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The Altamont Fair 2005 — The Altamont Enterprise, August 25, 2005

Blue skies draw large crowd to fair

By Bill Sherman

ALTAMONT – Great weather and doubling the amount of direct mail helped increase the Altamont Fair attendance by 14,000 over last year’s figure. Total attendance over six days reached 92,251 said Marie McMillen, vice president of the fair’s board of directors.

Counting attendance at the fair is sometimes difficult because many people, including children under 12 and veterans, are admitted free of charge.

In 2004, total attendance was set at 78,184, including approximately 31,000 paid admissions. McMillen said the paid attendance for this year increased by 4,000, which would set the paid figure at about 35,000.

McMillen attributed the increase in attendance largely to "wonderful weather." Despite rain on opening day, the weather cooperated the entire week, she said. Even the intense heat subsided just in time for the latest edition of the summertime tradition, which has been held in Altamont since 1893.

McMillen said the fair’s board of directors sent out 60,000 pieces of direct mail to specifically selected ZIP codes in order to better market the fair. In 2004 the board sent out 30,000 pieces which resulted in a significant return on their investment. McMillen said the board is able to gauge its direct marketing success by tracking the admission coupons given at the gates. It is too early to determine how effective doubling direct mail was on attendance.

Several changes that were implemented in the off season could have also affected the attendance figures, McMillen surmised. Capital improvements totaling $450,000 and better planning were areas of focus this year.

In May, the fair announced the construction of a new cattle barn, the renovation of the Fine Arts building, newly paved entrance roads, and improvements to parking areas.


In January, the board established a fair-management committee that met once a week leading up to the August event. One area that received the committee’s attention was security.

Altamont public safety commissioner, Tony Salerno, applauded the efforts of the fair’s leadership saying, "They all did a great job. We have a very good working relationship."

Salerno said the number of arrests at the fair were down significantly. Only five arrests were made in connection with the fair. (See Blotters and Dockets.) Salerno attributes the lower arrests to a stronger police and security presence.

Salerno asked the officers from the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, the State Police, and the State Department of Environmental Conservation, all of whom had booths at the fair, to perform a "walk through" of the fairgrounds each hour. This presence supplemented the fair’s private security company, the Altamont police, and a private security detail hired by Salerno.

Salerno said he also heard from many community members about problems during past years. "I gave 100 percent of my attention to those issues," Salerno said. He was pleased the community members reached out to him.

The concerns from the community included traffic congestion, littering, and people walking across private lawns. To help with parking and traffic Salerno said he worked with fair parking manager Paul Hemstead.

"Paul did a great job," Salerno said. Together, they changed the traffic pattern of people entering the fair.

"Once the first lot off Main Street became backed up, we sent the traffic to the fifth lot off the Voorheesville-Altamont Road," Salerno explained. The new public safety commissioner said he was motivated to make the fair a positive experience for everyone because the event is important to the community and the region’s children.

Looking ahead

McMillen said she hopes the attendance continues to grow each year. Plans are already being made for next year’s capital projects. The board is looking into replacing a number of the roofs on various buildings. McMillen said the fair also need a volunteer grant writer to help with applications for state aid to support the construction of a paved walkway throughout the fairgrounds. The walkway would make the fair more accessible to people in wheelchairs, McMillen said.

The board is also interested in adding a new wood floor in the Fine Arts building. Board members hope to increase the use of the fairgrounds throughout the year. McMillen said with a new floor in the Fine Arts building, there is a possibility of luring weddings and other special events which could add stability to the organization’s finances, McMillen said.

While the gate receipts were up from last year, and, said McMillen, "we are paying our bills," the board wants to do everything it can to move the fair forward. For now, the financial status is stable.

"Right now everything is looking up. Of course you always want to do better," she concluded.

The Wandering World of Wonders

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — Two performers from different eras, different worlds stand on the sideshow stage Saturday night — a fire-eating dwarf and a lank young man who swallows swords.

The fire-eater is balding and wrinkled. He wears a hearing aid. His bright eyes dominate his face and he looks pleased to be performing.

The sword-swallower is a smooth-skinned man who walks with a saunter and wears a fedora cocked at a rakish angle. He has an air of detached cool.

