Snap Wyatt in his studio.


 

Stars of the circus sideshow got top billing in bright colors and weird drawings - but the posters are fading fast.

CIRCUS 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 pounds.

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 them now."


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 galleries."

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 give the

patron  just a hint of what he could see on the inside.

 

Article by Dick Bothwell   Photo: Norman Zeisloft  - St Petersburg Times - November 16th 1964


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