Step right this way

Carnival sideshow offers thrills, chills, oddities in Salem

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2011

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The barefoot girl with the pink-and-purple hair steps in, drops, and crunches herself into the basket.

Then come the swords. Six of them — pierced straight down, diagonally, horizontally.

The basket quivers as the girl writhes around their sharp edges.

Minutes later, the swords retracted, she reemerges — no cuts, no bleeding, not even a nick.

“It’s a lot of stretching, a lot of weight control, a lot of mind over matter,’’ Woburn contortionist Dineen Ludwig says.

Sideshows are places of spectacle and shock, where viewers come to gawk and cringe, to be grossed out and amazed.

And now, ladies and gentlemen: Step right up! Peek behind the curtain! A new, old-timey sideshow has staked its tent in Salem.

The monthly revue, “Lydia’s Carnival Sideshow’’ — taking its name from a song about a tattooed lady in a Marx Brothers’ film, “At the Circus’’ — debuted in January. For now, its abnormally flexible, pain-tolerant, and otherwise oddly gifted performers are showcased at the shop Life & Death at the Museum Place Mall, but the troupe is seeking a permanent location.

Its eclectic ensemble features “human blockheads’’ (think nails in the nose, not dimwits), contortionists, escape artists, — and a touch of the macabre, too.

“It’s a mix of strange and beautiful things, bizarre and unusual people,’’ said purveyor, host, and blockhead Tony Gangi of Beverly, who recently trained for the craft at Coney Island Sideshow School.

Immortalized in movies like Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks’’ and starkly depicted against the 1930s dust bowl in the recent HBO series “Carnivale,’’ sideshows were once a tawdry mainstay in hundreds of traveling carnivals and circuses.

At one point, hundreds toured the country, according to Gangi, who wrote the 2010 book, “Carny Sideshows: Weird Wonders of the Midway,’’ chronicling his introduction to the eccentric world.

Now? There are a half-dozen at most, he estimated, the result of the proliferation of carnival rides, all-access tickets, and theme parks (not to mention the move toward more politically correct entertainment).

Still, the nimbly jointed, fire-breathing, glass-eating, and sword-swallowing few have transitioned with the times, taking their acts to night clubs, bars, and theaters — while others continue the good old-fashioned way, touring with groups like “Big Circus Sideshow’’ or “World of Wonders,’’ or appearing with smaller groups like “Lydia’s.’’

“It’s not a dead art form, it’s a thriving art form,’’ said Mike Vitka of Salem, one of those few full-time touring carnies who will perform with Lydia’s when he’s in town. (He’s traveling with “Big Circus Sideshow’’ as a barker, the one luring viewers in; he also does stunts, such as lying on a bed of nails.)

All told, it’s the “mystery, the shock, the lure of the forbidden,’’ said Vitka, a chin-strapped and sunglassed character in a leather jacket and black-and-green checked pants.

He described an instinctual desire to see something “weird, hidden, taboo.’’

While Lydia’s isn’t going for the pure gross-out, the exploitative, or the bawdy — it’s family-oriented, Gangi stresses — it is a tribute to the original sideshow’s campy exhibitionism.

As Gangi describes it, it’s a “menagerie’’ of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’’

The collective ranges from blockhead Gangi to professorial mind reader Rory Raven to Ludwig, a single mother whose flexibility earned her the nickname “rubber girl,’’ to middle-aged soccer mom “Alexanderia the Great,’’ a.k.a. Donna Purnell of Medway, who’s attempting to out-stunt Houdini.

First up: Lay your gaze upon Gangi, “The Amazing Human Head’’!

Mutely, he emerges before a crammed-in crowd of roughly 75 — some standing — at “Lydia’s’’ February show; the shop is draped with red and black satin curtains, dozens of X-rays dangling from the ceiling like morbid mobiles. He sticks out his tongue — then snaps a mouse trap on it, fanning back and forth for the audience.

Later, to cowers and cringes, he eases the 6-inch bit of a power drill into his nose, lightly drilling in and out, in and out.

A yellow balloon goes a little further: He drops it down through his nostril and out his mouth, then rubs it back and forth like floss.

“Anybody can fit quite a bit back there’’ in the nostril, the blockhead shrugged before his performance, noting the science of the sideshow in general — behind much of the acts, there are physics, force and pressure.

Now, Gangi is training to swallow a sword, a process he described as “long and horrible,’’ and “probably the most dangerous thing I’ll ever do.’’

In general, sideshows represent “overcoming your own limitations,’’ he said. “Any limitations you have in your life are self-imposed.’’

Well, not always. Next up: Feast your eyes on “The Eastern Massachusetts Rubber Girl!’’

Tattooed and barefoot, dressed all in black, pink, and purple locks tamed with a bandanna, Ludwig curls herself into a large blue suitcase; her silent, green-haired boyfriend Jimi then zips it up and wheels her off.

Later, she displays her elasticity by twisting her wrists around so her hands face backward, and rotating her arms 360 degrees, popping her shoulders out of their sockets in the process.

“I like hearing the ‘Oh Gods!’ ’’ she laughs as the crowd flinches, then cautions: “Please don’t try this as home, because I guarantee you will end up in traction.’’

Unlike other crafts, contorting isn’t something you can learn, Ludwig says before the show. “It’s something you’re born with.’’

She’s always been able to pop her shoulders and hips out of their sockets, and, when she was little, she would flip her legs behind her head to become a “human basket’’ that her mom carried around.

And now, she says proudly, her 4-year-old daughter is starting to show an aptitude for it.

She adds wryly of her abilities, “It’s perfectly safe, as long as I’m not in excruciating pain.’’

Which brings us to the next act: Be astonished and horrified by Vitka and his coffin-shaped bed of nails!

Theatrically ripping off his jacket, shirt, and tie, the performer clenches his arms, tenses his chest, then lays flat-back on the implement of torture. Scanning the audience, he calls forth a slightly portly man, prompting him to sit on his stomach.

Minutes later, when he stands back up, Vitka’s back is pock-marked with nail holes — but no blood.

When traveling with sideshows he does up to 60 shows a day.

It’s “hectic and rough,’’ he said, “the hardest work I’ve ever done. Carnies are the hardest-working people in America.’’

“Lydia’s Carnival Sideshow’’ is held monthly at Life and Death at the Museum Place Mall in Salem. The next show is March 19.

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