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Bump & Grind Beneath the Big Top Burlesque in Circuses, Carnivals, and Fairs

From its late 19th century beginnings in the United States, burlesque thrived both in the theaters and nightclubs of major urban centers and as a midway attraction at circuses, carnivals, and fairs. What circuses may have lacked in glamour and big-city sophistication, they made up for with crowds, big ones.

And big crowds meant big money. Top names like Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee could make as much as $10,000 a week working a circus, but even the B- and C-listers could make thousands in a season on the road – and during circus season, there was plenty of work to be had.

The list of performers who found a home on the road, working circuses, fairs, and carnivals, reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century burlesque: Ricki Covette, Blaze Fury, Bonnie Boyia, Betty Howard, Val Valentine, Rita Cortes, Tirza, Mitzi Sinclair, Jennie Lee, Tubby Boots, Hedy Jo Star, Divena, Evelyn West, Faith Bacon, Rosita Royce, Margo, Georgia Sothern, Carrie Finnell, Zorita, and many more.

We’ve highlighted just a few performers here, along with a few themes to help you get a sense of what life was like in a travelling girl show. We hope you like it a lot, but if you don’t, the gentleman in the front office will be happy to give you your money back!

The Bally

The bally was the free show offered outside the show, on the façade. The star of the show was the talker, usually a man, who kept up a steady stream of ballyhoo, talking up the wonders to be seen inside. While he talked, the dancers in the show would come out and take up a place on the narrow stage, giving enough wiggle and show to the passersby that they’d stop long enough for the talker to work his magic.

(Incidentally, talkers didn’t like being called “barkers” – they don’t bark, they talk, nice and smooth thank you very much.)

The bally existed with one purpose: to get men inside, and thus appropriately parted from their money.

"The Follies", girl show front in the midway at J. Geo. Loos Shows carnival at the Ft Worth, TX, Fat Stock Show, 1922. Photographer Basil Clemons (Top). Girl show bally, Brownsville, TX, 1942. Photographer Arthur Rothstein (Bottom Left). Girl show bally at World of Mirth show, 1940s. (Bottom Right)
"Paris After Midnight" bally, probably 1930s. (Top Left) Bally for "Peep Show" featuring Diane Ross. Diane Ross performed with a capuchin monkey named "Squeaky" who would help her disrobe. 1950s (Top Right). Striporama girl show bally at Canadian National Exhibition in 1956. Jennie Lee (named as "Jennie Nicely" on the sign in the middle) is the featured performer (Bottom).
Ward Hall, who passed away in 2018, joined the circus at age 15 in the 1940s and ran his own sideshow by the early 1950s. He was a talker and sideshow operator until well into the 21st century, running the “World of Wonders” circus attraction. If you’ve participated in the BHoF holiday card drive, chances are, you’ve sent him a card!

Blaze Fury

"The Human Heatwave" dropped out of high school in Detroit to become a chorus girl. Like her parents, who were both burlesque and vaudeville performers, entertainment was in her blood and Blaze soon stepped out as a feature, becoming well-known in the 1940s for her blazing hot performances (and inspiring a gaggle of imitators). She signed with Royal American and was proud to be their highest-paid burlesque star, after Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee. Blaze didn't retire from the stage until the late 1970s, and went on to be a theater costumer and wardrobe manager. She died in 1997.

Rita Cortes

One of 13 children, Rita Cortes, joined the carnival as a popcorn seller in her teen years, and later became a ride operator before being asked to join the girl show. With no dance training or experience, Rita wowed crowds well enough to get hired for Minsky shows during the carnival off-season, and operated girl shows for Strates Shows, Ringling Bros., Royal American, and other circuses and carnivals with her husband Bob Hassan.

Zorita

An early bloomer, Zorita started in show business at age 15, working stag parties and the nudist colony at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego in 1935. It was there that she was introduced to what would become her signature: dancing with snakes. Her "exotic" snake acts brought her fame as a burlesque dancer throughout the 1940s and made her quite a catch for the World of Mirth midway show. Maybe too much of a catch: in 1951, Zorita left the circus, having asked for more money and been turned down. She was instantly replaced with a newcomer with the stage name "Dorita".

