Sideshow chapter closes
Seattle Times staff columnist
The last stop of Gary Syers' Mystery Wonder Show was not a midway, but a back room of the Pacific Galleries in Seattle, where the two-headed calf, Goliath's skull and Peruvian Wolf Boy sat before a clearly dubious crowd.
But there were others who came to the Sodo auction house with an obvious sense of awe. Syers' decision to unload his bounty of gaffs and rogue taxidermy and retire to Arizona meant a rare opportunity for sideshow aficionados to add to their collections. More than that, though, the auction closed another chapter in the book of sideshow, a form of entertainment that depends on the gullibility of people. And there just doesn't seem to be a lot of that anymore.
"The two-headed bobcat is clearly stitched on," said Pacific Galleries employee Jonathan Roby as he walked me past Syers' collection, many items still in their road-scarred cases. "That miniature shark in embalming fluid is a rubber shark ... "
Wait a second: A unicorn skull?
"That's what I mean," Roby said with a smirk. "We've all had a discussion about the unicorn skull. Everyone knows that a unicorn's skull is spiral."
At the auction a few days later, the skull sold for $300. The Peruvian Wolf Boy for $225. And the two-headed calf? Three thousand dollars, after a bidding rally worthy of Wimbledon.
Craig Orkney, who manages Pacific Galleries' weekly auction, spent $60 on something that looks like a cut-off finger in a glass box.
"I wanted to have something," Orkney said. "Because it really is the end of an era, a time when people were less cynical, and when they could look at a two-headed bobcat and believe it was real."
It wasn't the fooling but the physical work that forced Syers, 57, to sell everything.
The West Seattle native decided in early February that, after a decade of loading and unloading his assorted oddities on road shows from Moses Lake to Florida, he had had enough. The last straw was when he fell asleep at the wheel of his 45-foot trailer and nearly died in a ditch.
"There's no need for anyone to put up with the dirt, filth and malarkey just to make a few bucks a week," he told me from Tucson. "I nearly killed myself."
Syers entered the sideshow business in 1996 after years of working as a musician and a cook on a tugboat. His first exhibit was something called "The Strange Thing."
"It's what's known in the business as a 'question-mark show,' " Syers explained. "People have to solve their curiosity, so they will pay a small amount of money to do that."
So, what was The Strange Thing?
"It was a small creature in a box that was so odd and weird and no one could identify what it was," Syers said. "I'd say, 'Folks, I own it and I don't even know what it is! I had a guy from the state game commission out here and he didn't have a clue!'
"The entire pitch," Syers said, "would exceed your allotted column inches."
(Said Chris Foss at Pacific Galleries: "I think we sold 'The Strange Thing.' It was this sort of shrunken ... mermaid ... gremlin ... item.")
Over time, Syers' collection grew to include wonders like one of Bigfoot's footprints, whale vertebrae, shrunken heads, a mastodon tooth and a human skull in a Plexiglas case. He would drive his trailer to fairs and flea markets, set up his 80-foot tent and stand on a bally platform, his head crowned with a pith helmet, holding a microphone in one hand and making change with the other.
But the business of sideshow is a dying art, he said. Technology has made sideshow seem silly, and medical science has all but eliminated the "human oddities" that used to draw a crowd.
The pituitary gland malfunction that creates giants can be treated, Syers said. Fat men? Fat women? "You can go to any buffet restaurant and find them."
At first, Pacific Galleries wasn't sure what to do with Syers' so-called "basement creepatorium."
Pacific posted the auction on a Web site called www.sideshowworld.com and contacted the director of acquisitions at Ripley's Believe It or Not, who helped spread the word on the auction.
The calls started coming in and on a recent Tuesday, so did one of the most interesting crowds Foss and his associates had seen.
"Very different," Foss recalled. "To go from a tattoo-parlor owner to a little old lady, all of them equally intrigued ... "
Jay Walters of Eastside Appraisal in Bellevue stood in the back of the auction room. "There are some odd things," Walters said. "But it was fun, because I could see kids paying a quarter to go see it. And they would probably remember it for the rest of their lives, and use it to tell tall tales."
Nothing tall about the human skull, though, which went for $475 after some spirited bidding.
"Now we know what these are worth," Foss said.
In the end, the sale of the Mystery Wonder Show would net Syers over $10,000. But was there anything he couldn't part with?
"My costumes, my sword-swallowing equipment and the bullwhips I used in my whip-cracking act," he said.
The folks in Tucson might still pay to see that.
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.
Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company