Sideshow performers a family on and off the stageBy Timothy Walker
When it comes to raising kids one rule holds true for parents—siblings, quite simply, don’t always get along. They’ll fight over the last taco shell. They’ll bicker in the back seat. They’ll argue over the video game controller.
When it comes to throwing knives at each other, however, well, that’s something most parents never have to worry about, thankfully. That is, unless you’re Thomas Nealeigh and Alice Bartlett, the parents of Dayton’s very own FreakShow Family.
They deal with dangerous situations most parents would only face in their most unpleasant dreams. But, whether it’s eating fire, resting on a bed of nails, knife-throwing or finishing a pesky homework assignment it’s all the same to them.
Their son Grennan Bartlett-Nealeigh, 14, is a student at St. Albert the Great Catholic School in Oakwood. He and his sister, Charlotte Bartlett-Nealeigh, 11, also a student at the school, hold the record as the world’s youngest professional sideshow performers and one of the acts that they’re best known for is Grennan’s knife-throwing performance, in which he throws razor-sharp knives at his little sister as she stands against a wooden target.
The act has been performed all over the world, earning the family spots on NBC’s America’s Got Talent and Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots, as well as the Australian version of Little Big Shots and the German television show Superkids.
“Grennan has show business in his blood,” says his father, known professionally as “The Reverend Tommy Gunn.” “He was born in East L.A. and he took his first steps at the Empire Amusement Hall in Hollywood, the venue we owned and operated there. He would be in his little pumpkin seat in the booth, propped up there next to Alice, his mom, who was running the sound and lights.”
Nealeigh, who hails from Greenville, is the founder and owner of FreakShow Deluxe and is also a writer and an ordained minister. He has published a variety of plays, articles and books, has a master’s degree in theater, has appeared on MTV, the Discovery Channel and Univision, among many other shows, and has performed on stages and in clubs from Canada to Mexico and from Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore in Brooklyn to the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood.
“The FreakShow Deluxe had its very inauspicious beginnings 20 years ago in Xenia, actually,” Nealeigh says. “As a matter of fact, we’ll be celebrating 20 years of mayhem in October of 2020. I was involved in Blue Jacket back then, both as an actor and in the marketing department.” Those earliest days of the FreakShow Deluxe featured Nealeigh and a friend performing a handful of stunts and the shows involved the two busking and entertaining crowds who were waiting to get into the PsychoPath Haunted Trail at the Caesar’s Ford Amphitheater Park, just outside Xenia.
“We didn’t even have a name for it, then,” laughs Nealeigh. “It was just me and Wolf trying to keep all of those people entertained while they waited in lines, which sometimes held them for two hours. Then it began to grow and people started coming in just to see us perform.”
A bit later on, Nealeigh left the Blue Jacket organization and moved to Los Angeles with Alice Bartlett. There he worked for a lawyer during the day while the two started a family, opened the Empire Amusement Hall and worked hard at night to build their unusual sideshow business into a professional touring company.
Alice Bartlett, aka “Miss mAlice Aforethought,” is the beautiful matriarch of the FreakShow Family and brings her own unique flair for the bizarre to the family’s act. A 1994 graduate of Xenia High School, Bartlett earned her degree from Central State University in 2013, where she was valedictorian of her class and also won the title of “Miss CSU Dayton West.”
Onstage during the family’s performances she can be found lying on beds of nails, climbing ladders of machetes while barefoot and eating fire while cracking jokes with the audience and keeping the rest of her family focused and the show always moving forward.
The youngest member of the troupe, Charlotte Bartlett-Nealeigh, is known onstage as “La Pequena Aranita” (in English, the “Little Spider”), and has been performing on stage since the tender age of 3. Her specialties—when she’s not the target of knives being thrown at her—are contortions, such as manipulating her body through the opened end of a tennis racket.
The family’s first big performance together on stage was at the 9th annual Sideshow Gathering in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in November of 2010. There is a photo from that show that the family still uses, showing Thomas lying on a bed of nails, with Grennan on another bed of nails on top of him and Alice holding a tiny Charlotte, who is standing on top of her brother. Years later, the first official FreakShow Family performance would be held at Therapy Cafe on Third Street in Dayton in 2017.
Sideshow performers or not, however, the group is still a family, and Mom and Dad, while firmly in charge, deal with exactly the same disciplinary problems all parents deal with—like kids getting in trouble at school, for instance. Son Grennan—who performs under the name “Grennan the Green Monster” —found himself grounded last year when his school contacted his parents about his cell phone use.
“We got a call from the school, and so we grounded him and took his cell phone away,” says Nealeigh. “So, bored, he decided to learn how to juggle. Any three objects lying around became a target for him to hone his juggling skills.”
Laughing, Nealeigh says, “So then we got another call from the school. And when I called them back and asked what was going on, they told me, ‘Now he won’t stop juggling!’ So we went from our son being in trouble over his cell phone use to being in trouble over inappropriate juggling.”
Obviously, whether throwing knives, juggling or talking on the phone, kids will still be kids, FreakShow veterans or not.