GREAT BALLY TALKERS
By Prof. Lee Kolozsy
An analysis of their techniques
For those accustomed to my
lighthearted articles, this will be a departure from the expected,
as I intend to treat the subject matter with the objective and
serious care it truly deserves.
Of all the many changes I have seen on
the midway over the many years I’ve spent following the show
arrows, the loss of the bally shows is the hardest to take.
In a recent post on a former
discussion group, a neophyte asked for advice about “turning the
tip”. He received valuable advice from illustrious masters of the
art. All three of them. I promised to write a comprehensive
article. Here goes…
The traditional bally consists of
three distinct parts. The first of which is known as “MAKING AN
or “BUILDING A TIP”
This is followed by “ THE PITCH”
performance always ends
with “THE TURN”
or sometimes “THE JAM”
Many who read this are already
familiar with the structure and the format of the bally, and there
are many great examples of scripts for one to follow, but I
believe that this is not enough. In this article I shall concern
myself with not so much a “how to” guide, but rather an
explanation of why it works. The psychology and the motivating
factors which determine the effectiveness of the bally
performance... Not what to say, but how to say it, and when.
The bally is sophisticated
advertising. It is a theatrical play intended to sell tickets to
another theatrical play. It is, in essence, a free sample, a short
skirt, one potato chip, your first dose of heroin, the upside down
answer to the riddle you can’t answer. It is, ideally, the
ultimate tease. It is worthless unless done well. In order to do
it well you must understand it well.
The most overused word in the world of
advertising is “SALE”. The strongest word in the world of
advertising is “FREE”.
There is seldom profit in the use of the word “FREE” in the world
of commerce. The bally is a notable exception. The word “FREE” is
your most useful tool when it comes to building a tip. After all,
the bally show is free. “THAT’S RIGHT FOLKS, IT’S ALL
FREE, RIGHT HERE, IT’S STARTING UP RIGHT NOW, A BIG FREE SHOW,
BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE MANAGEMENT AT NO CHARGE, SO JUST GATHER
‘ROUND AND WATCH WHAT WE’RE GONNA DO RIGHT DOWN HERE AT SIDESHOW,
WHERE THE STRANGE PEOPLE ARE…WATCH THE DOORWAY, HERE THEY COME,
WE’RE GONNA BRING ‘EM OUT HERE, ALL FREE, SO YOU CAN SEE WHAT THEY
LOOK LIKE, WATCH THE DOORWAY, DON’T BLINK, DON’T LOOK AWAY, KEEP
YOUR EYES WIDE OPEN, YOU DON’T WANNA MISS ANY OF WHAT IS ABOUT TO
HAPPEN, AND IT’S ALL FREE…” etc…
So you’ve assembled a motley
collection of freeloaders, now what do you do? Well…every journey
a single step and great things arise from humble beginnings, so...
You use them. They may never be customers, but they can attract
customers. Like flypaper, once a few flies are trapped, others are
drawn. Monkey see, monkey do.
Remember that, it will be useful later. You must keep them amused,
so they don’t drift away. A little business, a gag, some bullshit,
go ahead, smear it on. Stall…Create suspense… it builds as people
stop and ask… “What are they all looking at?”… Get the assembled
masses to crowd in…the tighter the better…
One interesting technique I observed
was the legendary Ringling ringmaster, and Walter Wanous number
one bally talker, Count Nicholas, who, at one point, simply tucked
his microphone under his arm and worked the front row, since the
people behind couldn’t hear him, they pushed and crowded in, now
they were packed in like sardines, with no escape…Masterful.
Another terrific example was a bit
Jack Waller used, “Now folks we would like to continue with the
free show but we have received instructions from your local
emergency services that we are required to maintain a fire lane on
the midway that cannot be blocked by the crowd, so before we can
continue with the free show, I must ask that EVERYONE, please take
a few steps forward towards the stage, that’s right, everyone
crowd right in, make room for your friends and neighbors, now
Ma’am, you won’t be able to see from way back there, little Bobo
the Bear girl is only so tall, and you need to get closer if you
want to see her…”… Motion to them to step in as a group, a
sweeping gesture. Do it three times, once at each end of the
stage, and once to the middle. A command from a figure of
authority… This is very important, as you instruct them to step in
closer, take a step backwards on the bally platform. They
will follow your instructions without hesitation. This is an
important step in the bally process, by forcing people to listen
and obey, you are psychologically conditioning people to continue
to listen and obey, this establishes a working precedent, you are
training people with a subtle Pavlovian technique, conditioned
By now you should have a large well
packed crowd, trapped, with no where to go, and you are ready to
begin the pitch. Since the crowd is trapped by the people behind,
they will have no choice but to listen to your pitch, in full. You
will lose only from the outer fringes. That is why we try to pack
‘em in tight. It is also an effective technique to at this point
develop a “hook”.
A promise of something that you must not miss…a treat…a
cliffhanger…some unimportant business that creates suspense, it
will help hold them during your pitch. Open the pitch with a hook,
something you refresh periodically by referring to it, for
example, on a girl show, “ The little lovelies are backstage
right now getting undressed for their next performance and we’re
gonna have them come out here for a little free sample…”
Command people to not miss this, as this is a sight of a lifetime.
Then pitch what you’ve got. Pitch it to the best of your ability.
