“Freaks, wonders, and human cock-oddities, the likes of which your eyes have never seen before,” Ken Harck calls from a four-foot-high platform on an expanse of hot pavement in the Midwest Bank Amphitheatre. This is what’s known in the sideshow business as the “grind”–a stream of chatter meant to lure passersby into the tent–and he keeps it up all day long in a nasal drone. Harck’s dressed for the part: white shirt, vest, and pants and a black fedora with a feather. “If you’re in line, you’re just in time. Everybody goes in now. Showtime at the circus. Everybody goes in now. When you walk through that canvas threshold, you walk into another world, another realm, another dimension.”
The smattering of Ozzfest patrons who are paying attention seem hesitant to part with the extra five bucks it costs to enter Harck’s pink-and-green-striped tent, so he blends the golden-age patter into a more contemporary pitch. “You’re gonna see Punkin Head, the human Cyclops; he’s got a hole in his head the size of a baseball. You’re gonna see his tongue come out of that hole, and he’s going to lick his eyebrows right in front of your face. I can’t make this shit up–you guys gotta get in there. It’s more splendorous than the hanging gardens of Babylon. Since you’ve been listening to me babble on, it might be time for you to get in there and see this fuckin’ show.” He growls, mimicking one of the singers onstage in the distance. “Freaks, sluts, homosexuals, ex-cons–ya wanna get in there. Everybody goes in now.”
“Sluts!” a guy exclaims cheerfully, and he and a friend queue up behind two teenage boys in heavy metal T-shirts.
Harck has been in showbiz for 30 years, mostly as a drummer whose resume includes playing in the local power-pop combo Off Broadway and, for about a minute in the mid-70s, Badfinger. On and off the road he indulged his other lifelong passion–buying and selling circus art and memorabilia, a hobby that has earned him a reputation as a self-taught circus historian and one of the top collectors in the country. Among his acquisitions are 120 photos of sideshow performers by Edward J. Kelty, around 800 posters, and about 75 items from the estate of P.T. Barnum. Six years ago he also become the proud owner (as well as grinder) of the Bros. Grim sideshow, which he touts as the closest thing you’ll find to an “authentic” early-20th-century freak show. “It was a natural progression for this to sort of ooze out,” he says. “I knew so much about this stuff–if I couldn’t go see a real one, I might as well create one.”
The colorful banners that advertise the Bros. Grim acts are hand painted using a process from the 1920s, and next year for musical accompaniment Harck plans to add a self-playing 1905 Gavioli organ that’s taken nine years and more than $100,000 to restore inside and out. The show features a revolving roster of “freaks” both born and made: at Ozzfest the former included Jessie the Half-Boy; a “wolf-boy” from Mexico dressed in a charro suit and sombrero; and the aforementioned Punkin Head, aka Scott the Cyclops, who capitalizes on his empty eye socket with various props including, as Harck promises, his own tongue. But at Ozzfest it’s the made freaks that get the biggest reaction from the crowd. Zamora the Torture King sticks skewers through his arms and face and breathes fire. Lucky Diamond Rich, who holds the Guinness world record for most tattoos, climbs atop a stretch unicycle and juggles machetes and an apple, which he simultaneously eats, spewing slobbery chunks of fruit. In past runs Harck has employed the puzzle-tattooed Enigma and his wife, Katzen, formerly with the Jim Rose Sideshow, and Slymenstra Hymen, formerly of Gwar, who breathes fire and shoots “lightning bolts” from her fingertips.
Harck and a circus enthusiast friend, John Hartley, first talked about putting together a sideshow in 1995, but it wasn’t till three years later, when Hartley told Harck he’d been diagnosed with AIDS, that a plan fell into place. Harck had recently tried out for the Smashing Pumpkins but didn’t get the job, so he turned his full attention to putting together Bros. Grim while Hartley could still take part. They pitched their first tent in 2000 on the Great Circus Parade grounds in Milwaukee. Hartley, who’s since passed away, painted the first banners, a few of which Harck still uses. An employee at Circus World, which staged the Parade, remembers the show doing well. But it hobbled through subsequent engagements. In Seaside Heights, New Jersey, the daytime shows were dead, and the tent nearly blew away during a windstorm. At the Dallas theme park Thrillvania in October 2004, it rained almost every day. “I completely lost my ass there,” Harck says. But Bryce Graves of Brown Gravy Entertainment, who booked the Thrillvania shows, liked what he saw and offered to step in as manager. “The performers were running the show, and it was going down,” Graves says. “It was like, let’s put up a tent, put out some flyers, and see how it goes.”