Zorita retired as a performer in 1954, and ran a burlesque club in Miami Beach the next 20 years. After selling the club in 1964, she spent her time breeding and selling Persian cats. She passed away in 2001.

From Greater Show World, April 1951

Bonnie Boyia

Bonnie Boyia got her start in the burlesque world as a chorus girl in Chicago. As a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-cursing part of the cast, she was bullied by the other chorus girls for several weeks until she had enough and quit. She joined travelling shows as a "talking girl", a female foil for the comics in their skits, and worked her up to headlining. Becoming a big star in the 1940s, she worked all over the country before joining Cavalcade of Amusements and later Strates Shows, leading her show to its top-grossing year for the latter organization.

Carrie Finnell

Carrie Finnell joined the Ziegfeld Follies as a chorus girl in 1917, but rose rapidly to become a top-billed performer by the 1920s. She was often billed as "The Girl with the $100,000 Legs" but it was her "educated bosom" people came to see. Promoting herslef as a "mammary manipulator", Finnell used tremendous muscle control to move, point, and twirl each breast independently of the other. To show off her skills, she invented the pastie tassel, all the better to twirl with.

Finnell gained weight throughout her life, reaching near 300 lbs. at her peak. But audiences adored her - especially when she pulled off the longest strip tease imaginable, removing one more article of clothing a week for 54 weeks in an Ohio theater in the mid-1920s. Finnell continued to wow crowds with her impressive and usually hilarious breast tricks for decades, performing up until her death in 1963. in 1948, she led a girl show, Harem Nights, on the midway of Cavalcade of Amusements, introducing a new audience to her educated bosom.

Mitzi Sinclair

Mitzi Sinclair was born into show business. The daughter of vaudevilleans, she began performing on stage at age 3, dancing and singing. When Sally Rand became a hit in the 1930s with her fan dance, Mitzi's mother helped her put a costume together and she worked local fan dances until the fad ended. Mitzi becamse popular in burlesque for her theatrical acts, including a half-and-half Daisy Mae and Li'l Abner act. Carnivals were a regular part of her career and she performed for numerous companies, including Royal American, Raynell, and Strates, sometimes headlining a show and sometimes running her own with her husband of 20 years, Roland Porter, a bally talker.

As burlesque started to fade, Mitzi moved on to other jobs but couldn't resist the call of the stage, and performed off and on well into her 70s.

The Black Revue

Because circuses and carnivals operated in a segregated United States, girl shows were not racially integrated until the mid-1960s – at the same time that girl shows were disappearing from circuses. Some light-skinned performers simply "passed" – circuses were good places to leave markers of your past behind, including your ethnicity. The occasional performer may have played up her ethnicity as an “exotic” figure, like the “Nee Wong” advertised in the signage on the show pictured here, to find a place in the otherwise all-white girl shows.

Girl show bally during the 1940 season of Cetlin & Wilson Shows. Nee Wong and Snooky De Witt are featured performers.

Before WWII, many circuses featured minstrel acts, which of course substituted blackface for black-skinned performers. After the war, ads in Billboard regularly sought performers for “colored girl shows” alongside the other entertainments wanted; these shows featured largely light-skinned performers and were usually presented as an “exotic” show alongside the more traditional white girl show. In many parts of the country, where Black attendees were not welcome except on specially-designated "Black days", the regularly all-white shows hired Black performers from local agencies to fill in.

Irvin Miller, a minstrel show producer before the war, moved into producing “colored” shows in the late 1940s, such as this show featuring Rita Cortes, “The Brazilian Flame”, which included black performers. He also produced the "Brown Skin Models" show pictured above.

The black community did have its own circuit of “colored fairs”, often offered across town or the following weekend from the whites’ carnival or fair. These events were created as a showcase of black accomplishment, and in keeping with that they did not include girl shows.

Sally Rand

After her “coming out” at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Sally Rand was a natural for the fair circus. Soon, she put together her “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch”, setting up shows at the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial Exposition in 1936 and the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935 and ’36.

In 1939, the Nude Ranch was a big hit at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island, where they held a prominent space on the fair’s Gayway. Rand and her 47 ranchers cavorted in semi-undress from 1pm to 2am daily during the fair, riding horses and burros, showing off lariat tricks, playing badminton and basketball, and lounging about for the fairgoers’ viewing pleasure.

