Review: ‘Sideshow’

Executive producer, Tim Miller; producer, Lynn Dougherty; co-producer, Chip Roughton; director, Dougherty; writers, Dougherty, Roughton; camera, Michael Mayers; editor, Penny Trams; sound, Skip Sorelle; music, Richard Fiocca. Narrator: Jason Alexander Percilla the "Monkey Girl," Jeanie Tomaini the "Half Woman," Schlitzy the "Pinhead" and Siamese twins Ronnie and Donnie Gaylon are some of the people featured in this thorough and engaging documentary about carnival sideshows. Individuals are celebrated along with a dying institution. The goal of demonstrating that so-called freaks or human oddities "are people too" is achieved with humor to spare. Portraits of those forced to make a living by displaying their bodies are sketched through interviews. The point that genetic accidents are simply that, accidents, is established, while the entertainment value derived is both reveled in and scrutinized. Mrs. Tomaini, born without legs, eloped with fellow performer Al Tomaini --- all 8 feet 4 inches of him --- and they were happily married for 26 years. Bearded ladies aren't so rare. What makes Percilla the "Monkey Girl" interesting is that she fell in love with Emmet the "Alligator Man" (skin condition) and they enjoyed a 57-year marriage. Her wistful reflections on her life are sometimes sad and always endearing. What separates these two widows, as well as the Gaylon twins, from, say, a woeful Sandy Allen, the "World's Tallest Woman," is loneliness. At least the "Wolf Boys of Mexico," two teenage trapeze artists, have each another and appear well-adjusted. The documentary doesn't ignore the dark side. Children of the "Lobster Boy," suffering from the same deformity as their late father, reflect on his brutality and the degradation they felt during their performing days. Wonderful old footage and stills offer glimpses of "Pop Eye," who made his eyes come out of their sockets, "Seal Boy," and Zippy the "Pinhead," seen in clips from Tod Browning's 1932 classic feature "Freaks." This might be considered the flip side of "Freaks," since these folks have sublimated their anger and bitterness. There's a lack of self-pity and the producers and writers likewise refuse to pity their subjects. Watching Ronnie and Donnie Gaylon, in their 40s and attached at the abdomen, play baseball in their front yard is wrenching. Yet they're retired, own their own home, and get along just fine. Typical of the jocular narration delivered by "Seinfeld's" Jason Alexander is a story told about another set of Siamese twins who worked in a grocery story --- one at the register, the other bagging. Alexander bubbles with a 10-year-old's wonder and glee; the cruelty is between the lines. In general, wry homage is paid without sentimentality and without forgetting the pornographic, fraudulent, humiliating aspects of sideshows. The gross-out factor is relatively high, especially when a fairly common attraction is on camera --- "Pickled Punks," deformed fetuses preserved in jars of formaldehyde. "Sideshow" also includes a considerable amount of history. Origins are traced to P.T. Barnum's American Museum in Gotham. Some carnival lingo and sideshow terminology is explained. "Geeks" are people who devour live animals. Gibsonton, Fla., the winter haven for many performers and proprietors, is visited, and Ward Hall, "King of the Sideshow," takes viewers behind the scenes of his business. The demise of sideshows in the 1960s is lamented and attributed in part to enlightenment regarding the rights of the disabled. Much is made of the idea that political correctness has damaged the viability of this entertainment. The future of sideshows, including two on Coney Island, is addressed. In a sideshow, patrons are kept moving to make room for the next batch of suckers. Producers, having put together a nice package with fine visuals and music, might have done more to mimic this aspect of their subject matter. After the first hour, "Sideshow" starts to get repetitive, testing the attention span of even the most dedicated voyeur. ---John P. McCarthy

Executive producer, Tim Miller; producer, Lynn Dougherty; co-producer, Chip Roughton; director, Dougherty; writers, Dougherty, Roughton; camera, Michael Mayers; editor, Penny Trams; sound, Skip Sorelle; music, Richard Fiocca. Narrator: Jason Alexander Percilla the “Monkey Girl,” Jeanie Tomaini the “Half Woman,” Schlitzy the “Pinhead” and Siamese twins Ronnie and Donnie Gaylon are some of the people featured in this thorough and engaging documentary about carnival sideshows. Individuals are celebrated along with a dying institution. The goal of demonstrating that so-called freaks or human oddities “are people too” is achieved with humor to spare. Portraits of those forced to make a living by displaying their bodies are sketched through interviews. The point that genetic accidents are simply that, accidents, is established, while the entertainment value derived is both reveled in and scrutinized. Mrs. Tomaini, born without legs, eloped with fellow performer Al Tomaini — all 8 feet 4 inches of him — and they were happily married for 26 years. Bearded ladies aren’t so rare. What makes Percilla the “Monkey Girl” interesting is that she fell in love with Emmet the “Alligator Man” (skin condition) and they enjoyed a 57-year marriage. Her wistful reflections on her life are sometimes sad and always endearing. What separates these two widows, as well as the Gaylon twins, from, say, a woeful Sandy Allen, the “World’s Tallest Woman,” is loneliness. At least the “Wolf Boys of Mexico,” two teenage trapeze artists, have each another and appear well-adjusted. The documentary doesn’t ignore the dark side. Children of the “Lobster Boy,” suffering from the same deformity as their late father, reflect on his brutality and the degradation they felt during their performing days. Wonderful old footage and stills offer glimpses of “Pop Eye,” who made his eyes come out of their sockets, “Seal Boy,” and Zippy the “Pinhead,” seen in clips from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic feature “Freaks.” This might be considered the flip side of “Freaks,” since these folks have sublimated their anger and bitterness. There’s a lack of self-pity and the producers and writers likewise refuse to pity their subjects. Watching Ronnie and Donnie Gaylon, in their 40s and attached at the abdomen, play baseball in their front yard is wrenching. Yet they’re retired, own their own home, and get along just fine. Typical of the jocular narration delivered by “Seinfeld’s” Jason Alexander is a story told about another set of Siamese twins who worked in a grocery story — one at the register, the other bagging. Alexander bubbles with a 10-year-old’s wonder and glee; the cruelty is between the lines. In general, wry homage is paid without sentimentality and without forgetting the pornographic, fraudulent, humiliating aspects of sideshows. The gross-out factor is relatively high, especially when a fairly common attraction is on camera — “Pickled Punks,” deformed fetuses preserved in jars of formaldehyde. “Sideshow” also includes a considerable amount of history. Origins are traced to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in Gotham. Some carnival lingo and sideshow terminology is explained. “Geeks” are people who devour live animals. Gibsonton, Fla., the winter haven for many performers and proprietors, is visited, and Ward Hall, “King of the Sideshow,” takes viewers behind the scenes of his business. The demise of sideshows in the 1960s is lamented and attributed in part to enlightenment regarding the rights of the disabled. Much is made of the idea that political correctness has damaged the viability of this entertainment. The future of sideshows, including two on Coney Island, is addressed. In a sideshow, patrons are kept moving to make room for the next batch of suckers. Producers, having put together a nice package with fine visuals and music, might have done more to mimic this aspect of their subject matter. After the first hour, “Sideshow” starts to get repetitive, testing the attention span of even the most dedicated voyeur. —John P. McCarthy

Sideshow

(Sun. (2), 9-11 p.m., Learning Channel)

Production

Filmed in Florida, New York, Indiana, Texas, Virginia and Mexico City by Tim Miller Entertainment.

Crew

Camera, Michael Mayers; editor, Penny Trams; sound, Skip Sorelle; music, Richard Fiocca.

Cast

Narrator: Jason Alexander
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