Graves landed Bros. Grim a spot on ten Ozzfest dates this year; the show’s setting up near the music festival on ten others. He and Harck are also shopping a TV pilot featuring the sideshow cast to cable networks. “There’s people breathing fire, catching other people on fire, running through the house in flames,” Harck says. “They’ve got one guy handcuffed and they’re shoving ice cubes up his ass and stuff–it’s kinda like that.” Slymenstra Hymen, Harck’s ex-girlfriend, also makes an appearance. “You’ll see her taking a bath nude with a 17-foot python.”
Growing up in La Grange Park, Harck built toy circuses with whatever he could find–potato bags became trapeze nets, for instance–and spent many afternoons at the Brookfield Zoo watching the animals, particularly Ziggy, a huge African elephant with crossed tusks. As young as six or seven, he says, he’d tear circus posters out of store windows and cut circus ads out of newspapers, then tack them on telephone poles in his neighborhood.
On the way back from gigs in Minneapolis in his 20s, he’d try to talk his bandmates in Off Broadway into stopping in Baraboo, Wisconsin, to visit the Circus World Museum. Eventually he became a regular. “When I first started going there, my god, the old-timer collectors and the people that worked there, they thought that I was like Charles Manson or something,” he says. By the time he was around 30, though, “they started realizing I wasn’t gonna go away. Some of them right from the beginning were very friendly and would encourage me, and some of them would sorta get pissed off when they would realize I was starting to get good stuff that maybe they used to get. And I might’ve had more energy than somebody else, and all of a sudden you kind of get to the point where you’re an advanced collector and it forces them to respect you.”
Much of Harck’s collection is kept in his home, a nondescript town house in the western suburbs. He bought it nine years ago from an ex-girlfriend’s dad, covering the down payment by selling an antique poster for nearly 30 times what he’d paid another collector for it. In his living room a zebra hide functions as an area rug–Harck picked it up at an antiques auction because he liked the way it would “bounce” with some of his French art deco furniture, in particular a white fainting couch and two black leather chairs. On the walls hang a few of his most prized posters. “They’re really hard to get, these two,” he says, pointing out a set. In one a girl pirouettes as a clown appears to be glancing up her ruffled skirt. “Had the owners of the circus known what was really going on they never would’ve let this poster go out.”
Harck also collects Coney Island signage, Wild West posters and paraphernalia like Annie Oakley’s shooting gloves, and the Kewpie dolls that were awarded as prizes in carnival games from the 20s to the 40s. The dolls stand in a crowd five rows deep on what little counter space he has in his galley kitchen. “They actually go in a case, but the case is downstairs and I just haven’t transferred them to that,” he says. “As I’d get them I’d just set them there because I like looking at them.”
With the advent of Bros. Grim Harck started yet another collection, stuff he refers to as “death art”–50 to 60 headhunter artifacts, mummies, and the like. Some of his prized pieces stay loaded on trucks, ready to go on the road with Bros. Grim–in the tradition of the traveling museum Barnum drew crowds with in the late 1800s–though his full death art museum isn’t touring with Ozzfest because moving it daily is too difficult. In the foyer of his home he keeps a female skeleton in a dusty, glass-topped casket. It’s from the 1890s, he says, and he believes it’s a medical artifact because of the way the skull was sliced open. “I usually keep this covered because it kind of freaks people out,” he says, including his mailman, who he says won’t come into the foyer anymore. Across from the skeleton is a display case, and Harck rattles off its contents like a waiter listing the specials du jour: headpiece with antlers and a monkey skull and boar-tooth necklace; dog-tooth necklace; headdress of alligator claws; Tibetan kangling horn made from human bone; African Vodun opium pipe wrapped in lizard skin.
