GREAT BALLY TALKERS

By Prof. Lee Kolozsy

 

An analysis of their techniques

Forward… 

For those accustomed to my lighthearted articles, this will be a departure from the expected, as I intend to treat the subject matter with the objective and serious care it truly deserves. 

Of all the many changes I have seen on the midway over the many years I’ve spent following the show arrows, the loss of the bally shows is the hardest to take.

 

In a recent post on a former discussion group, a neophyte asked for advice about “turning the tip”. He received valuable advice from illustrious masters of the art. All three of them. I promised to write a comprehensive article. Here goes…

The Bally 

The traditional bally consists of three distinct parts. The first of which is known as “MAKING AN OPENING”[1] or “BUILDING A TIP”[2] This is followed by “ THE PITCH” [3] The bally performance always ends with “THE TURN”[4] or sometimes “THE JAM”[5]

 

Many who read this are already familiar with the structure and the format of the bally, and there are many great examples of scripts for one to follow, but I believe that this is not enough. In this article I shall concern myself with not so much a “how to” guide, but rather an explanation of why it works. The psychology and the motivating factors which determine the effectiveness of the bally performance... Not what to say, but how to say it, and when.

 

The bally is sophisticated advertising. It is a theatrical play intended to sell tickets to another theatrical play. It is, in essence, a free sample, a short skirt, one potato chip, your first dose of heroin, the upside down answer to the riddle you can’t answer. It is, ideally, the ultimate tease. It is worthless unless done well. In order to do it well you must understand it well.

 

The most overused word in the world of advertising is “SALE”. The strongest word in the world of advertising is “FREE”[6]. There is seldom profit in the use of the word “FREE” in the world of commerce. The bally is a notable exception. The word “FREE” is your most useful tool when it comes to building a tip. After all, the bally show is free. “THAT’S RIGHT FOLKS, IT’S ALL FREE, RIGHT HERE, IT’S STARTING UP RIGHT NOW, A BIG FREE SHOW, BROUGHT TO YOU BY  THE MANAGEMENT AT NO CHARGE, SO JUST GATHER ‘ROUND AND WATCH WHAT WE’RE GONNA DO RIGHT DOWN HERE AT SIDESHOW, WHERE THE STRANGE PEOPLE ARE…WATCH THE DOORWAY, HERE THEY COME, WE’RE GONNA BRING ‘EM OUT HERE, ALL FREE, SO YOU CAN SEE WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE, WATCH THE DOORWAY, DON’T BLINK, DON’T LOOK AWAY, KEEP YOUR EYES WIDE OPEN, YOU DON’T WANNA MISS ANY OF WHAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN, AND IT’S ALL FREE…” etc…

 

So you’ve assembled a motley collection of freeloaders, now what do you do?  Well…every journey begins with a single step and great things arise from humble beginnings, so... You use them. They may never be customers, but they can attract customers. Like flypaper, once a few flies are trapped, others are drawn. Monkey see, monkey do[7]. Remember that, it will be useful later. You must keep them amused, so they don’t drift away. A little business, a gag, some bullshit, go ahead, smear it on. Stall…Create suspense… it builds as people stop and ask… “What are they all looking at?”… Get the assembled masses to crowd in…the tighter the better…

 

One interesting technique I observed was the legendary Ringling ringmaster, and Walter Wanous number one bally talker, Count Nicholas, who, at one point, simply tucked his microphone under his arm and worked the front row, since the people behind couldn’t hear him, they pushed and crowded in, now they were packed in like sardines, with no escape…Masterful. 

 

Another terrific example was a bit Jack Waller used, “Now folks we would like to continue with the free show but we have received instructions from your local emergency services that we are required to maintain a fire lane on the midway that cannot be blocked by the crowd, so before we can continue with the free show, I must ask that EVERYONE, please take a few steps forward towards the stage, that’s right, everyone crowd right in, make room for your friends and neighbors, now Ma’am, you won’t be able to see from way back there, little Bobo the Bear girl is only so tall, and you need to get closer if you want to see her…”… Motion to them to step in as a group, a sweeping gesture.  Do it three times, once at each end of the stage, and once to the middle. A command from a figure of authority… This is very important, as you instruct them to step in closer, take a step backwards on the bally platform. They will follow your instructions without hesitation. This is an important step in the bally process, by forcing people to listen and obey, you are psychologically conditioning people to continue to listen and obey, this establishes a working precedent, you are training people with a subtle Pavlovian technique, conditioned reflexes…

 

By now you should have a large well packed crowd, trapped, with no where to go, and you are ready to begin the pitch. Since the crowd is trapped by the people behind, they will have no choice but to listen to your pitch, in full. You will lose only from the outer fringes. That is why we try to pack ‘em in tight. It is also an effective technique to at this point develop a “hook”[8]. A promise of something that you must not miss…a treat…a cliffhanger…some unimportant business that creates suspense, it will help hold them during your pitch. Open the pitch with a hook, something you refresh periodically by referring to it, for example, on a girl show, “ The little lovelies are backstage right now getting undressed for their next performance and we’re gonna have them come out here for a little free sample…” Command people to not miss this, as this is a sight of a lifetime. Then pitch what you’ve got. Pitch it to the best of your ability.

 

Exaggerate some things to the point of disbelief. Paint a picture in the minds of your prospects. Make it weird, maybe a little scary, you know, scary weird carnie…or whatever you like…these are details, the bally is about points. Bally talkers were paid points[9]. Points come from sales. Make sales. Use words. Use any words. Word up on words. Word is, no special words are required. A script isn’t necessary. A few good cracks, and an explanation or two, and a few promises. Strain your credibility a time or two. Promote skepticism. Make some phony misleading guarantee. Bullshit them about your acts. And there, you’ve made your pitch.

