by Noel Holston
The "Long Necked
Girl," "Ubangi," :Alligator Skinned boy" and "Pinhead" - denizens
freak shows - stand
a silent vigil in Snap's gallery of abnormality.
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.
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
"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
replicas of the Cardiff Giant" to capitalize on P. T. Barnum's
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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,
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
© copyright All rights reserved.
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
Sunday supplement of
The Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, Fla..
White images above - Pallid mannequins and dried up paint
supplies clutter much of Snap Wyatt's workshop, once draped with
a garish canvas banner.