World of Wonder

Scott McClelland’s sideshow legacy.

Summer, 2021 / No. 47
Thomas Blanchard

The house on the corner of Irving and South streets, in Spencerville, Ontario, is, architecturally, unlike any of the homes that surround it. Its gothic windows and slate roof make it reminiscent of the haunted house in an old horror movie or a Scooby-Doo cartoon. In this case, however, there isn’t a demonic resident peeking out from behind the curtains, causing hushed talk amongst the locals. Instead, he can be found sitting in full view, on his front lawn, chatting with and waving at the town’s residents as they pass. 

For nearly thirty years, Scott McClelland, in his guise as Nikolai Diablo, the devil incarnate, has hosted and operated Carnival Diablo, a travelling circus sideshow that, in the nineteen-nineties, was a major force in re-popularizing and reviving—with a modern twist—the genre. After spending most of those years on the road, McClelland’s latest incarnation of Carnival Diablo is a stationary one, located in a town with a population of between four hundred and five hundred people, and whose biggest attractions are—or were, until McClelland’s arrival—a two-century-old stone gristmill and a fall fair that dates back almost as far. McClelland, who recently turned fifty-seven, has no interest in retirement, but has found a happy medium in his new rural setting, still able to perform, but without the strains and headaches of touring. 

One day this past August, despite the intense heat, McClelland was once again seated on his lawn, smoking a pipe and dressed as one might imagine a circus performer does while off duty on a summer day: loose striped pants held up with suspenders, a white tank top, and a black vest adorned with various talismans. Parked behind him was a recreated showman’s caravan with the words “purveyor of wonderment” on the side and filled with items for sale, including McClelland’s own artwork and mojo bags for witches. Further back was a small wooden house even more out of place than McClelland’s main residence, with faux blacked-out windows, a peaked roof, and “Crypt of Agramon” written above its entryway in gothic lettering. A boy who looked to be in his early teens approached and greeted McClelland with a friendly wave. “Hi,” he said. “I wanted to show you my new demolition hammer. And to tell you I think I might get the job at the sawmill I told you about.” McClelland gave the boy a wide, genuine smile, clasped his hands together, and replied, “That’s wonderful!” 

In 2018, McClelland’s landlord informed him he needed to take over the house McClelland was renting, and gave him two weeks to vacate. In a panic, McClelland started scouring listings for a new home suitable to his unique needs. Within ten minutes he found the house that would become Diablo Manor—a two-storey boxy structure, originally built as the Spencerville Orangemen’s lodge, which accounts for its unique architecture—and long since converted into a residence. Within two weeks of moving in, McClelland had created a ground-floor parlour, filled with historical books, oddities, and freaks, including a mummy’s hand, a Fejee mermaid, a shrunken head, a jackalope, and, supposedly, the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Many of the items in McClelland’s collection originally were amassed by his grandfather, a sideshow impresario who performed for nearly fifty years under the name Professor N. P. Lewchuk, and to whom McClelland pays tribute in Diablo Manor, with a display of memorabilia from Lewchuk’s own storied career. 

On weekends, as the pandemic allows, McClelland hosts a paranormal show and dinner for up to ten people each Friday and Saturday night. The evening begins with a tour of the manor, including the stories behind many of the unusual artifacts housed there, before moving to the dining room for a three-course meal and more tales of the supernatural. Visitors then return to the parlour for the evening’s finale: a seventy-five minute Victorian-style paranormal magic show and séance. Throughout the week, from his ornate lawn chair, McClelland greets visitors to his property, telling stories, selling his artwork, and, on occasion, making spell kits for witches from ingredients found in his caravan. (Despite being off the beaten track, McClelland’s fame precedes him enough that visitors from as far as New Zealand have made the trip to visit Diablo Manor to date.)

For a fee, visitors can also book time in the Crypt of Agramon, a gothic escape room McClelland built from scratch this spring with help from some friends. “If anyone has an expectation before they come, it’s not going to be what they expect,” McClelland says. “My puzzles are fucked up. There are three levels. The first level—many people have gotten stuck. You don’t get to leave through the exit. If you don’t get the first level after thirty-five minutes, you do a walk of shame out the entrance. If you make it to the second room, it’s hard, but it’s nothing compared to the third room. When you enter, you are inundated with so much information, you don’t know what to do with it. And it’s spooky. We’ve only had three out of seventy-eight people make it out so far. But all of the others happily said they were going to come back to fight Agramon again.”

