The talker, never
“barker”, of a show might be more important than the attractions
themselves. A good talker can make even a mediocre show seem
like the miracle of the universe. While each talker has his own
style, timing, pattern and observation as well as “just guts” he
can make or break a show.
Each location on the
road has its own rhythm and dialect, and an artistic talker,
without ever seeming to change does a little “verbal magic” to a
tip to see the moment when the crowd is ready to buy. (turn the
The price of the
show used to change radically, given the time of day, location,
even the weather. During the pitch the sign on the ticket-box
might be one dollar to start. As the talker continued his pitch
though the ticket price could go down to as little as fifteen
cents once the tip was turned. The sign would be changed in an
instant to the "special price for this show only." Ticket
sellers might have as many as four different sets of tickets for
use during the “price cut.”
A rainy day means
the show does not open at all, but to see a talker gather a
crowd, however small, and hold them in the drizzle, is a thing
of beauty. One great talker I remember well was named Justin.
He was thin as a rail and never appeared to look at the crowd,
just over their heads. He was always aware of every movement
and mood though, and expert at picking his time to turn them.
I remember a day
like that on Surf Avenue at Coney Island when I was just
starting out as a “stick” (shill). I was standing all by myself
without a soul on the street when Justin told me to “spread out
and start a crowd!” You see, the job of a stick is to block the
sidewalk in a very subtle way in order to slow movement just
enough so the talker can get, and then hold the tip's attention.
A good stick will appear to raptly listen to the pitch, that he
or she has heard hundreds of times before, while moving just
enough to continue to “herd” the tip and making sure to keep
them from moving away from the bally.
The other function
of a stick is to rush to the ticket box and conspicuously buy
the first ticket. I’ve worked with shows that had as many as
four sticks in the crowd. Personally I always thought of that
as overkill. A stick will buy his ticket and move to the show’s
entrance, and then circle around and repeat the action in order
to get as many stragglers moving in as possible. When done well
it’s an art form (and fun!)
Almost every show I
worked with also had the ticket box gaffed with a small ridge
around the edge and the box at eye level. The reason? When you
got your change often the ridge would catch some silver only to
be swept off by the ticket-taker into his own box. A bonus of
sorts you could say. So count your change! There are also false
counts that can be used with bills, so listen to the count and
look at your money, even today....
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