Snap Wyatt in his
Stars of the circus
sideshow got top billing in bright colors and weird drawings - but
the posters are fading fast.
aerialists are hurtling through the high altitude of the big top,
grabbing trapezes. Savage Zulu warriors scowl menacingly at you.
The tattooed lady coyly exhibits her artwork while Pogo the clown,
offers a red-nosed, white-faced smile of welcome. In her own
corner, Madame Zaz the snake-charmer, holds aloft seven feet of
writhing boa constrictor while Fatima, the fat girl, frolics by
the seaside, cheerfully oblivious to the fact that she weighs 594
It all jumps out at you in a big white building on U.S. 41, just
outside of Tampa's city limits, about three miles north of
Gibsonton, retirement Mecca for circus folks.
This is the workshop
of David C. (Snap) Wyatt, one of the last of a vanishing breed -
the show banner artist. And this is his handiwork, the huge 8x10
foot, 10x16 foot paintings on canvas that have lined the circus
midway for decades past.
Look at Wyatt's painting and you can almost hear the raucous sales
pitch of the sideshow barkers, (talkers) the roar of rides and hum
of the crowd; smell the trampled sawdust underfoot, feel the
sweet, fluffy nothingness of cotton candy in your mouth.
Snap with a few of
his creations, the Alligator Skin Girl, Ubangi, & Pin-Head
"There used to be about 35 of us show banner artists, back
in the 20s and 30s," says Snap a big, bulky man of 59,
gray-haired, blue-eyed, chomping on a cigar. "Now there's
only me and one other fellow in Chicago. I used to have four
assistants; now there's just me.
"Used to do 3-400 of these banners a year.
Now I do 200 or so a year. You can do an 8x10 in
a day. I charge $85.
"But the sideshow is a passing thing. Only a few big shows have
Snap Wyatt is proud that his handiwork
has gone all over the world with traveling circuses. Some of it
sells to circus fans, who decorate dens with the banners.
"I work all from memory," he explains, painting away
at a kneeling giant.
There are about 25 standard sideshow act; the fat girl, the sword
swallower, the snake charmer, etc. "I change each pose a
little each year," Snap says. One season the fat lady may
have on a bathing suit; next year a dress, the year after that
she'll pose with a skinny clown.
In his paint -
splattered studio, Snap works with a 6-foot bamboo stick, chalk
fastened to one end, to outline his big canvasses. Then he lays
in the dye and finally paints it, in vivid reds, blues, greens and
yellows, circus style-"More or less realistic with
exceptionally bright colors."
Snap gets costume ideas from old National Geographic,
comic strips and magazines. He's busy making up a set of his
basic paintings on masonite, 22x30 inches: "I thought I'd do
these because people won't even know what show banners looked like
in a few more years."
Dainty Dora one of
Snap's paintings on masonite, 22x30 inches
From Asheville, N.C., Snap ran away with a circus when he
was 14, worked as a canvasman, became a performer in magic and
mind reading acts. Always talented, he began touching up banners,
gradually became a scenic artist. Winters, he'd do backdrops for
theatres, improving himself at the same time:
"I studied art at Cooper Union in New York in 1930-34,"
he recalls. "I never cared for painting in museums - but
millions more people see my paintings each year than go to art
Snap also studies his trade with a Coney Island studio,
then opened his own studio.
He made animated prehistoric animals of papier mache for the
Chicago World's Fair in the 30s - grandfathers of Disney's at the
present World's Fair.
But probably his most
unusual job was the "Fake of a Fake," in which he made an
11-foot-4 Cardiff Giant for sideshow exhibition. He says it was an
improvement: "Mine was made of papier mache, finished off
with a cement-like substance and antiqued to make him look like
he'd just been dug up. You could carry it around. But the
original was made of rock." It was so impressive he got
orders for four more. "I've had some connection with
practically all the circuses and carnivals for the past 40 years;
everybody knew everybody in the old days."
The Wyatts have lived outside of Tampa since 1947.
Energetic, cheerful Evelyn Wyatt is in the real estate business
and does all her painting on interior walls.
"I've had a good
life," says Snap. "Tough sometimes, but a good
one. Now I'm trying to get into some other business. Something
in the art line like interior decoration or commercial sculpture .
Snap's painting one of
his basic banners designs on masonite
The secret of good circus posters was to use bright colors and to
patron just a hint of what he could see on the inside.
Dick Bothwell Photo: Norman Zeisloft - St
Petersburg Times - November 16th 1964