Sally Rand Unfair to Nudism

Nudists protest Sally Rand's appearance at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego. The story was carried nationwide. The Sunday Star (Washington, D.C., April 12, 1936, Part 1, p 2) described the scene:

Nudist pickets wearing sandwich boards strolled the exposition grounds Saturday as war flared between Sally Ran, fan dancer, and the nudist colony... Led by militant Mary Pomeroy, raven-haired beauty, the embattled nudists avowed the will give Sally 'a battle she will never forget'.

It is entirely possible the protest was orchestrated by Sally Rand to promote her appearance at the Expo.

In 1947, Rand did a few appearances for the Hennies Bros. circus that drew huge crowds, including a single-day take of $55,000 at the Iowa State Fair. Her success prompted Royal American Shows, then the largest circus in the country, to sign her on for the 1948 season. Appearing alongside her “Star Studded Revue”, Rand was a smash hit and the group was booked for tours off and on throughout the 1950s.

The Grift

“Hey guys! While you’re waiting for the show, let me introduce you to a lady I know you’re gonna like!”

The quarter or half dollar a man paid to see a girl show at the circus was only a small part of the profits the show expected to earn off him. Circuses were set up to separate a man first from his wife and kids and then from his money.

Puppet shows, housekeeping demonstrations, and fashion shows worked to draw off the ladies and their kids, leaving a man free to pursue rather earthier entertainments. As he walked the midway, the bally shows called for his attention, enticing him with all manner of forbidden delights in the show beyond. And once he paid his way in, he was caught, a fish on the hook.

The grift took two forms. First, there was the show itself, cleverly crafted to keep a man paying without the show ever paying off. The show he paid for, it turns out, was pretty tame – just a preview, they said, with a lot more promised if he’d pay a little more and stick around for the “real” show to come. Indeed, the next show might offer some striptease, maybe even some partial nudity – but he could see it all if he’d kindly pay up and stick around for the “special” show afterwards!

More times than not, there was no special show. He and the rest of the suckers would wait around long enough for the cast to escape to their train cars, only finding out he’d been taken when the tent came down around his head and he found himself in a near-empty lot with just the other suckers for company.

While he waited, though, he was a target for the other grift, as con artists picked off marks for games like three-card monte and the shell game. In three-card monte, the mark is shown the queen of hearts, it’s roughly shuffled on the table with two other cards, and he just has to pick it out again. It’s easy, and the dealer may let him win a few times, driving the bet upwards with each win. Finally, with real money in play, the mark picks the card that is obviously the red queen… and loses, the dealer using sleight-of-hand to replace it.

For the privilege of working the crowd, the grafter pays the show a 10% or 15% cut. For the privilege of being worked, the player gets nothing, except maybe a little wiser.

Gypsy Rose Lee

Born into a vaudeville family, Gypsy Rose Lee was no stranger to life on the move when she joined Royal American Shows, the largest circus group in the country at the time, in 1949. Her 6-month contract committed her to 8 to 15 acts a day, quite a grind for a performer used to grand theaters by then. However, the $10,000 a week she was paid (about $110,000 a week in 2020 dollars) seemed to have done a lot to squelch any concerns she might have had about the workload!

Gypsy Rose Lee works the bally of her show on the Royal American midway in Memphis, TN. Of her $10,000 a week salary, she told LIFE magazine, "I’m probably the highest paid outdoor entertainer since Cleopatra. And I don’t have to stand for some of the stuff she had to.”

Lee was watched closely along the route by local censors to make sure her show didn’t go “too far”, considering the family environment of the circus. The fact that she toured with her own son, Erik Preminger, then 4 years old, may have helped allay some of the censors’ fears. But Lee did not rely all that much on showing skin, even in her theater days, which made her less of a threat than, say, Sally Rand had been in the same spot the year before.

Already a huge star when she toured with Royal American in 1949, Gypsy would go on to even greater heights of fame. Her memoir, Gypsy, was published in 1957 and adapted into a smash Broadway hit and then movie starring Natalie Wood. Long before her death in 1970, Gypsy Rose Lee had become a household name.

