Mark Frierson - Continued

 

Q. What individual or act do you think has done the most to promote the sideshow as it is today?

 

A. I personally attribute the resurgence of interest in the sideshow, the way it is today, to Jim Rose. Love or hate him, he has done a really good thing. As far as Iím concerned, anyone at any level promoting the sideshow industry is keeping it alive, keeping it out there and in the public eye. A lot of people donít like what Jim does, but some people do. But thatís not whatís important. The important thing is he brought the sideshow to a whole new audience. A new generation that has never even set a foot into a sideshow. They may not have even known what a sideshow was until they saw him perform. In doing so a whole new generation suddenly took notice and became interested in this art form. They started researching it and found that its history goes back for many years.

 

Q. What are your thoughts on the sideshow as it is today with the ďnew generationĒ versus what it used to be?

 

A. A lot of people became famous and even rich performing as freaks or oddities in the sideshow. The show owners themselves have made a lot of money. The sideshow has a very rich and long history. As people take more interest, it is awakening something that had been dead for a while. Actually it was on its way out, now it has just come back in a new form. The sideshow will never be what it was; there is just no way that it can. Like all things that are going to survive, it needs to evolve. Unfortunately, a lot of the showmen today, even ones that have been around for a long time have failed to adapt to the times. This is why they have been swept under the carpet.

 

I'm not trying to be mean by saying that, because I like each and every one of these fellows very much. They have been a great influence on my life. However, there are only so many times people can see the same things over and over and not get tired of it. Like illusions, the secrets have been revealed to people and they have become too jaded. The sideshows have not been able to keep up with peopleís expectations. They want a lot more than is being delivered.

 

Q. If a person really has the desire and passion to be a banner painter today where should they go to pay their dues and become successful?

 

A. Thatís a tough question and my answer is probably going to sound a little crappy. But frankly, I donít see that happening. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone because there arenít really any sideshows left to paint for that actually use banner lines. The few that do use them already have banners or are already on their way out. A lot of their owners are retiring or just getting out of the business.

 

So as far as becoming a sideshow banner painter artist, there isn't any future in it. The only reason I am alive and kicking is that I already have a name in the business. I was around painting for shows when they still existed. That's a virtual impossibility now. No one can do that today, because there are no shows left to paint for. If it werenít for my fan base, and the people who look at it from the historical aspect, I would have been swept under the carpet years ago. These people are keeping me going now. If you love the sideshow and want to paint banners just because you want to keep the art form alive that's great. Do it as a hobby, if you sell some terrific. But donít title yourself as a banner artist when you have never painted for a show. That is my only real qualm.

 

Q. Over the years you have met most of the greatest people that have worked in the sideshow. Who would you say has influenced you the most?

 

A. It has to truly be, Melvin Burkhart. Without him there wouldn't have been a career for me, period. He influenced me as a person and a performer, to paint the very first banner I ever painted. Melvin made such an impression on me I wanted to paint him. If I had never done that first banner then I probably wouldn't be in the business today. I tell people that my career was truly a freak accident. Thatís the only way I can explain it. I would have never imagined that twenty-three years later I would be doing this for a living. It's just crazy. Melvin was just such a special man; anyone that ever had the pleasure of meeting him would know what Iím talking about. This guy was always on and always ready to perform.

 

He was so gracious, and giving, and just a very enjoyable person to be around. He just made you feel good and happy whenever you were around him. He always had something good to say. He was the epitome of what the sideshow should be, what performers should aspire to be like. Of course todayís performers are more go for the gut. Melvinís performance was more of a family type of thing. Still, a lot can be learned from him. He was a real trooper, just a great guy.

 

Q. Out of all the experiences you have had in the sideshow what has been the hardest part for you?

 

A. My least favorite part of the sideshow wasn't the sideshow business it was the carnival environment. It isn't as exciting as it may sound to wake up every day with the carnival midway as your back yard. Itís like anything else, itís like Hollywood thereís a lot of glitter and glamour. It looks very enticing from the outside but from behind it can be dark and seedy. When you are on a carnival that is run by organized crime, and most of the people that are ride and game operators are on the lam, itís a very frightening prospect. You know, you have to understand this is like a city that picks up every week or two and moves to a new location. In order for most people to be able to do that they have to have no ties at all and be able to just pick up and move. Usually that kind of person is not very desirable. There is a reason these people donít have ties, it can be pretty scary. Some of the places you play you encounter people from the outside that are scary also. That is my only beef about traveling with the carnivals.