The World of Wonders, which has come to Altamont for decades, is attracting a crowd of about thirty as Ward Hall begins his practiced patter, reeling in the midway strollers with promises of what lies behind the garish posters.

"It’s something you’ll talk about for the rest of your life," he says.

The midway is dominated by rides and carnival games and vendors; this is the only sideshow in sight.

Posted on Hall’s podium is a "Help Wanted" sign. The printed words are completed with a hand-written message: "to travel with this show."

Hall is in white — from his hair to his socks and shoes — with a red vest, red bow tie, and red sequined jacket.

He introduces "Poobah the Pygmy" — the stage name for Norbert Terhurne.

Terhurne — called "Pete" by his friends — has worked for Hall for 52 years. They are both 75. The two old friends are on the road together for half the year, sharing a small trailer along with Hall’s business partner, Chris Christ.

Terhurne started in show business as a child; he was the youngest munchkin in the film The Wizard of Oz., says Hall.

"He’s the only one still alive and working today," Hall says.

"I played a lollipop," Terhurne told The Enterprise.

He said his first job with Hall’s sideshow was as a clown.

"We played his hometown in Minnesota," recalled Hall. "He wanted to know if he could work that week. ‘Pete, you’ll sell tickets in clown makeup,’ I told him.

"It was a little town; everybody knew it was him," Hall concluded with a chuckle.

Asked how he learned to eat fire, Terhurne said, "You have to practice."

He didn’t go to school for it; he learned the hard way.

Saturday, he waves his wands — one in each hand, the ends burning with bright flame in the growing darkness for the gathering crowd. Quickly, he puts the end of a wand in his mouth, closing his eyes.

Then, he pulls out the extinguished wand, opening his eyes and raising his eyebrows with a look of satisfaction. He smiles broadly.

Tommy Breen, the sword-swallower, hails from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Breen has a degree in cinematography from Rutgers University.

"He got fascinated seeing things on television," said Hall. "He had never seen a sideshow."

Breen went to a sideshow school in Coney Island, run by Todd Robbins, who had a show called Carnival Knowledge.

Breen is one of the new breed of sideshow performers.

The old breed, like Terhurne, might pick up a job as a sideshow came through town and gradually learn the ropes, then stay with it for a lifetime.

Now Hall finds his performers through a website — sideshowworld.com — and they stay for just a year or two.

"Four of the five I have now are college graduates," said Hall. "These kids don’t intend to make it a career. For them, it’s an adventure."

"The big guy who drives the nail through his head has degrees in psychology. He was working as a psychotherapist in a clinic in Illinois. He’s been with us since 2003," Hall told The Enterprise. "The guy who lifts weights with his ears, his father is a professor of music at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. The boy has a degree in music. This will probably be his only tour."

The old performers were what Hall termed "human oddities" by birth or nature while the new performers for the most part impose their oddities upon themselves.

Hall tells the crowd Saturday night, "Tommy Breen is in The Guinness Book of World Records as champion sword swallower."

Breen brandishes two swords, described by Hall as a military sword and a Knights of Columbus sword. As Hall tells the history of each, Breen nonchalantly licks the length of one of the swords, running it through his mouth.

Hall selects a woman in a wheelchair, sitting near the front of the crowd, to choose which of the swords Breen will swallow. She chooses the military weapon.

Breen tilts back his head and deftly plunges the sword down his gullet. Then he leans forward, hands extended, mouth open, so the crowd can see he has, indeed, swallowed it.

Breen withdraws the sword without fanfare and steps off the stage.

A few in the crowd walk away. But, as Hall offers a two-dollar "special" — free for children five and under — most step up to see what lies behind the row of posters.

"By pain and error"

Hall invites a curious reporter into his white trailer, parked next to his show.

He is greeted by his 11-year-old spaniel, named "Springer" after his breed. Springer wags his tail in greeting, but, taking the prerogative of an old dog, doesn’t get off the couch.

"He’s the Valium dog," quips Hall.

Hall is a man who, at age 75, seems as content with his life as his spaniel is with his couch.

Born in Nebraska, Hall says he got his first job with the circus when he was 13.

"My mother was a pious lady. She thought I was on a direct express line to Hell," he said.