Exaggerate some things to the point of
disbelief. Paint a picture in the minds of your prospects. Make it
weird, maybe a little scary, you know, scary weird carnie…or
whatever you like…these are details, the bally is about points.
Bally talkers were paid points.
Points come from sales. Make sales. Use words. Use any words. Word
up on words. Word is, no special words are required. A script
isn’t necessary. A few good cracks, and an explanation or two, and
a few promises. Strain your credibility a time or two. Promote
skepticism. Make some phony misleading guarantee. Bullshit them
about your acts. And there, you’ve made your pitch.
Way better than butchering someone
else’s masterpiece. Do yourself a favor, don’t read from a script.
Don’t memorize a written pitch. Play it by ear, fly by the seat of
your pants. It’ll work way better. Just remember, this is a play
that is largely improv and it’s a documentary about another play
that your audience can’t afford to miss. Use words that will cause
your prospects to create images in their minds that they cannot
resist the desire to examine. For example, “ You’ll see the
giant, Johann K. Petursson, The Icelandic Giant, That’s right,
you’ll meet a real live giant, a man who stands nine feet, nine
and three quarters inches tall, he weighs seven hundred and sixty
three pounds, wears shoes the size of barrel cut in half, his belt
is long enough to go around a horses belly, and he wears a ring
that you can use for a napkin ring. He is real, he is alive, you
can talk to him, he will answer your questions. You can
the giant by the hand, and what big hands he has…hands the size of
Virginia hams, positively the largest man to walk the face of the
As the pitch is made, it is always
good to bring out the attractions one at a time and pitch what
they do as the crowd is examining them. In the case of the giant,
it would have killed the sale to bring the giant out, so brilliant
showman Glenn Porter had the giant reach out from above the
sidewall of the tent, high above the average persons normal
height, and ring the clapper on a giant ship’s bell. Johann truly
did have huge hands, and this was very impressive, and noisy.
Exploit the monkey side of Curious George. Tell them only enough
to create intense curiosity…THEN TURN THEM…
The turn is the part where all this
stuff pays off. The turn is where all the freaks motion
“follow me”, turn as one, and march inside. The crowd
wants to go with them and see what they do. Get it? The Bally
Talker facilitates this. Nay, he COMMANDS that this be so.
He pulls rank, he insists, he has the authority, he is in
charge. This has been previously established. Repeatedly. During
the bally, it was established that he is in charge, the freaks
obey him, a volunteer from the audience obeys his instructions. It
is firmly established in the minds of the crowd that he is to be
obeyed. He is the Ringmaster of oddities, The Hype master General.
With a dash of Freud. Publicist to the Freaks. He’ll tell you all
about it. And make you a heck of a deal, “ If you are quick
enough, smart enough, alert enough, but mostly fast enough to get
in line right now, in front of either one of these two
ticket clerks right now, you and your party will enter not
at the usual admission price of six dollars, but….for the next few
minutes and the next few minutes only…EVERYBODY, I said
EVERYBODY,…gets in now for a child’s, I said a child’s…half price
ticket, only three dead presidents to see the show of your
nightmares, a jennuine freak show you bet, so hurry along into the
tented theatre, cause it’s starting right now…Don’t miss a moment
of it …GO NOW!!!”….
“ MAKING AN OPENING” When a bally talker creates the ideal
opportunity ( an “opening” ) to sell a crowd of people on the
idea of attending a show.
“BUILDING A TIP” When a bally talker takes the stage in front
of an attraction and assembles a crowd using a variety of
techniques. A “tip” is a crowd of people assembled to see an
event on the midway. Bally talkers often specialize and one
talker would make the opening and hand the mike to another to
make the pitch and turn the tip.
“THE PITCH” The part of the bally where the acts are hyped,
the wonders to be seen inside, often hyperbole, scandalous
exaggeration, and misleading half-truths. ( in the more
“THE TURN” Where prospects are converted to customers. The
portion of the bally following the “pitch” when all the
entertainers on stage turn and head inside to begin the
show. I believe the name stems from the important bit of
choreography where the bally chorus “TURNS” with a “follow me”
wave, in unison, and heads inside.
“ THE JAM” A sense of panic is artificially created by the
bally talker with a reduction in price for only the first few
customers in line. The public literally “Jams” in line to take
advantage of the offer. A sort of human “feeding frenzy” that
I have seen result in fistfights over a place in line.
Thank you Ward Hall for the lesson…I have had many occasions
to put it to use over the years, but I believe this may be the
best use yet. I hope I do as good a job teaching this as you
My Dad believed that this expression pretty much summed up all
you needed to know about selling your act on the midway. The
older I get, the more I tend to agree with him.
“A hook” a technique used by bally talkers to get people to
stay through the entire pitch. The expression may have
originated with medicine shows and jam auctions. Now in
mainstream use in broadcast news production, often seen
during ratings sweeps.
“Points” a percentage of the take, a salesman’s commission.
Following the “ turn”, the bally talker would hand off the
microphone to a “spieler” or “grind man” who would do a live
version of the “grind pitch” which is now days often a
recorded spiel on grind shows. A live spiel is far superior to
a canned pitch, as it affords the possibility of timing your
pitch to coincide with whatever is going on at that time. If a
group of people are looking at a certain banner, for example,
you can pitch what they’re mesmerized by at the moment. I have
also seen recordings in place of the spieler. On live ballies,
I was always my own spieler. I would grind until the last
ticket was torn.
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