Circus of Wonders

Herewith a photo montage of the Circus of Wonders exhibit currently on as part of Showzam! in Blackpool. As ever, hover for a caption and click for a screen size picture then use your browser back button to return here.
Exhibition credits

aliveCircus artifactsAn audience builds for the headless ladyThe spieler builds us up for CleoStreet entertainer does tricks with elastic bandsLady Electra has a hair raising experienceOld sparky, a modern Van Der Graaf Generator for Madame ElectraThe original electrode from the sideshowBoards from the fish lady stallgloria the half ladyHeadless lady taking off her glovesA mock-up stall with artifacts insideThe view from the entrance stairs (slightly blurry)THe left hand stalls and centre display panelsThe Lord Mayor of Blackpool being questionedThe spieler attracting a crowd for the mummyThe mummy signageModel of the great Omi, zebra tattooed manposing in front of the half lady stallHeadless Lady's life support scooterAnother view of the stallsAnother exhibitCarnegy's ghost trainIn the waiting room for the ghost train, David a little pensive

from a more innocent, less politically crippling age than ours

If you visit Blackpool and look up Victoria Street from the seafront (just to the left of the Tower building) you can see a large white semi-circular building with the words TER GARDENS aranged in an arc. If you approach it, it becomes apparent that this is the Winter Gardens and a bit of thoughtless 70s construction partially obscures the name to the left.

The Blackpool Winter Gardens is a Victorian pleasure park on a massive scale but its remoteness from the Golden Mile (250 yards from the Prom) has made it a bit of a white elephant at times. Had it been more successful, however, it is doubtful whether much of it would exist today as it would have been redeveloped. Despite being much hacked around in places, it is a unique survivor in both scale and complexity. It houses two theatres, a huge ballroom bigger than the Tower Ballroom, several function rooms and an exhibition hall, not forgetting bars, Cafes and slot machines! It is advertised as having twelve amazing venues and a click-through shows a pretty sectional pictogram of this.

The dullest part of the complex is the Olympia Hall, being an L shaped rather plain part of the building that is so uninteresting to look at that the owners have put in a tent-like structure which although bland is probably hiding some guilty secrets. (When it opened it was themed as a Moorish Village but that has all long gone). Until next Sunday, though, it is housing a fascinating free event called the Circus of Wonders. Circus of Wonders- from Showzam websiteThis is an exhibition of fairground, circus and seaside side shows but with a twist- five of the side shows are actually recreated for your delectation at the weekends. A troupe of actors take the part of seaside spielers (and Freak show freaks), drawing us in to watch (and without relieving us of our hard earned sixpence!)

The five recreations all date from the Fifties and feature the original frontages, with some colour photographs to show how they would have looked in-situ. Of course, back in the 50’s the spielers lured the paying visitors into the tent inside, whilst three of these shows were viewable through the entrance in order to make use of the space.

The first sideshow was the headless lady and the spieler donned a white coat for the occasion, using a pointer to clarify the items within. A recorded announcement talked through the story whilst the spieler enhanced it with due gravitas. When the curtains opened, we were greeted with the sight of what looked to be a dummy sat on a high chair. The dummy wore a diaphonous sleeved top and didn’t have a head, instead having a metal grommet with several rubber pipes emerging. These pipes went off to various pieces of apparatus that supposedly kept her alive. After a while it became apparent that the legs were real and with the demonstration of removing a pair of gloves that the arms were real as well. (Which is more than can be said for the chest). There was no sign of the scooter that featured on the facade, perhaps that was round the back…

The second sideshow was the living half lady. The spieler donned a brown warehouse overall and explained to us how Gloria had suffered a terrible accident but that medical science had been able to save half of her. When Gloria was revealed she was sat (or is that placed?) on a plinth mounted on a table. We could see that there was nothing on the table under the plinth or below the table either. Gloria gave the spieler quite a bit of lip before the show was over, demonstrating that they may well have saved the wrong half…

The third sideshow was Lotty, the girl in a goldfish bowl. The spieler was dressed in bright waistcoat and top hat, forewarning us that Lotty wore only a bikini because she lived in a goldfish bowl. When Lotty was revealed, he proved she was real by asking David to choose a number from one to five and her raising the requisite number of fingers.