Spencerville is located about eighty kilometres south of Ottawa. Its main strip is little more than one block long and features a few amenities, including a bakery, a pub, and a gas station. Within a short walk can be found a brick post office, an antique store, and a stone municipal building. The town is also home to three large churches, an indication that religion still plays an important part in the lives of local residents. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think the townsfolk might offer some resistance to having the devil set up shop in their midst. But McClelland says the locals have embraced him. He quickly formed a social circle when he arrived and brought on the nearby restaurant Little Sisterz as the official caterer of Diablo Manor’s weekend events. Together with some local A.V. professionals, McClelland recently shot a series of promotional videos in his yard for the Diablo Shopping Network, a live monthly YouTube channel he launched in September to sell art, mementos, and historical artifacts from his career. Post-pandemic, McClelland plans to pitch his big top in a small park down the street from his home and perform a one-man version of Carnival Diablo in the summer months. “I’ve never felt so welcome in my life,” McClelland says. “I can now make money on my property and never have to travel again. This is my forever house.”

In 1902, McClelland’s grandfather, Nicholas Paul Lewchuk, then aged six, boarded the S.S. Armenia and sailed, with his parents and brother, from the Ukraine to Canada, where the family planned to purchase an undeveloped parcel of land and start a new life. The Lewchuks landed in Halifax and made their way west, eventually settling in Yorkton, a small town located in what soon would become the province of Saskatchewan. Lewchuk spent his youth working on his family’s farm and hungrily acquiring knowledge, not only in public school but also through independent study and correspondence courses. Over the years, he developed skills in a wide variety of areas, including photography, taxidermy, painting, motion picture operation, commercial printing, and record production. Lewchuk also developed an interest in magic and taught himself a few simple parlour tricks. (As a teen, he successfully hypnotised a bird after reading a book on the topic.) In 1914, after watching a touring magician perform in Vegreville, Alberta, Lewchuk was inspired to make magic his life’s work. “Magical miracles were performed one after another, followed by thunderous applause,” he wrote of the Vegreville performance, years later, in his self-published autobiography. “The stage setting and displays were wonderful—to me, this was it! It was so fascinating that I decided, ‘This is the life I want to have. . . . I’ll travel with my wife and perform in a magic and vaudeville show.’”

Scott McClelland in his parlour.
Thomas Blanchard

Although his magic and vaudeville training were well underway—Lewchuk spent several years working in the local Ukrainian theatre, where he was active acting, creating scenery, making costumes, and as a makeup artist—Lewchuk still needed a wife before he could put his plan fully into motion. In 1916, he noticed a young girl shopping for groceries with her family. The grocer told him they were the Humeniuks. Lewchuk soon paid a visit to the Humeniuk home and introduced himself to Anastasia, known as Nellie. Nellie proved to be equally interested in Lewchuk and, after a brief courtship, the couple were married. 

Now with a lovely assistant at his disposal—though Nellie would become much more than that—Lewchuk continued his studies of magic and vaudeville in preparation for the day he would perform his first show. “I visited fairs, theatres and any other place I could find to watch performance in all its details,” he wrote. “I had met a few magicians . . . and explained to them my interest in magic. . . . Usually they were friendly and free to swap ideas.” Lewchuk perfected his show while continuing to work his parents’ farm and by 1919 began hiring performers and stagehands, whom he trained throughout the winter and following spring. The next year, he and Nellie, along with their new troupe, finally hit the road, touring the Prairies with a two-and-a-half hour show that utilized many of Lewchuk’s talents, including magic, hypnotism, juggling, drama, tap, feats of strength, fire magic, and clowning.

For years, the Lewchuk Vaudeville Company toured the Canadian Prairies and beyond. New performers were added to the act as each of Nicholas and Nellie’s children became old enough to walk onstage. An entirely new show was created each season, with Lewchuk making all of the equipment, scenery, and costumes, as well as printing the company’s posters and handbills. Nellie quickly came into her own as a performer, managing to remain unscathed while sitting in a box punctured by swords and excelling as a sword swallower to such a degree that she was posthumously inducted into the Sword Swallowers Association International’s hall of fame. 

Lewchuk reinvested his profits and by the nineteen-forties had begun to build his own midway rides. The first attraction of what eventually became known as Lew’chuk’s Midway and Shows was an aeroplane ride, powered by a belt that ran from the ride’s shaft to the back wheel of Lewchuk’s truck. Lewchuk’s Flying Saucers, today known as the Teacups, gave the rider control of how fast they spun, via a central wheel. He also invented a mechanism that allowed previously stationary merry-go-round horses to move up and down. Lewchuk eventually added his first freak to the midway: a stuffed two-headed calf, which he displayed in a small tent. He later purchased a large collection of freaks of nature from a museum in Illinois, which he housed in a thirty-two-foot-long trailer, labelled “world-wide wonders,” making it the largest freak exhibit of its kind on the road. 