His father wanted him to go to school, Hall said, but he dreamed of a circus career. As it turned out, he said, what he thought would be the first rung — sideshows — turned out to be his career.

"I wanted to be a circus performer, but I was not athletic," he said. His first job was as a fire-eater in a sideshow.

He learned as Terhurne had learned — "by pain and error," said Hall. "No one taught me. I didn’t really know how."

At 19, he worked a lion act and at 20, a tightrope act. He was also a ventriloquist and a juggler for 40 years.

"I never left the sideshow even when I doubled in the big top," he said.

"Lucky to break even"

Hall and Christ both retired recently but went back on the road this year to repay a debt, Hall said.

"My partner don’t like it. I like it," Hall said.

He explained the reason he had resumed the demanding pace of running a sideshow: "We helped finance a man to build the show. He couldn’t come up with his end of the money. To protect our investment, we had to go back on the road."

Hall laughed and said, "It will take us 25 years to get out of debt again, so, when I’m 100, I’ll retire for good."

Hall is fighting an uphill battle, though, since sideshows are no longer as popular as they once were.

In 1950, Hall said, the United States had 104 ten-in-one shows as sideshows were called, featuring "human oddities" as well as vaudeville acts.

"Today, there are maybe six or seven left," he said.

The Altamont Fair in the 1950’s, he said, would have eight to 12 such shows, but then fairs across the country began featuring rides rather than shows.

"It takes two or three people to operate a ride and 20 to 30 for a show," said Hall. "It was a matter of economics. You got less than half the gross."

Hall said that he won’t see much profit, if any, from Altamont this week. He had told the gathering crowd Saturday night that 8,000 to 9,000 fair-goers would see the show at Altamont.

"I grossly exaggerated," he told The Enterprise later. Hall estimated about 2,500 would actually see the show. After the weekly salaries of performers and equipment staff are paid as well as other expenses, he said, "We’ll be lucky to break even."

Hall was relieved, though, that it hadn’t rained much, since the show couldn’t set up its tent as usual. Low-hanging electrical wires made it unsafe, he said.

"What it’s all about"

Hall repeated several times the two things that make him like his job — the loyalty of his crew and the rush he gets from performance.

"I like the people in the show," he said.

He went on, "I’ve done some acting. When you’re on the stage and you get applause, you ask any actor, that’s what it’s all about."

Hall said, just as happened Saturday night with his talk, "When I finish and people line up at the ticket box, that gives me the same rush as applause."

He went on, "When I’m out there, I’m a dramatic actor, playing a part to sound convincing...I tell those stupid little jokes we use and get a little smile."

His showmanship extends to his appearance as well "I could go out there in a T-shirt and blue jeans, but part of it is this," he said — gesturing to his red-sequined jacket.

Asked how he felt when people walked out of his show — one angry woman Saturday night demanded her money back — Hall seemed unperturbed.

"I have a story to tell them," he said. "If you order a T-bone steak in a restaurant and they bring you the soup first, if you walked out then, saying you wanted the steak, it’s not the restaurant’s fault."

"Forty years too late"

Hall talked about the loyalty of those who had been with the show a long time. He has been partners with Christ for 40 years.

Terhurne has been with him 52 years and the equipment supervisor for 40 years, he said.

"I had to retire my fat man; he had been with me 25 years," Hall said. "Sideshow people have a reputation of being very loyal with management."

In the old days, he said, most of the shows traveled by train.

Those in the show would not only travel together half the year for performances, many of them would also live together in Gibsonton, Fla., said Hall.

He recounted how a reporter contacted him recently, wanting to "interview the freaks in Gibsonton," he said.

"‘They’re all gone,’ I told him. ‘You’re 40 years too late.’"

The reporter persisted; all he wanted was introductions from Hall.

"That would take about 10 minutes. All I’d have to do was show him the cemetery," said Hall.

He described some of the Gibsonton residents with their stage names — the Seal Boy, whose hands grew from his shoulders; the Ossified Woman, who was turning to stone; the Lobster Boy, whose hands were shaped like lobster claws.

Gibsonton first became popular with sideshow people, Hall said, when Al Tomaini, a giant, and his wife, Jeanie — whom he described as "a half-lady, cut right through the waist" — established a restaurant and campground there called Giant’s Camp.

