Personality by Noel Holston

 


The "Long Necked Girl," "Ubangi," :Alligator Skinned boy" and "Pinhead" - denizens of yesteryear's

freak shows - stand a silent vigil in Snap's gallery of abnormality.


Behold, the tattooed lady, an exotic temptress clothed only in the flowery embellishment of her body!  You'll see her and many more - the 'Human Pincushion' driving nails into his very face, the 'Snake Woman.' the ' Alligator Skinned Boy!'  Step right this way for an astounding look at the strange, the bizarre, the forbidden beings of the world!

Such was the dubious glitter of carny.  A  coarse-voiced barker (talker) exhorting an indecisive crowd as he paced the platform in front of garish beings painted on canvas.

A cartoon recently depicted a similar midway, its supposedly enticing banners advertising "Acne Man, Mr. Myopia (Most Near-Sighted Man Alive), the Deaf Man (Stone Deaf in Both Ears)" and an assortment of other not so incredible sideshow attractions.
  Down front the barker (talker) confides to an incredulous policeman, "There's just no real freaks like there used to be."

Nobody know this any better than Snap Wyatt, the last of the great sideshow banner painters.  The "freaks" of yesteryear were the subject of his life's work and, often, his friends.  Semi-retired, he lives in Tampa in the unassuming air conditioned atmosphere of a white duplex, surrounded by a world that now must seem to be filled with predictability and sameness.


So full have been his 66 years that he doesn't really bother with specific dates. Born in North Carolina, he acted out an American boyhood fantasy and ran away to join the circus at 15.  He was painting even then, having done theatrical work, and he began to learn the art of showmanship.  But his interest in the uncommon had begun even earlier as the self-inflicted, amorphous tattoos on his left arm still testify.

"They weren't very good even then," he says.  "The needle was too dull.  But I tattooed every kid in the neighborhood before my mother took the stuff and threw it away."

Curiously, Snap went back to school when he was 21 or 22, spending four years studying art at Cooper Union College in New York.  From there, the lure of the circus called him back, and the career of the "architect of fantasy," as he was dubbed in W. L. Gresham's book "Monster Midway," began in earnest.

His first studio was on Coney Island.  The exact year he can't remember because he had a number of them at various times.  In one of these his friend Harry Houdini stored his equipment and Snap says he picked up  more than a few bits of "magic," though he doesn't practice these days.  From these studios came miles of canvas banners adorned with the constituents of freakdom.  His banners proclaimed in bold letters the attractions of all the major carnivals and circuses - Ringling Bros., Clyde Beatty, King Bros., Cole Bros., all the giant "corporation" shows of later years and the ill-fated smaller circuses of the Depression years.

 

Snap's style drew heavily on the popular comic book characters of the day, especially those bastardizing Greek mythology and African or Oriental lore: men of might; women exotic and buxom.  His colors were bold and primary and his canvases often exaggerated the physical characteristics of the freaks inside the tent.

 

While exaggeration was not always necessary, Snap loved the illusory paintings, those which bordered on fraud, and distorted reality, the best.

 

"I painted illusions that gave the sideshows a quality of magic, but the Freaks were real," he says, adding with a snort, "But the sideshow people, mind you, weren't above strapping two girls together and calling them Siamese twins."

Snap remembers the "Mule-Faced Woman," face elongated and donkey-like, but with the body of a goddess according to his rendering.  Inside the tent, the customers found a woman with a face like a mule all right, but with a body to match.

And why didn't people resent being hoaxed?

"I don't think they really felt like they'd been taken," says Snap.

"They knew what to expect and were generally entertained."

 

The banners were as much a part of the show, though, as the freaks, and while the sideshows were at their peak there were some 30 men specializing in the art.  Snap says Fred Johnson, an older man living in Chicago, is the only one left besides him.  Demand for banners has diminished.

 

"The artists who do sideshow fronts today aren't to be confused with the banner painters," he is quick to point out.  When the circus same to town years ago, there might be 200 feet of canvas flapping high in the wind on poles, as well as canvas show fronts and wagon drapes.  But these old banners, some of them collectors items now, usually lasted only about two seasons.

The new front artists paint on metal or wooden sheets that are attached to the huge trucks and easily collapsible for today's giant mobile outfits.

 

Snap used to sketch the illustrations on canvases, usually 10x16 feet for carnivals, with charcoal attached to the end of a long cane pole.  After making corrections by hand, he painted with a special oil paint that was more like a dye because it soaked right through.

