Sideshow Attraction

Part-time geek Matt Hely explains the lure of the circus life

Hely got the notion to try sideshow performing in the early '90s. "I had seen some of these things done," he says, "and knew it was possible if I had somebody in the business show me how to do it." Because he had worked for Ringling Bros., he had a kind of backstage pass to the circus milieu. "It meant I was now an insider, and they could talk to me like they wouldn't talk to someone just off the street. I used that to advantage and got to know some of these old carnies. I first learned the human-blockhead routine -- nailing nails into my head -- and then the animal-trap trick, where I spring a set trap with my bare hand. I was managing bars at the time, and these tricks were going over pretty well with the customers. Later, I started eating light bulbs and walking on glass."

The dozen or so tricks Hely performs evolved over several years. Most of them he learned through personal tutelage from a mentor, whose name he'd rather keep secret. Nor will he reveal techniques, because he's concerned someone will get hurt trying to imitate what has taken him years and many scars to learn. "The only way to learn this stuff is to get some one-on-one training from someone in the business," he stresses. "If you don't learn that way, it's really very dangerous. Even when you're doing things right, something goes wrong." Indeed, during one light-bulb-eating session at City Museum, the first bite caused a laceration of his lip or gums. Hely resolutely finished the bulb with a bloody mouth. Yet he insists that he's not a masochist:

"Oh no, not at all. I'm not nuts, and I'm not into pain. I'm kind of a wimp. I don't intentionally try to hurt myself when I do these stunts." But why do it at all? "I think I'm attracted to that kind of magic, because, unlike traditional magic, it's all real. When I lay on a bed of nails, I'm really laying on a bed of nails. When I eat a light bulb, it's a real light bulb, and I prove it to everybody. I turn on the light, I take it out of the socket, and I eat it right in front of them. And still, some don't believe. The guy from the TV-news program that we were on saw me eat the light bulb, and then what do I hear when they run the segment? That it must be made out of sugar. And that's the kind of reaction you get out of people. They just can't believe they're seeing the real thing, because they're used to being fooled by magicians."

Matt Hely: "When you find yourself eating light bulbs for a living, you know you've made some bad career moves."
Wm. Stage
Matt Hely: "When you find yourself eating light bulbs for a living, you know you've made some bad career moves."
Bed of nails to the contrary, Hely insists he's no masochist: "I'm not into pain."
Wm. Stage
Bed of nails to the contrary, Hely insists he's no masochist: "I'm not into pain."

Perhaps most amazingly, seven years ago Hely could barely eat anything, much less light bulbs. In 1993, Hely was afflicted with a condition known as achalasia, the inability of a hollow organ -- in his case, the esophagus -- to relax. At the time, he was living over Duffy's, a saloon, now defunct, at Chouteau and Boyle avenues. Those who knew him feared the worst. "He was real sick," recalls Kent Gray, then a bartender at Duffy's and current co-owner of the Famous Bar. "He had some problem with his throat. Nobody could figure out what was wrong. He just got thinner and sicker and weaker, and it got to a point where he couldn't work and everybody thought he was going to die."

"I couldn't swallow," says Hely. "I was down to 80 pounds, and the doctors didn't know what it was. I had no insurance, but Washington University Med School came through. They actually saved my life by diagnosing the problem and doing an operation that separated my esophagus from my stomach. Yeah, they put it back together, but it doesn't work as well. That's why I don't do sword-swallowing."

While in training, Hely enhanced his craft by reading about circuses and sideshows: "I picked up Wild Tigers and Tame Fleas by Bill Ballantine," he recalls. "One of the stories was about Professor Heckler's Flea Circus, which was at Hubert's Museum in Times Square. It mentioned Bobby Reynolds -- at 13, he was the inside talker for this flea circus. I've always been interested in pitchmen, the old carnival barkers touting the miracle spot remover, the snake-oil cures, and Bobby Reynolds is considered one of the master pitchmen of all time. I'd also heard of him when I was with the circus. They said he owned P.T. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid."

Hely called Reynolds at his home in Willoughboro, N.J., in 1999. Would he mind some company? "We hung out for a couple days," Hely says. "Bobby was great to be around. Even something as ordinary as going to the thrift store -- with all his talk and bluster, he puts everybody around him in a better mood. He's just able to spin that magic." Hely paid another visit, to the Coney Island HQ of the sideshow, in April of this year. Hely had done his own sideshow routine a few months earlier at the Museum of Mirth & Mayhem within the City Museum, and now, on the drive back, a thought struck him.

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