The Key to the Midway…

 

by Professor Laszlo Showman at Large

 

There was a time when the back-end of the midway was mostly Shows…

 

Many carnivals carried one or more “Girl Shows”…

 

They featured mostly girls…

Girl Shows came in several flavors…

 

The “Jig Show” was a shadowy inferno of action. Acts included Feature Dancers and Strippers, a chorus of dusky lovelies, scat dialect comics, a live jazz band, and more…

 

During the “Jim Crowe” era of segregation, blacks were not permitted in the all white Revue, however, whites were often seen in the “Jig Show”…

 

The “Drag Show” was a collection of transgender imposters who often managed to create the appearance of being the loveliest ladies on the lot. The true nature of the entertainers in this type of show was kept a secret from the unsuspecting public…

 

The mightiest midways carried elaborate productions involving huge tents with countless seats, and long banner lines, many people, a chorus of dancers, feature acts, a comic, novelty turns[1], production numbers, pitch items, and more…

 

These were called “Revues”…

 

The Carnival Revue is a holdover from before the days of Burlesque. Broadway giants like Billy Rose and Florence Zigfield created lavish productions based on men’s interest in scantily clad  (if at all) females. Traveling Showmen soon imitated these popular productions. These giant racy variety shows were a mark of prestige amongst major fairs. It is an accepted fact among historians that these productions sold a fortune in tickets for the management…

 

They also carried booking clout.  More than one big fair was contracted on the merits of the entertainment…

 

The last big Carnival Revue closed in the eighties on the Strates Shows…[2]

 

Not all carnival companies were able to carry the nut[3] for one of these spectacular extravaganzas…

 

Some had to settle for a bombastic revue…

 

The Hootchie Kootchie Show gave the boys exactly what they wanted…

 

The last Kootch show I encountered was with the Drew Exposition in the late seventies…

 

These generally consisted of a box truck with a folding show front featuring scantily clad pin-up style paintings of calendar girls in alluring poses…

 

These trucks had a bally platform on one side and a stage on the other. The inside stage was usually covered by some relic of a canvas top dating back to the crusades...

 

There was always a talker, a ticket seller, a ticket taker, a sidewall man, and at least one showgirl...

 

Sometimes more than one showgirl…

 

What went on inside, I shall leave to the imagination…

 

This story is about the business…

 

…And how they give it to you…

 

The ticket sellers often had a “drop counter box” which was essentially a magic trick that made a portion of your change disappear…

 

Those who didn’t have a drop counter probably didn’t need it because the “fast count” or the “shuffle count” could accomplish the same thing…

 

The big money on the small kootch shows was made with the Key…

 

These kootch shows cultivated “regulars”…

 

When the ticket seller “Peeked his poke”[4], the poor unfortunate thrill seeker was made the mark of an elaborate game, which was performed wholesale, like an assembly line, on many marks simultaneously…

 

As the mark waits in the pig pen,[5] the crew has noticed that this is not his first visit. The ticket taker engages the mark in conversation and determines which girl is the object of the mark’s desire. During the performance, the girl throws him a few winks and the trap is baited…

 

At some point the mark is approached, by one of the staff, with a secret message from the Showgirl, which indicates that the attraction to one another’s assets is mutual…

 

 

An assignation is arranged, usually Saturday evening, with the hotel key being the collateral. The ticket taker discreetly collects the stipulated fee, and the Showgirl’s hotel key is delivered to the mark. Along with the key, comes a stern admonition to not arrive at the hotel a minute before one on Sunday morning. This being the hour at which the Showgirl’s muscular boyfriend is sure to be occupied tearing down the tilt-a-whirl at the fairgrounds…

 

 

Many of these lust-maddened lecherous Lotharios have bumped into one another, while stumbling down hotel hallways, finding that none of the keys fit any of the locks…

 

I have seen the irate victims pull on to the lot only to find, that some local wobblies, supervised by a grizzled roughie, are tearing down the show, and that the cast and management have long departed for parts unknown…

 



[1] One memorable novelty feature was the fire dancer who set the “ Star and Garter” ablaze in Atlanta. My Dad had the “10 in One” Illusion Show on the “Million Dollar Midway” and we were set up three doors down from this spectacle. Even back in the seventies there were few knowledgeable canvas men, as he and I were the only ones cutting the guy ropes so the top would collapse and smother the fire. By the time the canvas crew from “ World’s Fair Freaks & Attractions” had arrived, we had the inferno grounded. The Atlanta F.D. determined that the drapes had gone up setting the top on fire. Take it from me… a tent goes up in flames fast.

[2] This was Jack Norman’s “From Broadway to Hollywood”. When the show folded, it left a lovely showgirl stranded. I immediately put her to work as Spidora and the Headless Woman…

[3] “Carry the nut” An expression referring to the ability of an entertainment enterprise to overcome the expenses…

[4] “Peeked his poke”…An expression dating from the days of the riverboat gamblers, who had the ticket clerks on the docks qualifying “Marks” by tapping them on the shoulder with a piece of chalk concealed in their hands, if the victim was unwise enough to reveal the content of his wallet or “poke”…

[5] “pig pen” the waiting area where ticket holders wait for the show to begin…

 

 

Photographs

Cabinet card of the famous Little Egypt. The card was put out by Newsboy of New York

 

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