From “World of Wonders”: Elton, a performer in the World of Wonders, says of the traveling sideshow’s appeal to audiences, “For one moment those people are 9 years old again.”
Fire-breathing bizarros are so hard to find these days. (No, Glenn Beck doesn’t count.) And when’s the last time you saw a girl change into a gorilla? A headless woman? The Human Blockhead? (Again, Glenn Beck doesn’t count.) What used to be a mainstay of American circuses and county fairs — the sideshow grotesquerie — is on its last legs. As an impresario tells Jimmy and Dena Katz in their eye-popping book World of Wonders: “In its heyday, around 1950, there were 104 traveling sideshows touring America. Today, the World of Wonders is the only one left.”
Large-format camera in tow, the Katzes spent three seasons following the sword swallowers, snake handlers, illusionists and other performers of aberrational entertainment who make up the World of Wonders, capturing the glitter and kitsch, the liberty and hardship of the open road. The results are startling: dazzling portraits in lurid color, with an unflinching, high-definition intimacy. Also revealing are the excerpts from interviews — stark, prosaic, true — that lay bare the motivations and stoicism impelling this merry, if bone-tired, band of misfits.