Did you know that the word ‘geek’ has its historic foundation in sideshow? Historically, a geek was a sideshow performer who ate bizarre or unexpected things. Waldo’s talent was unique, certainly unique enough to be called ‘Great’.
Waldo was not the typical geek as he didn’t really eat the items he swallowed. Instead he would swallow and regurgitate the items, including live animals. In the image above, Waldo is performing his signature regurgitation, swallowing a white mouse and then bringing it back up alive and unharmed after a few moments. In the middle image, Waldo is puffing on a cigarette and smiling at your disgust before regurgitating the mouse. What a showman! Waldo’s act was very real, he did swallow the rodent and his act was no illusion.
Waldo was born in 1920 in Germany and as a child he loved the circus and its sideshow. He would visit each time the circus was in town and he marveled at the human marvels he saw there. He yearned to join them but he was, unfortunately, born completely average. Not content to live his live as a regular man, he trained his stomach muscles to regurgitate items he swallowed. At first the objects were inanimate: pocket change, watches, rings and keys. In the late 1930’s he began to swallow and regurgitate living animals. He began with fish, moved on to frogs, then mice and eventually he was able to swallow rats.
In 1938, when Hitler invaded Austria, the Jewish Waldo fled to Switzerland. While performing in a nightclub there he was discovered by an American sideshow talent agent and quickly brought to the United States.
Waldo always dressed as a distinguished gentleman. This appearance was in direct contrast to the look of geeks previous. The majority of those geeks were usually dressed as savages and their acts consisted of tearing live animals apart with their teeth. Waldo was elegant and gentle. When swallowing fish and frogs he would first swallow copious amounts of water so the animals would have water to swim in.
His muscular control was so absolute that Waldo was able to swallow several different colored balls and regurgitate them in whichever sequence the audience demanded. He was able to swallow a locked padlock, then the key, and unlock the padlock. When a member of the audience doubted the authenticity of his act he would invite them onstage, swallow their watch and invite them to listen to the ticking emanating from his belly.
During his career The Great Waldo worked many shows including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as well as Hubert’s museum in New York. The legendary Anatomical Wonder, Melvin Burkhart, once called Waldo’s act the ‘most amazing’ act he had ever seen.
Unfortunately his unusual talent made finding romance a nearly impossible task. Waldo committed suicide, by gassing himself, in his home after a particular infatuation went sour and unfulfilled.
Little actual film of Waldo exists today and all is currently under copyrite. There have been few acts like Waldo’s. His modern equivalent is Stevie ‘The Regurgitator’ Starr. Starr recently did away with his trademark sequenced costuming and adopted attire more in tune to that worn by The Great Waldo, perhaps as a tribute to Waldo. Mr. Starr’s act consists mostly of inanimate objects; however his finale has always included a live goldfish.
Image: stills from Waldo’s only taped performance reproduced for the TLC documentary Side Show.