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Sideshow Gathers Its Legacy

Posted: 10/28/11 12:25 PM ET

Legacy isn't the first word that comes to most folks' minds when they think of swordswallowers, fire breathers and people who eat broken glass. It came to mind for tattoo entrepreneur Franco Kossa, though, when he created the Sideshow Gathering 10 years ago as an off-shoot of his already-successful Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convention, both running simultaneously at the Woodlands Inn & Resort in Wilkes-Barre, PA. And at this year's 10th anniversary festivities -- with all the aforesaid swordswallowers, fire breathers and people who eat broken glass -- Kossa won't be alive to see it.

Tragically, Franco Kossa passed away in the spring of this year, just 45, but well over a decade ago, he had an idea to create for sideshow talent a convention they could call their own. On the verge of making his final decision -- deep in the push & pull of what such an event would cost, how to spread the word, whether he should honor some old timer in the business -- he called me, that is, the "me" who publishes James Taylor's Shocked and Amazed! -- On & Off the Midway, the only journal devoted to "weirdness as entertainment." And Franco had called to ask a simple question: Should he? I told him the truth: You're nuts; don't do it. And true to the showman's blood that was already pumping in Franco's veins, he saw right through my father's advice to what I'd really told him: Sure, go ahead, tilt at a windmill; tilted at a few hundred in my time, and it don't get fun till they tilt back.

For the next decade, Kossa did just that, and made a stunning success of it, garnering international attention for the event from day one. Now, with his passing, a huge portion of the Gathering's survival to its 10th anniversary is the work of Franco's widow, Kim (who continues in Franco's role as event chair), sideshow duo the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow -- Tyler Fyre and wife Thrill Kill Jill (who continue in their roles as stage managers and bookers for the event), and all the talent who volunteer their performance time. Kim's history with Franco preceded the creation of the Gathering. As she put it, she may be continuing the Gathering "in his honor," but, "In my mind," she said, "I'm doing next year already." Kim Kossa, of course, understands Franco's creation as well as anyone: legacy, his own as well as that of the sideshow business. No lesser a showman than Buffalo Bill Cody invented showmen's clubs over a century ago to give show folk a reason to gather and network (though the term was unknown in its modern sense so long ago), and though the business' legacy might not have been uppermost in his mind, Cody's creation laid the path for just that. Franco's savvy, as showman Tyler Fyre put it, was to create "the showmen's club for the modern generation of sideshow performers." And for that, all the talent affected by it are in Franco's debt, directly and indirectly.

The audience for the Sideshow Gathering is in his debt as well: They'll pay a stunningly cheap $15 per person to see over 2 dozen acts over the course of the Nov. 4 - 6 weekend. As someone else put it to me, that low-down 3 day pass works out to $5 a day for hours & hours of live entertainment; as I'd put it, that's around 60 cents a show, and at that price, it's probably cheaper than television. And at the Gathering, you can hang out with the stars after the show. All of that's a pretty sweet deal for so huge a hunk of sideshow, novelty and variety entertainment legacy. After all, as the old sideshow pitchmen would've put it to the crowds so long ago, it's the show all your neighbors will be talking about, the show you'll be telling your grandkids about, the show you'll remember as long as you live.