The fourth show was Lady Electra who demonstrated some tricks with a Van de Graaf generator, including making her hair stand on end and causing a heap of foil pie trays to fly out of her hand. For this sideshow, we were then invited inside, which was about the size of a small gazebo tent. (In fact it was a small gazebo tent). Here Madame Electra stood on an electrified platform and performed, lighting up fluorescent tubes, offering the keys to her house (which were of course electrified) and finally lighting a juggler’s flaming torch with her softest pink most delicate parts- no sir, I was referring to her tongue…

The fifth show was the most dramatic and called The Mummy. Here the spieler invited us in to the Egyptian mausoleum and explained the process of mummification in striking and shocking detail. He explained how we would see the beautiful Egyptian Princess age before our very eyes then become beautiful once more. He unlocked the tomb doorway and the princess appeared (who had a striking resemblance to lady Electra, as it happens).  The Princess transformed into the hideous Mummy which became incandescent with rage and rushed the tomb door. The spieler slammed and locked the door and asked us to leave at it was no longer safe. Suddenly the Mummy smashed its hand through the door, broke the lock and chased us all out, giggling and screaming!

There was another attraction in the hall that wasn’t strictly part of the Circus of Wonders but was greatly enhanced by the presence of the exhibit. The show was called Carnesky’s Ghost train and it is a strange mix of live theatre and side show. It has a story of eastern European refugee women who disappeared on a night train to nowhere and are reputed to haunt the line still. (It is hoped that this ride will have a permanent home in Blackpool).

Now I’d prepared David for this ride by watching the two online videos (here and here) but the reality was much more intense as the whole idea is to spook you and ghostly hands occasionally reached out to touch.  The  train driver wore a plain white mask and that can be decidedly unsettling when you suddenly find it underlit inches from your face. The train track wasn’t overly long but there were triple hairpins between the two straight sections which were exciting in the dark at high speed and there were different things to look at each time we went round (which must have been five or six times, I wasn’t actually counting). Even the departure platform was a scene in itself, with action taking place there and the lighting effects changing each time round. Quite a few of the things in the Video weren’t there though, or perhaps I was looking the wrong way. Definitely worth a re-ride, but David wasn’t having any of it…

It seems that the Carnesky’s Ghost Train has been a bit of a flop in Blackpool before now, being stuck in the corner of a large hall off the beaten track. It was originally a much smaller ride and was designed more as an art installation &/or a piece of theatre rather than something populist. The Council has spent huge sums of money buying it and getting the Illuminations team to light it. but attendance has been poor so far. It is very early days and it seemed to be doing well yesterday though, helped by the footfall to the exhibition. It seems its home is just rented, maybe they should look at putting it outside the Sandcastle later in the season. However, the ride is rather quirky and I can’t really see it appealing to drunken Chavs very much, Blackpool’s bread and butter. They much prefer the terrifying tour of the Pleasure Beach Casino basement, now that is scary.

We also got to see the Lord Mayor of blackpool talk about her days as a sideshow girl in her youth, she used to spend much of her day entombed in a block of ice for £7 a week (which was £3 more than a typical retail job, which was why she did it, times were poor). She also played an Eastern(correction) Mauri Princess for a while which was rather unlikely as she was blonde and fair skinned, but she explained that the punters would believe anything in those days.  She pilloried the current Blackpool Golden Mile as a concrete jungle and reminisced over things long gone such as Fairyland and its big dragon. She said that there was a lot of camerarderie amongst the shomen but there were some spivs around, including one that used to saw up a broom handle, paint it red, wrap it up and sell it as Blackpool Rock from a suitcase before scarpering. The audience brought forward a few memories of sideshows, including one that featured malnourished newlyweds, sometimes called the starving brides. Inside a couple of emaciated looking young girls wore scabby wedding dresses, very odd. The Mayor told us that all the sideshows were good clean fun apart from one which had a French theme and nudes inside. The beautiful french women within promised by the spieler were anything but and they were supposed to keep still but often they’d been drinking…

I don’t recall any sideshows at Blackpool as I didn’t visit there until 1970 but I do remember the bizarre medical exhibits in Louis Tussauds in a special gallery with lots of warnings to discourage the easily disturbed and in the process hype up the experience. (This tradition continues to this day, anyone with a heart condition wanting to ride the Revolution at the Pleasure Beach supposedly must bring a nurse).  The Newcastle Hoppings also had quite a selection of freak shows, including goats with clip-on extra legs, pickled siamese twins and bizarre papier mache’ fake models in murkily lit exhibits. One sideshow was quite popular with us teens and it was quite a simple one. It was a Gorilla in a cage and we used to taunt it until it finally had enough when would pull the rubber bars apart and chase us out!

(There is a good review of the exhibit online from the Blackpool Herald which contains the text of the blog title)

Photo montage to follow…