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.


Still Powerful

 

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 business.

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

 

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 banner plant.


Paints Millie-Christine

 

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.

 

Nieman

 

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.

 

Johnson Begins

 

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 similar.

Not Exaggerated


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.

 

Fred Johnson

 

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 surroundings.


No Posing


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 artist.

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 detailed directions.

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 required.


Millard & Bulsterbaum

 

Mostly Magicians


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 it.

 

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 effect.

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 their products.
 

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 entrance banner.

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.

 

Fred Johnson

 

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 presentations.

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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