By the time Lewchuk stopped touring, following Nellie’s death, in 1968, Lew’chuk’s Midway and Shows consisted of a stage show, several rides, a Ferris wheel, a freak museum, a live animal exhibit, and concessions. When he retired, Lewchuk opened the Fun Spot, a permanent fair on the property where he and Nellie had later settled, in nearby Canora, allowing the general public to visit his museum, rides, and games, for years to come. 

Scott McClelland was born in Regina, in 1964, but spent much of his childhood moving with his family across the Prairies, before settling in Calgary. His mother, Sonia, was the youngest daughter of Nicholas and Nellie Lewchuk and spent her own formative years working concessions and games at her parents’ midway before running away to escape the circus at the age of eighteen. His father, Bob McClelland, worked as a newspaper journalist for several Prairie dailies, including the Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald, eventually ending up at The National, CBC-TV’s nightly newscast. Only Scott, of Lewchuk’s dozens of grandchildren, showed a fascination with the family business. “At the age of eleven, I got a letter from my grandfather that said, ‘Dear Scott, Every time you come to my carnival you always have a group of people around you because you’re such a ham. Have you ever thought of becoming a magician like me?’” McClelland says. “And I was like, Of course! So he said in the letter, ‘You can apprentice under me and I will teach you what I know.’ So I spent two months every summer, from the age of eleven to twenty-five, apprenticing under him. And that meant doing menial tasks, watching him work. I got to learn how to be a producer, how to be a showman, what the psychology is behind why people want candy floss and candy apples when they’re at a carnival, and what makes them want to go on one ride over another.” 

By the time he was thirteen, McClelland had developed an act of his own—Professor Crookshank’s Travelling Medicine Show—and was appearing at major fairs including the Calgary Stampede, Edmonton’s Klondike Days, and Buffalo Days, in Regina. “It was an old-time medicine show,” McClelland says about his performance, in which he starred—under a fake moustache and spectacles—as a forty-something medicine man. “In the early nineteen-hundreds, a doctor would come onstage and pitch this snake oil, but in between his pitch would be magic acts and ventriloquism and song and dance to keep people watching so they’d stay and hear his pitch again. I loved the idea, and I created a show that basically was just a parody of that time period. I wasn’t selling anything.” McClelland’s act received media attention across the country, and soon he began appearing on kid-centric television shows like Going Great and Switchback. “My grandfather was not involved with my show,” he said. “When I apprenticed under him he was like, ‘I’m cutting the cord now, and if you fail, it’s on you.’ He didn’t want to pamper me.”

For more than a decade, McClelland toured his medicine show across Canada. His school teachers, noting his early success and confident he had a future as an entertainer, were unusually lenient about time missed. After an aborted attempt at art college, McClelland began getting regular side work as a character performer, dressing up as Charlie Chaplin, the Joker, and a creation of his own, Roscoe P. Rigormortis, for corporate functions. In 1991, two years after the death of his grandfather, McClelland realized he needed to make a change. “I was at a point with my life where I thought, I’ve been doing this since 1979. For me, that was a lifetime,” he says. “I was twenty-six. I was like, Do I want to do this every week, every month of my life? The same show I produced when I was thirteen? It was a family show, but I have a very dark side to me. I love monsters, I love vampires, witchcraft. And I thought, Wait a second, Grandfather had a dark side. He had the circus sideshow. He had the freak show. And he had taught me shit. There’s something I could play with. But I have to go dark with it. Grandfather would ‘kill’ my grandmother in his act every show. My family has been doing horror onstage since the nineteen-twenties. I can’t do anything but. I’m not going to be a happy magician and pull rabbits out of a fucking hat. And so I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if the devil owned a carnival? And all the performers were demons—they could never be killed, and that’s why they could harm their bodies. That was the seed that started Carnival Diablo.”

As McClelland began planning his new act, he heard about a friend who had recently taken over a block-long building in downtown Calgary and turned it into an art gallery, with an upstairs space he had no use for. McClelland stopped by. “He takes me around back, and there’s this rickety staircase up to a red door,” he says. “I asked, ‘What’s up there?’ And he goes, ‘Nothing.’ I asked him if he could show me. He pulls this archaic key out of his pocket, he puts the key in the lock and slowly opens the door—and my whole life changed.”

