Ripley's greets Baltimore with a sideshow

MC Todd Robbins, who has eaten more than 4,000 light bulbs, performs his eating trick for the audience.
MC Todd Robbins, who has eaten more than 4,000 light bulbs, performs his eating trick for the audience. (Gabriella Demczuk/Baltimore Sun)

Benjamin Wade spent his dinner hour Tuesday lying on a bed of nails, smiling as a stream of people, including Baltimore's mayor and TV's Gomez Addams, stood on his stomach and posed for pictures.

Better known by his stage name, SideShow Bennie, Wade was one of a quartet of performers at Harborplace Tuesday for the official opening of the 32nd Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditorium. Along with his colleagues, Bennie was there to personify the oddities Ripley's has been known for since founder Robert Ripley drew his first Believe It or Not comic panel 94 years ago.

Promising an assortment of "the strange, the extraordinary, the bizarre and the unconventionally beautiful," barker and performer Todd Robbins stood outside the Light Street Pavilion, where the Odditorium occupies much of the second floor, and worked the crowd. At first, a few dozen bystanders stopped to listen, but by the time he finished, hundreds had gathered.

That's what happens when the guy with the microphone eats a light bulb and drives a nail up his nose. A crowd gathers.

And the things they got to see! The Great Insectavora spat out a cone of fire. Rich Potter juggled on stilts that made him 81/2 feet tall.

"I don't believe that fire part was real," said Jamera Johnson, 16, of Baltimore, wide-eyed after watching Insectavora devour fire. "How do they practice that?"

Nine-year-old Austin Simpson, a devoted Ripley's fan from Crofton, could tell her:

"She drinks alcohol," he said excitedly, "then spits it out."

Although the Odditorium opened earlier this month, Tuesday marked the official coming-out party. Inside, VIPs such as Johns Hopkins faculty member John Astin — aka Gomez Addams of "The Addams Family" — inspected oddities, including an elephant with two trunks.

Ripley's Entertainment President Jim Pattison Jr. spent part of his evening showing off the Odditorium to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her daughter, Sophia.

"This is an exciting evening for us," he said. "We've been trying to come to Baltimore for about 20 years."

It was exciting, too, for Damia Harris, 14, whom Bennie picked from the crowd to throw darts at his back. Several hit their target and stuck there, without eliciting any groans from Bennie.

"I was kind of weirded out by it," admitted Harris, who was visiting Baltimore from Anchorage. "It was kind of cool, though."