Pt 4




While not a showman or carny, Fred Johnson must be mentioned for his incredible contribution to the world of outdoor showmanship.

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 certain shows!

Johnson is now retired in Sun City, Arizona and still going strong at the age of 97.


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


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