Behind the door was an empty block-long warehouse with fourteen-foot ceilings. McClelland rented the space on the spot and got to work building a Victorian horror carnival. Word of the project soon leaked around town, prompting industry professionals to offer their services. The lighting technician for The Phantom of the Opera provided and installed interior lights. An old friend of McClelland’s, whose father managed Calgary’s Palliser Hotel, called offering up the hotel’s lavish Victorian curtains that were being replaced. A retired circus stager dropped by and got to work building seating for a hundred and forty people. At the same time, McClelland was looking for talent, training performers, and writing a show. 

Carnival Diablo opened on April 1, 1992, and quickly became the biggest underground attraction in Calgary. The space’s centrepiece was its live show, performed three times a night, at 7 p.m., 12 a.m., and 3 a.m., and hosted by McClelland. (He would eventually host the show in his guise of Nikolai Diablo, who McClelland describes as equal parts Mok, a character in the animated Nelvana feature Rock & Rule; B. L. Zebub, from another Nelvana production, The Devil and Daniel Mouse; and Boris Karloff’s Grinch, from the TV adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s book.) “I had to invent what I felt a sideshow should be like,” McClelland says. “I was doing the nail in the head, swallowing razor blades, the shark hook through my tongue, eating fire, plus some mentalism. That became my standard: open the show with twenty-five minutes of creepy-ass mentalism and move to physical stuff.” McClelland was followed onstage by other members of his troupe, including a human pincushion, a strongman, and a sword swallower. In between shows, patrons could watch old cult movies in a side theatre, browse Professor Lewchuk’s collection of freaks, play carnival games, or simply lounge in the unique atmosphere. “We were open seven days a week, from five in the evening until five in the morning. We had no liquor license, which meant you went there to socialize intellectually. We had coffee on. We had muffins. And we had a library of stuff you could read and boards on every table so you could play checkers or chess with your friends. This became the hub for the arts community.” 

Carnival Diablo was critically acclaimed and received national and international media attention in publications ranging from Maclean’s to Omni. At the same time McClelland was reviving the sideshow in Canada, a performer named Jim Rose was serendipitously doing the same thing in the United States. In 1991, Rose, a Seattle performer, developed a troupe of his own and founded the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, an act that exploded in popularity when it played at Lollapalooza the following year. Together, McClelland and Rose were largely responsible for the re-emergence of sideshow performance throughout the nineties. “Jim’s sideshow was the top of the heap,” says McClelland. “I was second, because I’m Canadian. And I have no problem with that. It was a great rivalry. It was positive. It was friendly. And so for the nineties, we were the only games in the book. I rode that wave right into the early twenty-first century.” 

After only nine months, the building that housed Carnival Diablo was shut down due to illegal activities taking place on other parts of the property. Carnival Diablo quickly pivoted to become a touring act, and the troupe spent the next several years playing the same fair circuit McClelland had toured as a teen with his medicine show, along with clubs, festivals, and university campuses. “It was a two-and-a-half-hour show, which is a very long show, but the acts were so exciting and dangerous, it was easy for the audience to sit through, because they just enjoyed the hell out of the fact they were seeing something they couldn’t see anywhere else.” 

Five years later, McClelland invented another act, the Paranormal Show, which allowed him to dabble in his love of parapsychology, the supernatural, and witchcraft. “In 1997 I had a troupe that drove me crazy on the road,” McClelland says. “Being the boss is hard when you have a lot of egos involved, and this troupe was maddening. It soured me on wanting to do Carnival Diablo, so I thought, Why don’t I take my production background and do a one-man show for a while.” By this time, McClelland had settled in Toronto, and the Paranormal Show began a two-year midnight run at the Poor Alex Theatre, every Friday and Saturday night. “I’ve had an interest in the paranormal since I was nine,” McClelland says. “In producing the Paranormal Show I was building in as many things that had to do with paranormal activity as possible: imported objects, telekinesis, E.S.P., hypnotism. Parapsychology is also about being able to basically detach your mind from your body to do horrifying things, so I integrated into the Paranormal Show some feats from the circus sideshow as well.” 

McClelland revived Carnival Diablo with a new troupe in 2000. Along with touring the now familiar carnival circuit came continued television appearances, including MuchMusic Halloween specials and a recurring role on the late-night Citytv show Ed’s Night Party. “I was with Ed the Sock for seven years,” McClelland says. “I was supposed to play his neighbour that he asks for sugar or whatever. Ed’s shtick has always been that he puts everybody down. We came up with the idea that Ed the Sock is scared, for the only time in his life, of Nikolai Diablo.”

