Carnival Sideshow Talkers

 

by Monty Bowman

 

It was a beautiful fall afternoon in early October of 1958. My mother had taken off from work and I had been released from school early so that we could attend the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Frank Bergen’s World of Mirth Shows was on the midway. This large railroad carnival of some 50-cars was one of the premier traveling carnivals of the day. The weather was warm, dry and sunny. Dust filled the air from the automobiles entering the parking lot. The smell of popcorn, candy apples, cotton candy and diesel fuel from the show’s generators mixed with the dust to form a unique aroma that could only be experienced as part of a large fair. I could see the huge midway in the distance, a small portable city, powered by its own generators with all of its colorfully painted wagons, large brown canvas tents and new riding devices. In addition to the sights, the sounds of the midway filled my ears. From a distance, the sounds of amplifiers could be heard intermingling with each other, made clear again as the sound traveled to where I was standing. The deep rasping voices of the talkers were clear once again as the sound carried over the distance. These sounds and words were like music to my ears. The spiels that these men used in 1958 have been around since the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, but now they are almost gone forever.  Thus, following is the story of this unique form of communication more commonly known to carneys as “ballyhoo” and the men and women who delivered it during the golden age of the sideshow. *1

 

The American Collective Amusement Industry began at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. *2

 

It is ironic to note that this Worlds Fair also introduced new riding devices to the public, most notably the Ferris wheel. However, the industry has completely changed since the early days. The early days featured a large collection of shows such as Freak Shows, Girl Shows, Water Shows, Oriental Dancing Shows, Minstrel Shows, Geek Shows and Animal Shows. In the twenty’s and thirties, with the innovation of the gasoline engine, shows such as the Motordrome and Monkey Speedway became popular. Today’s carnival has now evolved into a large collection of modern riding devices of every possible description. With the demise of the shows, also came the demise of midway talkers and the colorful language that they used to entice the customer to buy a ticket. It has often been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and thus we have preserved the beautiful oil on canvas sideshow banners painted by such artists as Fred Johnson and Snapp Wyatt who worked for the O’Henry Tent and Awning Company of Chicago. *3

 

Some of these canvas banners have brought thousands of dollars at public auction. But what about the colorful words spoken by the great carnival talkers such as Jack Norman, Joy Fleenor, Raynell Golden, Slim Kelley, Al Renton and Peter Gary, to name only a few? (Please be aware that the correct term is “talker”. No person associated with the American Carnival has ever used the word “barker”. In fact, “barker” is a derogatory term to any outdoor showman.) In addition, it has often been said, “if only the walls could talk”. Well in this case, a more apt expression would be, “if only the tents could talk”. As for preserving the spoken work, no one better sums it up than VerLynn Sprague, the father of the author of the Speaker’s Handbook. Mr. Sprague is quoted as saying, “It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I’m not sure how true that is. Some pictures are worth a million words. It depends on the words. Let me choose them for you: the Twenty-Third Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, the Preamble to the Constitution, the introduction to the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. A person would be hard-pressed to find a picture that means as much to me as those thousand words do.” *4

 

Mr. Sprague’s statement could also apply to the words spoken on the bally platforms of the American Carnival. Words filled with such descriptive adjectives as “alive”, “born to live” and “worlds largest” & “worlds smallest”. In addition, the spiels are full of action verbs and phrases such as “see it now”, and “don’t wait, don’t hesitate”.  “Now’s the time to go, if you’re going”.  So travel with me now, back in time, as we examine the sideshows of the early twentieth century and the various openings of each show’s talker. 
 

One of the most controversial of all carnival sideshows was the Geek Show. This show was characterized by a person sitting in a den of snakes. The persons who actually ate or bit the heads off of snakes were called “Glommers or Glomming Geeks”.  From Greek Mythology, Cronus who swallowed his children at birth is sometimes called “the father of the carnival”, since he may have been the first “Glomming Geek”. *5

 

Following is a typical opening that a talker might deliver in front of a Geek Show.  

 

“Have you seen Eeka strange sight of a lifetime? She wiggles, she giggles, she walks, she talks, and she crawls on her belly like a reptile. Your mind will fail to believe what your eyes will see. She’s not all there, but she’s in here, and she’s alive! Eeka is completely surrounded by venomous reptiles. She may be the missing link, more animal than human.” *6 

 

When one remembers the sideshow, possibly the most thought of show is the “Ten-in-One”. This show featured multiple stages with different acts arranged in a circle around the perimeter of the large tent. This show is also known as a “String Show” due to the long banner line that flies the brightly painted banners displaying all of the acts found within. Some of the best talkers in the American Carnival have delivered their spiel in front of large shows of this type.  Their opening might sound like the following one used on the James E. Strates Shows midway in the late 1960’s. 

