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Sideshow takes center stage at Florida State Fair

 World of Wonders Sideshow manager Tommy Breen, 32, demonstrates his sword swallowing skills beside fire eater Natalie Grist, 23, at the Florida State Fair on Tuesday.
Published Feb. 13, 2013

TAMPA — It took Tommy Breen three years to learn how to swallow a sword.

In the decade since, he has had few injuries, none serious.

It's mostly just uncomfortable, he said. A feeling made slightly worse when the sword sinks a little too deep — like the time an audience member accidentally pushed rather than pulled the blade out.

Still, it's hard not to cringe at the sight of a man sliding a solid blade of steel down his throat. But that's exactly the reaction Breen looks for.

Breen is manager of the World of Wonders Sideshow, a traveling carnival attraction performing at the Florida State Fair through Monday. The act based in Gibsonton has performed across the country for more than 60 years. Now, it's one of the last of its kind.

And, Breen, 32, is part of a new generation working to keep it alive.

The show hasn't changed much over the years. There's still the fire eater, four-legged woman and half man.

"We have magical illusions, oddities, giant snakes and weird animals," said Breen, who is from New Jersey. "It's kind of the essence of what sideshows used to be."

But the audience is different.

"When these shows first started, everybody believed what they saw was real," said fire eater Sunshine English, 26. "Now, the audience is a bit jaded."

The cast's young age — almost all of the performers are under 35 — could help combat that.

"We're trying to breathe new life into it," English said. "The veterans teach us as much as they can, but there are certain things they don't understand that younger people want to see."

Many of the performers in the show had never even seen a sideshow before joining. Breen read about the art of sword swallowing in high school and decided to teach himself. After graduating from college with a degree in film and biology, he answered an ad for the sideshow, much to his parents' chagrin.

"I was running away from being comfortable," he said.

Since then, he has helped shape the show.

It's no longer about shocking the audience, Breen said. Television and YouTube have made that harder. It's more about entertainment and theatrics.

The show starts on the midway with a sales pitch. As couples and families make their way from corn dogs to roller coasters, Breen tempts them to stop. He points to the paintings stretched across the front of the sideshow's blue and red striped tent, each one depicting an oddity the audience might see inside.

"You'll see on the stage, a woman without a head, alive and in front of you," Breen said to a crowd gathered at the Florida State Fair recently. "I know that sounds crazy. It is crazy. But don't be scared."

He often closes the sale with a sword swallowing demonstration, allowing an audience member to choose the sword and pull it from his mouth.

Much of the crowd moves on, continuing to the next carnival ride. But a few pony up the entrance price (which changes often) to get inside.

There, the drawings from the front of the tent come to life. The headless woman waves and the four-legged woman dances in her chair. The half man turns out to be Aaron Wollin, a.k.a. DJ Shorty. Born with a birth defect that caused doctors to amputate his legs, Wollin, 35, walks around the stage on his hands and plays music for the other acts. English eats fire and audience members standing close enough to the stage can feel the heat come off the flames.

Sandra Koch, 32, of St. Petersburg walked away from the show recently with a smile on her face.

"It's interesting. You don't expect it to be real, of course," she said. "They do a good job of selling it."

But not everyone is impressed.

Dawn Frazer and Rob Warneck, both 24 and of Orlando, left disappointed after two minutes.

"It's just gimmicky carnival stuff," Warneck said.

That doesn't deter Breen.

"This is our heritage," he said. "It's an art form, a part of pop culture.

"As long as people will come watch, we'll keep doing it."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

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