James M. Cole Big Circus Sideshow circus 1930s


So… say that it's 1939,

and I am a sideshow performer?


What is life like behind the scenes?


Am I more likely to travel by truck or by rail?


How many nights do I spend in each town?


And where o where do I sleep?

If you can answer this question or point me to a link where it is already answered, that would be wonderful!

Thanks so much for providing this service,

Kate Duva


Kate thanks  for your question, I thought it would be interesting to give your question to some of today's showfolks old and new to get their feedback and knowledge of what it was like to be a performer back in the day and maybe some of their ideas of today's shows.


The following is what they have shared.


I hope this is helpful?



Sideshow World


Life would have been even tougher then. I was told by my mentor (Toni Del Rio 1924-1988) She was an 8th generation circus/sideshow performer.


Freaks were the best paid in a sideshow and the working acts as well as the big-top kazoonies set the tops up.


Most circuses traveled on rail back then although some didn't. About 50% of carnivals traveled on rail as well as trucks.


As to sleeping conditions on the circus train according to Ward Hall on a train circus, slept 2 people in 1 berth which were 2 high (HUM) for the sideshow performers, Kinkers had private rooms or semi private rooms according to elevation of performer.


As to a truck show it was the hardest of all sleeping was either on or under the stages in the semi or even the possum-belly (That's where the word Possum belly queen comes from) too sleeping in that truck with the stick-shift up your ass. To where ever your head may lay over the jump inside the semi on top of canvas or props etc.


On Pete Kortez's Sideshow (69) I slept on the, Blo-Stage. Over the Jump back to Saint Petersburg Florida I rode on top of the canvas inside the semi. And slept in the cab of the straight job that pulled Pete's trailer until I got a job and got a room of my own.


Petes' main stage had living quarters under it that had about six rooms with a light and wall plug in each one. It also had a raised floor about one foot off the ground so they wouldn't get wet if it rained. The stage was about ten by forty to fifty foot long.


John Red Lawrence Stuart


My parents traveled by train with European circuses in the early fifties and they lived in wagons. They stayed in the wagons when they were unloaded from the train and taken to the lot. The wagons had doors on each end and were divided by a wall at the middle, this way two families lived in a wagon like a duplex.


When the wagons were loaded back onto the flatbeds everyone stayed with their wagon. Enough space was left between the wagons for a few chairs or a hammock and that is how they traveled, on open flatcars living out of the wagons.


Can you imagine having a few drinks and stepping off a flatcar doing sixty? Geez...


Lee Kolozsky


To answer that question all depends upon the shows you were working. If you were on a carnival show, it could have been a big railroad show or a small gilly outfit.


The same for circuses.


If you were working the storefront museum shows you might be in a town for a week or two, staying in a local boarding house.


Todd Robbins


Just started reading Freak Show Man- he paints a vivid portrait of what it was like-fascinating tale!


Laquita Matthews


My impression from seeing pictures on buckles is in 34 the " trucks" were small the next generation or so after model "T"s and "A"

People were tougher so spending the night in fresh hay wasn't a big deal...
the more value your act had the better the lodging... road acts would save up and buy their own trailers

Sideshow was a side show to the circus and only the big shows travelled by rail...

My impressions only from pictures of the time.

Half a century before shows travelled by horse power.

Hernan Cortez


All outdoor circuses from about 1960 back had sideshows. I had sideshows with Railroad Shows {Ringling Barnum etc and on numerous truck shows}.


Circus sideshows declined due to small lots, advance ticket sales, and the advent of mechanical things replacing horses and work elephants on setup.


Also by 1980 people had  become educated to the time shows started  due to TV etc that they no longer arrive at least an hour or more before the advertised start of the big show performance.


In the past twenty five years carnivals have acquired so many more rides, they no longer have need of the shows, and have no room for them on the lots.


Example in 1950 there were 104 ten-in-one sideshows touring north America, over four hundred girl shows and over a thousand various other shows on tour at fairs and carnivals.


2013 less than thirty paid midway shows of any kind touring for fairs and carnivals.


Cordially, Ward Hall


I have only been in the business for 69 years so, I can't comment on what sideshow biz conditions were like in 1939. I do know that my late partner and his wife Mary were on sideshows from the mid 30s, lived in a small house trailer pulled by a car. and they had a small pet dog. During that time they spent seasons with both carnival and circus.

Winters were usually on storefront shows when they would live in hotels.


When laying off they usually lived in the trailer at a shows winter quarters.


My earliest days on the road 1946, 47, 48, 49, I was with Dailey Bros., A RAILROAD CIRCUS. WE LIVED ON THE TRAIN AND SLEPT 2 PEOPLE IN 1 BERTH WHICH WERE TWO HIGH IN the cars except for the working mens cars the  bunks were 4 high. In the circus  and cars the berths were single (1 person to a berth) 3 berths high, which conformed to musicians union rules.


The cars were fumigated regularly, and in our car the berths got clean fresh linens twice each week. Each car had a porter and space was available for your foot locker for belongings. The porter had a large closet where he would hang your good clothes, and for a weekly tip he sent  your laundry and cleaning out once a week, and shined your shoes each night. The porters were employees under the staff "head porter.


One car was the pie car where the working men got paid each night, good food and snacks were available as was entertainment {gambling}.. Drunks were cared for all rules of good behavior were enforced.


The porter kept the doniker sanitary (Toilets), which was one at the end of each car, with a limited supply of water. Sanitary systems {water and waste} was attended to by the train crew which loaded and unloaded the show each day and slept in their car.


Sleeping and/or living conditions were included for animal men in the animals cars so the animals could be taken care of at all times.


Top performers, and executives were housed in stateroom cars and the owner and family had a private car.


All my other years on circuses and carnivals I had my own car and house trailer. In EARLIER DAYS WE HAD A STAGE ON TOP WITH  SOME LIVING  ROOMS UNDER IT.


Since 2003 we have had a semi trailer with stateroom's for some employees.


We have always had performers with their own house trailers or motorhomes which are parked behind the shows. Parking of any kind if living quarters on carnivals and or fairs has become expensive in recent yours.


In summation: living conditions on the road are not now or then been luxuries. I love it.


My happiest days were those on the railroad circus.


Ward Hall


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