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In a Politically Correct World, Midway Attractions Endure


TIMONIUM, Md. — "Tiny Tasha, the world's smallest woman, so small you can actually pick her up and carry her in your arms like you would a small child. . . . She's here, she's real, she's alive! Bring Mom! Bring Dad! Bring the children! This is a show for the entire family!"

Tiny Tasha has a prime piece of real estate at the Maryland State Fair, her booth next to the ever-popular Ferris wheel, only a stone's throw from the carousel. She is what P.T. Barnum used to call a "living curiosity"--one of those humans who joined with two-headed goats and ridiculously small horses to form the carnival "freak show," the parade of oddities that have drawn gawkers by the thousands for more than 100 years.

And today, Tiny Tasha, advertised to be all of 29 inches tall, sits in a three-sided white box, carefully autographing her name--in a child's block-like letters--on pre-printed postcards bearing her likeness. The cards say she is 55 and was born in Haiti. She refuses to divulge any more information.

"I don't want to talk, I don't want to talk," she says, shooing away a curious visitor (is there any other kind at freak shows?).

Tiny Tasha is one of a kind. If not in life, at least in this fair. In the old days, fairs and carnivals featured "oddities": the bearded lady, the dog-faced boy, the two-headed man, the monkey girl--an array of the limbless and misshapen, the midgets, the dwarfs, the Siamese twins. That didn't even include the sword swallowers and the fire-eaters and those who looked "normal" but performed wildly abnormal acts.

Tiny Tasha, sitting across from games of chance that promise winners stuffed animals (which appear even taller than Tasha), has been a staple at the Maryland State Fair, and other state fairs nationwide, over the last decade.

In these days of political correctness, of social awareness, of new medical treatments to minimize or eliminate genetic defects--as well as the general push to treat those with physiological abnormalities with dignity rather than pity or, heaven forbid, a freakish curiosity--circus and carnival oddities now tend to be animal or vegetable: the miniature horse, the portable giant redwood tree, enormous pigs, squash that appear to resemble world leaders.

Still, Tasha endures. Just like Michu, the 33-inch man, and Khan, his 8-foot cohort, who tour with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Tasha is a throwback--and a popular one.

"She's one of the more human elements, needless to say," says Steve Broetsky, concessions manager for Deggeller Attractions. Tiny Tasha is a subcontractor, signed out of another amusement company. "For whatever reasons, oddities like that--the kind you think of from 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago--are still an attraction on the midway," Broetsky says, shrugging. "It's a popular booth, so we keep bringing it back."

On a muggy afternoon, Tasha is doing relatively strong business despite the low overall turnout at the fair in this Washington, D.C., suburb. Groups of young women, teenage boys, couples, fathers with small children pony up 50 cents or $1 to peek at Tasha in her peach dress, her hair up, her legs folded, her size-2 feet tucked up, her 2-inch-wide hands in her lap. Her ancient-looking wheelchair is folded in a corner; a hand-painted sign pleads for donations to buy a new one. It seems rather sad . . . yet none of her visitors seems to feel the least bit mawkish.

"Is she alive? Did she smile at you?" a young father asks his children as they emerge. "Oh yes, Daddy!" the girl answers. "I talked to her!"

Carnival "freaks," so to speak, long have defended their right to make a living off their looks. (And there are those who would argue that it's no different from a supermodel making a killing off her freakishly perfect proportions.)

One of the most famous of human oddities, Jeanie "the Half Girl"--born with no legs and measuring 2 feet 6 inches--became part of a famous sideshow couple when she married Al "the Giant" Tomaini, 8 feet 4 inches tall. The Tomainis toured as "the World's Strangest Married Couple" in the 1930s before settling down in Gibsonton, Fla., just south of Tampa, and starting what would become almost a colony of former and retired carnival acts.

Jeanie Tomaini died last year, her husband long ago. Their way of life seems to be growing extinct in these days of Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera, when the freakish are those who proudly go on television to flaunt their sexual deviances or bizarre relationships or multiple piercings and tattoos. "That's Incredible!"--the 1980s television show famous for its viewings of the weird and freakish--has given way to "Survivor" and "Big Brother," as Americans find inside-the-box oddities who don't look much different from themselves.

Still, Tiny Tasha soldiers on. And still draws a crowd.

"We're basically here to give people what they want," Broetsky says, echoing the mantra of many a network executive. "I can't tell you the motivation. Never could."

Midafternoon, two grade-school girls were sitting on the edge of Tiny Tasha's box, like old chums, close enough to touch her miniature knees. "Do you sleep?" asked one.

"Yes," Tiny Tasha replied.

"Are you alive?" asked the other.

"Yes," Tiny Tasha replied, looking very bored.

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