Audiences used to be amazed. In the '50s and '60s, when more than 100 sideshows were still touring the country, folks would crush around the stage a dozen rows deep. They weren't ashamed to stare.

They had a right to ogle human oddities, they figured. After all, those freaks put themselves out there.

Most people still have that curiosity about human deformities, Ward says. But it's not PC to look.

At least not outside your living room.

Jerry Springer, Fear Factor, Jackass _ over the last 10 years, those television shows pretty much killed off what was left of the sideshows. Why pay $2 to walk through a tent when you can watch freaks on TV for free? What human oddity wouldn't rather sit in an air-conditioned studio than travel in a trailer from fair to dusty fair?

"There's this two-headed girl who lives in Texas. She must be almost 20 by now. I tried to get her to join my show a few years back, but her mother wouldn't let her," Ward says. "She said she'd make more money on Oprah."

Plus, there's the progress of science. Conjoined twins can be separated. Extra eyes can be removed. Midgets can take hormones. Born freaks never get to be grown-up freaks.

Even learned freaks _ the ones who spew fire and lie on barbed wire and shove ice picks up their noses _ are becoming extinct. Most of them can't compete with so-called normal people who will bury themselves in tarantulas in prime time. The ones who are left keep risking their lives trying to come up with scarier and scarier stuff. "It's almost impossible to shock anyone these days," Ward says.

No one wants to see a tattooed lady anymore. You can see that at Kmart.

And the fat man? Forget it. You see bigger people at Ponderosa.

Alive on stage

The midget climbs down off the stage and takes the snake back from Ward. It's a baby Burmese python. Sometimes Ward says its a giant boa constrictor.

"And here inside our tent tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you will see Grace McDaniels. She was the ugliest woman who ever lived, because she had a face like a mule," Ward continues his litany. "Betty Lou Williams, from Albany, Georgia, had her little baby sister growing right out of her abdomen."

You have to pay to see if it's true.

"And the star of our show, here alive, is the biggest, fattest, funniest man in the world, Harold Huge. He weighs 712 pounds." More like 459, after the illness. "He's so big, so fat, it takes four girls to hug him and a big truck to lug him." When money was good, the fat man used to stay in motels. Now he lives in the back of a bakery truck, even when he's not on the road.

"And if that big fat man starts to dance, you'll swear he must be full of jelly, 'cause jam don't shake that way." The fat man doesn't dance anymore. He can't even walk. He needs help just heaving himself from his truck to the tent.

"That fat man's alive on stage now." Spilling over the sides of his armchair, eating a corn dog, reading a science fiction paperback. He seldom makes eye contact with the crowd anymore. He's through answering all their questions about how big he was as a baby, where he buys his clothes, how huge other parts of his body are.

"Come in and see him and all the rest of the attractions in the World of Wonders. See it all, for only $2."

Then Ward leans over the ticket booth and dares the crowd.

"See it to believe it!"


Once, they were alive.

Laloo, who had half of his twin brother growing from his stomach; Sealo the Seal Boy, who had flippers for arms; the Alligator Man, who was married to the Monkey Girl for 40 years.

Ward worked with them all.

The Ossified Woman, who could move only one hand, always said she was getting the last laugh. "You people had to pay to see me," she would tell audiences. "I get to stare at you freaks for free."

Ward always traveled with at least 10 human oddities. Plus a dozen performers who climbed ladders of swords, turned girls into gorillas, pushed pins through their flesh.

But then the freaks started aging. They started retiring and dying.

So Ward had models made of his most famous attractions.

The World of Wonders is a museum now, mostly, with 50 figures of former freaks. He stands the statues along the sides of the striped tent. They stare out of plastic eyes, through grimy glass cases.

Chris and Jimmy don't bother to dust them off much anymore. This morning, they didn't have time, even, to check body parts. Laloo's half-twin broke off during the trip. It's dangling from his belly. Lobster Boy's right claw came unscrewed and fell behind his pants. And Schlitzie the Pinhead toppled over in transport. Her grapefruit-sized head is wedged in the back of the box.

Only three live performers are left: The fat man and the midget, who have been with Ward for 26 and 51 years, respectively. And a new guy named John LeBrun, "Screwy Louie," who hammers an ice pick up his nose.

John was a mental health counselor in Chicago who worked as a street performer on the weekends. He's 31, at least 20 years younger than the other showmen. He had read about Ward in carnival history books. He wanted to be part of a real sideshow before the last one disappeared.

He has been with the sideshow for three months. He has logged more than 12,000 miles on his car. Chris taught him how to do "The Man Who Can't be Hanged," a trick where you wrap a rope around your neck and let people from the audience pull on either end. All along the East Coast, John has made folks faint.

Living conditions are harsh. "This is the first time in my life I've gone a week without a shower."

On his best nights, when kids are stapling $5 bills to his forehead, he peels off $130 in tips.

Turning the tip

All night, Ward woos the crowd. While the midget eats fire and the fat man eats corn dogs and Screwy Louie stabs his tonsils, again and again, Ward sits on his stool spewing his stories.

