The renowned “Sideshow King,” Ward Hall passed away at age 88. Considered the modern-day P.T. Barnum, Hall was well known throughout the carnival industry for his World of Wonders Sideshow.
Thomas Breen, who purchased the World of Wonders show from Hall and his partner , C. M. Christ, called Hall was “an incredible figure. He didn't come from a show biz or circus family, but show business was an all-consuming force in his life. He was the literal kid who ran away and joined the circus.”
Born in Trenton, Nebraska, Hall moved to Denver and joined the Daily Brothers Railroad Circus at the tender age of 15 as a performer, juggling, wire-walking, working with a lion act, and learning to pitch. After purchasing his first carnival sideshow in 1950, he toured with major carnivals; over the course of his career he was also connected with over 15 different circuses, and for 7 years he co-produced the sideshow for Ringling Bros. Barnum and Baily Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Hall moved to Gibsonton, Fla. in 1966, and partnered with Christ to form a new company to produce a state fair sideshow for Gooding's Million Dollar Midway; by the late 1970s, their company grew to include 4 state fair sideshows and 8 grind shows, and had 70 employees.
Christ describes Hall as “a very thoughtful, kind person. He was always the first to help someone down on their luck. He was like Will Rogers, and he never met anyone he didn’t like.” He adds “We were business partners for 53 years. He was always a guy who followed his dreams, succeed or fail at what he wanted to do. He lived his life that way.”
For decades, Hall and Christ’s World of Wonders sideshow was a major part of many state fairs and carnivals. Hall was always the front man, drawing in patrons to see shows ranging from sword swallowing to human oddities. These types of attractions were kept popular in part due to Hall, who bought up fading attractions from competitors, and became dominant in the sideshow industry. His indefatigable enthusiasm and drive, remarked upon by many, in large part kept the sideshows going.
Breen notes “With talent, hard work, and dedication, he was a self-made, very successful showman earning the title ‘the king of the sideshow.’”
Initially relying on human oddity acts, when these attractions came under fire, Hall was a passionate defender, arguing in a 1972 Florida court case that a law against offering these acts for pay deprived people of a way to make a living. He won the case in the Florida Supreme Court. All the same, the human oddities acts faded, and Hall’s side show came to rely more on acts like knife throwers and sword-swallowers. Hall also operated two permanent wax museums at sea shore resorts in New Jersey.
In a 1995 interview with James Taylor for the publication Shocked & Amazed, Vol. 1, Hall related that sideshows were changing, and his World of Wonders changed with the times as well. “It’s economics. All economics... organized carnivals were first started, developed, from the Columbian World Exposition of 1893 in Chicago…Over the years, even up through the 1930s and 40s, the average large carnival, a big, big carnival, would have about 20 rides and about 30 shows…every carnival practically and every circus had a sideshow at that time. Today, there is one sideshow, and you’re sitting in it, and really…it’s a museum.”
Asked by Taylor how this change came about, Hall said it was due to the discovery of European rides which were more elaborate and better than those produced in the U.S. Better rides made for a bigger draw to attendees, and rides were an easier attraction for carnivals than sideshows, he said. “The ride can be operated by three people, usually. The sideshow had maybe 15 – 20. And the ride works from the time it opens until it closes…the carnival keeps 100% of the ride; they only got 40% of the show.”
Hall retired from carnival life several times according to Christ, but he always came back. Between them, Hall’s inevitable enthusiastic return became something of a joke. Several years ago, however, Hall and Christ began turning their World of Wonders show over to Breen, who had worked for them for years.
Breen relates “I think his legacy was his staying power. Not only was he a true master at his craft -- but his career spanned seventy years. He was out there working at the highest level into his eighties.”
A savvy businessman and consummate performer, Hall also wrote three books, produced three stage musicals, and operated a 2500-seat tent theater, Wondercade. He also appeared in movies and on television.
Always a crackerjack story teller, Hall told The Tampa Bay Times in 2011 that one advantage of old age was “You’re able to embellish things a little because all the other people who were there are all dead,” he said. “There’s nobody to dispute what you say.”
Hall had one tale he left untold, because he felt no one would believe it happened, but it did: in 1994 he appeared in, emceed, and even sang in a one-night show at Carnegie Hall, Circus Blues.
According to Christ, “You have to remember, he was the last vestige really of outdoor show business. I’ve been in the business since I was 16 years old, and the business today has nothing to do with the business I got into. That’s not being critical, it’s just that the world changes. His legacy is really the idea of following your dreams to succeed. He received almost every award in outdoor show business. As far as how he’d want to be remembered, he was the last of the old time, back-end showmen.”
Ward was President of the I.I.S.A. in 1974 and 1975, producing an elaborate and memorable president’s banquet and ball; spent 14 years on the board of directors of the O.A.B.A and was board member emeritus of the I.I.S.A. He was a member of the C.H.S., C.F.A., O.A.B.A., S.L.A., and I.I.S.A.
Breen asserts of Hall “It's not easy to stay relevant for decades. And yet Ward remained at the top of his field. Everyone close to Ward is feeling this loss.”
A Celebration of Life is planned for Hall at the Showmen's Club in Gibsonton, Fla. on November 17, 2018 at 1pm in the Carousel building; details will be forthcoming, according to Christ.
In lieu of flowers, it’s requested that a donation be made in Hall’s name to The IISA Museum of the American Carnival.