Jon Marshall is potty about sideshows, for over thirty years he was a friend of the late Jon Gresham, Magician, Fire-eater and Sideshow proprietor. Jon Marshall is the founder of Sideshow Illusions and has led a creative team in restoring and presenting Gresham’s shows using their original frontages and props. Jon has worked in theatre all his life, performing magic professionally as a teenager and in 1970 becoming Director of Theatre in Education at Hull Arts Centre and later Director of Humberside Theatre. In 1982 Jon formed Magic Carpet Theatre presenting children’s theatre productions and other shows throughout the UK and internationally, they are still touring. Jon is a Member of The Inner Magic Circle with Gold Star and in 2017 was awarded the David Berglas Award for Outstanding Contribution to Magic by the British Magical Society. Jon has been able to combine his passions for magic, sideshows and theatre in many projects, whether training Zombies for the University of Sheffield or presenting Professor Jon’s Flea Circus.
Photo credits: Ian Michael Spooner and Robert Moss
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I have had many magical wonder moments seeing favourite, great acts perform live, like magicians Harry Blackstone and Salvano. I realised later that it was also an auditory experience. Harry Blackstone’s music for the Floating Lightbulb illusion combined with his charismatic voice, “Well you can look, but don’t touch”, as the Bulb floats over the audience’s heads always sends tingles up my spine and I can never hear the music Twilight Time without conjuring up an image of the perfect act of Salvano.
And it’s not just magic moments, which you would expect to attract my interest. Recently Will Gompertz, BBC Arts Editor wrote, “You don’t have to know loads about art to recognise a great piece when you see one. It hits you like a truck; like love-at-first sight. It doesn’t occur often, but when it does, oh boy”.
It happened to me on one rainy afternoon when I was in Sheffield for a sideshow site visit. While walking through the Winter Gardens I just popped into the Millennium Gallery and came across the late Ian Breakwell’s installation, The Other Side – a short film projected back to back on a suspended screen in a huge gallery space accompanied by Schubert’s Nocturne in E-flat Major. The images of couples waltzing slowly to Schubert’s music around Bexhill-on-Sea’s De la Warr Pavillion balcony, a beautiful 1930s seaside building, were amazingly theatrical… hypnotic… moving … wonderful. It has stayed vividly in my memory. You can read about it here.
What path led you to running the sideshow illusions?
I’d like to say it was all thought out and planned but it was really a series of accidental opportunities and circumstances. I’d been a magician forever with an interest in Circus and a fascination in fairground shows. Luckily I am old enough to have been around when every fair and seaside amusement park had live shows. I met Jon Gresham, magician, fire-eater and Sideshow proprietor just a couple of years before he closed his sideshow business down. By then I was a drama student, still performing magic and Jon Gresham, who was the secretary of Hull Magicians’ Circle, and I became great friends. Years after Jon died I was at a dinner party at magical historian, Eddie Dawes’ house with Amy, Eddie’s wife and Pat Gresham, Jon’s widow. We discussed trying to resurrect one of Jon’s sideshows for a Hull Magicians’ Circle Dinner. Jon’s shows had been put into storage in his barns in 1969. The result was a performance, with the original 1950s props and show fronts, of Cleo, The Girl In The Goldfish Bowl. My great friend Professor Vanessa Toulmin, then Director of The National Fairground Archive based at University of Sheffield saw the show and later provided enormous assistance with bookings and commissions. I’d been bitten by the sideshow bug, over the next years, with the encouragement of Pat Gresham, we restored and presented several more of Jon Gresham’s original shows along with some new and unique sideshows of our own and I love performing Professor Jon’s Flea Circus which fits well into the genre.
Can you describe the experience of witnessing a sideshow illusion? Is wonder a large part of it?
Wonder is absolutely the experience for our audiences, you don’t see a Headless Lady or a Half-Girl Half-Butterfly everyday and they are amazing, head-scratching, illusions, but, partly answering your next question, curiosity is also a major motive.
I suppose in some ways, a sideshow illusion could be described as the original click bait. Drawing in crowds after piquing their interest. Is this unfair?
I think you have got it in one! A sideshow is not a destination attraction of itself. It is the fair, festival or resort that is the reason why folk are around. Jon Gresham said in his memoirs (Sideshow Showman – published 2019), “What is on the outside of the show is far more important than what is on the inside. One only has seconds, while visitors are walking past, to so pique their curiosity that they will spend their 6d or 1/- with you.” The front of the show, called “The Flash” is vitally important in attracting attention and tempting the visitor to come in and the talker outside the show is crucial in giving them that extra nudge to, “step right up”. The showman’s saying, “It’s not the show that gets the dough, it’s the flash that gets the cash”, is so true.
