Even small rural
areas were stopping places for the roving shows, many of
which moved almost exclusively by railroad. A visit to the
carnival would provide quick, cheap enter-
tainment to suit
just about everyone's tastes. For mere pennies the customers
could line up to see a live Wild West show or a high diving
exhibition performed by young, beautiful girls in daring,
for the time, bathing attire.
Exotic animals from the far corners of the globe and
death-defying motorcycle stunts were a common sight.
Mystifying magic and revues depicting the shameless harems
of India and Baghdad delighted the curious. There were the
Pit Shows wherein midgets wrestled giant snakes and ancient
mummies were displayed.
The most curious and strong of stomach could find an
incredible exhibit going on inside the Side Show or Freak
Show where live acts were performed continuously on stage.
Here one could see the Human Oddities, those people whom
life had dealt an unfair or extraordinary fate. The Fat
Lady, the Pop-Eyed Boy, the Human Skeleton, or one of the
"working acts" - those acts wherein a special skill was
required as opposed to a peculiar physical deficiency- like
the Fire Eater, the Human Pin-Cushion, the Human Blockhead -
who would pound a six inch spike up his nose, or the Sword
Initially displayed as single attractions, (known in the
business as a "Single-O") these amazing acts were later
linked together into one grandiose show called the
Ten-In-One (Ten acts under One tent). Walter K. Sibley has
been credited with the novel idea of stringing several
diverse attractions into one giant exhibition back in 1904.
For a time they were called "String Shows", before
transforming into the more common nick-name, Ten-In-one,
although some shows featured as many as 16 acts under their
As author Don Boles pointed out so well in his excellent
book, THE MIDWAY SHOWMAN: "To build a show, you must have
something to exhibit..." There simply had to be something
inside the tent to pique the public's interest. While it is
certainly true that the brightly illustrated banners
displayed outside the shows were almost always going to be
more entertaining than what was held inside the canvas, the
show still had to deliver the goods or there would be
"beefs" (customer complaints) to the carnival owner and
trouble would certainly follow soon after.
What many people outside the business do not realize is that
most carnivals are made up of many independent show people
(sometimes referred to as "carnies"). All shows own some of
the rides, games and grab-joints, but there are many
independent owners and operators who book their machinery,
food or games onto the carnival, splitting, or "cutting" the
money generated with the carnival owner for the privilege of
doing business on their lot.