Only The Beginning

by Charles Keeler


In October of 1949 at the age of fourteen I ran away from home to the Dallas State Fair.  I worked at a grab joint.  I sold hot dogs, sodas and beer.  I wasn’t supposed to handle the beer but did.  I worked from 6 am to 1 am for the last 10 days of the fair.  At night I would sneak into the cattle barns and crawl up in the hay to sleep. I got all the hamburgers and hot dogs I could eat and after tear down was given 20 dollars.


At the end of the fair I was taken to the Rio Grande Valley with the couple I worked with at the Dallas State Fair. It was a rough cold winter. My friends got me a job on a ball game hustling the grandstands. I was grossing 2 and 3 dollars a night and ate a lot of oranges and grapefruits that winter. After a few weeks I quit hustling and joined up with another sideshow.


This particular sideshow had seven girls that performed.  Their acts included “sword-swallowing,” “fire,” “blade box” and “baby growing from lady’s stomach” (fabricated).   There was also an Annex (blowoff) featuring Millie who was billed as the half and half.  Jimmie Farmer was the talker and I became the “boy in the electric chair.”  I later found out the seven girls were actually guys. They were true carnies though. When the winter got tough they scavenged enough to feed the whole carnival.  No one went hungry and we always had enough to drink.


A month or so later I went to another show in the valley. I had learned from previous experience that when you walked on a “lot” you looked for someone setting up.  If they were alone you just pitched in and helped.  When you were done they would give you eating money.  If you were lucky they might have a spot in the show for you, and if they didn’t need you they would steer you to someone who did.


The man I helped set up at this show ended up putting me to work. The entire show consisted of the mother, the father, an eight year old boy and myself. I don't even remember their names at this point. The father was the bally talker and introduced the acts, the mother sold the tickets and the son did the “blade box.”  I became the “alligator skinned boy,” the “boy in the electric chair,” and the “girl in the goldfish bowl.”  I also walked on glass, climbed a sword ladder and worked the bed of nails. After a few weeks I learned to throw knives, ice picks actually, and crack whips. I tried eating fire but that didn’t go too well as I didn’t really have enough time to learn properly.  I could do it just not very fancy. I also tried to learn to swallow swords using a table knife.  I couldn’t do that at all. I would gag just looking at the knife!


Our next spot was Brownsville, Texas.  This was supposed to be the “get even” spot.  Instead it rained and froze for the first time in 33 yrs. I left the spot and hitchhiked to Tampa, Florida where I joined the Royal American Shows sideshow. This is where I got to meet real sideshow people like the real Alligator Man, Emmet and Percilla the Monkey Girl.


I didn’t know it at the time but this was just the beginning of what was going to be fifty years in the business.


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