Gender on the Midway

"Streets of Cairo" show front at the Siebrand Bros Circus & Carnival in the mid-1950s. Third from the left is female impersonator Barbara Ann.

Circuses and carnivals were good places for people whose genders did not quite line up with social norms to find a home. Gender nonconformists could be found throughout the circus, from the flying trapeze to the sideshow, as ride operators and animal handlers, and of course, as strippers.

Girl shows included female impersonators who lived as men, male-bodied persons who lived as women, and trans women. These performers performed as women, not as drag performers – the mark never knew. Because girl shows already left such a faint trace in history, and gender nonconformity was a marginal factor within an already marginal world, it’s impossible for us to be terribly specific about how any given person identified. What we do know is that many people who were born male worked in circus girl shows.

Hedy Jo Star

An early recipient of sex reassignment surgery, Hedy Jo Star performed in and ran several girl shows over the years. Star’s "Hollywood State Revue" toured throughout the 1960s. Star worked hard to create a space for other nonconforming performers, and her show featured mostly female impersonators throughout its run. Star went on to become a costumer for Circus Vargas before opening her own boutiques and producing costumes for a generation of burlesque performers.

Barbara Le May

Barbara LeMay started performing in girl shows at 16 – even as a boy, she was deemed “too pretty to sell hot dogs” – and worked as a hootch dancer throughout the 1950s, performing as “Glamazon!” Lemay continued to work as a burlesque dancer well into her 60s.

Hotcha Hinton

Hotcha Hinton was born into a circus family and by age 18 was already working as a chorus girl at the Chicago World’s Fair (Gypsy Rose Lee was the headliner). She worked as a touring burlesque performer into the late 1940s, and then became a fixture in the Seattle gay community as a feature at the Garden of Allah club, where she performed and made costumes until it closed in 1956.

Vicki Marlane

Vicki Marlane started working as a kootch dancer (and some times alligator girl) at age 17, and was one of Hedy Jo Star’s performers until leaving the circus in the mid 1950s. She drifted a bit before settling in San Francisco, eventually becoming a leading figure in the San Francisco drag scene.

Evelyn West

In the 1940s, Evelyn West got her start in the girl show at the Illinois State Fair. After WWII, she relocated to California where she became a feature performer and starred in A Night at the Follies. West toured the country through the 1950s on the theater and nightclub circuits. In the 1960s, West settled in St. Louis and became a resident feature at the historic Stardust Theater.

Master of publicity, West insured her breasts with Lloyd’s of London in 1947 and adopted the tagline “The $50,000 Treasure Chest”. Known to cultivate shocking headlines, West promoted herself as a nudist, regularly commented on or wrote about the benefits of a sexual appetite, and was known to throw insults and lawsuits at fellow bombshells including Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, and Marilyn Monroe.

In 1951, West signed on with the Amusement Company of America and made headlines shocking rural audiences as an attraction of Midwestern state fairs.

Backlot Jargon

Like any profession, carnival and circus workers developed their own jargon over time. Jargon simplifies communication between people who can be assumed to share your professional knowledge, creates a sense of shared identity with your fellows, and allows people to talk about outsiders in a way the outsiders cannot understand. This list is compiled from several sources (listed in the "Credits" section at the end of the exhibition) and covers usage from the midcentury up through the present.

Back end: The end of the big tent opposite its front entrance. Rides and shwas were part of the “back end”; concessions – no matter where they were located – part of the “front end”.

Banner: A side show, so named for the canvas banners up front advertising the show.

Blankaroo: A show that made no money.

Blowoff: The crowd leaving the big top after the show. Also rides, shows, and other attractions meant to grab an audience’s attention (and money) as they file out after the main show.

Cutting Up Jackpots: Telling of stories, often exaggerated, from a showman’s life.

Doniker: A restroom or toilet.

Dressing: Props, scenery, and anything else used to fill up a stage to give the impression of a lavish production.

Frame a show: To put together a new show, including everything from conceptualizing the show to casting, making props, and building the front.

Front: The façade of the show where the show is advertised and the ballyhoo held.

Gaff: A fake item or situation where the outcome is carefully controlled.

Grift: Any of a range of cons and thievery, from running fixed games to picking pockets.

Grind: The conclusion of the talker’s spiel meant too move the onlookers off the midway and into the show.