 

Q. You had your own show on the road, wasnít it a lot of hard work and did you ever get tired of it?

 

A. The show I had, had a 20 by 40 top with a 100-foot banner line. I believe there was about 75 stakes you had to drive in by hand. It was a lot of work but I was so excited about what I was doing that none of that ever came into play. It was damn hard work but I liked it so much that it didn't matter. I didn't think about all the work, it was the love and passion for it that drove me. Even though I came home about two and half months later, it wasn't the sideshow I didn't like, it was everything else that went with it. I was this middle class kid that thrust himself into a world that I had not been around most of my life. I had neither been born into it nor been exposed to it at that level. It was quite a culture shock for me. I was not willing or able to handle at that point in my life. The sideshow on the carnival midway is not a viable way of making a living anymore. My hat is off to anyone out there that can still maintain that lifestyle. I think it is a changing industry, not dying, just evolving into a new look and a new manner. It will never be the same as it was. It definitely will not die as long as people have a sense of curiosity. That will keep the sideshow alive.

 

Q. Itís been said that when youíre out on the road with the sideshow, it is a community where people take care of their own. Did you ever feel like you fit into that community or culture?

 

A. Yes and no, it is definitely a world all to itís own. It has its own rules and regulations. It is basically self-policing. Itís not much different from what you have read about or seen in the movies. Everyone definitely takes care of his or her own business. The outsiders are the outsiders, when your withit your withit. They pretty much take care of each other, and yes I did make some friends and knew some people. I was so terrified about what I had done, and the prospect that I might fail and not be able to finish what I had started. I think I was too concerned with that to understand or appreciate what I was involved in at the time. Looking back on it now, in spite of how it turned out, it was an experience I would never trade for anything. Most people can't say they have done anything like this in their lives. Some of the most notable sideshow performers of today canít say they have performed on a midway or owned their own show. I have done both. I have seen all sides of this business, I have owned my own show, performed, painted, and created the exhibits for them. I have helped other people organize their shows from scratch and very successfully. I have about covered the entire realm of the sideshow.

 

Q. You painted for John Bradshaw at Coney Island. How do you feel about that work today?

 

A. My first big banner job began with Coney Island, because Melvin Burkhart took his banner with him. I think I painted for Coney Island for five or six years. It definitely wasn't my finest work but I got my foot in the door. After 23 years I guess you get pretty good at something. Back then I was just learning how to paint so it wasn't my best work by any stretch of the imagination. I see some of those banners now and I cringe and think, ďI didn't paint that did I?Ē It is embarrassing for me, but then nobody seems to be bothered by it, except for me. I just need to take it with a very big grain of salt.

 

Q. You have painted for many shows, your work is in a lot of collections, and you have fans all over the world. How does that make you feel?

 

A. The fact that my art is in so many collections all over the world is a really good feeling for me. I was fortunate enough to get involved with the Sun Tabloid for quite awhile and the Weekly World News, doing things for them on and off. That helped to expose me to a lot of people. I have banners and gaffs that have appeared in numerous movies and television shows, which I think is very good. Iím probably the only gaff builder in history that I know of, that has actually had his work appearing in movies, shows, and things like that. It's kind of a neat thing. Numerous celebrities for their private collections have commissioned my banners and gaffs. Itís quite an honor for me. Sometimes I get kind of down, you get to thinking, here I am a self-employed artist, and you start wondering if what you are doing is worthwhile. Then suddenly someone you have been watching on TV or in the movies for years, calls you up out of the blue. They say I have heard about you and I have to own something of yours. That's a really good feeling. It actually puts the value back in what you are doing. If those people think your work is important enough to own it, then maybe it really is. That's really neat.

