Before things get too far along it would be a good idea to lay out the ground rules of being a Midway Showman. It will be much easier to understand what's going on if the peculiarities of the carnival are explained somewhat.

Being mobile, the carnival takes on a strange life of it's own, separate and diverse from that of a normal community. The carnies do not seem to be governed by the normal laws of any one State or town since they move through them so quickly. Likewise, the carnival people sometimes resort to their own form of justice when dealing with thieves and others within their ranks who would disrupt or interfere with their business. There are stories of carnival weddings in which the bride and groom go once around the carousel (supposedly backwards) and are then considered hitched... at least until the end of the season.

It is not uncommon for a Grind Show operator to find his loudspeaker wires cut during the night if they are annoying the games owner across from him. Tires flattened and car windows smashed are not unusual acts of revenge if the perpetrator does not acknowledge the unwritten laws of the lot. Physical violence can sometimes break out, but the carnival people try not to engage each other in such an open fashion, because, believe it or not, they do consider themselves to be something of a raggedy family unit.

As in other things the carnival has a language of its own and being aware of the basics, at least in the manner in which they pertain to the Shows, would be helpful in understanding the following text. Be advised that some of these terms are a bit outdated, but still crop up occasionally when old carnies are sitting around cutting up jackpots. With that in mind, here is a short glossary of Carnival terminology (not intended to be complete by any means).


A show in which professional Boxers or Wrestlers took on members of the audience in an exhibition match. Bob Noell (his show was cleverly entitled Noell 's Ark) used to travel with a very unusual show in which some brave and/or stupid patron was encouraged to wrestle one of Bob's large apes. The apes usually dismantled the customer in quick order, much to the delight of the crowd!


BABY SHOW: A show which displays preserved babies, usually deformed in some way, in formaldehyde jars.

BACK-END: The back portion of the standard Midway (most Midways are horse-shoe shaped). This is where most Shows were located. Thus, they are referred to as Back-end Shows or Back-End Pieces.

BALLYHOO: The free show that is presented on the small stage outside the Side Shows in order to gather a "Tip". This is where the talker gives his spiel and tries to work up a crowd of paying customers. Most often referred to as simply a BALLY.

BANNER: Large canvas paintings depicting the various sights to be seen inside the show. They come in various sizes and are erected on what is called a Banner Line - a series of poles that usually reach heights of 14 feet or more, making the banners easily seen from great distances.

BEEF: Customer complaints.

A BLANK: A spot or date where no real money is made. Bad business. Savanna, Georgia has long been considered a "blank" by many carnies because business there has never been good - they say.

BLOWDOWN: What happens when strong winds get hold of a bannerline or tent top and bring it crashing down.

BLOW-OFF: An extra attraction inside a show, usually hidden behind a canvas drape, for which a separate admission is charged. Sometimes it will be a pickled punk or Human Pin Cushion.

BOUNCER: A fake human fetus in ajar. One made of rubber.

BULLET: Buzz words like "ALIVE" and" ADULTS ONLY" painted in brilliant colors on a banner cloth.

CUTTING UP JACKPOTS: Basically this is carny lingo for standing around and swapping lies. Many times done at the cookhouse.

CUT-INS: Getting your electrical power hooked up. It is not uncommon to offer the Cut-In man a token of some sort, whether it is a ten spot or a six pack of beer. Failure to do so sometimes results in your power getting abruptly terminated.

CUTTING MONEY: Splitting up the money you make with another carny, for whatever reason.

DING: Any of the many extra charges that are leveled against the show owner, such as power cut-in, insurance, motorhome space (if you have one), etc. Also used to refer to an extra fee that show owners charge the patrons to see some special, like the contortionist girl twisted inside her box or to view the blow-off attraction.

DRY LOTS: Those dates in which there is no rain. Rain, of course, being the vilest enemy of the carnival.

FIRST COUNT: The opportunity to be the first person to count the tickets taken in on a show, assuming that at least the first count will be the correct legitimate one.

FIXER: Just that. A man who "fixes" things with the local
authorities - usually beforehand and most times after there have been complaints about shady game operations.

FORTY MILER: A carnival that never travels more than forty miles from their home base.

FRAME UP: The term used to describe building up a new show.

GAFF: A faked, rigged show attraction such as a taxidermied pig with a fifth leg sewn onto its body, or third eye added. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid was one such famous gaff.

GEEK: A performer who works in pit shows handling snakes and such. Often portrayed as a wildman, the act is usually handled by an old drunk. Not very common today - people see too many old drunks on the street for free!

GLOMMING GEEK: A Geek that bites the heads off of live animals! Not around at all to my knowledge anymore.

GRAB JOINT: A quick food stand.

GRIND SHOW: A show that by-passes the bally stage approach and just "grinds" all day continuously.

HALF A YARD: Fifty dollars.

HEAT: Trouble with the law or complaints from disgruntled customers.

HEY RUBE: A physical confrontation between locals and carnies. A call of "Hey Rube" meant trouble was brewing and that assistance was needed in a hurry.

ILLUSION SHOW: A show that presented an illusion. Usually magic in the older days, now more commonly used to refer to a Spider Girl, Headless or Gorilla Girl type show.

JOINT: A concession stand or fast food counter.

LECTURER: The talker that gives his spiel inside the show.

LOT: The grounds on which the carnival sets up.

LOT LICE: Patrons who hang around the Midway, but never seem to be spending any money.

MARK: The customer or patron (i.e.- sucker) who spends his money on the Midway. Remember that carnies see themselves as separate and apart from the people who frequent the shows. Carnies will almost never buy food from a Grab Joint, unless it's a beer.


MITT CAMP: A carnival fortune teller.

NUT: What it takes in cash each day to break even.

PATCH: Another kind of "Fixer".

PIG IRON: A riding device like the Tilt-A-Whirl.

PIT: A sectioned off low canvas divider in which an act or
attraction is displayed inside the tent. Also referred to as a Pit Show. Many times used for a Single-O small animal, geek or illusion show such as Baby Betty, the girl with no arms or legs.

PICKLED PUNKS: A preserved human fetus in ajar.

PRIVILEGE: The money paid to the carnival owner for the opportunity to play on his lot.

RED ONE: A very good spot financially.

RIGHT HAND SIDE: Since it is believed that people will
naturally gravitate to the right side of the Midway as they walk into the horse-shoe shape, this has become the most desirable location for independent operators.

ROUTE: The line up of dates and locations to be played by the carnival.

REHASH: The disreputable practice of selling the same ticket for than once and thereby cheating the carnival owner out of his fair share of the take.

SAWBUCK: Ten dollars.


SPOT: A date or location played.

STILL DATE: A spot played that is not connected to a fair, festival or other event, such as setting up in a shopping center parking lot. These spots are never very good and only serve to fill out the early spring part of a route until the more substantial dates approach.

TALKER: The man who does the talking, or spieling outside the tent show. Never referred to as a BARKER, except by those who don't know any better.

TEAR-DOWN: Breaking down the show for travel to its next spot.

TIP: The crowd that gathers in front of a bally to see the free show (a show incidentally in which little or nothing ever happens) given by the Side Show to entice the marks inside.
TOP: A canvas tent.

WALK THROUGH: A show in which the patrons "walk through" and look at the exhibit as opposed to sitting or standing and having the show performed for them.

WITH IT: A phrase that lets other carnies know that you're with the show or in the business. "I'm with it."

YARD: One hundred dollars.


avariation on the Wild Man themed Grind Show.


Drug Abuse trailer show


All stories are copyrighted Fred Olen Ray and posted here with his express permission,


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