 

“Have you seen William Durks? He’s the man with 3-eyes and 2-noses, a sight to see-one you’ll remember, the longest day you’ll live. See Gladia, the Frog Girl-the head of a human being, the body resembling that of a frog. See Bengie, the sword swallower-swallowing steel swords, sabers and bayonets.  Have you seen Prince Arthur, the world’s smallest perfectly formed colored midget? There’re all here, and there’re all alive and on the inside. They all perform, they all entertain-one act after the other until you’ve seen them all. Come in now and stay as long as you like and leave when you so desire. Did you dream that you would see so many sights? See Melvin Burkhart, the Anatomical Wonder, the Human Blockhead, the Human Pin Cushion, the Pain Proof Man, Electra the Human Dynamo and the Funny Old Magician. Have you seen Sylvia Porter, she’s the girl with the largest feet in the world. Her feet are so big, so large that she has never worn shoes in her entire life.  This is the biggest show on earth for so little money. Come in now. There are no charges on the inside.  Remember, you stay as long as you like and you leave when you so desire.” *7

 

Many times, “Ten-in-One” shows would offer a special reduced price admission ticket for a limited time. Known to showmen as a “jam”, this promotion following a “bally” would allow all patrons to enter the show for the price of a child’s ticket. The outside talker would change his opening to resemble the following spiel.  

 

“Now ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, for the next 3-minutes while the music plays, I am going to instruct my ticket sellers to put away all of the $1.00 tickets and pass everyone in on a special child’s ticket of only fifty-cents. So hurry along just a little bit, you’re just in time. Go now!” *8 

 

Inside the “Ten-in-One”, after all of the advertised acts were completed, the inside lecturer would call everyone down to the end or the tent. Here, behind a curtain was the extra added attraction that was not advertised on the outside of the show. Possibly the most common attraction used by showmen for this special performance was a “half and half”, more commonly known as a hermaphrodite. While some of these performers were genuine, most were fake. This is what you might hear as an introduction to this special added attraction. 

 

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen. We want you to move in closely. Please move right down close so you’ll be able to see and understand a little better. Ladies and gentlemen we’ve asked you down to this end of the tent to present our extra added attraction. Now this attraction is not pictured or advertised out front. That’s because it’s not part of the main show. We present this in back of this curtain, for those of you who care to see it. This you will see in the personage of Ester/Lester. Ester is a real live hermaphrodite. That’s a person born with the sex of male and the sex of female on the one body. In the back of this curtain on a high well lighted stage, Ester is going to remove the outer garments from her body. Not to be rude or vulgar, but to prove to you beyond the shadow of a doubt that she does have male and female on her body. Now this is for the ladies as well as the gentlemen, as nothing will take place back here that will offend the most sensitive person. This being an extra added attraction, naturally, there is a small extra charge, for which we make no apologies. Because, unless you are a doctor or a nurse, you may never again have the opportunity to witness an attraction such as this. The extra charge is the same to everyone. It’s just a quarter or twenty-five cents. Now there’s the doorway. There’s the cashier. Now if you need change, the cashier will make change for you. This attraction will not begin until everyone goes back who cares to see it.” *9 

 

In addition, “Ten-in-One” shows carried fat persons, both men and women. A “crack” that you might hear an outside talker utter describing a fat girl might sound like this. 

 

“See sweet Marie. She weighs 643 pounds. It takes 3-men to hug her, and a box car to lug her.” *10

 

As a teen growing up in the 60’s, the most fascinating of all the carnival shows were the girl shows. These consisted of two types. The large sit down review type shows were carried by the large railroad carnivals such as Strates and Royal American, and the smaller stand-up shows were found on the smaller truck shows that played the small towns and county fairs. The large review shows featured famous strippers such as Gypsy Rose Lee in wardrobes costing thousands of dollars. These shows also featured large stage bands, variety acts and comedians. The revue type shows were held in large tented theaters with elaborate show fronts, professional lighting, and seats were provided for the customers. These shows were open to both men and women and provided similar entertainment to that found in the theaters of large cities. In comparison, the small “cooch shows” were very crude, offered no seating, and were for men only.  We will examine the various openings used by the talkers on both of these shows. First, let’s review an opening used by Jack Norman on his Broadway to Hollywood girl show. This show was featured on the James E. Strates Midway from the late 1940’s to the late 1960’s. *11 

 

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the James E. Strates Shows mile long midway. Now ladies and gentlemen, we do have a contract with your fair not to block the midway, so please take one step closer to the ‘bally platform’ we’re going to bring out a few of the performers from on the inside, it’s going to be all free costs you nothing to watch. Now ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll move in close, move in tight, give your friends and neighbors an opportunity to enjoy the free entertainment, we would appreciate it very much. Now if you’ll look over to my left, you can see that a few of the girls are beginning to come out now, and over to my right, the tall blonde standing here beside me is the star of the show. Her name’s Delilah. She’s known on all of the higher class night clubs of Las Vegas, and all of the larger carnival midways as the girl with the million dollar treasurer chest. Now ladies and gentlemen, I’m not allowed to describe her act out here in public, but believe me once she begins up around the post office and ends up down around the court house, ladies and gentlemen, you’re going to know that you’ve been to a red hot show! It makes the old feel young, and the young want to go feeling. And guys, you’re going to come out of this show with your hands deep down in your pockets with a new grip on life. Now to all of you gentlemen, don’t you dare leave the ladies on the outside, this is a show for the ladies. But ladies, I must caution you about one thing. You’re not going to a Sunday school picnic. This is burlesque, it’s spicy, it’s red hot, and it is risqué, but by no means way shape or form is our show vulgar in anyway. So make your way now to the ticket booths on my right and the ticket booths on my left. Its 5-minutes to go, 5-minutes to show, 5-minutes to get your front row seats, 5-minutes until show time. And ladies and gentlemen please don’t worry about your neighbors because your grandma is already on the front row!” *12

