of their techniques
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
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
traditional bally consists of three distinct parts. The
first of which is known as “MAKING AN OPENING”
or “BUILDING A TIP”
This is followed by “ THE PITCH”
The bally performance always
or sometimes “THE JAM”
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.
overused word in the world of advertising is “SALE”. The
strongest word in the world of advertising is “FREE”.
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…”
you’ve assembled a motley collection of freeloaders, now
what do you do? Well…every journey begins
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.
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…
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
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…
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”.
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.
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.
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
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
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!!!”….
“ 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.
“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.
“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)
“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.
“ 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.
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.
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.
“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.
“Points” a percentage of the take, a salesman’s
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.