history there have been an extraordinary variety of shows
in the carnival. Some no longer exist. Progress and the
quick availability of movies and TV have killed a certain
portion of the outdoor shows and it is easy to see why.
Prior to the advent of "adult" type films
and the proliferation of Topless Strip Bars, the "Girlie"
or "Cooch" shows were very popular. The bally platform would
be filled to capacity with beautiful girls in attractive
robes and the spiel would go something like this:
"Now folks, I want all of you to pay particular attention to
the red kimonos the lovely young ladies standing up here are
wearing. These kimonos are made from the finest velveteen
available. The reason I want you to pay attention to these
red kimonos is because once you get inside, that's the last
you'll ever see ofem - but, I guarantee you'll see
everything that's underneath."!
Inside, of course, would be a fairly tame version of a
burlesque show with some naughty-but-nice strippers
performing on stage. Occasionally the acts, desperate for
a little extra scratch, would take tilings too far and
the law would soon be involved.
Another casualty of the modern era was the so-called Jig
Show in which black performers staged musical dance routines
to a delighted audience. As America became more socially
aware and "correct", this type of entertainment faded away.
The standard Freak Show displaying human oddities has nearly
vanished from our culture as well. Many states have passed
laws prohibiting the exhibition of handicapped people,
apparently not realizing, or caring about, the life of
financial hardship they were forcing on the anxious
performers, who without the Side Show, had no other means of
earning a living.
The legislature has stripped these people of their ability
to travel and see the country, meet and socialize with
friends who are similar to themselves, and find a friendly
atmosphere where they could "fit in". And they did this
supposedly for their own good!
Many Side Show oddities earned enough over the years to buy
their own homes and retire in comfort. When Dick Brisbane,
the Penguin Boy, was asked if he didn't mind being stared at
for a living he snapped sharply: "Do you think they (the
people) don't stare at me on the street when I walk by? At
least here I get paid for it!"
YOUTH IN BABYLON 1990, Prometheus Books
Thanks to the small minded politicians, who pretend to
represent the best interests of all of us, the Human
Oddities show is disappearing quickly. Occasionally a
carnival patron will encounter a "Working Act" show that
strongly resembles the old Ten-In-One and may even feature a
Midget, Fat Lady or Giant. The law doesn't seem to feel
ashamed of letting these people earn a living.
Some states have even passed laws prohibiting
the exhibition of live animal oddities, and the ASPCA has
been especially antagonistic towards Freak Animal shows. For
some reason they seem to steer clear of Reptile shows.
For different reasons, revulsion being perhaps the
strongest, Baby shows are having a tough time of it,
although there are still a few around. There are, in fact,
laws in most states that prohibit the transportation of
human corpses. Which, in effect, means you can own a
two-headed baby, but you can't take him on vacation with
you! This law also applies to Shrunken Human Heads and
Mummies, so the Grind Show operators have had to resort to
using gaffs. What is really annoying is that museums and
attractions like Ripley's Believe It Or Not can
display all the heads and mummies they want, simply because
they are not mobile. What, in fact, is the big problem here?
For a moment let's take a look at what's out there in the
way of Grind Shows today. Since we've been talking about the
Baby Shows we'll begin there.
ATOMIC MUTATION MONSTER!
is unknown, but most likely a Freak Animal or Wild Man Show.
Jeff Murray's Baby Show at
Syhnar, California, 1992
Baby Show built into the back-end of a truck.
THE BABY SHOW
People have always been intrigued by the possibility of
human monsters. The thought of a child being born with two
heads or one large cyclopean eye in the middle of its
forehead still fascinates the public. To this end, the Grind
Show owner has supplied the Baby Show, or Punk Show. These
shows go far back into the history of the carnival and still
attract attention today.
In the past, unborn fetuses were easily obtainable from
Mexico and there were several importers in America who
offered such specimens to the Grind Show impresario. Babies
with one head and two bodies, or arms and legs shaped like
flippers were certain to raise a gasp of awe from the marks
as they filed past the row of formaldehyde jars.
