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World of Wonders: Background information when reading The Electric Woman

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The Electric Woman

A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts

by Tessa Fontaine

The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine X
The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

World of Wonders

This article relates to The Electric Woman

Print Review

In her memoir, The Electric Woman, Tess Fontaine recounts her experiences working for a five-month long season with World of Wonders, the last traditional traveling sideshow in the United States.

As the name implies, sideshows are smaller acts that are part of a larger fair or circus. According to the International Independent Showmen's Museum, sideshows in the United States had their origins in the Chicago World Fair of 1893. Smaller permanent fairs, annual state fairs and traveling shows emerged after the World Fair closed, and sideshows were part of the offerings from the start. At one time, hundreds toured the country.

Sideshows have always featured performers who had unusual physical talents, such as contortionists or those who could swallow swords or eat fire. In the beginning, they relied heavily on displaying those with physical deformities such as dwarfism or giantism. As movies and television gained popularity and as the public's sensibilities regarding those with disabilities changed, sideshows lost their appeal and mostly died out due to lack of demand and the inability to compete with glitzier entertainment.

Going against the trend, at a time when other side shows were dying out, the World of Wonders was started by side show veteran Ward Hall and his partner Chris Christ in 1966. It has persisted, touring fairs and carnivals for over 50 years in spite of shrinking crowds. Indeed, Fontaine's book emphasizes how the group is always on the verge of financial collapse. She describes how stressful something as ordinary as a flat tire can be to the organization, since arriving late to a fair would incur a fine, and a fine would wreck their precarious budget and force permanent closure. Tommy Breen, the show's "talker," (the person out front who draws an audience into the show, promising they'll be amazed by the various acts) joined the show in 2005. Now well into his 80s, Hall and Christ handle the show's bookings while Breen manages the personnel and day-to-day operations. World of Wonders has been featured in a Smithsonian exhibit and has been the subject of several movies and documentaries.

The World of Wonders' current version features two separate attractions with multiple acts. According to the website, where videos of acts can also be seen, The Amazement Show "features 10 astonishing illusions and jaw-dropping acts, including sword swallowers, fire eaters, trick ropers, contortionists, circus hula hoopers, snake charmers, a strongwoman, and more!" The Escape Explosion "kicks off with a bit of comedy and a little magic, as crowds gather to see our escape artist trio attempt a classic Whiskey Barrel Escape. Things get more serious and more mysterious as they move into an explosive whip cracking performance straight out of the Wild West. Then, in a grand finale conclusion, one of our devious daredevils flirts with death, working to outsmart a strait jacket while suspended upside-down by the ankles from a three-story aerial rigging."

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Electric Woman. It originally ran in May 2018 and has been updated for the May 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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