Pt 1


Throughout history there have been an   extraordinary variety of shows in the carnival. Some no longer exist. Progress and the quick availability of movies and TV have killed a certain portion of the outdoor shows and it is easy to see why.

Prior   to   the   advent   of   "adult"   type   films   and   the proliferation of Topless Strip Bars, the "Girlie" or "Cooch" shows were very popular. The bally platform would be filled to capacity with beautiful girls in attractive robes and the spiel would go something like this: "Now folks, I want all of you to pay particular attention to the red kimonos the lovely young ladies standing up here are wearing. These kimonos are made from the finest velveteen available. The reason I want you to pay attention to these red kimonos is because once you get inside, that's the last you'll ever see ofem - but, I guarantee you'll see everything that's underneath."!

Inside, of course, would be a fairly tame  version  of a burlesque show with some naughty-but-nice strippers performing on stage.  Occasionally the acts,  desperate for a  little   extra scratch, would take tilings too far and the law would soon be involved.

Another casualty of the modern era was the so-called Jig Show in which black performers staged musical dance routines to a delighted audience. As America became more socially aware and "correct", this type of entertainment faded away.

The standard Freak Show displaying human oddities has nearly vanished from our culture as well. Many states have passed laws prohibiting the exhibition of handicapped people, apparently not realizing, or caring about, the life of financial hardship they were forcing on the anxious performers, who without the Side Show, had no other means of earning a living.

The legislature has stripped these people of their ability to travel and see the country, meet and socialize with friends who are similar to themselves, and find a friendly atmosphere where they could "fit in". And they did this supposedly for their own good!

Many Side Show oddities earned enough over the years to buy their own homes and retire in comfort. When Dick Brisbane, the Penguin Boy, was asked if he didn't mind being stared at for a living he snapped sharply: "Do you think they (the people) don't stare at me on the street when I walk by? At least here I get paid for it!"


1  A YOUTH IN BABYLON    1990, Prometheus Books

Thanks to the small minded politicians, who pretend to represent the best interests of all of us, the Human Oddities show is disappearing quickly. Occasionally a carnival patron will encounter a "Working Act" show that strongly resembles the old Ten-In-One and may even feature a Midget, Fat Lady or Giant. The law doesn't seem to feel ashamed of letting these people earn a living.

Some   states   have   even   passed   laws   prohibiting   the exhibition of live animal oddities,  and the ASPCA has been especially antagonistic towards Freak Animal shows. For some reason they seem to steer clear of Reptile shows.

For different reasons, revulsion being perhaps the strongest, Baby shows are having a tough time of it, although there are still a few around. There are, in fact, laws in most states that prohibit the transportation of human corpses. Which, in effect, means you can own a two-headed baby, but you can't take him on vacation with you! This law also applies to Shrunken Human Heads and Mummies, so the Grind Show operators have had to resort to using gaffs. What is really annoying is that museums and attractions like Ripley's Believe It Or Not can display all the heads and mummies they want, simply because they are not mobile. What, in fact, is the big problem here?

For a moment let's take a look at what's out there in the way of Grind Shows today. Since we've been talking about the Baby Shows we'll begin there.



Actual exhibit is unknown, but most likely a Freak Animal or Wild Man Show. 1970.

Jeff Murray's Baby Show at Syhnar, California, 1992

Two-Headed Baby Show built into the back-end of a truck.



People have always been intrigued by the possibility of human monsters. The thought of a child being born with two heads or one large cyclopean eye in the middle of its forehead still fascinates the public. To this end, the Grind Show owner has supplied the Baby Show, or Punk Show. These shows go far back into the history of the carnival and still attract attention today.

In the past, unborn fetuses were easily obtainable from Mexico and there were several importers in America who offered such specimens to the Grind Show impresario. Babies with one head and two bodies, or arms and legs shaped like flippers were certain to raise a gasp of awe from the marks as they filed past the row of formaldehyde jars.

The show usually sidestepped its own subject matter artfully in advertising the show. It was labeled "The Mystery Of Life" show or some such impressive medical hokum. Sometimes they even promoted the punks as being "Nude as Nature Intended", forgetting to mention that the "nudes" were, in fact, preserved babies.

As the heat rose through the years, Showmen took to displaying bouncers, babies made of rubber or soft vinyl, in the jars. In this way they were able to continue the show without breaking any applicable laws, and the public, mostly unaware of the gaff, didn't seem to care one way or another. The remaining problem with the Baby show is that many people find this type of entertainment distasteful and repulsive. More than a few carnival owners have refused to book an independent Baby show on their Midway for fear of reprisals.
To combat the public's aversion to the punk show the operators have taken on an Anti-Drug slanted theme in presenting the Baby show. Now the public is warned to "Beware the Horrors of Drug Abuse". This, supposedly, gives the show an educational and moral value and makes it appear more family oriented and socially aware.

One type of Drug Abuse show dispatches with the babies altogether, opting instead for an apparently burned-out youth in a wheelchair with sunglasses on and a python around his neck listening to rock and roll music (usually The Doors). This is an inexpensive show to frame up, but it is ultimately disappointing to the public. Inside the patrons are dinged for another quarter to watch the drugged-out hippy push a pencil up his nose!

While there are several Baby shows still in existence the one I find most fascinating is Jeff and Sue Murray's HORRORS OF   DRUG   ABUSE   SHOW.   Jeff and  Sue   co-own  HarMur Productions and prefer the old style tent show over the trailer constructed shows like those operated by old time showman Pete Hennen. Jeffs Baby show features a colorful banner-line painted by Mark Frierson, one of the last of the banner painters, that is attractive and repellent at the same time. He uses a good sized tent that promises a lot of room inside for the marks and he feels that the show works best in the Hispanic neighborhoods. Something about the punks excites the Latin crowd, and business on those particular dates is usually very good.

Jeffs show features bouncers which he stores dry until the opening day, at which time he places them in large, specially made jars and fills them with water diluted with a little coffee. The effect is disturbing. At a date in Sylmar, California, one Mexican woman staggered out of the tent on a particularly hot day, grabbed the ticket box for support and promptly leaned over and threw up. While not exactly an ideal situation it did serve as great publicity and helped sell a lot of tickets to marks whose curiosity had been set on fire.

Jeffs show then traveled to El Monte, California, where he was told that there was not enough lot space for both his Baby show and his large Mystery Museum show (also housed in an attractive tent). The shows had to be combined into one big top, but Jeff still didn't feel like the show would bear more than fifty cents a head and so his business was basically cut in half.

Up the midway, in a terrible location between a concession and a grab joint was a Two-Headed Baby show owned by John Strong Jr. Elsewhere on the midway (on the right hand side) Strong was featuring a Ten-In-One of working acts. Admission was one dollar. This big tented show featured a Fire Eater, who was also the Electric Man, a Human Blockhead who also lay on a bed of nails, a Rubber Girl, a Sword Swallower (Strong himself, who also doubled as the Magician and talker) and a quick, but comically phoney, Spidora illusion. The crowd was dinged a silver donation to look into Miss Fancy's (the Rubber Girl) contortionist box and an additional fifty cent ding was required to see the Headless illusion blow-off.

Business was fine when I was present, but the El Monte spot was not quite big enough to support a show of this size. Strong's Baby show was unfortunately poorly framed even though it did feature a real two-headed specimen as opposed to Murray's bouncer version of the same thing. Whereas Murray was getting fifty cents per person for his combined Mystery Museum and Baby show, Strong was trying for the same figure for his Punk show and wound up getting almost no money whatsoever, (see Photo) The rules are still simple: The best presentation gets the money. 



John Strong Jr's - Baby Show (1992)


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


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