The show usually sidestepped its own subject matter artfully
in advertising the show. It was labeled "The Mystery Of
Life" show or some such impressive medical hokum. Sometimes
they even promoted the punks as being "Nude as Nature
Intended", forgetting to mention that the "nudes" were, in
fact, preserved babies.
As the heat rose through the years, Showmen took to
displaying bouncers, babies made of rubber or soft vinyl, in
the jars. In this way they were able to continue the show
without breaking any applicable laws, and the public, mostly
unaware of the gaff, didn't seem to care one way or another.
The remaining problem with the Baby show is that many people
find this type of entertainment distasteful and repulsive.
More than a few carnival owners have refused to book an
independent Baby show on their Midway for fear of reprisals.
To combat the public's aversion to the punk show the
operators have taken on an Anti-Drug slanted theme in
presenting the Baby show. Now the public is warned to
"Beware the Horrors of Drug Abuse". This, supposedly, gives
the show an educational and moral value and makes it appear
more family oriented and socially aware.
One type of Drug Abuse show dispatches with the babies
altogether, opting instead for an apparently burned-out
youth in a wheelchair with sunglasses on and a python around
his neck listening to rock and roll music (usually The
Doors). This is an inexpensive show to frame up, but it is
ultimately disappointing to the public. Inside the patrons
are dinged for another quarter to watch the drugged-out
hippy push a pencil up his nose!
While there are several Baby shows still in existence the
one I find most fascinating is Jeff and Sue Murray's HORRORS
OF DRUG ABUSE SHOW. Jeff and Sue co-own HarMur
Productions and prefer the old style tent show over the
trailer constructed shows like those operated by old time
showman Pete Hennen. Jeffs Baby show features a colorful
banner-line painted by Mark Frierson, one of the last of the
banner painters, that is attractive and repellent at the
same time. He uses a good sized tent that promises a lot of
room inside for the marks and he feels that the show works
best in the Hispanic neighborhoods. Something about the
punks excites the Latin crowd, and business on those
particular dates is usually very good.
Jeffs show features bouncers which he stores dry until the
opening day, at which time he places them in large,
specially made jars and fills them with water diluted with a
little coffee. The effect is disturbing. At a date in
Sylmar, California, one Mexican woman staggered out of the
tent on a particularly hot day, grabbed the ticket box for
support and promptly leaned over and threw up. While not
exactly an ideal situation it did serve as great publicity
and helped sell a lot of tickets to marks whose curiosity
had been set on fire.
Jeffs show then traveled to El Monte, California, where he
was told that there was not enough lot space for both his
Baby show and his large Mystery Museum show (also housed in
an attractive tent). The shows had to be combined into one
big top, but Jeff still didn't feel like the show would bear
more than fifty cents a head and so his business was
basically cut in half.
Up the midway, in a terrible location between a concession
and a grab joint was a Two-Headed Baby show owned by John
Strong Jr. Elsewhere on the midway (on the right hand side)
Strong was featuring a Ten-In-One of working acts. Admission
was one dollar. This big tented show featured a Fire Eater,
who was also the Electric Man, a Human Blockhead who also
lay on a bed of nails, a Rubber Girl, a Sword Swallower
(Strong himself, who also doubled as the Magician and
talker) and a quick, but comically phoney, Spidora illusion.
The crowd was dinged a silver donation to look into Miss
Fancy's (the Rubber Girl) contortionist box and an
additional fifty cent ding was required to see the Headless
Business was fine when I was present, but the El Monte spot
was not quite big enough to support a show of this size.
Strong's Baby show was unfortunately poorly framed even
though it did feature a real two-headed specimen as opposed
to Murray's bouncer version of the same thing. Whereas
Murray was getting fifty cents per person for his combined
Mystery Museum and Baby show, Strong was trying for the same
figure for his Punk show and wound up getting almost no
money whatsoever, (see Photo) The rules are still simple:
The best presentation gets the money.
John Strong Jr's - Baby Show (1992)