“Most sideshows, all that stuff, most of it’s fake,” Harck says. “On my show it’s all real stuff.” Unless it isn’t: he does have a few fakes at his house, such as a werewolf head with pointy ears and bared teeth that he says is made from a human skull with a furry bull scrotum stretched over the top. He says he picks up pieces like this one only if they’re examples of true artistry.
“I started collecting this headhunter stuff and got really intrigued by it,” he says. “It’s pretty over-the-top. And then as you’re searching around, you find these other great finds.” He says he procured a blessed mala bead necklace, allegedly made from 120 ground-down monks’ teeth. “I’ve been warned by people, ‘Don’t go showing that around, you’re not supposed to have that.’ If true Buddhists knew I had that in the collection there’d be 40 of them chanting on my front lawn,” he says. “And the thing is, I’m not making this shit up.”
It was at Circus World in the mid-80s that Harck first met Howard Tibbals, a Knoxville-based flooring scion, philanthropist, and lifelong circus nut. Tibbals, now 69, provided major funding for the recently opened Tibbals Learning Center at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. It houses his 3,800-square-foot circus replica and items from his collection, which Harck says is the largest private one in existence. Harck considers Tibbals a good friend, a mentor, and an unofficial business partner. They talk on the phone several times a week. “He’s like a godsend to me,” Harck says. “I was always good at collecting, and then I met him.”
“He’s a bird dog,” Tibbals says of Harck, “the best at pulling stuff out of cracks that ever was.” Sideshow artifacts are where their interests diverge, but Tibbals says that hasn’t dissuaded Harck from trying to sell them to him. Frequently when Harck discovers choice items he reports back to Tibbals, who decides what he wants and gives Harck money for the purchase–plus a finder’s fee, which Harck spends on his own selections. In 1998, when Harck stumbled onto “the greatest Barnum find ever,” Tibbals was the first person he called.
Harck was in Florida at the home of a descendant of John Ringling, on the trail of a very rare poster, when the man’s wife mentioned that a P.T. Barnum relative, Henry Carrier, lived nearby–would Harck like her to give him a call? “I was trying to push through this poster deal,” he says. “But to be nice to her I said ‘Yeah, sure.'” He visited Carrier the next day and says he was so overwhelmed by what he saw he had to sit down on the floor.
Henry Carrier’s grandmother (and P.T. Barnum’s great-grandaughter), Nancy Barnum Carrier, divided her Barnum inheritance among five grandchildren. Prior to Harck’s visit Carrier had thought about loaning his share to the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, or the Ringling Museum. At home, he figured, they were vulnerable to hurricane damage and the humid Florida climate. Carrier says he sent queries with photos to both museums but never received a response. When Harck showed up, Carrier says, he was impressed by his enthusiasm and agreed to sell him some of the heirlooms. Harck says at first Carrier was hesitant, but then he tracked down the rest of the Carrier grandchildren and they all agreed to sell. “Within two weeks I’d rounded up all of it,” he says.
Tibbals says he was most interested in Barnum’s monogrammed flatware and dishes and some silver serving bowls, among other items. Harck kept some of the silverware and dishes and also got some of Barnum’s business ledgers, furniture, oil paintings of Barnum (one of which hangs in his bedroom), and a tiny chair Barnum had built for Tom Thumb. He also secured a couple vases he says were given to Barnum by a Russian czar. Right after he bought them he took them to an appraiser in North Carolina. “I was like, these are really cool, what do you think they’re worth? He told me I needed an armed guard, so I don’t keep those in the house.”
Barnum fans have come to visit Harck just to see a book with a lock of the great showman’s hair pasted inside. “They start trembling when they touch it,” Harck says. He too speaks pretty reverently about the man. “In the entertainment business on a mass scale, all roads will take you back to the circus,” he says. “That’s where it came from, and he’s the guy that invented it.”
A good portion of the Barnum haul is now on display at the Tibbals Learning Center. Harck is happy with the thought that, eventually, everything he’s amassed will find a new home, whether with a younger collector or in a public institution. “I look at my collection as I’m the current caretaker of it. I was the squirrel that gathered the nuts, and I will enjoy it immensely while I’m here,” he says. “But I’m not gonna be here forever. Hopefully when I’m gone somebody will sit there and go, ‘Wow, who was this madman who was able to put this together?’ It’s not really my collection–it’s the world’s collection.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson, Marty Perez.