Grind show: A show without a bally – front men and ticket sellers “grind” away constantly.

Grip: A wad of money.

Half and half: Side show performer who was half man, half woman, divided down the center. Makeup and prosthetics were used to achieve the effect, and a handful got an implant on one side to heighten the effect.

Heat: Friction between the circus or carnival and the townspeople hosting them. Could be the result of activity by the circus or carnival, but often remained from earlier shows passing through that left problems behind them when they moved on

Jackpots: Stories of a showman’s earlier escapades, usually exaggerated.

Jointee: The people who operate the food stands and games. Used in opposition to the “showmen” who run the shows.

Kickback: Money paid out to a show runner or the owner of a circus or carnival for the right to do business within. Grifters often paid a percentage to the girl shows whose audiences they worked, for example.

Mark: An audience member, particularly one to be taken advantage of.

Mitt camp: A fortune telling booth.

Nut: The operating expenses a show has to cover before it starts making a profit. According to legend, a creditor came to a circus and took all the nuts holding the wheels to the wagons, to be returned when the money due him was paid.

Opening: The talker’s spiel on the show’s font.

Posing show: A show in which women pose as if for an artist or in imitation of famous artworks.

Professor: Title conferred upon a showman considered to be an expert in his or her field.

Prop: Anything owned and used by a show, from the tubs used to feed the animals to the costumes and stage scenery. The exception is, anything installed aerially is “rigging”.

Rangy: (pronounced “rang – ee”, rhymes with "tangy") Worked up. A show could be rangy (like a kootch show), or an audience could be rangy (like a drunken mob).

Roustabouts: The working men on the lot, particularly the big top workers.

Rube: A townsperson, particularly a naïve one who would make an excellent mark.

Shill: A fake player meant to lure in marks by winning excessively as if it were easy. The shill is in cahoots with the grifter, of course. Also called a “stick” or “shillaber”.

Square: To settle a dispute without violence or involving the law.

Talker: A performer who talks (never “barks) in front of the show to attract an audience. A person who talks inside the show is called a “lecturer”.

Teaser: A curtain hung so it shows the bottom 1-2 feet of an audiences legs and feet, enticing passersby to wonder what is going on inside that so many people are watching?

Tip: The crowd of people attracted by the talker to watch the bally. The talker’s job is to “turn” the tip, to get them to buy tickets to see the show inside.

Betty Howard

Betty “Blue Eyes” Howard, a.k.a. “The Girl Who Has Everything,” worked as a feature in the 1950s primarily in the eastern half of the United States. In addition to headlining nightclubs and theaters- including the Minsky show in Newark- Howard joined several carnival tours. Once dubbed the “Cadillac of Strippers” by photographer Roy Kemp, Howard traveled with her four dogs in a 32-foot trailer, pulled behind a Cadillac convertible.

These images were captured by Kemp at the New York State Fair, Syracuse in 1957. At the time, Howard was on tour with the James E. Strates Carnival headlining her own revue, backed by her Rythmette dancers.

The Carny Bible

Billboard magazine (and its spinoff Amusement Business) was the lifeblood of the carnival and circus circuit. Ads for ride operators, girl show performers, talkers, show runners, even grifters ran in the magazine, along with tour schedules for all the major and not-so-major companies. Because performers spent so much time on the road, Billboard offered a mail forwarding service and carnival and circus crews often listed the magazine as their mailing address.

The magazine was founded as Billboard Advertising by William Donaldson and James Hennegan in 1894, covering the world of outdoor advertising. In 1900, the magazine opened offices in several cities around the world and expanded coverage to include entertainment including circuses, carnivals, fairs, minstrelsy, vaudeville, and burlesque.

Cover of December 1896 issue of Billboard magazine

As a publication for "industry insiders", Billboard was notable for its conversational editorial style, with columns devoted to industry gossip, articles praising quality productions and condemning censorship, and fact-checking "yellow journalism".

Billboard was particularly notable for its forward-thinking stance on minorities, especially Black performers. Early on, they adopted the practice of not referring to performers' race unless relevant to the story. In 1920, Billboard gave Black journalist James A. Jackson a page to cover Black entertainment, making him the first Black critic to write for a national white audience. Jackson's background in entertainment — his father was a singer and he himself had worked in vaudeville and minstrel shows — and extensive contacts made him a great champion for Black entertainment, particularly the rise of the Harlem Renaissance.