Traditional wonder shows and travelling circuses often exploited the ‘freak’ to draw in the curious. Is this something you’re mindful of when presenting in the 21st century? And as society do you think we’re more inclusive of diversity or have we learnt to hide it better?
There’s a joke going round – “We used to pay to see the fattest person or the most tattooed body, now they are the audience!”
Living curiosities have existed back as far as ancient times but the Victorians really commercialised the novel, the different and the unusual. Human and animal oddities were paraded for profit, whether self-made “freaks” like the Great Omi, the tattooed man or ‘born that way”, like Chang and Eng the original Siamese twins. There were bearded ladies, half-women and half-men like Johnny Eck and men like Tommy Twinkle Toes Jacobson who had no arms and played the piano with his feet. The phrase, “He is not like you or I”, would be used as part of the spiel to introduce such attractions throughout Europe and the America’s. Right up to the early 1970s there were snake shows and other novelties, from Scotland, George the Gentle Giant would shake your hand. Gradually tastes changed and rides replaced the live shows, they were cheaper to maintain and run.
The freak show has never completely died out, Richard Cadell [current owner and performer of the magical mute puppet Sooty] created Dr Fryte’s Freak show in 2006, after a couple of years he sold it on. A pared down version of it appeared on Blackpool’s sea front in 2019. The “human freaks” are still gawked at by the curious, they’ve moved onto television and voyeurs can safely watch as the programmes are presented as documentaries on such subjects as the life of a man turning into a tree, he was actually afflicted with multiple wart like growths, the wolf boys with The World’s Hairiest Family on BBC TV, all with a condition called hypertrichosis that means they have thick hair all over their faces. The Smallest Man in India, the largest person, all on TV… they’re all still “alive on the inside”.
Jon Gresham said a good sideshow, as in good money taker, needed three essential elements: Sex, the bizarre and horror!
We have made changes – we’ve scripted our presentations for modern audiences but retained many elements of the original spiel. We’ve added effects, lighting and music, included dialogue and some tongue in cheek lines with a touch of comedy. In The Mummy and The Monster Shows we still aim, as in good ghost stories, to make folk jump.
The shows are no longer just a walk around attraction, pay, go in, look and come out. In our Living Half Lady Show she is the central character and the more powerful, exposing her husband, the show proprietor to be the fraud he is.
Can you tell me the stages you have to go through to build or restore one of the illusions?
The decision as to which show we would restore next really depended on what show fronts and props still existed and what we had discovered as well as how difficult we thought the project would be. We were very lucky in that almost all the show fronts with their original paintings had survived. This was aided by the fact that every year layers of varnish had been applied to keep them weatherproof. We only needed to replace some rotten wooden framing and carry out a minimum amount of retouching and indeed features such as a girl’s name – Sue, scratched by a visitor into the front of Cleo, The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl were kept. Pat Gresham found old photographs. Parts of the original inside props were found to assist in the restoration. Other parts had to be designed and made. Mock-ups were tested, for some shows we made a model. The original tapes of the outside spiels and inside lectures turned up. These were designed to play continuously on an early form of Reditune tape cartridge, almost A4 size. Our friend Phil Smith who works for the BBC managed to transfer the audio tracks off them and for the first time for years we heard the voice that had attracted the public in thousands into the shows. One really exciting moment was when in searching for the fronts of the Mummy Show I washed away years of grime and muck that obscured the painting underneath with a soapy sponge and we saw the iridescent blue background and the bandage swathed Mummy’s Head appear. It was like Howard Carter discovering the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Assembly, scripting and rehearsals followed culminating in the debut performance of the restored show.
Have your illusions had a 21st century makeover or are they still rooted in the traditional methods? I’m guessing lighter and stronger materials may have helped a lot.
Yes, the restored shows are different – we have retained many traditional elements and preserved the original fronts and props. I think our production values in terms of presentation, costume and decor are higher and as I have said already they are now complete shows, not just a walk in and have a look. The show booths we use are modern. The old style booth was a portable, wooden, garage-style structure with a ridge bar over which a canvas tilt was fastened. The wooden sides were incredibly heavy and certainly not fireproof. We made the decision to lose some authenticity by using specially made aluminium and fabric clear span show tents which mirrored exactly the shape of the old booths. This had the advantage of being lighter to transport, quicker to erect and they meet modern fire and safety regulations. They are hidden behind the large show fronts anyway. Although we have been able to use some secret new materials, that were not available to Jon Gresham, to enhance the illusions, essentially the methods remain the same with magical principles that date back as far as 1862.
Do you have a favourite illusion? Why?
I have two, Yvette, The Headless Lady and The Butterfly Girl.
