While not a showman or carny, Fred Johnson must be
mentioned for his incredible contribution to the world of
Born in 1892 (and still with us), Johnson began his career
at the age of fourteen as the carnival world's premiere
banner painter while working as an errand boy for United
States Tent & Awning in Chicago. He worked odd jobs on and
off for years (at one time painting trucks for the US Army)
before finding his niche as the king of the banner painters.
Banners have been employed by showmen since the earliest
days. They were needed to be able to quickly reach the
patrons and instill in them a sense of urgency, a "must see"
feeling that compelled them into the shows. The large
canvases were usually bordered in orange, a color that makes
them instantly visible from across the crowded Midway, and
dotted with bullets like "Alive" or "Real" if the specimen
happens to be pickled in ajar. Pickled Punks were usually
ballied as "Born to Live!" although they were, in fact, not
alive by any stretch of the imagination.
In the early days of the carnival, banners were not
considered the art pieces as they are today. Then, they were
seen only as advertising devices, with little regard for
their creative merits.
Johnson's brilliant colors and vivid portrayals (usually
concocted without ever seeing the attractions he was
actually painting) have now become sought after collectors
items bringing record prices. Some are still in use today on
Johnson is now retired in Sun City, Arizona and still going
strong at the age of 97.