By the 1940s, Billboard had added the music charts it is now best-known for and its focus turned increasingly to popular music. In 1961, they spun off the outdoor entertainments coverage to a new title, Amusement Business, which took its place as the primary source for traveling showman looking for work opportunities and industry news. Amusement Business remained in publication until 2006, when it closed for good.

Jennie Lee

Exotic Dancers League and Burlesque Hall of Fame founder, Jennie Lee, "The Bazoom Girl", also headlined a girlie show and graced a bally in her day. It was said of Lee that while her name was not as recognizable as Lili St. Cyr, for every individual that recognized Cyr’s name, there were two that recognized Lee’s figure.

An impressive figure was a necessity of the bally. As talkers attracted carnival goers to the tent, the show’s dancers would line up under the banner. Enlarged images of the headliner would often adorn the show façade as well. Generally measuring around 7 feet high, these images were printed in black and white to save on cost. Elements of the image were then recolored with paint and glitter – hair color, high-heels, and sparkles on the naughty bits were a must.

Club facade in Calumet City, IL, where Jennie headlined in 1955 (photo by Jennie Lee)
Jennie in her dressing room
The "Striporama" bally at the 1956 Canadian National exhibition

In the mid-1950s, Jennie toured state fairs and carnivals with the “French Vani-Tease show. Her midway fame reached its height when she was cast to appear in the Canadian National Exhibition’s “Striporama” girl show in 1956. Though the show had been an Exhibition mainstay since the 1930s, the tassel-twirling “Miss 44 and Plenty More” blew the fuses of local authorities, prompting Toronto’s mayor to send the vice squad to raid the show. The officers suffered through an entire show, the poor dears, before concluding that they saw nothing of an illegal nature. The press, though, quickly rushed to capitalize on the scandal, and the show drew overflow crowds for the rest of its run.

Images of Lee, who was also known as “Miss 44 and Plenty More,” attracted plenty of attention with her inviting smile and big…. eyes.

Jennie went on to sit on the executive Council of the American Guild of Variety Artists. She owned clubs in the Los Angeles Area, first the Blue Viking and then the Sassy Lassy, where Jennie displayed her growing collection of burlesque memorabilia. In the 1980s, her and her husband, Her and her husband, “Singing Cowboy” Charles Arroyo, moved the collection to a goat ranch in Helendale, CA, and started the Exotic World museum, the predecessor to today’s Burlesque Hall of Fame.

The Blowoff

Like burlesque in general, the classic girl show began to decline in the 1960s and ‘70s, done in by evolving tastes, the rise of feminism, and changing audiences. By the 1970s, pornographic films had gone mainstream, offering a whole lot more to the voyeur than the rangiest girl shows, and women in bikinis could be seen at the beach and on prime time TV, making the similarly clad performers of the girl show look rather quaint in comparison.

While the girl show is no more, the legacy of circuses and carnivals continues to influence modern burlesque performance. Acrobatic performers strip while hanging from spinning wheels or fabric streamers, suspended a dozen feet over the stage. Contortionists bend their bodies in impossible ways while teasing their audiences. Disability activist Mat Fraser has even used the concept of the freakshow to carve out space for disabled bodies to be seen and celebrated.

The last girl show may be over, but as always, there’s plenty more to see if you’ll just step this way…

Credits

Exhibition written and curated by Darby Fox and Dustin M. Wax

The Burlesque Hall of Fame is the world's only museum dedicated to preserving, sharing, celebrating and inspiring the art of burlesque. Learn more about the museum and how to support us at burlesquehall.com

For further reading:

The world of the girl show, like much of burlesque's history, is poorly documented. THe readings below are some of the best resources available to learn more about carnivals, circuses, and girl shows.

Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind by A.W. Stencell

Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas

BallyCast: The Podcast of the Carnival, Sideshow, and Variety Arts by Wayne Keiser

Shocked and Amazed! by James Taylor

Doc’s Midway Cookhouse by David “Doc” Rivera

The International Independent Showmen’s Museum

A Gender Variance Who’s Who