Sideshow Attraction

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

"Bobby was going to finish the tour in Florida and from there go to California. So I figured, what the hell, St. Louis is almost on the way, and what more perfect place to park the show for a week or so than the City Museum? I called the museum and suggested that to them, and they ran with it." At the time, he didn't know he would be the star of the show, the main geek. "I told Bobby I'd be happy to do some live stuff, and he said, "Go for it. I've got that bed of nails you can use.' And from there it just happened."

Hely thoroughly enjoyed his role in the show, doing nearly 50 performances in 16 days and grossing out hundreds of people. "The sideshow is a dying art that I hate to see die off," he says. "Except for Jim Rose, this is really the last sideshow there is. They're just too expensive to run. These freaks now, they all think they're Meryl Streep -- they want so much money you can't afford them."

Hely notes that there is a difference between the Bobby Reynolds Circus Sideshow and the Jim Rose Sideshow, which gained attention as a touring act with Lollapalooza, and it involves the disgust threshold. "Jim Rose started off working for Bobby years ago," says Hely. "Bobby gets weirded out by Jim Rose, and so do I. The stuff they do actually turns my stomach, and that's because they're doing what it takes to work in the sideshow business nowadays. And what it takes, of course, is, you have to shock and amaze people. They have a regurgitator, for instance, who swallows a live mouse and regurgitates it back up. The thing has wet fur, but it's OK. They've taken it up a notch on the lurid scale. And so Jim Rose is the cutting-edge sideshow performer, and he's got a lot to do with keeping this thing alive, the renewed interest that's been evident even here. Bobby's been in this business for 50 years, and there were long periods where there weren't TV cameras coming down and there weren't reporters lining up for interviews, even though he makes great copy. He was politically incorrect and forgotten, for the most part."

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."

There is the opportunity to do more than dabble in the carny life, and Hely is mulling it over. The gig at City Museum was the sideshow's last, at least with Bobby Reynolds at the helm. "I'm not retiring," says Reynolds. "There's no such word in my vocabulary. I'm rearranging my life. My wife wants to go to Europe, and I want to see this chap in London who balances a Volkswagen on his head. But the show will go on. My daughter, Marcy, plans on taking it on the road in the spring. I hoped Matt would join her. He's got a talent. If he had enough money, I'd sell the show to him, cheap. I wish he'd marry my daughter and they'd run it together."

"Take over the circus?" ponders Hely. "Well, Bobby kind of hinted around at it, though he's too much a gentleman to come right out and ask. But I love the guy. He's like a father to me. Who knows? I'll probably join Marcy for a couple dates when she takes the show on the road."

Back under the diffused lighting of the candy-striped tent, Hely has just walked barefoot on a pile of broken glass. To make it more interesting, he has doused the glass with charcoal lighter and set it afire. He turns to an engrossed onlooker, about 7 years old. "OK, kid," says Hely, "pick a number between 1 and 5." Without hesitation, the kid picks the number 5. Hely starts hopping up and down on the burning glass, counting: "One, two, three ..."

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