Color, Contrast Point Up
Side Show Banner-Line Art
TRADEMARK of midways since tips were first turned has been
the brilliant, grotesque collection of oil paintings, works of art
that comprise the Side Show banner line.
These garish portraits of strange people, oddities and curiosities
probably have stopped more people than all the art museums in the
nation and set more jaws ajar than surrealistic are.
It's a safe bet that over the years more Americans have mulled the
question of how oddities manage with two heads or no arms that the
question of why the Mona Lisa smiles.
Hundreds of fat girls, half boys, geeks and giants, bell ringers
and bag pipers, minstrels, magicians, musicians and midgets have
been portrayed in the big murals that are among the most startling
point-of-sales advertising pieces in the business of selling.
Yet, like the art of tinting glass for church windows, the art of
producing Side Show banners rests in the hands of very few. It
won't become a lost art. Mankind won't forget the basic thing of
how to draw pictures of its stranger members, but it might
misplace the trade secret that have been perfected and handed down
by a compact fraternity of artists with skills and knacks that
make them old masters in their field.
For now, the banners are flying, and
they probably are nearly as effective and popular as ever. Lined
up at circus Side Show tents, fronting funhouses and mirror mazes
at carnivals, dressing doorways of pit shows, walk-thrus, ding
shows and annexes, banners still are a trademark of outdoor show
Banner painting is centered in two places, Chicago and Tampa. In
the Florida city, Snap Wyatt holds forth with brush and canvas,
turning out paintings for many shows, mainly carnivals. In
Chicago is Fred Johnson, last active member of a royal line of
banner painters that date back to the 1890's.
Nieman in Chicago
Johnson is with the O. Henry Tent &
Awning Company. Also in Chicago is another of the big names in
banner business, Neiman Eisman, who signed his banner work with
his first name only. For 45 years Neiman banners have backed up
the bally on hundreds of shows. He presided and painted at
studios on Halsted Street until he sold the business to O. Henry
prior to last season.
When Eisman retired, he presented
Johnson with a rare old book, Brehm's "Life of Animals." Spot a
cobra or a zebra in a Neiman banner and chances are that one of
Brehm's 1896 drawings posed for it. In one way the book represents
Johnson's royal crown in the banner business. In another, it
harks back to the time he and Eisman were co-workers in an earlier
Eisman came from Europe as a boy, and
his father, a sign painter, started him off with paint brushes.
He went to work for Sigmund Bock, one of the early banner painters
to set up shop in Chicago. There Eisman first painted snake
charmers, Circassian beauties and
even the famous Siamese twins,
Millie-Christine. That was about 1910. In a few years Bock died
and Eisman went to work for Ed Neuman at the old United States
Tent & Awning Company, Chicago.
There he was in company with one of the greatest assemblages of
banner line artists in any location. There was H. C. Cummins, now
ill and inactive, but then making a reputation as one of the best
drawers in the field. A co-worker was William T. Lee, noted for
mixing the most brilliant and lasting colors. Another was James
Anderson, who gave everyone nicknames. And Cad Hill hobbled on a
peg leg as he painted highly detained scenes on banners.
Trained in Europe
In any collection of such artists
there was bound to be a frustrated classical painter. This was
Manuel (The Artist) Salerzano. who spoke longingly of Mexico and
of artists and schools in Europe. Perhaps feeling he had fallen a
few rungs in the echelon of artists, he turned to liquor to paint
some of his gayest scenes. Once he was doing banner depicting a
horse. But he started twice, once from each end, and when the
assorted parts met in the center they didn't look like a horse.
Ed Neuman mentioned this and Manuel took up an ax and chased the
boss around the block.
Eisman stayed with U. S. tent company until about 1920, when he
went to Neuman's new firm, and in 1924 he joined Driver Bros.'
tent company. That company went out of business and Eisman opened
his own studio in 1931.
Meanwhile, Johnson one of nine boys in
a Chicago family, lived next door to an employee of U. S. Tent,
who arranged for Fred to go to work with Cummins as an assistant
artist on banners. He painted oddities for nine years and then for
two years during World War I his job was to paint ammunition
trucks a warning red.