 

Way better than butchering someone else’s masterpiece. Do yourself a favor, don’t read from a script. Don’t memorize a written pitch. Play it by ear, fly by the seat of your pants. It’ll work way better. Just remember, this is a play that is largely improv and it’s a documentary about another play that your audience can’t afford to miss. Use words that will cause your prospects to create images in their minds that they cannot resist the desire to examine. For example, “ You’ll see the giant, Johann K. Petursson, The Icelandic Giant, That’s right, you’ll meet a real live giant, a man who stands nine feet, nine and three quarters inches tall, he weighs seven hundred and sixty three pounds, wears shoes the size of barrel cut in half, his belt is long enough to go around a horses belly, and he wears a ring that you can use for a napkin ring. He is real, he is alive, you can talk to him, he will answer your questions. You can shake the giant by the hand, and what big hands he has…hands the size of Virginia hams, positively the largest man to walk the face of the earth…”

 

As the pitch is made, it is always good to bring out the attractions one at a time and pitch what they do as the crowd is examining them. In the case of the giant, it would have killed the sale to bring the giant out, so brilliant showman Glenn Porter had the giant reach out from above the sidewall of the tent, high above the average persons normal height, and ring the clapper on a giant ship’s bell. Johann truly did have huge hands, and this was very impressive, and noisy. Exploit the monkey side of Curious George. Tell them only enough to create intense curiosity…THEN TURN THEM

 

The turn is the part where all this stuff pays off.  The turn is where all the freaks motion “follow me”, turn as one, and march inside. The crowd wants to go with them and see what they do. Get it? The Bally Talker facilitates this. Nay, he COMMANDS that this be so. He pulls rank, he insists, he has the authority, he is in charge. This has been previously established. Repeatedly. During the bally, it was established that he is in charge, the freaks obey him, a volunteer from the audience obeys his instructions. It is firmly established in the minds of the crowd that he is to be obeyed. He is the Ringmaster of oddities, The Hype master General. With a dash of Freud. Publicist to the Freaks. He’ll tell you all about it. And make you a heck of a deal, “ If you are quick enough, smart enough, alert enough, but mostly fast enough to get in line right now, in front of either one of these two ticket clerks right now, you and your party will enter not at the usual admission price of six dollars, but….for the next few minutes and the next few minutes only…EVERYBODY, I said EVERYBODY,…gets in now for a child’s, I said a child’s…half price ticket, only three dead presidents to see the show of your nightmares, a jennuine freak show you bet, so hurry along into the tented theatre, cause it’s starting right now…Don’t miss a moment of it …GO NOW!!!”[10]….


[1] “ MAKING AN OPENING”  When a bally talker creates the ideal opportunity ( an “opening” )  to sell a crowd of people on the idea of attending a show.

[2] “BUILDING A TIP” When a bally talker takes the stage in front of an attraction and assembles a crowd using a variety of techniques.  A “tip” is a crowd of people assembled to see an event on the midway.  Bally  talkers often specialize and one talker would make the opening and hand the mike to another to make the pitch and turn the tip.

[3] “THE PITCH” The part of the bally where the acts are hyped, the wonders to be seen inside, often hyperbole, scandalous exaggeration, and misleading half-truths. ( in the more reputable outfits)

[4] “THE TURN” Where prospects are converted to customers. The portion of the bally following the “pitch” when all the entertainers on stage turn and head inside to begin the show. I believe the name stems from the important bit of choreography where the bally chorus “TURNS” with a “follow me” wave, in unison, and heads inside.

[5] “ THE JAM” A sense of panic is artificially created by the bally talker with a reduction in price for only the first few customers in line. The public literally “Jams” in line to take advantage of the offer. A sort of human “feeding frenzy” that I have seen result in fistfights over a place in line.

[6] Thank you Ward Hall for the lesson…I have had many occasions to put it to use over the years, but I believe this may be the best use yet. I hope I do as good a job teaching this as you did.

[7] My Dad believed that this expression pretty much summed up all you needed to know about selling your act on the midway. The older I get, the more I tend to agree with him.

[8] “A hook” a technique used by bally talkers to get people to stay through the entire pitch. The expression may have originated with medicine shows and jam auctions. Now in mainstream use in  broadcast news production, often seen during ratings sweeps.

[9] “Points” a percentage of the take, a salesman’s commission.

[10] Following the “ turn”, the bally talker would hand off the microphone to a “spieler” or “grind man” who would do a live version of the “grind pitch” which is now days often a recorded spiel on grind shows. A live spiel is far superior to a canned pitch, as it affords the possibility of timing your pitch to coincide with whatever is going on at that time. If a group of people are looking at a certain banner, for example, you can pitch what they’re mesmerized by at the moment. I have also seen recordings in place of the spieler. On live ballies, I was always my own spieler. I would grind until the last ticket was torn.

 

If you have a question you would like to submit email us at contact us here

 

Back to Show Talk With Lee Kolozsy        Back to Main

 

All photos are the property of their respective owners whether titled or marked anonymous.

"Sideshow WorldTM" is the sole property of John Robinson © All rights reserved.

 sideshowworld.com   sideshowworld.org   sideshowworld.net  sideshowworld.biz   sideshowworld.info

is the sole property of John Robinson © All rights reserved.

E-Mail Sideshow World     E-Mail The Webmaster