IT'S ALL ABOUT
Before things get too far along it would be a good idea
to lay out the ground rules of being a Midway Showman. It
will be much easier to understand what's going on if the
peculiarities of the carnival are explained somewhat.
Being mobile, the carnival takes on a strange life of it's
own, separate and diverse from that of a normal community.
The carnies do not seem to be governed by the normal laws of
any one State or town since they move through them so
quickly. Likewise, the carnival people sometimes resort to
their own form of justice when dealing with thieves and
others within their ranks who would disrupt or interfere
with their business. There are stories of carnival weddings
in which the bride and groom go once around the carousel
(supposedly backwards) and are then considered hitched... at
least until the end of the season.
It is not uncommon for a Grind Show operator to find
his loudspeaker wires cut during the night if they are
annoying the games owner across from him. Tires flattened
and car windows smashed are not unusual acts of revenge if
the perpetrator does not acknowledge the unwritten laws of
the lot. Physical violence can sometimes break out, but the
carnival people try not to engage each other in such an open
fashion, because, believe it or not, they do consider
themselves to be something of a raggedy family unit.
As in other things the carnival has a language of its own
and being aware of the basics, at least in the manner in
which they pertain to the Shows, would be helpful in
understanding the following text. Be advised that some of
these terms are a bit outdated, but still crop up
occasionally when old carnies are sitting around cutting up
jackpots. With that in mind, here is a short glossary of
Carnival terminology (not intended to be complete by any
A show in which
professional Boxers or Wrestlers took on members of the
audience in an exhibition match. Bob Noell (his show was
cleverly entitled Noell 's Ark) used to travel with a
very unusual show in which some brave and/or stupid patron
was encouraged to wrestle one of Bob's large apes. The apes
usually dismantled the customer in quick order, much to the
delight of the crowd!
show which displays preserved babies, usually deformed in
some way, in formaldehyde jars.
The back portion
of the standard Midway (most Midways are horse-shoe shaped).
This is where most Shows were located. Thus, they are
referred to as Back-end Shows or Back-End Pieces.
The free show
that is presented on the small stage outside the Side Shows
in order to gather a "Tip". This is where the talker gives
his spiel and tries to work up a crowd of paying customers.
Most often referred to as simply a BALLY.
BANNER: Large canvas paintings depicting the various
sights to be seen inside the show. They come in various
sizes and are erected on what is called a Banner Line - a
series of poles that usually reach heights of 14 feet or
more, making the banners easily seen from great distances.
BEEF: Customer complaints.
A BLANK: A spot or date where no real money is made.
Bad business. Savanna, Georgia has long been considered a
"blank" by many carnies because business there has never
been good - they say.
BLOWDOWN: What happens when strong winds get hold of
a bannerline or tent top and bring it crashing down.
attraction inside a show, usually hidden behind a canvas
drape, for which a separate admission is charged. Sometimes
it will be a pickled punk or Human Pin Cushion.
BOUNCER: A fake human fetus in ajar. One made of
Buzz words like
"ALIVE" and" ADULTS ONLY" painted in brilliant colors on a
CUTTING UP JACKPOTS:
is carny lingo for standing around and swapping lies. Many
times done at the cookhouse.
electrical power hooked up. It is not uncommon to offer the
Cut-In man a token of some sort, whether it is a ten spot or
a six pack of beer. Failure
to do so sometimes results in your power getting abruptly
Splitting up the
money you make with another carny, for whatever reason.
of the many extra charges that are leveled against the show
owner, such as power cut-in, insurance, motorhome space (if
you have one), etc. Also used to refer to an extra fee that
show owners charge the patrons to see some special, like the
contortionist girl twisted inside her box or to view the
DRY LOTS: Those dates in which there is no rain.
Rain, of course, being the vilest enemy of the carnival.
to be the first person to count the tickets taken in on a
show, assuming that at least the first count will be the
correct legitimate one.
that. A man who "fixes" things with the local
authorities - usually beforehand and most times after there
have been complaints about shady game operations.
A carnival that
never travels more than forty miles from their home base.
The term used to describe building up a new show.
faked, rigged show attraction such as a taxidermied pig with
a fifth leg sewn onto its body, or third eye added. Barnum's
Fiji Mermaid was one such famous gaff.
GEEK: A performer who works in pit shows handling
snakes and such. Often portrayed as a wildman, the act is
usually handled by an old drunk. Not very common today -
people see too many old drunks on the street for free!
A Geek that
bites the heads off of live animals! Not around at all to my
A quick food
A show that
by-passes the bally stage approach and just "grinds" all day
Trouble with the law or complaints from disgruntled
HEY RUBE: A physical confrontation between locals and
carnies. A call of "Hey Rube" meant trouble was brewing and
that assistance was needed in a hurry.
A show that
presented an illusion. Usually magic in the older days, now
more commonly used to refer to a Spider Girl, Headless or
Gorilla Girl type show.
concession stand or fast food counter.
The talker that
gives his spiel inside the show.
LOT: The grounds on which the carnival sets up.
Patrons who hang
around the Midway, but never seem to be spending any money.
customer or patron (i.e.- sucker) who spends his money on
the Midway. Remember that carnies see themselves as separate
and apart from the people who frequent the shows. Carnies
will almost never buy food from a Grab Joint, unless it's a
A carnival fortune teller.
NUT: What it takes in cash each day to break even.
PATCH: Another kind of "Fixer".
PIG IRON: A riding device like the Tilt-A-Whirl.
PIT: A sectioned off low canvas divider in which an
attraction is displayed inside the tent. Also referred to as
a Pit Show. Many times used for a Single-O small animal,
geek or illusion show such as Baby Betty, the girl with no
arms or legs.
PICKLED PUNKS: A preserved human fetus in ajar.
PRIVILEGE: The money paid to the carnival owner for
the opportunity to play on his lot.
RED ONE: A very good spot financially.
RIGHT HAND SIDE: Since it is believed that people
naturally gravitate to the right side of the Midway as they
walk into the horse-shoe shape, this has become the most
desirable location for independent operators.
ROUTE: The line up of dates and locations to be
played by the carnival.
REHASH: The disreputable practice of selling the same
ticket for than once and thereby cheating the carnival owner
out of his fair share of the take.
SAWBUCK: Ten dollars.
SPOT: A date or location played.
STILL DATE: A spot played that is not connected to a
fair, festival or other event, such as setting up in a
shopping center parking lot. These spots are never very good
and only serve to fill out the early spring part of a route
until the more substantial dates approach.
TALKER: The man who does the talking, or spieling
outside the tent show. Never referred to as a BARKER, except
by those who don't know any better.
TEAR-DOWN: Breaking down the show for travel to its
TIP: The crowd that gathers in front of a bally to
see the free show (a show incidentally in which little or
nothing ever happens) given by the Side Show to entice the
TOP: A canvas tent.
WALK THROUGH: A show in which the patrons "walk
through" and look at the exhibit as opposed to sitting or
standing and having the show performed for them.
WITH IT: A phrase that lets other carnies know that
you're with the show or in the business. "I'm with it."
YARD: One hundred dollars.
avariation on the
Wild Man themed Grind Show.
WILLIE WRIGHT WENT
Drug Abuse trailer