They Draw the Crowds
Carnival Banners Call For Special kind of Art

 

Those big flashy banners that flap outside the sideshow tents of the more than 200 carnivals and circuses traveling over t he country may not arouse any esthetic enthusiasm from the art lover, but they bring in the crowds-and for a good reason.

The 10-foot poster of the scantily clad lady twirling a five-foot beard that prompts the customer to plunk down the necessary coin at the box office, for instance, is a product of a separate and exclusive school of art.

Admirers of Rembrandt may sneer at the splashy oranges and reds, and Gainsborough followers may scoff at the lines and proportions.  But show people wouldn't have any but students from the show banner school, with all its gaudy sensationalism, paint their posters.

Among its masters is Snapp Wyatt, whose shop at 1608 N. Franklin St., is one of the four in the country which turns out those exaggerated representations of what for the mere price of a half dollar, the customer can see inside.

To Snapp and a handful of others, who operate a shop in New York and two in Chicago, go all the contracted business for turning out these monstrosities on canvas.

In his little paint-smudged shop, he was perched on a high ladder, painting the fangs on a giant blood-thirsty snake coiled around a well-built blonde who appeared to be using the vicious appeared to be using the vicious reptile as her only protection from the elements. His real name is David, but his friends on the road promptly forgot it when they discovered he could turn out one of these masterpieces at the snap of a finger.  And the 40-year-old artist looks more like a genial football coach, with his broad shoulders and ready grin, than the creator of nightmares in Technicolor.

Snapp's explanation for his popularity among show people is that he is one of them.

"To get the feel of what they want; to capture with a paint brush that psychological quirk that draws people into the tents," he explained, "you have too have lived with show people most of your life."

That is why most artists could never paint a banner that world flutter successfully on the midway.

Snapp got an early start in his highly-specialized career when he ran away from home to join a circus at 14. He was put to work painting props and poles, then scenery.  When he reached his early 20's and was working at Coney Island, he decided to study art and his next four years were spent at the Cooper Union Art School in New York.

 

Once Painted in Oil

 

But that isn't where he acquired the magic touch that turns a few pots of paint into hundreds of cash customers.

Every school of art has its founder, and with the show banner school it was the late Rube Merrifield, king of the banner painters, who set the style, Snapp learned the secret by working under Mr. Merrifield, and believes all his contemporaries also were students of his.  The master died in 1932 when he was 72 years old.

"Before Rube began painting, which was a long time ago, because he was there with the old Barnum and Bailey shows, the banners were painted in oil" said Snapp, "and they were pretty drab and stiff.  He was a master with the bizarre and unusual, and put color and ad appeal in his painting.  Before Rube came along no one thought of using oranges and reds."

 

From this old-timer Snapp got his technique, but his ideas come from his memory of canvas tents going up on empty lots, of curious crowds listening to the sideshow barker (talker) and studying the weird paintings, of coins tinkling in the cashier's cage.

"Every banner has to be different," the artist explained, "and I think I have turned out more than any other painter, but I have never been stuck for an idea."


No Instructions


Practically every day orders pour in from shows all over the country, by telegram and long distance telephone, because usually the showmen are in a hurry for the banners.  Sometimes he has to ship them air express.  His biggest order was for 90 regular (8 feet by 10 feet) banners and 50 assorted ones.  It was for a company about to open a new show and it took him about three months to complete.  Snapp usually can turn out a regular-sized banner in less than two days.

Sometimes the orders come directly to him and sometimes through Jack Howard, his New York representative, but never are they accompanied by specific instructions.

 

"That is because they know I know what they want." he said.

A typical telegram read; "Rush to Great Falls two girl show banners, one mummy, pygmy man and woman, one pin head, one entrance banner, one giant banner."

Snapp explained that he doesn't need to work with models because "I know practically all the freaks personally.  Occasionally I run into one I haven't seen and have to ask for details."

Among his closer friends are Frank Lentine, the three-legged man; Jean Libera, the double-bodies man; Lionel, the lion boy.  He lost contact with Blondie, the blonde giantess, when she went back to Germany.

"She was the largest woman in the world," he insisted, "not just because we put it on the banner, but she really was."

Something else he learned from Mr. Merrifield was the secret formula for poster banner paint.  It is the kind that won't rub off or crack on canvas and can withstand years of rain and wind.  The favorite color of showmen is that glaring reddish - orange, which everyone associates with circuses and carnivals.  But since the war orange mineral has been scarce, and Snapp has found a yellow background the next best thing.

Asked what other colors he used in his banners, he replied, "All of them."

With his brother, Bill Snapp set up his studio here in 1936 because "this has always been home to me.  My people live down here."

 

Today he is just getting back in the swing after a stretch in the Army, where he painted maps for the combat engineers.

After a gruesome day at the shop, when he is ready to get away from it all, Snapp goes home to Mrs. Wyatt at there residence at 3517 Tenth St. She never had anything to do with the show business.

 

Article courtesy of Brian Ezzelle


The Tampa Daily Times, Monday, September 28, 1946  By JUANITA GREENE Times Staff Writer
 


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