Couple make holiday a circus freak show

October 29, 2016 GMT

The cloudy, dreary weather Thursday provided a perfect backdrop for Roger Dau and Shawna Stream-Dau’s Halloween Freak Show.

Old-time circus posters featuring the strongman, Siamese twins, bearded lady, sword swallower and the world’s smallest couple hark back to a time when audiences couldn’t get enough of such oddities.

But it’s the characters that bring this display to life – well, to death actually, as the Daus have created lifelike skeletons to resemble the posters’ stars. Each skeleton is handmade and includes the smallest of details, such as the strongman’s leopard-skin leotard and the tonnage on his barbells, as well as the facial hair on the bearded lady and the sword swallower’s sword, which of course can be seen stuck inside his bony frame. The tiny couple is dressed in a tuxedo and bridal gown, equipped with a veil and a floral bouquet.

The Daus have worked on the Halloween display, which they call Skeletown, for eight years, each year adding something new to the delight of those who walk or drive by Shawna’s mother’s house at Indiana and Pasadena avenues in Southwood Park. The Freak Show circus is this year’s addition.

It takes the couple a half a day to load all the items that are stored in their Roanoke home’s basement and three days to unload all the items and set up the display with the help of family and friends.

It’s come a long way from the little cemetery, coffin and a few skeletons that Roger Dau said they started out with. Now, the display has grown to encompass the large grassy space in front of Hazel Stream’s home and includes many skeletons, including a snake charmer, witch and pirates, and a much larger cemetery with the Grim Reaper sitting on a throne in the middle.

“Every year we’ve added pieces, and it’s grown over time,” Dau, 49, said.

Although the real action begins a few weeks before Halloween, the couple actually start getting ready in June. That’s when Stream-Dau said she becomes a “Halloween widow,” not seeing her husband for long stretches of time.

And if the creative scenes weren’t enough, once it gets dark, the display changes again, with lighting and some characters rigged to move.

One of those characters is a skeleton baby in a bassinet pushed by a mother in Victorian dress. The bassinet was actually used for the couple’s oldest daughter before she outgrew it, Dau said. Not knowing what to do with it, the couple incorporated it into their Halloween display.

The Daus find many of their items in antique shops, thrift stores, garage sales or by the side of the road.

They are not sure how much money they have invested in the display. The circus posters were made by a Fort Wayne graphic designer for $100 each. The design process itself was $600.

“It really depends on what we find to get ideas,” Dau said. As an example, his mother-in-law found some 1950s stadium seats on the side of the road. They will be incorporated into a sports theme for next year.

An antique wheelchair found in a shop became the basis for Stream-Dau’s favorite scene. A decrepit skeletal woman, covered in an afghan, sits in the wheelchair, which is pushed by a nurse dressed in a 1920s uniform. The uniform has a hat, a cape that is stitched with the initials “St M H” for Saint Marys Hospital, and an apron that was actually hand-stitched with the nurse’s name who owned it.

Dau said the skeletons are bought and then transformed to look old and lifelike, with pantyhose, glue and wood stain giving the appearance of torn and rotting skin on the hands, arms, legs and faces.

Of course, buying some of the items for the display can create awkward moments, like when Dau goes into Meijer to buy 10 boxes of queen-size pantyhose.

“The counter lady looks at you funny,” he said.

To get the decayed look of the characters’ clothes, the couple bury them in their backyard. “We have a little plot we dig up and put the clothes in,” he said. They then water the clothes to keep things decaying and attract bugs. After about two months, they dig them up again and they are magically decayed, Dau said.

Stream-Dau laughs about the clothes. Dau, who travels for business, will call to talk to his spouse, but instead of reminding her about such things as taking out the trash, he calls to make sure that she remembered to water the clothes.

But it’s those moments that actually remind the couple how much they love working on the project together. “We’re such a good match,” Stream-Dau said. “We love this stuff.”

So far, the neighborhood response has been positive, Dau said. Neighbors frequently walk up to the house and inspect the display. Stream-Dau said she or her mother are constantly going outside to talk to people and answer questions.

This is the second year the display has been at the Southwood Park home, which draws many trick-or-treaters, Dau said. Last year, they gave out 1,400 pieces of candy.

This year, Stream-Dau will join her husband in dressing up and walking among the display. Dau will reprise his role as a zombie roaming the cemetery. “It’s an outlet, fun,” Dau said of why they spend so much time on the display. “It’s something we can do together.”