He's Hip to all the Angles


On the way back home, we stopped off at Bristol and picked up a 'Bible' and checked the letter list to see if there was an opening for a side show manager.

There were several, so when we got back home, I made a few calls and made a connection with a new carny that I had never heard of called the Dumont Shows. They had a route that covered most of the eastern section of the United States. With fifteen fairs, the manager told me that all of the side show was brand new. New tent, new banner line, new ticket boxes, everything but the banners. He said to let him know what kind of banners I wanted and he would order them.

He told me they opened the first of April in Pennsylvania, then south to play spots around Baltimore. From there they went to the Eastern Shores for six weeks, then back to the first fair in Maryland. Next, they went to North Carolina, closing in Charleston, South Carolina, the middle of November.

With the opening date four weeks away, I made sketches of the banners that we needed and mailed them to him. Then I called the Billboard want ad department and gave the man an ad to run for me. This time of the year, every carny in the country was searching for a spot to go for the season.

The ad read "Fats Usher wants help for brand new ten-in-one. Ticket sellers, freaks, working acts, inside lecturers, bally girls, especially want fat girl, sword swallower, fire eater and a tattooed man that does tattooing. Old timers that know me come on in. We carry our own cookhouse. We open the first week in April in Pennsylvania. Contact Fats Usher, PO Box 56, Damascus, Virginia."

Well, the ad cost me six bits, but it was well worth it because I got three dozen inquiries. Two weeks later, I had all the help that we needed to operate the show.

I called Lou Riley, the owner of the show and told him that I had all the help I needed. He told me good, that the winter quarters are open, if I wanted to come in a week or two early to get the show ready. He also told me that the new banners would be there in time for the opening.

Needless to say, May and I were up in Pennsylvania on March the sixteenth in winter quarters. We were lettering the ticket boxes, building stages, building illusions, a blade box and framing a cookhouse.

After a week my help started coming in and we opened our cookhouse to feed them because Lou had twelve ruffeys working in winter quarters that he had to take to town three times a day to eat at a
restaurant. May told him that she would feed them for fifty a day and keep a pot of coffee ready all the time if they wanted a cup. Lou welcomed the idea, so May was on the payroll for fifty bucks a day and she fed all of us for a lot less until the carny opened.

It was an office-owned side show. The agreement was, after the nut (paying salaries and feeding the side show help), we cut money down the middle. All the inside money (blade box, pitches, blow-offs, and added things like the half-and-half) was ours to keep. With proportions like that, how could we lose? We had to come out smelling like a rose.

Opening day, when I walked into the office to get tickets and change for the show, I saw Ralph Decker, the best fixer in the business, sitting in an easy chair. He got up, walked over to me, put his arm around me and said, "Man, am I glad to see you!"

About that time, Lou handed me the tickets and two change aprons saying, "There's a dub (meaning twenty dollars in change) in each one. Do you two know each other?" Ralph said, "Only since he was a little kid working in his dad's ten-in-one, back in the thirties. He's the very guy to operate the geek show. He's hip to all the angles."


Lou turned to me and said, "Think you can handle the geek show? We've got 'Snakes Bla Bla,' the geek, a ruffey, but we need someone in the know to run it." I answered, "Yeah, fifty after the nut, plus a piece of the dip action." He said, "You got it."

Ralph walked with me outside and said, "How's your dad doing?" I replied, "OK I guess. I haven't seen or heard of him in a couple of years." Ralph said, "Then you don't know that he had a stroke and damn near croaked at the Columa (Colored) Fair two years ago?" I said, "Heck, no."

He continued, "I saw him this past winter in North Charleston, behind Joe's Barber Shop on Sprool Avenue in his house trailer. He was looking good and working in the civil service for the government at the air base in the art department. Maggie, his wife, was driving a cab. It seemed to me that they were doing OK."

About that time, one of the carnies walked over to Ralph and said, "Got a hot beef on the skillo." Ralph said, "Gotta go, I'll talk to you later. Oh yeah, drop your old man a card. He'd like to hear from you."

I knew the address of Joe's Barber Shop, so a few days later, I sent him a letter telling him that I'd see him in the fall.

We opened the big menagerie that evening and got enough money to make everybody a little bit happy.


To be Continued



Posted here courtesy of Midway Publications - Copyright 1999 William T. Usher All rights reserved


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