 

Back around 1932 he did a series of 90 banners for Messmore and Damon, a New York firm boasting they could make anything.  Their customers were circuses, carnivals and, not so ironically, department stores.  The Messmore and Damon exhibit, "The World a Million Years Ago," at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair had more than a score of life-sized, animated prehistoric animals.  From his involvement with the project came Snap Wyatt's second claim to fame in the world of carny.  He began to make figures and animate them for sideshow - papier-mâché freaks, whales, elephants, even six scale models of P. T. Barnum's notorious Cardiff Giant which still may be at large in carnival shows somewhere.

 


Snap's papier-mâché replicas of the Cardiff Giant" to capitalize on P. T. Barnum's notorious exhibit. 

Long since sold away, Snap thinks at least one may be "at large" to this day.


 

He ran his own "girly" show for a while, complete with voluptuous dancers and erotic banner illustrations that bear a curious resemblance to the pop-art posters of Marilyn Monroe, popularized by another freak-oriented artist, Andy Warhol.  At one time Snap had five "torture" shows on the road featuring such sadistic machinery as the Iron Maiden and the Rack.  The victims were only Snap's animated models, but out front was a young woman with long tresses, nude except for a medieval chastity belt, throwing open her cloak occasionally to entice young fellows who fumbled for their keys.

 

There was also a souvenir pamphlet with the naked maiden in distress on the cover and the history of the chastity belt (lifted from the lascivious pages of an encyclopedia) printed inside.  "A price of 25 cents was printed on the cover," Snap confesses, "so we sold them for 15 cents and everybody thought they were getting a good deal."

Eventually, the girls were replaced with animated figures, too.

"The live girls in the chastity belts were just too much trouble, griping, always wanting more money," Snap says.  "All the animated ones needed was oil for the cams and gears and motors that powered them."

The torture shows became popular even as the genuine freak shows were disappearing, but they played on basically the same emotions. "My torture shows were right out of the Dark Ages," Snap explains, adding sarcastically that "I'm not sure we're not still in them."

 

His cynicism, humorously satirical rather than bitter, is the result of years of selling a leering public glimpses of society's abnormalities.  It is that of the worldly wise carnival barker (talker) whose visual aids he supplied.

Snap Wyatt's life is now sedate, more so when compared to the strange circles he once familiarized.  Sitting in spread-draped easy chair in his pine-paneled den, he talks with great relish of the carnival days and reveals no overt reasons for slowing down his unique work.  His blonde hair has begun to turn white, but his voice still booms and his face is full of color.

 



 

There are few remembrances of the sideshow days in view and only a drafting table in one corner reminds the visitor that Snap Wyatt is an artist.  But with little prodding, he'll bring out cigar boxes and folders brimming with photographs of his banners announcing the greatest names in circus and carnival, his famed papier-mâché replicas and an astonishing array of the most famous freaks of yesteryear's sideshow:  Siamese Twins, Pinheads, Hermaphrodites, Ubangis, Bearded Ladies, Fat Women, Thin Men, a woman with three legs and four arms, a man with none (neither arms nor legs), a humorous mug shot of a grinning man, four billiard balls stuffed into his elasticized mouth.  And in the stack is also an picture of the greatest showman, P. T. Barnum.  Snap laughs when asked if he knew him. "That's way before my time, but I knew John Ringling."

But Snap doesn't really need reminders; his memory is vivid.  The so-called freaks he was associated with were usually "ordinary" people except for their natural or self-induced abnormalities.  And they found acceptance and some degree of happiness among their own kind.

As for Snap, he says he learned to ignore the stares and the gawking when he was seen with them in public.  But often they did their best to conceal their different-ness.  (The three-legged man, for instance, wore a long overcoat when he went to town.)

 

Lighting up another Perfecto Garcia cigar -- volcanic piles of ash in every visible ashtray attest that he really does smoke 20 a day -- Snap recalls half of a "quadraped" who was arrested during a tour. "When she, "When the police asked for her occupation, she told them she was the other two legs of a four-legged lady."

Snap can also tell some tales, some bawdier than others, of midgets, familiar sideshow denizens with whom he seemed to have especially good rapport.  Those who were well paid for their work and had accepted their fate were terrified of growth which would mean the end of a livelihood.  One of the oldest tricks among carnival midgets, Snap says, was to saw off another's cane
or stuff his shoes with toilet paper.  Some midget friends of his did it once, while he was living it up in an attic with 24 of the little people form a touring show, almost frightening their poor victim to death.
 