 

Q. We have talked about your banner-painting career. When did you start creating gaffs?

 

A. The gaffs came along completely by accident as far as I remember. Back in the fifth grade my cat used to kill lizards in the yard all of the time. I collected a couple of them that were in the process of drying out in the backyard. I ended up gaffing them together putting two heads on the thing, gluing it on a board, and shellacking it. I did a pretty decent job for a kid, so I took it into my science class to show it. I didn't say anything. I didn't say it was real. I gave it to my science teacher who proclaimed it to be the real thing and said how amazing it was, so I just went with it. Thatís when I realized I could do this. I didn't realize it was actually an occupation or a career move. Later on, when I got to know Ward Hall, I started making things to show him just for something to do. I was painting banners before I was making gaffs professionally. The gaff side just sort of sprang out of nowhere. Once someone knew that I had the potential to make the gaffs, it just happened.

 

Q. Do you know of any other banner artistís that created gaffs or gaff builder that painted banners?

 

A. As far as I honestly know, I am the only sideshow artist in the entire history of this business that has painted banners and created gaff exhibits at the same time. The only person that has done anything similar was Snap Wyatt, he did make some mannequins into freaks with paper-mache, but he didn't build mummies and things of that nature. I want to clarify something about gaffs. The term is used a lot by different people and has a lot of different meanings. Gaffing in the film industry is electrical, there is gafferís tape, and they use gaffs in fishing, I think it is some kind of hook. In what I do, the term gaff, this is the Mark Frierson dictionary definition of a gaff, is, a gaff is something that is created to be exhibited as the real thing for a profit. It could be something that really existed in life or something completely fabricated. The story and the gaff itself are what I do. I also want to clarify that people think that gaff building is just glorified prop building. I have created many of my own creations. I have also taken some classic sideshow exhibits and made them my own. I used my own technique and style to change them. I have taken them, in most cases, and feel I have made them better and improved upon them. Thereís nothing I do that canít be made in Hollywood or people who build props for the stage. What separates what they do from what I do is that most of the stuff that Hollywood makes is made from latex or other materials that are made to be very temporary, to be used for a few shots on the screen and then disposed of. They are not made to last. The things I make as well as those made by the classic gaff builders of the past, they are hand made one at a time and are made to withstand the road usage and handling, they go through hell and back, so they are built very ruggedly. By looking at them up close you can see the care and detail that went into making them. They need to look good under close scrutiny and inspection. They need to pass as the legitimate thing, which is what they are made to do. Now there have been some very good gaff builders and some very bad ones. But like I said, anything that can keep us alive as far as Iím concerned is a good thing.

 

Q. We have been talking about the evolution of the sideshow a little. With your own work how do you feel you have evolved over the years and where you are today?

 

A. I have to look at this realistically and realize that most people, no matter what they do, didn't start out being the best or excelling at what they do. It is a learning and growing process. Without practice there is no perfect. Itís like you have heard before, when you stop learning you stop living. I certainly know that there is always a better, cheaper or easier way to do everything. Cheaper and easier isn't always the answer either. You do get what you pay for and quality does cost, whether it is in time or money. The way banners are painted hasnít changed at all really. Itís pretty cut and dry. Painting a banner is painting a banner; you have to know how to do it. Obviously there is a correct technique and look. If you donít get it, you donít get it and your not going to get it. Gaff building has taken on a whole new life of itís own with me. When I started it there obviously weren't the materials and things available that there are now. I have been able to make exhibits that were once very delicate actually, even though they were built to last they were very brittle and could fall apart. Now I can build things to be virtually indestructible, unless you intentionally set out to break them. In that respect gaff building has gone to a whole new level. They are better now than they have ever been. Looking back on my early stuff itís funny, but that was then and this is now. Itís like nobody should live in their past they should all move ahead and realize that you are now because of what you were then. We all grow and learn from our experience good or bad. Iím a much better artist now because I went through all those things. It has helped me to develop my own style and technique. It took a long time but Iím finally here and Iím learning all the time. My work improves with each and every thing I learn, and with each experience I go through. Sure I make mistakes, I make mistakes all the time. Those people that donít learn from their mistakes are just fools.

