CHAPTER TWO
 

Pt 4

 


 

Larry Lundwall's MOUSE CIRCUS and MUSEUM OF THE UNUSUAL

 

 

   This GILA MONSTER exhibit says the beast was 'captured' alive (the word 'captured' being hastily added only hand), which seems to imply that it has now ceased to be alive!
 

 

THE ILLUSION SHOW


A popular and fun type of Grind Show is the Illusion show. Most likely it is never advertised as an illusion, but many carnivals require some kind of admission of its fantasy element somewhere on the outside. I particularly like the bullets UNREAL and UNBELIEVABLE in use myself. These greatly concealed truths help avoid beefs later and keeps the operator from being charged with misrepresentation (although the Grind Show almost always relies heavily on misrepresentation as its bread and butter and the public loves it!).


The Headless Girl illusion is a favorite and dates back to the carnival's early days when "Doctor" Heineman first brought his "Headless Olga" show to America from Blackpool, England in 1937. Since then the illusion has been framed in numerous variations, but the show itself has changed little. It has been displayed as The Headless Centerfold with gaffed newspaper articles displayed outside mimicking the Jayne Mansfield automobile tragedy of the late sixties in which the blonde Hollywood bombshell lost her head for real.


Recently it has been framed as a Headless Bikini Girl who unfortunately lost her head while surfing to a shark attack! As usual, the show owners have had to keep up with the times in order to continue grinding those dimes and quarters, (see Photo)


The illusion itself is fairly easy to construct. For years the famous A.K. Brill catalog offered the blueprints for framing such a show. The only draw-back is that a living girl with a good figure was required to sit in the illusion for hours on end while the scattered patrons passed by. Sometimes two girls are employed, one playing "nurse" while the other portrays the headless girl and later switching roles for a break.


The operator's imagination is required to come up with some kind of amazing equipment in order to keep the decapitated lass   alive   and  breathing.   Often   it   is   laughable,   but  adds immeasurably to the charm of the show.


If the Headless illusion is a keeper it is rivaled closely by Spidora, the living girl with a spider's body. Spidora has been around forever. A 1928 photo from the Conklin & Garrett Shows features a Spider Girl Grind Show (called Spidoro) even at this early stage in outdoor showmanship. The illusion was also featured in Tod Browning's 1927 silent feature film, THE SHOW, years before he made his infamous movie, FREAKS.


The spider girl has the same draw-back as the headless in that it needs a living girl present at all times in order for it to grind. Unlike the headless show the Spidora show leaves the hapless girl's face on display to be subjected to the taunts and jibes of the marks. No one bothers to talk to a headless girl, but a girl whose head is out in the open is a ripe target for abuse from fun seekers on the Midway. A phoney nurse or doctor standing by is a good remedy to keep this "fun" from getting out of hand.


Like the headless show and many others, plans for this illusion were sold to showmen by the A.K. Brill company. Brill, who was a lover of carnivals and an anti-government proponent, published a catalog of plans from which carnies could build everything from Ferris Wheels to cotton candy makers. The Brill book featured blueprints for Midway games, Fun Houses, Side Shows, Grind Shows, food stands (recipes included!), riding devices, and Circus equipment. This dates back to the days when carnies had to pretty much build their own rides (not the case by any means now) and other operating paraphernalia. For a few dollars the prospective showman could buy plans for building a Gorilla Girl illusion, Spidora, Headless, Baby Betty, the Turtle Girl, and other shows too numerous the list. They even sold instructions on how to walk on hot coals, drink molten lead, swallow a sword, and stick long sharp hat-pins through your skin without getting hurt too badly!


In this period of time they even sold plans on building your own tent, but modern mass production has made many of the blueprints obsolete. They are still treasured as collector's items and fetch considerable prices. The company was purchased outright a few years ago by Hollywood filmmaker, David L. Hewitt, who plans to make them available again to enthusiasts for a modest price. The catalogs alone are worth purchasing by any fan of this form of old-time entertainment.


The most profitable and difficult illusion to operate is the Gorilla Girl illusion. Within the walls of the tent the marks will watch as a beautiful girl in a bikini slowly transforms into a huge blood-thirsty ape. The show is amazing in that the transformation happens right before your very eyes via a simple, but extremely effective beam-splitter effect (very often supplied by a sliding glass patio door) which is situated at a forty-five degree angle.


The show begins with a live bally show in which the talker brings out the exotic (if you can find one) girl in a leopard skin bikini. He explains that the girl was found living wild in the jungle and that through hypnosis she will revert back to her primitive gorilla state before the wide eyes of the audience. This usually gets the crowd moving into the tent and the general admission for a Gorilla Show is about $2 - (twice the asking price of a live Ten-in-One).
 

               A nice variation on the HEADLESS theme attempts to update the show to more modern times.

               This show is built into the back of a truck.

 

 

A very nice SPIDORA show in a trailer set-up.

 

Inside, the marks see the girl standing within a cage while the lecturer tells the crowd that she is being put into a deep trance. As he urges her deeper and deeper into her trance, the transformation begins, and before you know it she has changed into a hairy gorilla. The marks are warned not to make any sudden moves, but before you can count to three the gorilla has broken out of the cage and is charging towards the screaming audience! The lecturer fires off a blank gun to try to stop the impending panic (or perhaps assist it) and one of the show hands whips open the canvas at the entrance to allow the terrified customers an easy, quick escape.

The crowd of screaming marks running from the tent is a sure fired guarantee of a new tip forming and the next show will be on its way soon. The show requires about five to six people to operate - There is, of course, the girl and the man playing the gorilla. There's the talker, the ticket taker, who also opens the back flap at the climax and at least one person inside to operate the illusion itself. The actual show is not overly expensive to build, but requires space and a good sized truck to cart it around in.

At the Meadowlands in New Jersey (held at Giant Stadium under the Amusements Of America Shows banner) our Amazon exhibit was unfortunately located next to the Gorilla Show. While we did a gross of about $3,600 for the entire date (10 days), the Gorilla show was doing about $2,000 a day! In effect, they literally killed our business, which shows you how lot location can affect a show's income.

Because of the high help overhead, the Gorilla shows are not nearly as numerous as other types of shows, but carnivals actively seek them out and the public loves them. It is, in fact, a kind of cross-over between the Grind Show and the Ten-In-one Side Show in that a live act and bally show are featured.

 

 

All stories are copyrighted Fred Olen Ray and posted here with his express permission,

 

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