Sideshow Attraction

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

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."

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."

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.

"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."

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 ..."