Out of the service, he went to U.S. Tent for two years, working
with Eisman and the others. He was with Driver Bros. from 1921 to
1930 except for a brief time in which he and Charles Driver broke
away to try their hand with a new company.
in 1934 he came to the O. Henry Tent & Awning Company, where today
he is turning out banners for some of the biggest names in Side
Show, carnival and carnival business.
Millard & Bulsterbaum
Just as banners come from Chicago and Tampa now, they used to come
mainly from Chicago and New York. In the East was the firm of
Millard & Bulsterbaum, with studios at Coney Island. To Millard &
Bulsterbaum goes credit for one of bannerdom's basic devices-the
liberal use of orange paint, particularly for extra wide borders.
Rube Merifield was the artist who probably hit upon this idea
which nearly every banner shop has since adopted to some degree.
The product of the Eastern shop became identifiable by the orange
hues and also by scenic pieces in which backgrounds were limited
to brief sketches instead o fully developed views.
Eisman's work, on the other had, points up to style developed in
the Chicago center. His depictions are in great detail. Colors
are bright but not monopolized by orange. And behind the figures
are fully developed background scenes. Other Chicagoans' work was
in orange or in detail, banners have the function of stopping
people. The whole point is to give the talkers someone to work
on. And banner art does just that. The techniques are simple and
effective. First, Johnson shies from saying their portraits
"exaggerate" the subject matter. He prefers to say it
is "elaborated" or "embellished."
But in any case the idea is to point up unusualness by contrasting
it with the normal thing. This is especially true of Chicago
style banners, where background is important.
Thus a banner for a giant will show him in company with people
much smaller than he, and he will tower over objects of known
size, such as houses, cars or trees. An artist's device is to
stress the size by painting a horizon low behind him.
Contrast Played Up
A human skeleton may be shown at a
beach in company with slightly plump girls. The bearded lady's
midway portrait not only stresses a heavy black growth of whiskers
but contrasts this with an over-emphasized female form. Seal boys
are shown cavorting with
seals on some Pacific shore. Frog boys are pictured in a puddle
with others humans. And leopard boys are painted in jungle
Banner painters say that it is extremely rare for a Side Show
attraction to come into their studios to come into their studios
to sit for a portrait, altho an elephant boy did come to the
Neiman shop to display a pachyderm-like growth on his knee.
Usually, the Side Show manager tells the studio he wants a set of
banners depicting certain attractions. From then on it is mostly
up to the artist. For guidance, Johnson has assembled a library
which includes several volumes of animal pictures, clippings from
Life magazine, a bundle of comic books and not a few books of
children's classics. He point out that most reference pieces are
mostly for animals because the species are different while the
human form, even in freaks, is basically the same.
Work From Sketches
Some show managers order are that depicts specific attractions by
name and appearance. This, say Eisman and Johnson, is true of
larger shows and especially of circuses. In such cases, some
buyers send sketches, photos or written instructions for the
Often the attractions themselves supply one of the souvenir
postcards they sell in the show, and the artist models the banner
form the postcard. A few human oddities have sent letters in
which they give detailed descriptions of themselves.
Lew Alter is the Side Show impresario who goes to greatest effort
to get exactly what he wants in banner art. With each order he
supplies O. Henry with a full set of detailed sketches.
Copy Brydon Set
When Lloyd Serfass ordered a set of
banners this spring, it was decided they should be like a
particular set made for Ray Marsh Brydon some years ago, and
Johnson produced them for memory and old records. For the Clyde
Beatty Circus, King Bros., Circus jobs this spring he received
It might be expected that when directions are lacking, a buyer
might sometime decide he didn't like the finished product. But
that has rarely happened. The one case Neiman Eisman recalls
involved the Miller Bros., 101 Ranch Wild West Show.
That outfit bought 20 banners and upon receiving them they wrote
Eisman that 19 ere fine but giant's banner was terrible. The
letter went on to say that while he was doing it over, he might
make the giant's coat red and he might paint in a different name.
In other words, the first banner probably was okay but the show
had hired a different giant in the meantime.
Fewer Name Freaks
The number of name freaks being
painted has declined, according to Johnson and Eisman; more and
more banners are for standard attractions and novelties. From
where the banner people sit, it is clear that freaks comprise a
smaller percentage of the Side Show attractions each year.
