In a gray down the train of World's Finest Shows pulls
into Weyburn, Sank. First off is Jimmy Sullivan, right, the show's'
operator since 1927
Susie, elephant with the traveling show's circus, docilely
follows a handler through the grounds. She's a great favorite of town small fry
and show folk.
THE MAGIC of
the carnival bewitches not only the small boys who turn out to welcome it
whatever hour it arrives in town. but also the grown men who work for it.
"You've got to have something wrong with you to
be in this business," mutters Jimmy Sullivan, boss of World's Finest Shows, as
he climbs down from the silver-painted show train he commands into a 5 A.M.
western Canadian dawn. Yet there is a sparkle in his eye and a rakish tilt
to his hat even at that hour. Jimmy has been in show business for nearly
40 of his 57 years and still regards it with a gusto that has nothing to do with
the money it has made for him.
Jimmy Sullivan was born in Fargo, N.D., but is
now a Canadian citizen. He made his debut in outdoor show business in 1917
in partnership with John Paul Flanagan of Flanagan's Greater Shows. Ten
Sullivan went to France with the U.S. 83rd Division. Soon after his return
he bought out Flanagan and changed the name to Wallace Brothers Shows.
There was never any Wallace connected with the
outfit and, until recently, when the name was changed to World's Finest Shows.
Sullivan and his cohorts found amusement in going up to some derelict hanger on
who was being studiously avoided by well-heeled patrons and addressing him
loudly but deferentially as "Mr. Wallace."
puts his show on the road leading from Quebec to Alberta between early May and
early October each year. His first act on arriving in a town is to stake
out the ground so that the customers will be obliged to go down the line of
concessions to reach the rides and return the same way.
Then the ramps come down at the railway yards and
the vans and trailers are rolled off the 32 flat cars (which, with six box cars
and nine coaches, make up the largest carnival train in Canada) and are hauled
to the fair grounds.
There the rest of the bull gang and the
concessionaires are waiting to erect the stalls, sideshows, and rides.
Dominating all - and without which no carnival is complete - is the Ferris
Wheel, also known to show people as the "simp hoister." Then, too it
is sometimes called the thermometer" because it can be seen from all over the
fair ground, and if it is empty then there is no business to be expected
Five hours after the unloading ramps are lowered
the first customers are already drifting into the tent town which is the midway,
trying their luck at the "flat Stores" (percentage games) or the "hanky panks"
(merchandise stores where some kind of prize is given every time), listening to
the talkers: for the girlies and midget shows, the Globe of Death or the circus,
getting their thrills from rides on the Rock-o-Plane, Tilt-a-Whirl, Octopus or
Gradually the pace builds up throughout the day
until the climax, known as "the blowoff," when the crowd come streaming out of
the grandstand after the show and tops off the evening with a fling around the
Many of the crew come back to work for World's
Finest Shows year after year. However, few know the others' full names.
Men are identified by their jobs. Thus, Ferris Wheel Joe, Tractor
Louis, Roll Down Mike.
Globe of Death, in which Bob
Lee and his wife ride on motorcycles, takes longest to set up.
He inspect every strut and bolt.
Righting a capsized trailer is
all in a day's work for members of the "bull gang." The
show plays 27 towns and cities across Canada from Quebec to
Red Deer, Alta.
Opening day parade is an
integral part of any Canadians fair. While carnival is
set up on Weyburn grounds, some units such as animal acts take
part in it.
Five hours after the first
equipment started rolling off the train at 5 A.M., the show is
set up and waiting for the first customers.
Display for the midget show is erected at the
fair grounds. Midget entertainers are popular with other show folk.
However, the "gagoonies" of today are pale
shadows of the devil-may-care but often unlovable roustabouts of pre-war days.
Sullivan insists on civility to the public and good behavior at all times,
emphasizing that the chief concentration of the show is now on children.
"As long as we give the kids plenty of rides, sure-fire prizes and nickel days,
the parents will come too."
His Ten Commandments are famous in show business.
They include such unlikely admonitions as "Do not engage town girls in
conversation or go out with them." No cursing. swearing or hollering on
lot, trucks or train." Do not short change the public as they make it
possible for us to make a living." Do not take the law at any time
in your own hands."
Despite the good intentions of show folk there
are always some local bully boys who think it smart to provoke them. Then
as Sullivan's brother Mark says. "We're always ready if a beef does start.
We don't exactly have a bunch of professors with us."
A classic "beef" still remembered fondly by W. F.
S veterans occurred several seasons ago at Esievan, Sask, A drunken miner
was refused a ride by the Octopus foreman in the interests of the man's own
safety, whereupon he hauled off and punched the foreman on the nose. He
was surrounded by his pals, so the foreman, discreetly disappeared.
Later, when the crowd of miners had disappeared,
he returned to the spot but left another man in charge of the Octopus while he
remained hidden. Eventually the miner drifted back and again demanded to
get on the Octopus. He was allowed to take his place and was firmly
strapped in. Then the foeman, this time well backed up by show folk,
seized a two-by-four and awaited the trapped miner each time he whizzed around.
Nowadays, in similar circumstances, the tendency,
however grudging, would be to call the law. Jimmy Sullivan's footnote to
his Ten Commandments makes a point that is not lost on show people: "If
these rules are disagreeable to you, you can change them when you have your own
young girl is fascinated by a tempting glimpse the public is given of the
glamorous show that awaits inside.
It's midnight and the midway
is closed. But Al Brown and his wife, who run bingo
concessions, still have pleasant work to do - counting
Mildred Lee is "Talker" for
Globe of Death ride with husband, Bob.
Girlie show's Nahita
Jacobsen gives worker amusing makeup.
When show is "struck"
concessions come down plank by plank and are carefully packed
away in surprisingly small space for move to next town.
After show is down some of
the boys still have energy enough to take part in a game of
poker, expertly run by Harry Lieberman (Wearing light cap).
It's early morning in Moose Jaw. Johnny
Bunk (squatting), foreman of Kiddieland rides, and men play with his dog, to the
delight of small boy.
assistant manager, signals truck hauling a show trailer to come straight ahead.
Photostory by David Willock and Louis Jaques
WEEKEND Magazine 1956