Child Con Carny
"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.'"
Middleton grins. "Who knows what we'll be calling them next year--'Children of Prozac'? 'Children of Roofies'? 'Children of Martinis'?"
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.
Exactly why is a matter of conjecture. There's strong evidence that modern society has co-opted what was once the exotic province of the midway to the extent that carnival shows simply no longer have the power to shock. Today, we're routinely bombarded with tattoos, Dennis Rodman, antismoking billboards plastered with fetus photos and X-Files plots peopled with freakish antagonists.
Locally, the Arizona State Fair hasn't hosted a midway side show of any kind for nearly 20 years. "I can't remember seeing anything like that here since the early '80s," says Gary Spence, assistant executive director of the fair. "In some cases, it was smoke and mirrors; in others, it was genuine deformity, but they both slowly disappeared from the scene. They just weren't making the money [to justify] the amount of footage they required, so they fell by the wayside."
Editor of the trade journal Circus Report for more than 25 years, industry observer Don Marcks can't remember the last time he's run across a side show, either. "I haven't seen anything like that for years and years," he says.
Marcks, who makes his home in El Cerrito, California, suspects that political correctness has had a big hand in the side shows' disappearance. Noting recent well-publicized child-abuse charges stemming from the death of a 680-pound 13-year-old who'd lived in his town, Marcks comments, "Back in the old days, she would have been the Fat Girl. Things have changed."
Of course, whether that change is for the good depends on whom you're talking to.
Predictably, the two guys who're hoping to hitch their bizarro baby buggy to a star prefer the old-fashioned way.
"The live-freak-show business was killed by people with good intentions," says Shad Kvetko. "This whole political-correctness thing took away those people's livelihood. These do-gooders claim that they don't want to see these people exploited, yet they've taken away the one thing they could do with decency. I know it might sound funny to talk about decency when someone's got a body growing out of their torso--but they've got a right to make a living, too."
Taking a thoughtful pull off his stogie, Middleton picks up his partner's left-handed plea for sensitivity.
"I hate to say it, but the bane of our business is that today, people are just too damn educated," he says. "People look at something today and say, 'This is a disabled person,' not a Seal Boy or a Turtle Girl or whatever." Then, shaking his head in mock resignation, he adds, "And that's a shame."
"Historically, shows where you've got something--it could be anything--preserved in a bottle have always drawn a lot of heat," explains Baltimore, Maryland, side-show aficionado James Taylor. "People would say, 'This is disgusting, this is indecent.' By the '60s, it was getting tougher to have these shows out there."
Editor of the "serial encyclopedia" Shocked and Amazed!, Taylor has spent years doing for midway culture what Ken Burns did for the Civil War. Unlike Burns, however, Taylor's practically got his whole beat to himself, diligently tracking down all things carnivalesque. Since 1992, his magazine has covered everything from fellow Baltimoran Johnny Eck ("The Legless Johnny" in the cult classic Freaks) to the exploits of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, a nouveau side show whose self-made "marvels" lift steam irons with pierced nipples, inhale condoms and pound nails up their noses.
Because he's never actually seen Kvetko and Middleton's show, Taylor claims it's impossible to gauge its authenticity or guess what the duo might have paid. Still, he helpfully offers a nutshell buyers' guide to "honest-to-God deformed monsters."
"If you can get a real two-headed punk for five grand, you've made a steal," Taylor explains. "And although I've never seen a cyclops baby come up for sale, I'd imagine if you could find a genuine one for five thousand, you'd be doing okay.
"On the other hand, five grand for a frog baby--bug eyes, arms that curve in--is a lotta money, way more than you oughta be paying," warns Taylor.
"But it all depends on how spectacular the specimen is," he continues. "I know a guy who had the biggest frog baby I'd ever seen in my life. I don't know how in the name of God that thing was born of woman. My God, it was one of the biggest babies I'd ever seen, let alone one of the biggest frog babies." Big as it was, it carried a sticker price just shy of $5,000.
Even in the pickled-punk arena, breeding will tell.
Taylor claims that if a collector can document that his specimen was once exhibited by, say, "fetal anomalies" impresario Lou Dufour ("King of the Unborn Shows"), the price can escalate steeply.
"If it's old enough, sometimes the medical jar itself is worth more than what's in it," says Taylor. "I've got some old medical jugs that, before I'd part with them, I'd part with what's inside them."
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, Shad Kvetko and Paul Middleton are eager to get their own show on the road.
So far, however, plans to exhibit their cavalcade of atrocities (which now includes the taxidermied bodies of a two-headed calf, a Siamese-twin goat and a pickled three-legged duck they've picked up along the way) are all over the map. Potential itineraries currently involve everything from hooking up with Lollapalooza to staging art-gallery shows or playing Hispanic flea markets.
Originally, the pair had hoped to set up a permanent "parlour of curiosities" in the heart of Glendale's quaint antique district. But those plans fell through, claims Kvetko, because of the city's "short-sightedness" in failing to appreciate the new blood their spectacle would bring to the community.
"No vision!" carps Middleton.
Other tourist destinations within the state that they briefly considered, then discarded, were Bisbee and Jerome--the latter town ultimately rejected, says Middleton, because of "too many hippies."
"What we really need is someplace where you've got new people coming in all the time," says Kvetko. "Someplace like Fisherman's Wharf would be ideal, but for the time being, at least, that's obviously out of the question."
"But this really isn't about making money," explains Middleton. "It's about love of the 'outdoor amusement business' and having an adventure."
And if all else fails, the partners say they'll just load up a truck and tour as independent carnies, maybe even take the "kids" to Mexico.
Caution! Babies On Board.
Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: email@example.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.