 

Q. Out of all the things you have created over the years is there anything you would like to have?

 

A. 90 percent! You know thatís the funny thing, and I donít think Iím unique with this. As an artist I am told constantly, why donít you have your own show because you make all this stuff. I paint the bannerís yes, that is true, but if they realized how much work there was involved with doing the shows they might change their minds. Yes, that prospect is there, but I donít own anything that I have created. The reason for that is because I keep so incredibly busy, making things for other people that I have not had time to stop and do my own thing. Iím known as a sideshow artist because of my banner painting and gaff building but Iím not limited to just that. There are other things I do, Iím just not known for them. It is what has made me famous and I am thankful for that but there is a lot more to me than what you or other people are used to seeing. All of this kind of grew out of cartooning; Iím a really good cartoonist thatís where my skill lies. My grandfather was a cartoonist, I watched him do it and I picked up on it. Above and beyond all of that I consider myself to be a really good sculptor. I feel I excel in that above and beyond everything else. You know itís funny I have gotten known for my painting, I donít think Iím a great painter by any stretch of the imagination. What I paint is pretty basic; as far as Iím concerned it is just a high-end cartoon thatís a lot more refined. This is not fine art or high art, it is advertising art. So as far as advertising art goes, I am excelling at it but it doesnít hold a candle to realistic art. Being known as a great artist in this field means a lot. I'm in some pretty good company.

 

Q. You talked about sculpting. Do you feel this is an area that you excel in? Have you explored that part of your creative side professionally?

 

A. I actually have done some sculpture work for some clients that were just private individuals. Then several years ago I actually attempted to start a Halloween mask and prop company. I sculpted and created an entire line of twelve masks. I was at the Chicago trade show premiering all my work. Then the people I was doing this for decided to get greedy and I lost some money so I just folded up to get out of my contract. The stuff was very successful but I couldn't compete with the foreign market. The prices that they were able to produce their products at, I just could not compete with.

 

Q. Is there anything you would like to do that you havenít as far as your artwork goes?

 

A. I'm sorry I didn't get more into film making whether it is directing or actually working on films special effects and props. The other thing I wished I had pursued is animation. I have always loved classic animation and wish I had done something with it. That branches out of my skills with cartooning, I donít feel like I have lost out on anything, it is something I could have pursued, but life took me in another direction. I also wish I had pursued drama and acting. I have a connection where I use my voice for cartoons. I do some pretty good voices.

 

Q. Is voicing cartoons something you are doing now or is it something you may do in the future?

 

A. Like I said, I have the in to do it if I want to, itís just finding the time to do it.

 

Q. What would be your cautions to anyone trying to get into the Sideshow business?

 

A. I think my advice would be the same, as I would give you for anything not just the sideshow. Donít think about getting into this unless it is your personal passion. You have to love it. Nobodyís getting rich from this. Unless your heart and soul is in the right place and you can derive pleasure from it while understanding that you are part of a rich legacy of history in keeping this art alive, then donít bother. If you are doing it for the wrong reason, you are going to be a failure no matter what you are doing. You are never going to be truly happy and no one is ever going to take you seriously. I think people can see through the smoke and mirrors after a point. So thatís pretty much it, there's no future in banner painting and gaff building unless you have already been doing it. Starting it now would be a fruitless venture unless youíre doing it as a hobby or for a whole other reason.

 

Q. You have a lot of art in the American Dime Museum, has that helped to promote you and your artwork?

 

A. When my work is placed in the Dime Museum itís not labeled as mine. It is just on display with a story. Unless someone comes right out and asks James or Dick, no one is really going to know who made it. It is made to be exhibited as the real thing. I have gotten a lot of inquires and jobs from people that have seen my work in there and were very impressed with it. Yes it has been helpful and James Taylor has been quite beneficial in promoting my career. He believes in what I do and thinks it is terrific and tells everyone about me that he knows. I believe in what James is doing too, I help him every chance I get. I really appreciate everything he has done for me.

 

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

 

A. I just wanted to add, you asked about things I wanted to do. I want to do kidís books and I probably will do that one day. I also want to do a line of tattoo flash based on sideshow imagery.

 

Q. One last question, what do your parents think of what you do?

 

A. My mother thinks itís terrific, my stepfather who I grew up with, is very business minded. He doesn't get it but he thinks itís pretty cool that I make all this money doing what I do, that people pay me to do this, that I'm respected as an artist, and can make a living doing my art.

 

Q. Most of us donít have the luxury or the time to do the things we would like to.

 

A. You donít meet anybody on a daily basis where they are doing what they want to do, much less enjoying it. So many people have had to give up the dreams and ambitions in their lives just to make a living. It's very sad actually. Families are being destroyed by people having to work just to make a living.

 

 

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Interview by John Robinson

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