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It's a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon inside the big candy-striped tent, and the gaggle of folks who have paid the $1 admission don't know what to think about the man with the slightly crooked mouth standing before them. All they know is that something weird is about to happen: The man says he's going to eat a light bulb. Now, the proper etiquette in fine luminary dining is to crunch the neck of the bulb first, and when the man puts the bulb in his mouth and bites down, making an audible pop, you can feel the audience's repulsion. "Ewww," they groan. "Oh my God!" they exclaim.
"When you reach my age and you find yourself eating light bulbs for a living, you know you've made some bad career moves along the way," cracks Matt Hely, 46, to the meager audience of a dozen. He munches some more, and you can hear the glass crunching in his mouth. "I used to eat the frosted kind," he quips, swallowing with a wince, "but I'm trying to cut down on calories." The sight is hard to watch, but no more so than what the audience has already seen or will see in the next few minutes: Hely lying on a bed of nails, inviting volunteers to break plates and cinderblocks on his scarred torso; Hely stubbing out a lit cigar on his tongue, sticking his bare paw into an animal trap, walking barefoot on shards of burning glass. And don't forget Eddie Sudan, a sideshow regular with a face like an old worn boot, tapping 4-inch screwdrivers into his head by way of his nostrils and breathing plumes of fire 12 feet in the air. It's all part of the Bobby Reynolds Circus Sideshow, which recently camped out on the parking lot of the City Museum.
The sideshow, with its live acts and static displays -- it features real anomalies of nature such as a mounted five-legged cow and "truly unbelievable!" attractions like Einstein's brain in a jar -- is the property and child of Reynolds, 69, who has been schlepping this extremely bizarre menagerie of performers and exhibits from town to town for decades. Reynolds, formerly with Ringling Bros., is an impish character with a penchant for pith helmets and showing off the genuine human shrunken head he got from a Senegalese witch doctor -- or was it a gift from some Borneo chieftain whose life he once saved? He has appeared in a Smithsonian exhibit called America's Talkers. His traveling exhibit is considered the last of the old-time sideshows. It's easy to see why Hely, a carny at heart and the only local in the 10-person entourage, is drawn to him.
Long before he was chomping light bulbs, Hely, a 6-footer of medium build with short, straight brown hair, had been a fixture in St. Louis' restaurant and nightclub scene. Cognoscenti may recall him as the manager at Balaban's in the 1970s. Later, he ran topless clubs on the East Side. Eventually a pattern emerged: Many of the jobs he took involved travel. There was that gig as a roadie with the St. Louis Sheiks, touring the college-town circuit and always ending up in New Orleans. Later, he worked as a cook on the Mississippi Queen. In and out of St. Louis, he comes and goes. Likewise, his current profession involves the road. As an audiological technician with the Hearing and Speech Center of St. Louis, a nonprofit agency in Rock Hill, he drives around eight states in a truck hitched to a 35-foot trailer. The trailer stops at various factories and contains everything needed for the OSHA-approved hearing tests that Hely gives to employees. He enjoys the gypsy life and doesn't mind staying in small-town motels.
"Some of the locations I go to are kind of fun," says the Richmond Heights native, one of 10 children, "and I've met a lot of ... well, colorful characters. A few I try to hang out with when I can. There's a farmer in northern Illinois who's put together this pretty cool museum called the Wheels Museum. He built it himself, in the middle of nowhere, and it's one of those things -- "If you build it, they will come.' But his only visitors are people from outside the area. The locals think he's nuts, and none of them will go into his museum."
But Hely met his most colorful characters while touring with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for three years, ending in 1989. That job would also be the impetus for his role in the "freak show," as it was called during its run at City Museum, in late November. "I was the pie-car manager," says Hely, "which, in circus lingo, is the food service. They were nice people to work for, but it was a very demanding job, 12-hour days. There was a kid from a family of acrobats who I watched teach himself to juggle. I thought I'd like to try that, though it wasn't until I stopped touring and I came home to St. Louis that I had time to learn. But juggling tennis balls and beanbags was boring. I got into stuff like juggling with meat cleavers."