A GIANT SWINDLE!

Witnessed by Lee Kolozsy

The line separating great showmanship from brazen deception is indistinct…

 

Many years ago at the Indiana State Fair, I saw Sideshow Impresario Peter G. Hennen studying his Arabian Giantess Show from across the midway. The place was packed, they were shoulder to shoulder, moving down the midway like a herd of cattle. Everything on the fairgrounds was working at or near capacity. With the single exception of the Arabian Giantess Show. It was coming in a lame dead last in the lineup of back end[1] attractions on the midway.

 

The show was a giant turd that wasn’t drawing flies…

 

A typical three-section bannerline, with some insipid faded banners, that were serving primarily as a home for mildew. Behind this unimpressive façade was a twenty by thirty collection of holes, held together by some shreds of canvas, and remnants of rope. Inside was the phoniest looking gaffed up mannequin, ever assembled from sticks and mud, in sideshow history. Every ducat[2] sold meant a beef at the pulpit[3]. Fortunately, there weren’t many. This was the part that was bothering the Mogul of Misrepresentation.

 

I actually saw the moment of inspiration when the light went on…

 

Peter G. (who looked a little like Woody Allen) went from a studious frown, to a self-satisfied beaming smile, in an amazing transformation that spread across his features, and changed his entire demeanor. He headed down the midway with a purposeful stride and a no nonsense attitude.

 

He elevated the art of showmanship…

 

A short while later, I saw him headed into the tattered top[4] carrying an eight-foot stepladder. He was up to something.  Soon after, the show was humming along at a brisk grind. People were falling in like kids going to school. The recently lackadaisically lethargic ticket seller was now in a furious frenzy of raking in the receipts.

And it topped the midway[5]

 

I just had to find out what he had done to turn this fiasco into a gold mine. As soon as I could, I baled out and headed for the single-o[6]. As I got in front of the grind show[7], I noticed that people were now tipping up[8] in front of the ragbag[9].

 

They were watching their friends and neighbors headed into the top.

 

As patrons were entering the tent, they were stopping for a moment in the doorway, and reaching way up high, apparently to hand their tickets to the giantess. I knew better, but I had to see for myself. I duked[10] my way in, and what I saw inside had me laughing for days.

 

The fair board appointed ticket taker[11] was posted at the entrance, behind the ragged canvas sidewall, just out of sight of the midway, sitting at the top of the ladder, collecting the ducats from the mystified victims…

 


[1] “Back end”.  The back end of the midway. The traditional domain of sideshows.

[2] “Ducat”. Show Lingo for a ticket.

[3] “Pulpit”. An open ticket box of the type used in front of sideshows and early circuses. Also known as a “Bible box”. Probably because of the way they fold like a book.

[4] “Top”. Show Lingo for any tent, as in “Circus Big Top”or “joint top”

[5] “Top the Midway”. To out gross all other attractions. Carnie equivalent of stardom.

[6] “Single-o”. Show Lingo for a sideshow featuring only one attraction.

[7] “Grind show”. Show Lingo for a sideshow that doesn’t have scheduled performances, but rather, grinds along continuously.

[8] “Tipping up”. Show Lingo for drawing a crowd.

[9] “Ragbag”. Show Lingo for a run down or seedy looking operation.

[10] “Duke”. Possibly from “Ducat” To fake paying, a professional courtesy on the midway. Most showmen don’t mind allowing show people free entry, but they don’t want to be explaining to the marks why that guy got to go free and they have to pay.

[11] In that era many shows had a percentage arrangement with the management, and the fair board would assign a ticket taker of their own to assure a good count.

 

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