I was 14 years old when my parents first allowed me go to the Ohio State Fair with my friends from school during summer break. We rode the big rides on the midway, ate cotton candy and corn dogs, and walked through barns petting baby rabbits, mooing at dairy cows and watching show horses tackling hurdles.
But by far the most enduring memory of that day was visiting the sideshow tents — those peculiar venues promising views of bearded ladies, alligator men, two-headed pygmies and other human oddities. I remember being both repelled and fascinated by the spectacles advertised on the colorful banners, never dreaming that one day I would meet the man who created those shows: Ward Hall, the proclaimed “King of the Sideshow.”
Calling Gibsonton his longtime home, 85-year-old Ward Hall is the only human alive who can say he spent a full 70 years in the “most exciting profession in the world,” working with monkey girls, half-people, fat men, sword swallowers, fire-eaters, giants, diminutive horses and colossal snakes.
He has entertained in countless sideshows, vaudeville, and burlesque houses, including 64 years at the Florida State Fair. He has written four books, appeared in seven movies, more than 100 videos and TV specials, and performed at Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center in New York and Carnegie Hall.
“I didn’t run away to be in the circus. I walked, ” said Ward, recalling how he, a skinny kid of 12, brazenly walked onto the set of the local circus and asked for a job as a clown. It took a few more years to convince his father of his decision, who predicted his headstrong son would be back home in a few months, once he’d gotten the lure of the circus out of his system.
“Seventy years later, I still haven’t gotten it out of my system,” said Ward, laughing. His biggest enjoyment in life now is sharing his odd and unusual experiences with friends and travelers who come by his home in Gibtown to listen and learn.
Sitting on the back porch of his property in “Grand and Glorious Gibsonton,” one can’t help but be drawn into the storytelling charm of the silver-tongued showman. He is happy to chronicle tales of his life, flanked by one of his longtime sword-swallowing performers, John Red Lawrence Stuart, plus two students from England who have come to winter in Florida and learn new skills and techniques from the “King.”
A lifetime member and past president of the International Independent Showmen’s Association (IISA) in Gibsonton, Ward enjoys attending the “Coming Home and Going Away” parties of fellow carnies who still make their living out on the road. He continues to get calls from reporters and circus historians who want to visit Gibsonton to see the circus performers and freaks he describes in his memoirs.
“I tell them it’s an easy tour, just 15 minutes. All we have to do is drive down the road and visit the cemetery. They’re all there.”
In today’s carnivals and circuses, sideshows have largely disappeared, replaced by bigger, more expensive amusement rides and attractions. Some say that displaying human anomalies has become politically incorrect in today’s society, but Ward maintains that the real cause is simple economics. Either way, Gibsonton remains very much a show town today, with the largest population of carnies in the world, including ticket takers, ride and attraction mechanics, working clowns, acrobats and animal trainers.
Ward speaks fondly of the many show performers he trained and developed over his long career as a showman — beloved characters like Poobah the Pygmy, the Texas Giant, Percilla the Monkey Girl, Penguin Boy, Bambi the Mermaid, Little Emmit, Lady Patricia and many more.
“I have lots of beautiful memories of all the weird and wonderful people I’ve met in my life. Many of them worked with me and lived here until the day they died.”
Ward Hall’s “World of Wonders” may have seen its better days, but one thing is clear: His legendary status lives on. He has been inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA), the IISA, and the Circus Ring of Fame, the only person to have received all three accolades. He is honored by a plaque installed in St. Armand’s Circle in Sarasota, and the Smithsonian Institute has commended his six-decade career as well, calling it “a truly indigenous art form.”
“I’ve had a wonderful life with wonderful people,” said Ward. “I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”