 

In addition, as a sidebar to the large review type girl show, I was very good friends with the two men who handled the canvas on a show of this type on Strates in 1975. These same two men also sold tickets. Bob and Little Bob, as they were affectionately known to all of the workers on the show, confided to me that they actually made more money in the ticket box each week than they were paid by the show office. This is not to say that these men were crooks. To the contrary, patrons were so excited after hearing an opening similar to the one above, that they pushed and shoved and were in such a rush to get inside, that they actually left their change on the ticket counter. 

 

Finally, no discussion of carnival sideshows would be complete without including the “Cooch Show”. These stand-up shows were found on most small carnivals and operated anywhere the sheriff or other local officials could be bribed. Most of these shows were built on a straight job truck with fold out panels on both sides. The tent was small and usually hooked to the back side of the truck which also doubled as the dressing room for the girls. Panels also folded down on both sides of the truck to make a “bally platform” out front and a stage for the performance under the tent. These shows were very crude but at the same time very profitable since there was no real striptease but actually raw sex being sold inside. As mentioned earlier, the local law had to be “paid” in order for a show or this type to operate. In addition, shows of this type were often used to “cool-off” a mark that might have lost a large sum of money at crooked games on the “front-end” of the midway. A free ticket to the girl show was often handed to a customer that the game operator thought might “beef” to the local police. The following spiel was observed by the author in 1978 at a small county fair in New Castle, Virginia. At this particular fair, four shows of this type were working against each other. It was not uncommon to see patrons moving from one girl show to the other in order to be sure that they saw all of the girls. *13

 

“This is the longest and the strongest. We strip to please, not to tease. Guaranteed to put a rise in your Levis™. And guys, if you get in line right now, you can get right up front, right up in bald-head row where you put your elbows on the stage and you look right up and see the whole, and complete show.  This is the only show on the midway with a love act in the back. So you’re just in time, go now! Don’t wait, don’t hesitate.  Hurry just a little bit. Its show time right here, right now. Red hot strip tease, carnival style, is on the inside right now. *14

 

In conclusion, while I have concentrated on the major side shows that one might find at a carnival, there are just as many others that, due to space, have been omitted. In addition, the sad ending to this story is that most of these shows are gone forever. One can count on a single hand the number of “Ten-in-One” shows that are left in the United States today. As for girl shows, the last know performance was held in Woodstock, Virginia in September of 1995. Here, some feminists complained, and the ACLU went to the defense of the performers and the show operators. 15 And then, it’s almost as if the girl show has lost its appeal. Maybe it’s because one can see almost as many scantly clad girls around a shopping mall, as under the canvas walls of a tented theater. 

 

Bibliography 

1. McKennon, Joe, A Pictorial History of the American Carnival. Sarasota FL. Carnival Publishers of Sarasota, 1972.

2. Ibid. p. 23

3. Johnson, Randy and Jim Secreto and Teddy Johnson. Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls. Honolulu, HI. Hardy Marks Publications, 1995.Hammer, Carl and Gideon Bosker, Freak Show, Sideshow Banner Art. San Francisco, CA. Chronicle Books, 1996
4. Sprague, Jo and Douglas Stewart, The Speaker’s Handbook, Seventh Edition, Belmont, CA. Thompson Wadsworth, 2005, p. 179.

5. McKennon, Joe, A Pictorial History of the American Carnival. p. 10
6. Keyser, Wayne. “Bally Sounds of the Sideshow”. www.goodmagic.com, 2001.
7. Mullin, Richard. Transcribed from a personal recording. 1973, from the Kelly Sutton Sideshow.
8. Keyser, Wayne, “Bally Sounds of the Sideshow”. www.goodmagic.com, 2001.
9. Mullin, Richard. Transcribed from a personal recording. 1973.
10. Bowman, Monty. From memory. “James E. Strates Shows, Inc., Orlando, FL. circa 1967.
11. Stencell, Al W., Girl Show, Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind. Toronto, Ontario, ECW Press, 1999.
12. Norman, Jack. “Broadway to Hollywood Revue”, James E. Strates Shows, Inc. circa 1966.

13. Meiselas, Susan, Carnival Strippers. New York, N.Y., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
14. Bowman, Monty. From memory.
Toby Sugg Amusement Company or Toby Sugg Amusement Co.
New Castle, VA. 1978

 


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