The Headless Lady is performed in the most faithful style to the original presentation. Jon Gresham developed a taped lecture to accompany the showing. We have returned to a live lecturer who introduces and reveals the Headless Lady. We have added to the original apparatus with 1950s medical machinery to dress the show. It really is a remarkable, astonishing illusion presented in bright lights and has direct links back to its originator Egon Heinemann in the 1930s.
The Butterfly Girl was a challenge – there was no original front and save for a small pencil sketch no clue as to what the inside attraction was. We interviewed people who saw it at Scarborough in 1963 and in illusion terms it seemed to be similar to our Living Half Lady which we didn’t want. It needed to be quite different. I saw, in Eddie Dawes’s magic room, a poster for an 1880s illusion – Dr Lynn’s Half Girl on a Swing and thought that would be perfect and the swinging would give movement to the girl’s Butterfly wings. We had new fronts designed and painted and the illusion built. It all came together and worked perfectly.
Do you have a preference for busking or building illusions?
Presenting the shows and seeing the audience’s reactions is enormous fun, everyone is different. Restoring them was sometimes a major headache and source of stress coupled with a great sense of elation when they were brought to life again. I worked with a brilliant team, Dave Whatt our designer, Steve Collison company manager and many more. When Jon Gresham put his shows in his barns they remained there for 40 years. After that time they were not exactly in perfect order having been subject to weather, the attacks of rodents and pigeons and had been moved around and props misplaced. It entailed quite a bit of detective work and research and sometimes replacement props had to be manufactured. For instance with the Butterfly Girl, commissioned by Blackpool’s Showzam Festival, there were no photographs of the inside and the outside Flash was missing. We re-created the whole show from scratch and it was built partly in Hull, Bradford, Caterham and Bury St Edmunds. We really didn’t know if the show would be illusive let alone mystifying and entertaining until it all came together in Blackpool the day before we opened. It did!
After a suggestion from, Canadian showman and sideshow author, Al Stencell we enjoyed creating Dr Phantasma’s Ten in One Show based on the American style of sideshow complete with a forty-foot long banner line painted by Mark and Martha Copeland and with multiple stages featuring working acts.
What have been some of the most extreme reactions you’ve had from spectators?
We have had a couple of fainters, Pat Gresham told me that in the 1950s they always had smelling salts on hand as they had frequent fainters. And there can be narks. Jon Gresham had a theory that if the illusion was “too good” and there was no obvious explanation, viewing it could make some people antagonistic. He recalls folk leaving a show telling him, if he was in the box office, that “it’s a trick or it’s a bloody film”. Jon’s technique was to wait until they were several yards away and then shout, loud enough so that those nearer the show and, making their mind up to come in, could hear, “Thank you, pleased you enjoyed the show”. When we exhibited the Headless Lady at The Welcome Institute in London, as part of an exhibition organised by Professor Richard Wiseman, an elderly visitor who said he was a Professor from Israel demanded to speak to me and wanted to know why we were tricking the public as he knew the ”medical apparatus” connected to our lady could not possibly sustain her life. He didn’t really get entertainment or illusion or fun possibly. On the other hand we have had the dilemma of two kind ladies asking after the health of the Butterfly Girl and at what time she was allowed to have her exercise flying around the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.
One elderly gentleman who had travelled to Blackpool by bus from one of the Lancashire mill towns told me that as a boy he had seen The Headless Lady in Blackpool before WWII and that the blood on the cotton wool where the tubes exit the girl’s neck had impressed him. After examining the original 1930s photo with a magnifying glass that afternoon blood appeared on our cotton wool.
We wanted to make The Mummy Show a ‘run out’ where at the climax of the show the audience would be shocked and scared into running out of the sideshow tent. And they do, aided by alarms, siren, flashing lights, smoke, a hideous Mummy approaching them and the presenter yelling, “Get out, he’ll kill you!”. They exit, some running, some confused, many laughing after the scare. At this moment the person on the doors is very important, open them too soon and light may stream in, the audience will be distracted, open too late and there could be a pile up. On one occasion some youngsters, anticipating the run out, pushed against the tent fabric doors and the laces became jammed. Kids were popping out under the flaps and between our legs, we had to push back on the tent doors to relieve the pressure and they fell out and collapsed in a heap. No spectators were hurt.
What would you like your audiences to take away from the experience?
I want them to be thrilled, excited, amused, and in some shows a touch scared. I get an enormous kick out of seeing young teenagers all used to incredible effects like CGI in films and games come tearing out of The Mummy Show scared witless and then laughing, having witnessed something their grandparents would have watched based on an illusion that dates back to 1862 and is still performed in the same way.
Jon Gresham had an ambition to perhaps open a museum of sideshows, I hope that our work in restoring and restaging the sideshows, the only original live sideshows in the UK, that were such a great part of popular culture will introduce them to new audiences and is fulfilling part of Jon’s aim.
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