Lots of folks stop to listen, to see the free show. But only a fraction fork over the $2 to enter the tent. When they do, Ward calls that "turning the tip." He takes their money, ushers them inside, tells them they are, indeed, about to be amazed.

A mother and her two sons duck into the darkness. She shoos them past the Elephant Man. A grandmother lingers to read the legend of the half-snake, half-girl. A dad stops his daughter at Laloo's case.

"Poor fella," he says, laughing. "They could at least have tied his twin back on."

Most of the people complain that the attractions aren't alive. Some say they were ripped off.

Ward doesn't apologize. "If they were," he says, "they were only ripped off $2."

Carnival knowledge

It's almost over. Only a few hours, now, until the fair closes.

Soon, sideshows will be just another quirky American art form that got trampled by the mainstream, like a clown under an elephant's foot.

Already, other entertainers are cashing in on the sawdust-covered memories. While the Strangest Show on Earth was grinding to its gritty end, Rolling Stone ran a story on teenage carnies; HBO started its new series, Carnivale; and director Tim Burton finished his new movie, Big Fish.

Ward's World of Wonders is part of all of those projects. His picture is in the magazine; the man who painted his sideshow banners helped write the HBO script. And his fat man, Bruce Snowden, stars as himself in the movie.

The old-style sideshow is over. But freaks will always be fascinating.

About 9 p.m., while Ward is finishing his fifth cup of coffee, two surprise visitors show up at the ticket booth. One is carrying a bed of nails. The other is holding a briefcase filled with swords.

They're the future of sideshows, Ward explains later.

They came to be a part of Ward's final performance, to honor this last great carnival talker.

Harley Newman, 55, is a "professional lunatic." He sprawls on nails and barbed wire, wraps his face in bicycle chains, hangs fish hooks inside his eyelids. He has worked with Jim Rose, done Lollapalooza fests. He always wanted to work with Ward.

Todd Robbins, 45, played Coney Island for years. He swallows handfuls of swords. He turns a girl into a gorilla. He threads a balloon through his mouth, and blows it out his nose. In August, he opened a new show off-Broadway, Carnival Knowledge. Tickets start at $35 and have sold out almost every night. At the county fair, sideshows seem seedy; in New York, they're retro, classic, cool.

Tonight is Todd's night off. He drove in from New York, to shake Ward's hand.

"In my new show, I do a few of your old acts: the Snake Girl, the Woman Who Loses Her Head," Todd tells him. "You're a legend in this business.

"You're my hero."

Breaking down the show

The Ferris wheel stops spinning at midnight. The roller coaster stops pumping rap music. And the lights go off over the Great Allentown Fair.

At the far end of the midway, behind the striped sideshow tent, Ward is sitting in his trailer, counting his last night's take. On good nights, in the good old days, he'd pull in 10,000 people, he says. Tonight, 700 people saw his show. He scribbles "$1,008" on a white envelope.

Ward's partner, Chris Christ, is smoking another pack of Pall Malls. Chris has already packed up the sound system, closed the tent and helped the fat man back to his bakery truck. The midget is resting in the bunkhouse.

Except for a few squawks from the poultry barn, the parking lot is quiet.

Ward sinks into the sofa. He unbuttons his red sequined blazer. The carnation he pinned on this morning is wilted.

"Did I ever tell you about the best $3.50 I ever spent?" he asks Chris.

Chris is 55. He's tall and craggy and has shaggy black sideburns. He used to swallow swords, train chimps, throw knives at Ward. They've been partners for 39 years. "Partners in everything," Ward says.

He's heard all of Ward's stories. He could recite most himself. But he lights another Pall Mall, pops another Diet Pepsi, and tells Ward, "Nope, I don't remember hearing that one."

So Ward pulls off his Panama hat, crosses his scuffed saddle shoes.

"We were playing some circus in the South. Mississippi, maybe. It was 1951. You weren't with us yet," Ward says. "In the morning, before the show opened, I walked across the street to this dime store. I bought two rubber dolls, brown paint and some glue. Then I went next door to this little diner and said could I please have an empty pickle jar. When I got back to the trailer, I made iced tea."

He popped the head off one doll, glued it onto the other, and painted it brown "to hide the seam." He stuffed his creation into the pickle jar and poured in the iced tea. "So people couldn't see as well, so they couldn't really tell."

He charged folks 50 cents to look. In the first hour, he made a week's wages.

"I didn't tell them they'd see a real baby," Ward says. "I told them they'd see a two-headed baby."

Chris laughs and looks out the window. He puffs on his cigarette. He stares into the dark.

People want to believe. If you give them a reason to, they will. They want to stare at human oddities, watch performers swallow swords and eat fire. They want to prove to themselves that they're normal. More normal, at least, than these freaks.

"Sure," Chris says softly. "Tell them anything but the truth, right?"

Ward doesn't answer. He's sprawled on the sofa, with his old dog, Springer, in his lap. His head is tipped back and his mouth is open.

Show’s over. Believe it or not.

A new podcast is available each Wednesday morning on the Tampa Bay Times’ website and iTunes. Go here to listen and subscribe for free on the Podcasts app and iTunes. If you like the show, be sure to leave us a review.

Listen to the podcast below:


This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge