By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"So, come in and meet the kids!"
Ushering visitors into the dimly lighted family room of his Phoenix home, proud papa Shad Kvetko points toward the apples of his eye--an instant family he acquired from an out-of-state side-show operator.
Clustered together atop a glass display are Kvetko's five little monsters, each infant-size specimen sealed in a Plexiglas cylinder filled with murky brown liquid. Unbelievably misshapen, the occupant of one jar sports two heads. Another is missing all his limbs. In other jars, ivory-skinned mutants suffer from what appear to be weird skin conditions and other sundry birth defects. Otherwise normal-looking, the lifeless resident of a fifth container reportedly possesses meteorological forecasting skills; in rainy weather, it bobs to the top of its jar.
Kvekto begins the introductions. "This is Heinz, that's Vlasic . . ."
Relishing guests' initial reaction to his unbelievable "Man-Made Monsters," Kvetko takes a puff off a stogie--then smugly blows a smoke ring.
As that smoky doughnut disintegrates over one of the creepy crocks, Shad Kvetko and partner Paul Middleton continue to blow verbal smoke about the dusty "dead baby" display with which they hope to revitalize the moribund side-show business.
Intentionally oozing all the oily sincerity of a couple of used-car salesmen, the bantering barkers suggest what might have happened had Barnum and Bailey come of age during the Swingers era.
"Yeah, these are a great buncha kids to work with," smirks 25-year-old Kvetko, a self-employed collectibles dealer. "They never give us any problems."
"No unions," chimes in Middleton, 29, a professional caregiver. "No FICA, either."
"This is an educational show," adds Kvetko. "We're concerned citizens performing a public service."
"Indeed we are!" volunteers his partner. "People need to know about . . . Mother Nature's mistakes!"
Kvetko smiles. "Or, as we in the business call them . . . 'pickled punk'!"
Call them what you will, but if any group of children was ever meant to be seen and not heard, it is the lifeless stars of the "Horrors of Drug Abuse" side show. Last summer, Kvetko and Middleton purchased the attraction from a California carny for an undisclosed price, which they describe as "somewhere in the thousands."
In addition to the bottled headliners, the purchase price also included a tent and a series of lurid canvas banners that graphically, if fancifully, depict the horrible consequences of "a few minutes of pleasure turned into a lifetime nightmare!"
On one poster, a smiling baby (modestly diapered, unlike his bottled brethren) gleefully shows off the parasitic twin sprouting from his chest. Another poster child, this one a barbaric young nipper cursed with a dermatological affliction that makes him look like a Mexican wrestling mummy, hunkers down in a menacing stance. Over the entryway, a stoic, one-eyed tyke beckons customers with his unblinking orb. And in case anyone misses the point, a couple of giant syringes dripping with heroin aim the way to the ticket booth.
Long fascinated with the grotesque in general (Kvetko's home is filled with old mortuary and cemetery equipment he's collected through the years) and carnival culture in particular, buddies Kvetko and Middleton have always dreamed of hitting the road with a genuine side-show attraction.
Five years ago, the pair made some headway in that direction when it presented Commander Blight's Pandemonium Sideshow and Menagerie at a series of local art events. Kind of an over-the-top backyard circus, the attraction featured a papier-mache "Devil Doll" surrounded by a collection of oversize creepy crawlers--including "hissing" cockroaches, a "rat-eating" toad, a "Goliath" tarantula and a large crab reportedly capable of breaking a broom handle with its claw. Sadly, that show went belly up because of a tragic accident that claimed the lives of everyone involved save Middleton and Kvetko. While spending the off-season in a storage shed in Prescott, all of the stars froze to death when a heater failed.
The genealogy of the pair's current lifeless luminaries is considerably more mysterious. No Alex Haley, neither Kvetko nor Middleton can provide any solid information regarding the roots of their little nursery of horrors.
Pressed for details, the pair guesses the specimens may be medical exhibits imported from China more than 100 years ago.
Then again, maybe they're not.
And if that's the case and nobody really knows anything about them, how can these creatures be linked to drug abuse?
Middleton smiles slyly.
"See, that's the beauty of it," he says. "Who knows what happened?"
Thinking aloud, Middleton embroiders an elaborate scenario in which, Madonnalike, the babies who never grew old will reinvent themselves into eternity in response to the horrors of the era. "Back in the '30s, babies like these were exhibited as 'Children of Forgotten Fathers!'--whatever that means. In the '60s, they'd have been called 'Children of LSD.'"
As recently as 50 years ago, more than 100 side shows regularly crisscrossed the country, offering the opportunity to ogle everything from bearded women and sword-swallowers to frozen whales and two-headed cows. Today, you can practically count the number of those attractions on the mutant pincer of one Lobster Boy.