McClelland created another new attraction in 2001: World of Wonders, a thirty-five-foot-long trailer dressed as a Victorian haunted house. Inside, McClelland displayed his collection of freaks for the first time since the original stationary Carnival Diablo had closed. “We had that booked at all the major exhibitions across the country: the Calgary Stampede, Klondike Days, the Red River Exhibition, in Winnipeg, the C.N.E. We were doing fifteen-hundred-seat auditoriums while the World of Wonders was being run outside. We were really doing well. We were happy. We were very on the cutting edge.”

In 2004, Conklin Shows, North America’s largest travelling amusement operator, merged with several other midway companies to form North American Midway Entertainment. Conklin had been showing signs of financial strains for years, leading it to sell off many of its largest rides. Eventually came a shutout of the independent operators who travelled with the show, including Carnival Diablo. Without access to his most lucrative circuit, McClelland reworked the act to play smaller fairs and events, but touring was beginning to hold less appeal for him. In 2008, the troupe was hired to work its first of two years at the Ottawa-based Carnivàle Lune Bleue, an outdoor event reminiscent of Depression-era travelling carnivals, inspired by the HBO show Carnivàle. The chance to perform under a big top seven days a week for three shows a day was, for McClelland, the epoch of Carnival Diablo. “I had a big troupe doing big things,” he says. “The stage show was crazy. We had a fourteen-foot guillotine, like Alice Cooper would use. It was a lot of fun.” In 2010, McClelland was invited to play what ended up being the final installment of the Ottawa SuperEX. (The fair, founded in 1888, had originally planned to go on hiatus the following year while its grounds were redeveloped, but was never revived.) “I brought out the World of Wonders again. I did a lecture three times daily on the history of the circus sideshow. I brought out all of my freaks, had a great big warehouse filled with my equipment and we showed it off. It was like a big goodbye to the SuperEX, and, for me, it was the beginning of the end of touring for Carnival Diablo.” Aside from a few big contracts, McClelland began focusing his time on the Paranormal Show and Professor Crookshank’s, which he revived in 2010, at last having aged into the role he’d developed as a teen. “In 2017 I got it in my head that I wanted a big top. So I purchased a beautiful old-time big top circus tent: canvas with wooden poles and hemp ropes. It was a beautiful sight to see, because it looked like how a circus tent should. I toured within a five-hundred-kilometre radius of home doing a one-man show. I was doing that right up until COVID hit, so that was my last thing with Carnival Diablo. I’ll probably bring it out again next year. But I won’t be touring it like I did. In my mind, my touring days are done.”

In 1978, N. P. Lewchuk and his son Orest were hired by the city of Canora to create an attraction for the town. Forty-three years later, their fifteen-foot statue of a Ukrainian girl dressed in traditional garb continues to welcome visitors, with an offering of salt and a loaf of braided kolch bread. 

McClelland has been thinking about his own legacy for a while. As the only grandchild with any serious interest in his grandfather’s career, and with no children of his own, he has single-handedly carried on—and added to—a family legacy that now spans a century. “The reason I never had kids is because I didn’t want to be an absentee father—being on the road so much—because I came from a very good family. But I’m at a point now where I’m pretty stationary and I have good health. I’d like to have a kid and teach them everything I know, like my grandfather did to me, and hope they’re inspired enough to want to carry it on.”

McClelland has tried several times over the years to train an apprentice, but each time ended in disappointment. “It’s hard,” he says, sitting in his parlour, among his family’s rich history. “I don’t know if there’s a generation of people, or a person, who’s interested enough. I would love somebody to carry on what I’m doing in any aspect, in paranormal-type work or circus sideshow. If I could find someone between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, I would apprentice them, if they were serious. There was a young woman I started corresponding with online a while ago who seemed really interested. She travelled all the way from Calgary, and when she finally got here discovered apprenticing wasn’t about learning the tricks of the sideshow. I said, ‘Hold on. We’ve corresponded. I told you I wanted to teach you how to produce a show, how to write a show, the logistics of building props.’ No. In her mind, somehow, she read past that or skimmed it and was only here to learn how to eat fire. I train people how to be sideshow performers in my show. That’s not apprenticing. That’s nothing.

“I had a legacy to carry on. Every time I was interviewed when I started out, before I mentioned myself, I’d mention my grandfather. If we stop talking about him, he’s forgotten. We need people to remember who he is. I know how important it is to keep his vision alive. That’s why I do what I do.”