_ Roll up! Roll up!
Where will the fat man go when the freak circus packs up for the last time? ROBERT GRAY hears a sad story from the ringmaster of the bizarre, Ward Hall, whose final show was captured for BBCZ’s Weird Night.
Ward Hall has been called a latter-day P.T. Barnum and the ‘Ziegﬁeld of the Cornﬁeld‘. For 27 years this effervescent showman and impresario has run a travelling sideshow. bringing a motley collection of performing freaks to the county fairs of middle America.
But changing times and tastes have ﬁnally caught up with Ward. The American public. inured to sci-ﬁ special effects. horror movies and fantastical computer games. has by and large lost its interest in human oddities. These days. fewer and fewer of those fascinated by the abnormal will pitch up to gawp at real-life deformities. Why should they. when they can watch David Lynch’s Elephant Man or Tod Browning‘s 30s shocker Freaks from the comfort of their own armchairs?
The Last American Freak Show. possibly the weirdest highlight of BBCZ‘s Weird Night charts the end of a bizarre American tradition. It follows Ward‘s last weeks on the road with his performers. culminating in his ﬁnal show.
And what a show. There is Howard Huge. the 72 1 lb fat man who. as Ward puts it. ‘shakes like jelly because jam don‘t shake that way‘. This is a man so obese he has to hose himself down to keep clean. his flaccid stomach sagging well below his genitals. with immense folds of flesh wobbling like a slowly deflating Michelin Man.
Then there is the Penguin Boy. so called because his limbs resemble flippers; the Half Lady. born without
legs; ajuggling Bearded Lady; a Tattooed Lady; and the ‘Smallest Mother in the World‘. This is a carnival ofcarnal disﬁgurement that some are sure to ﬁnd unpalatable. Yet there exists between Ward and his performers a remarkable bond. Ward is refreshingly frank about making money out of the freaks. but his affection for them and the sideshow life shines through.
‘Sure l'm exploiting them.‘ he says. ‘Performers have to be exploited if they‘re going to be successful. But when we‘re out on the road. it‘s like they‘re my family.‘
Ward reckons this surrogate family are a bunch of ‘well-adjusted people’ and it rings true. These are not freaks to be scorned or pitied but people brave enough to flaunt their otherness. Watching them is at times uncomfortable but not grotesque.
()ne feels that by displacing themselves they are being empowered rather than degraded. By confronting groups of sniggering. bone-headed teenagers unable to articulate insults beyond the crass and obvious. the moral triumph is with the performers.
Lobster Boy was born with claw-like hands and passed his genetic irregularity on to his children. Setting this physical anomaly to one side. the performer‘s offspring lead ostensibly normal lives. ‘We ain‘t never had no problem with the opposite sex.‘ says Lobster Boy Jnr to camera. and there's no
4. My, Tod Browning’s Freaks: 8802’s Weird light has the real thing reason to disbelieve him. I n The last American Freak Show. the BBC has produced a balanced programme. neither overly sentimental nor sensational. proving that ‘freaks with dignity‘ is not a contradiction in terms. It ends with a farewell dinner thrown by Ward. which is tinged with sadness as the camaraderie of sideshow life is about to end forever.
lt begs the question. what will become of these people who do not seem to ﬁt in anywhere else? Howard Huge in particular cuts a lonely, moving ﬁgure. lamenting that at 48 he is too old for a fat man — most of whom die in their 30s or 40s. it comes as some surprise to learn that he was once a palaeontologist.
‘He decided there had to be a better way of working than digging for fossils in the hot sun.‘ says Ward. “and one day 20 years ago he saw a picture ofa sideshow fat man in a magazine and discovered he was larger.‘
He contacted Ward and has been with him ever since. And now. with nowhere else to go. Ward is putting him up at his home in Florida. Those involved in the sideshow are weird all right. They‘re also unexpectedly admirable.
The Last American Freak Show is on Saturday I 7 December on BBC2 at 9. l5pm. For details of other Weird Night programmes. see 'l'elevisiun listings.
_ God in Bennett
One of the most baffling musical phenomena of the past year has been the adoption of veteran crooner Tony Bennett by youth culture’s hipsters. This unlikely alliance reached its zenith with a Bennett edition of MTV Unplugged now about to be screened in Britain.
Backed by a terrific piano-bass-and- drums trio, he announces, ‘I put together the very finest American popular songs I could think of for this show’. What, ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’? ‘Waiting for the Man’? ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’? Ito, ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, ‘It Had to be You’ and the inevitable ‘l
left My Heart in San Francisco’. Tony Bennett will only make so many
in the house.
Tony Bennett - look no plugs
concessions to his new-found rock
Bennett was not blessed with one of pop’s most beautiful or versatile voices, but you have to take your hat off to him (Frank Sinatra does, after all, describe him as ‘the best in the business’). ltand in pocket, grin fixed, Bennett turns in a performance so laid-back that it makes ordering a Martini in a three-quarters-empty Vegas lounge look like strenuous exercise. By the end of the second song, there’s not an unclicked finger
Arguably, the show’s highlight is a duet with k.d. Iang, plainly blissed-out by the experience. Bennett also brings on a seedy-looking Elvis Costello, who can stand his ground vocally against
Bennett, but withers next to his presence and charisma - Costello’s an amateur showman in comparison.
Perhaps that’s the point. Who among the current crop of rock stars can match this old swinger for stagecraft? In Bennett we find a relaxed, welcoming charm, honed to perfection over decades. It’s a skill that’s been all but lost to pop: using every trick in the book to keep your audience hooked, but without strangling it with self-conscious irony or kitsch.
l have seen rock 'n’ roll future, and its name is - maybe - Tony Bennett. (Alastair Mabbott)
Unplugged - Tony Bennett is on Saturday 24 December at 10.35pm on 8802.
The List 16 December l994—l2 January 1995 87 I