He's Hip to all the Angles
On the way back
home, we stopped off at Bristol and picked up a 'Bible' and
checked the letter list to see if there was an opening for a
side show manager.
There were several, so when we got back home, I made a few
calls and made a connection with a new carny that I had
never heard of called the Dumont Shows. They had a route
that covered most of the eastern section of the United
States. With fifteen fairs, the manager told me that all of
the side show was brand new. New tent, new banner line, new
ticket boxes, everything but the banners. He said to let him
know what kind of banners I wanted and he would order them.
He told me they opened the first of April in Pennsylvania,
then south to play spots around Baltimore. From there they
went to the Eastern Shores for six weeks, then back to the
first fair in Maryland. Next, they went to North Carolina,
closing in Charleston, South Carolina, the middle of
With the opening date four weeks away, I made sketches of
the banners that we needed and mailed them to him. Then I
called the Billboard want ad department and gave the man an
ad to run for me. This time of the year, every carny in the
country was searching for a spot to go for the season.
The ad read "Fats Usher wants help for brand new ten-in-one.
Ticket sellers, freaks, working acts, inside lecturers,
bally girls, especially want fat girl, sword swallower, fire
eater and a tattooed man that does tattooing. Old timers
that know me come on in. We carry our own cookhouse. We open
the first week in April in Pennsylvania. Contact Fats Usher,
PO Box 56, Damascus, Virginia."
Well, the ad cost me six bits, but it was well worth it
because I got three dozen inquiries. Two weeks later, I had
all the help that we needed to operate the show.
I called Lou Riley, the owner of the show and told him that
I had all the help I needed. He told me good, that the
winter quarters are open, if I wanted to come in a week or
two early to get the show ready. He also told me that the
new banners would be there in time for the opening.
Needless to say, May and I were up in Pennsylvania on March
the sixteenth in winter quarters. We were lettering the
ticket boxes, building stages, building illusions, a blade
box and framing a cookhouse.
After a week my help started coming in and we opened our
cookhouse to feed them because Lou had twelve ruffeys
working in winter quarters that he had to take to town three
times a day to eat at a
told him that she would feed them for fifty a day and keep a
pot of coffee ready all the time if they wanted a cup. Lou
welcomed the idea, so May was on the payroll for fifty bucks
a day and she fed all of us for a lot less until the carny
It was an office-owned side show. The agreement was, after
the nut (paying salaries and feeding the side show help), we
cut money down the middle. All the inside money (blade box,
pitches, blow-offs, and added things like the half-and-half)
was ours to keep. With proportions like that, how could we
lose? We had to come out smelling like a rose.
Opening day, when I walked into the office to get tickets
and change for the show, I saw Ralph Decker, the best fixer
in the business, sitting in an easy chair. He got up, walked
over to me, put his arm around me and said, "Man, am I glad
to see you!"
About that time, Lou handed me the tickets and two change
aprons saying, "There's a dub (meaning twenty dollars in
change) in each one. Do you two know each other?" Ralph
said, "Only since he was a little kid working in his dad's
ten-in-one, back in the thirties. He's the very guy to
operate the geek show. He's hip to all the angles."
Lou turned to me
and said, "Think you can handle the geek show? We've got
'Snakes Bla Bla,' the geek, a ruffey, but we need someone in
the know to run it." I answered, "Yeah, fifty after the nut,
plus a piece of the dip action." He said, "You got it."
Ralph walked with me outside and said, "How's your dad
doing?" I replied, "OK I guess. I haven't seen or heard of
him in a couple of years." Ralph said, "Then you don't know
that he had a stroke and damn near croaked at the Columa
(Colored) Fair two years ago?" I said, "Heck, no."
He continued, "I saw him this past winter in North
Charleston, behind Joe's Barber Shop on Sprool Avenue in his
house trailer. He was looking good and working in the civil
service for the government at the air base in the art
department. Maggie, his wife, was driving a cab. It seemed
to me that they were doing OK."
About that time, one of the carnies walked over to Ralph and
said, "Got a hot beef on the skillo." Ralph said, "Gotta go,
I'll talk to you later. Oh yeah, drop your old man a card.
He'd like to hear from you."
I knew the address of Joe's Barber Shop, so a few days
later, I sent him a letter telling him that I'd see him in
We opened the big menagerie that evening and got enough
money to make everybody a little bit happy.
To be Continued