History's Mysteries (1998–2011)
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Circus Freaks and Sideshows 

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Episode credited cast:
David Ackroyd ... Himself
Robert Bogdan ... Himself
... Himself - Host
Kathy Maher ... Herself
Johnny Meah ... Himself
Bobby Reynolds ... Himself
James Taylor ... Himself
Dick Zigun ... Himself
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4 December 2000 (USA)  »

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This Show Guaranteed To 'Freak' You Out!
9 April 2008 | by See all my reviews

The history of the "freak show."

Does that sound interesting? It did to me, and so I checked out this History International hour-long program and it met my expectations. I found it pretty fascinating.

I learned P.T. Barnum was the father of the freak show. Those "dime museums," as they were called then, began to really take hold in the 1840s when, for the first time, the Industrial Revolution and had given people some free time to enjoy themselves. Barnum's "American Museum" in New York City was a big draw, beginning with his first big attraction: "Joice Heth," the supposed nursemaid to George Washing and 161 years. When she died a few later, it was discovered she was only 80 but the public didn't care.....they were just happy to be entertained.

Barnum learned then that promotion was as important as what you were selling. His famous expression, "There's a sucker born every minute," is false. He did NOT ever say that, according to this program, nor would he ever even think that.

Barnum did say a number of astute things which is why he was such an astute businessman. "You have to make people come back over and over," he said, commenting on why his shows were always changing in what you could "gawk" at back then. "Gawking," by the way, was considered family entertainment. People didn't just gawk at those with deformities; they gazed their eyes on a 7-foot, 11-inch giant and a two-foot "midget." The latter turned out to be the most famous person EVER in a freak show: "Tom Thumb."

Anyway, we get the progression of freak shows, sideshows, carnivals, circuses and the like here, especially after Barnum hooks up with James Bailey to form "Barnum And Bailey," which evolves into "The Greatest Show On Earth." Later, we see the masses at Coney Island enjoying all the sideshow exhibits, of which there are many. In this program, you see a good sampling of what the folks saw there, from people with deformed bodies to sword- swallowers and the like. Some of it is not easy to watch.

By 1900, amusement parks entered the scene with all kinds of rides such as the famous Ferris Wheel, which made its debut in 1893. Eventually, the sideshows evolved into amusement parks, which are still popular today with amazing roller coasters featured at them.

As several folks point out late in this TV show, the number of sideshows you can see now is almost nonexistent. Reformers tried to put them out of business in the '70s but their biggest foes were the "freaks" who told them to butt out. They enjoyed their lives and their weekly paychecks and had "family" with the others who had similar physical traits they did.

What eventually did in the sideshows was money. When it stopped making a profit, it ended although, as they state, there will always be a market for it, even if "freaks" wind up on the Internet.


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