"Others came and their people came with them," said Hall. "Forty years ago, 85 to 100 professional sideshow freaks lived there....It became known as a sideshow town. Even the United States Post Office there built a special low desk for the little people."

"One giant became the fire chief," he said. "Colonel Casper, a dwarf, became the head policeman."

Hall lives in Gibsonton in the off season in a "nice place," which he shares with Terhurne, he said.

"We have a club there on 80 acres," he said. "We’re building a museum and we have over 5,000 members from all over the world. I was president for two years."

"One great big freak show"

Asked if the show isn’t upsetting for the young children who are admitted, Hall responded, "It is a fact that a child in the United States, by the time they are the age of 16, have seen 12,000 murders on television. They don’t even count how many fist fights and stabbings."

He also said, "There’s one great big freak show drawing 100 million a year in Orlando, Florida. They go to see a half mouse-half woman and a half mouse-half man. They tell the kids, ‘This is Minnie Mouse. This is Mickey Mouse.’ They don't tell them these are actors in costumes. The children believe this is a freak. They say, ‘We saw Mickey Mouse.’

"Look at the movies that are popular today — Batman, Spiderman, Star Wars — they all use freaks. We used to have real freaks — a man with no arms and no legs; Siamese twins...We didn’t recruit them. They would find you."

Hall said, "There are still some oddities working today." But many are self-created, he said, giving the example of Lizardman. "He’s an intelligent young man," said Hall. "He had his tongue split and his teeth filed down and got covered with tattoos that look like scales."

Asked about his use of the term "freaks," Hall said he used the word "lightly."

"Can it play in Peoria""

Many of the original vaudeville-style sideshow acts fell by the wayside over the years, Hall said.

"My first late partner, his main thing was Punch and Judy," he said of a puppet show, featuring a fighting couple.

"We had a novelty show with a ventriloquist act. One time, I had a man with 52 trained parakeets. We had a musical group with instruments shaped like vegetables. It got so that half-way through the act, the tent would empty out."

Hall recited the old vaudeville saying, "Can it play in Peoria"" meaning, will an act be accepted in most of America.

His show was literally playing in Peoria, Ill., Hall said, when, as he did his ventriloquist act, "There was a man just glaring at me. He’s thinking, ‘I didn’t come in here to see no talkin’ doll; where’s the stinkin’ fat lady"’"

Now, Hall said, "We hold the show to 30 minutes. People don’t have a long attention span. You can’t hold children’s attention for more than nine minutes — that’s the effect television has."

Hall described Jim Rose, "The Renaissance Man of the Sideshow": Rose started as a street performer and now plays at rock-and roll clubs, programming his shows at the pace of MTV.

"My show is pretty fast; his show is like lightning," said Hall.

"We stick together"

In recent decades, Hall has been recognized by venerable institutions as being part of what is now seen as a fading piece of Americana.

In the 1980’s, he said, "We did shows at the Smithsonian." That Washington, D.C. institution has a division on American entertainment.

Hall also narrated a show at Carnegie Hall on April 22, 1994.

"It was called ‘Circus Blues,’" he said. "They had four black people, very old, all of them born into poverty in the South. One of them was blind. They had picked cotton in the fields where they would sing...It kept their mind off the pain...They left home, each of them, to join a carnival or a circus.

"Sideshows in those days had minstrel shows. We had 15 people in that act...These people became star blues people. I sang the first set and then introduced each of the performers. The New York Times review said I was like Ralph Edwards, conducting This Is Your Life."

The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. has a circus museum, Hall said, which gives three awards annually. The year before last, he said, the circus celebrity award for performance went to a family renowned for their flying trapeze acts and the circus celebrity award for creativity went to the costume designer for the Ringling Brothers.

Of the third award, Hall said, "The award for the power behind the scenes went to me."

Asked if he felt he had missed out on some things in life, like having a family, Hall replied swiftly and firmly, "I never missed having a family. I have been surrounded by people I care about — the human oddities. We all became very close, like a family.

"Little Pete lives in here with me," Hall said as he sat at the small kitchen table in his trailer.

"We work together; we stick together," he concluded. "In the old days, when the show closed, the human oddities had no place to go. We stayed together."

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