His many tales are filled with an obvious affection for the circus/carnival life and its "people," especially the women.  But in case his memory ever grows foggy, there's his studio, a big frame building with flaking white paint and a weather-worn canvas banner down one side proclaiming "Snap Wyatt Displays," just a few steps from his back door.

The studio is cluttered with innumerable paint cans and remnants of his shows scrapped and wasted.  It was here the clay was molded, the papier-mâché freaks and giants cast and banners painted.  Paint smears from the cleaning of hundreds of brushes cover the bare wood walls and dusty cobwebs droop from the rafters.  Here Snap once built a life-sized, animated elephant that raised and lowered its foot over a supine Hindu's head.  A red liquid squirted from the Hindu's ears as great gray doom touched his nose.  Quite an attraction for the torture show.

 

The pachyderm, later used minus its victim in Tampa's Gasparilla parade, has long since been sold.  All that remains, since most of Snap's best work was strictly on commission from others, is a few crumbling circus banners, eerie stands of greying, decapitated and limbless dummies and some freak reproductions soon to be sold to a wax museum.

 

Aside from an occasional commission from the old customers, Snap confines his work to reproducing some of his famous banners in smaller sizes and some poster art for Ripley's Believe It or Not.  (Robert Ripley, he says, did more than anybody to popularize freak shows.)  His portrait-sized re-creations of a fat lady, zombie, man on a bed of nails, et al, bear the marks of the originals - bold, stark color and comic book style, a certain hokiness and outlandish sense of proportion that grabs the curious more than realistic art ever would, and a hint of the supernatural.  Missing, sadly enough, is the bold lettering that named and described the attractions on the original banners.

 

With these new paintings, Snap hopes to keep the memory of his art alive.  He is the last practicing member of an obscure school and of his career he will only say, "I've had a good life."

Seemingly contented with his private, easy-going lifestyle, he is out of the mainstream of the business by choice.  The real sideshows are gone, and he is not as fond of the novelty acts, fire-eaters, sword swallowers and such, which have replaced them.

"Above all else, the sideshows were the number one shows," he says resolutely.  As the recent cartoon showed, freaks really aren't what they used to be.  Snap doesn't think the audience changed significantly, just the quality (if it can be called that) of the freaks.

 



 

"Years ago there weren't so many babies born in hospitals and medicines wasn't as sophisticated," he proposes.  "I guess midwives or somebody delivered them at home and let them live, whereas doctors wouldn't have."  It also may be that some of those "freaks" are no longer on parade for the public's dark amusement, but in the care of state institutions.

 

And what of those who made themselves freaks?  Were they desperate for jobs?  Were they in need of recognition which they found through some bizarre distortion of their?  Even after years in the business, Snap can offer no explanation.

That is no longer his world.  A widower for several years now, he lives alone except for an appropriately named toy Manchester, Peanuts, and an occasional weekend guest.  Watching television for hours on end (he got a kick out of the Democratic Convention, naturally) and reading take up most of his time.  Copies of Intellectual Digest, Circus and Fate are strewn about the house.  Books on the occult fill his bookshelves, indicatives of a longtime curiosity in magic and mysticism that inspired many of his banners.

 

Having spent more time among things unnatural and bizarre than most any 10 people, does he believe in the contents of those mystic volumes?  "No, no," he says with a laugh deep and tainted with irreverence.  "I really don't believe in anything."

 


Snap's personal banner featured a trumpeting elephant, symbol of the glorious extravagance of circus.


 

A fitting philosophy for a man whose works propositioned gaping midway strollers to come into another world, a forbidden world, and, for a moment, experience shock, head-shaking amazement and sometimes fall prey to their own eagerness and gullibility - a man whose personal advertising banner reads:  "Snap Wyatt: ASK ANY SHOWMAN."

 

This article originally appeared in the August 13, 1972, issue of Florida Magazine, award-winning Sunday supplement of The Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, Fla.

 


Article by Noel Holston - © copyright  All rights reserved.

 

Colored images above - Hoping to keep sideshow art alive, Snap has re-created many of his banners in portrait form, among them the Snake Lady and the Seeress.  Fat Lady draft drawing for Snap's Fat Lady banner. The bizarre proportions of Sideshow Art. - From the cover of the Florida Magazine Sunday supplement of The Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, Fla..

 

Black and White images above - Pallid mannequins and dried up paint supplies clutter much of Snap Wyatt's workshop, once draped with a garish canvas banner.


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