The freak flag flies
Chico Museum reflects on the city’s stranger elements—including local circus sideshow performer Capt. Don
As soon as I heard that Donald Leslie—better known as Capt. Don—would be featured in the Chico Museum’s circus exhibit, I knew I had to check it out. Despite the fact that the life of a sideshow performer is inherently interesting, I had a personal connection to the exhibit. I spent the last eight months of Capt. Don’s life visiting his bedside, listening to his stories about life in the circus, of which he spoke lovingly, almost longingly.
It turns out my personal connection is exactly what museum curator Anne Seiler was hoping for from Chico: Circus Town. The exhibit, which came together after one local family donated a large collection of memorabilia, has grown in the few short months since it opened, mostly because people with connections to the circus have contacted Seiler.
“With this show, we hope the museum can reach out to segments of the community who might not otherwise visit the museum,” she said. Part of that is showing off different parts of Chico’s culture. “We want to offer something they have a stake in.”
One half of the current exhibit showcases the Grace and Arvel Allread Circus Collection, with old posters and photos alongside a stuffed bear and other memorabilia. The other half rotates, with the current “Side Shows, Freak Shows & Wonders of the Midway” showing through Feb. 15.
As is evident by the exhibit, the circus side show was a phenomenon all its own. From natural-born “freaks” to those who honed their craft, the spectacle that paved the way to the big top was no joke. And for those who lived the life of a sideshow performer, freaks were family.
Such is the story of Capt. Don, whose photographs, paintings and memorabilia are on display at the Chico Museum. Capt. Don swallowed swords, breathed fire and was covered from head to toe with tattoos (to name a few of his acts). He retired to Chico and died in June 2007.
For those who knew Capt. Don, the exhibit showcases his art, his life and offers insight into what it was like to be a part of the side show.
“What happened behind the scenes?” Seiler asked. “We want to let people peek behind the curtains.”
The story of how the “Side Shows, Freak Shows & Wonders of Midway” part of the Chico: Circus Town exhibit came together is a testament to the fact that not only is Chico a small town, but also it’s a small, small world.
Back in August 2008, Matt Brown, an English professor at Chico State, wrote a piece for the CN&R’s annual Goin’ Chico special section. In it, he compared the city to a circus, with a midway (the Esplanade), an amusement park (downtown) and even a side show (referencing Capt. Don).
After reading his story, Seiler contacted Brown and asked if he was interested in working on the third installment of the circus exhibit with her. Quickly, the other pieces fell in place.
“I didn’t know much about Capt. Don except that I used to see him outside David [Singletary]'s tattoo shop and Mr. Lucky’s,” said Brown. “At the beginning the local connection just seemed fun. I didn’t realize how connected to these traditions he was.”
When Singletary was shown some of the old photographs of sideshow acts Seiler had collected, he started putting pieces together—for example, sword swallower Alex Linton was Capt. Don’s mentor; tattooed lady Betty Broadbent was a longtime friend. Singletary, who had already collected quite a bit of Capt. Don’s memorabilia, offered to donate some of it to the museum’s exhibit.
Others, too, have come out of the woodwork with stories of their past in the circus. For example, the granddaughter of another tattooed man who had retired in Chico was scheduled to stop by with some old photographs. And a clown who had defected from the Moscow Circus also lives in the area.
For Seiler, this has been the epitome of how the museum can bring the community together.
“I mean, we got a professor and the owner of a tattoo shop getting together, getting excited and working on ideas,” she said.