Reason for this, they say, seems to be that it is more difficult
for a showman to acquire an oddity. In years gone by, a Side Show
operator could contact relatives of a young attraction and come
away with a relatively simple arrangement for doing business. Now
ore complicated procedures thru official channels are often
Millard & Bulsterbaum
With fewer individual freaks available, showmen buy more
standard banner lines, especially for smaller shows. Standard
panels allow for the coming and going of personnel during a
season. A standard set might include a fat attraction, snake
worker, magician, knife act, vent and fire. Over the years,
Eisman and Johnson declare, they have painted more magicians than
anything else, with snake charmers a close second.
Once an order is in and the subject matter selected, the artist
gets down to actual paint-ing. Trade secrets enter into the
selection and mixing of paint. Plain white canvas is sewed into
banners and fitted with hardware, then stretched tightly on large
boards. This canvas, unlike that used by the palette and easel
crowd, is untreated and there is a special knack to painting on
Sketch, Block, Detail
Johnson explains that he starts a
banner by sketching the general layout in black ink. Over this
may go a primer, and then the colors are "blocked in." By this
time an onlooker can make out the idea, but it takes the important
final step of detailing to give the banner its highly specialized
Important to showmen is the way the banners react to sun and
rain. A test of banner work is how it stands up under showground
conditions, and there again the various practioners have perfected
pet methods and products to insure long and brilliant life for
1920's Were Best
The best years for banners were from 1923 to 1929, in the view of
Johnson and Eisman. That is when most orders were to be had.
Shortly before, carnivals had come into their own, and they
originated 75 per cent of the banner business. That percentage
holds good today, but earlier most banners were for circuses. The
biggest job in the memory of Eisman and Johnson was the front Pete
Kortez had for his Side Show on Beckman & Gerety Shows. It was a
three-high line with 30 panels, 15 on each side of a 20-foot
Standard size for carnival banners is 8 by 10 feet, while most
double-decked circus banner measure 10 by 16 or more. The John
Robinson Circus once had a dozen double-deck banners measuring 12
by 24 feet, plus a doorway. Many of the double-deck, two-picture
banners now measure 12 by 18, and Eisman declares this height was
determined by the size of the painting boards in his studio.
These were nine feet high and an 18-foot panel could be completed
with two moves, while a 24-foot model required a third move.
Recall Old Shows
Among the passing attractions for
which Eisman and Johnson have done banners were such things as
under-canvas movies; '49 Camps, for which Eisman's skill at
painting girls came in handy; Law and Outlaw Shows; Igorotes; Wild
West Shows; the Karn fat show, Baba Delgarina's girl shows, and
the DeKrekos pioneer Glass Housed, for which Johnson's ability to
paint clowns stood him in good stead.
They did Snake Oid's reptile banners as well as the rag fronts for
Bejano's mule-face woman, Arthur Hoffman's American Circus
Corporation circuses and Lew Graham's Ringling Bros.' Side Show.
They recall that Graham was fussy about his banners.
Today they produce banners for Clif Wilson, Pete Kortez, Lew
Alter, Dick Best, Bobby Hasson, Glenn Porter and other leading and
other leading carnival show producers plus almost all circuses
except Ringing, which has used panel fronts for years.
Good Oddities Draw
Once a good attraction is found and
placed in a show, a capable promoter today can play to good
business, the banner people believe. But modern show-goers are
sometimes more hep. While they enjoy authentic attractions and
even an obvious gag, they are less frequently to go for borderline
By the same token, banner people find they aren't painting banners
for attractions the shows don't have. Showmen, they say operate
on the theory that they must have something to show for each panel
in the bannerline.
But for the instances when they painted banners that were more
expansive than the show itself, the painters developed another
trade device. If the features were on hand, the banners stressed
the word "Alive." If there was a problem, they painted "Past and
Present." As to the banner business itself,
it's very much "Alive."
Two top performers among banner-line
artists are Fred Johnson (left) and Neiman Eisman,
shown beside a pinhead banner done
originally by Eisman and now renewed by Johnson.
Article by Tom Parkinson - April 9,
1955 - The Billboard
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