By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Aug 10, 2013 at 1:01 PM

Walk to the fringe of the State Fair’s midway, past the Ferris wheel and the water gun games and the lemonade stand, and you'll find a large, colorful tent featuring a dozen painted signs reading "weird women" and "lizard man" and "circus oddities."

Standing on a platform in front of the tent are three females – called "barkers" or "outside talkers" – who look like burlesque dancers. One wears a live snake wrapped around her neck while another tries to lure a small group of people to go behind the flap.

A bit nervously, a few curious customers pay $5 in tickets and walk inside.

The 30-minute show run by World Of Wonders Sideshow isn’t what it used to be – and yet it is. Some of the acts are real, many are hokey.

In general, this modern side show is appropriate for people of all ages, including young children. This might be somewhat disappointing to those seeking more of a thrill or a disturbing display – even though the family-friendly show is undeniably entertaining.

And a few of the acts really are impressive. The knife thrower really throws sharp knives at a young striped-stocking-wearing assistant– although he throws them only to her side, no longer around the outline of her body. Another performer manages to balance on a board that’s atop a cylinder while juggling three clubs. And the flame eaters really do deep-throat the fiery batons, exposing their mouths and tongues to toxic, easily-absorbed fuel.

Undeniably, the crowd favorite is sideshow legend John "Red" Lawrence Stuart, the world's oldest performing sword swallower who claims that he does not use fake or roll-up swords. He also swallows – or "swallows" – a car axle.

Stuart also claims he really pounds a nail into his nostril during his "Human Blockhead" act. 

"It’s the quickest way to get iron in your system," he says.

But many of the acts are just plain cheesy. The headless woman, the spider woman and the dancing, four-legged lady are ridiculously executed and clearly aimed at wowing young children.

Luckily, the storytelling aspect of the classic sideshow remains alive and well because it adds a lot to the performance. Before unveiling the headless woman – obviously a trick with mirrors – a narrator tells the tale of her unfortunate accident, claiming she was a German fashion model who made the terrible mistake of driving drunk and got in an accident that sent her head reeling 50 feet.

He then produces a ball seemingly out of nowhere and throws it into the crowd to momentarily trick the audience into believing it’s her decapitated noggin.

According to Robert Bogdan, who wrote the book "Freak Show," the Wisconsin State Fair has a strong history with such shows. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Bogdan writes, "State Fair freak shows reached huge proportions, especially in large, jam-packed state fairs like those in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio."

The term "freak" comes from the phrase "freaks of nature" because, years ago, many of the people involved in the traveling carnival show or circus were physically different humans, including those of very large or small stature, people with extraordinary diseases or conditions (conjoined twins, obese individuals, women with beards, men who dressed as women and heavily tattooed folks) or people with shocking performance abilities like fire eating, knife throwing, whip cracking and sword swallowing.

Modern carnival shows, for the most part, focus only on performance abilities and not human bodies. However, there has been some contemporary equivalents to the classic freak show like the British documentary series, "Body Shock."

Also, the "999 Eyes Freak show" was founded in 2005 and claims to be "the last traveling freak show in the United States." Unlike older shows, it portrays the people in a more positive light with the tagline "what’s different is beautiful."

"The World of Wonders attraction is really an illusion show, not a freak show in the sense that we may remember from the old carnival days with deformed individuals and animals," says Adam Heffron, director of event services at the Wisconsin State Fair.

World Of Wonders, which appears at 15-20 fairs every year, does not have human attractions anymore because of changed modern attitudes towards differently abled and differently-appearing people. Also, all of the people who once traveled with the show as attractions have passed away.

"Public sensibilities have changed. We had a juggler without arms and legs. A fat man, a fat lady. They’re all gone," says C.M. Crist, one of the owners of The World Of Wonders and a 50-year veteran performer.

Crist says his circus family never used the word "freak" among themselves, but did use the term to the public. He says sideshow people were the most loyal people in the world if treated right they embraced the circus family as their only family.

"We lived together, worked together, ate together, slept together," he says. "It’s like you’re all married."

Today, World of Wonders travels with about a dozen employees, a fraction of the people once on tour in the past. Most are in their twenties, sport lots of tattoos / dyed hair and have a penchant for the circus lifestyle. Some are also hopeful college graduates who studied theater. The majority of them are in the job for a few years and do not make it a career like carnival performers once did.

"We don’t look for them, they usually find us," says Crist. "They used to come to us with skills, but today, we usually train those people with ‘I Want To’ attitudes. That’s all it takes. And time."

Crist says he trained two whip crackers, fire eaters and sword swallowers this past winter.

The life of a modern day carnival worker is as rigorous as it was back in the day. Often they perform from mid-morning until midnight and then have about three hours of tear-down before crashing in a trailer to sleep.

"It’s not for everybody," says Crist.

Crist, who is 65 and lives in Florida, started in the business when he was 15 and living in Buffalo, N.Y. After traveling for three months with a carnival circus, he quickly knew it was the life for him, so he returned to Buffalo, finished high school, got on a bus to Chicago and never looked back.

Over the course of five decades, Crist became a whip cracker, fire eater and sword swallower. He also performed the "bed of nails" act.

Years ago, he trained and performed with chimpanzees which is against animal rights’ laws today. It’s also cost prohibitive. Crist says he paid $500 each for his wild chimps, but now circus chimps must be born in captivity and cost $45,000.

"Some people think we didn’t take care of them on the road, but what they don’t understand is that these were our children," he says. "If they were sick, we took them to a doctor. We did not abuse them. If they were acting up, they might get a little whack on the tuchas, but they were trained by our voice, not our hands. They were really great companions."

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.