Stories from the 1981 Tennessee State Fair
By Spalding Gray


PT - 1


Stories from the 1981 Tennessee State Fair in Nashville, where he was going to try to photograph Priscilla the Monkey Girl and Emmett the Alligator Man, a husband-and-wife team performing in the freak sideshow. Randy had photographed almost all the living freaks in the United States. He'd got the Two-Faced Man, the Rubber Man, the Pretzel Man, the Turtle Man, Jo-Jo the Seal Boy, the Dog-Faced Boy, and the Human Pincushion. But he hadn't gotten Priscilla and Emmett. If he didn't get Priscilla and Emmett he had plans to try to make the whole venture worthwhile by buying the retired gorilla show from the sideshow people, in which a woman turns into a gorilla, and a man comes out in a gorilla outfit and charges toward the audience. The crowd gets so afraid that they all rush out of the tent. To make it more spectacular a security guard raises his gun, which has blanks in it, and begins to shoot at the gorilla. So it's an extremely exciting act. Randy thought he might be able to buy it for $5,000 and take it on the road. The last summer he saw it one of the two men working the gorilla suit got a case of the crabs, and the suit was alive with them. They had to soak themselves with Blue Star Ointment, and by the end of summer the suit was a sticky, gucky mess. Now, perhaps, it was up for sale.

Going down to Nashville, about eighteen hours, you couldn't get Randy out from behind the wheel the only stops we made were for Pepsi and milk, which he would mix together. He'd get wired on the caffeine from the Pepsi and use the milk to cut the Pepsi's acid. We were trying to get there as fast as possible, so we could get in before the fair began it began about ten in the morning because if we got in the gates we could find a parking place with the carnival people on the midway and be a part of the whole thing as though we worked there. We made it. We arrived about eight o'clock in the morning on the eighteenth. So the seventeenth blended into the eighteenth. I didn't get much sleep. 1 sat up in the driver's seat beside Randy all the way. I wanted to crawl in the back of the truck, but Randy said there was a leak in the exhaust pipe and I might get asphyxiated. So 1 sat up with him and rode shotgun.

When we arrived, I checked out the license plates. Most of the carnival people seemed to be from Montgomery, Alabama, and all of them lived in different trailers-mobile homes called the Blazer, the Prowler, the Wolverine, the Nomad, the Holiday Rambler, the Free Spirit. We found a parking space just behind the Tri-Star. The Tri-Star was one of these big rides that circles around and has carts that spin around very fast at the same time, but the carnival had not started up yet, so it was still.


After parking the truck, Randy went right off to sleep. I couldn't sleep at all so I decided to go for a walk up the midway. I soon discovered that most of the sideshows and acts had recorded announcements that they put over speakers through amplifiers. The one that I honed in on, first, as I walked the midway, went:

Have you seen the horse that's too little to ride? Tiny Tina from the wilds of the Arizona desert, home of the original mini mustang. We want you to see the world's smallest horse. That's right not a pony a fully grown two-year-old horse. Tiny Tina, the world's smallest horse! Why, you've seen dogs bigger than Tiny Tina! The world's smallest horse and it's only a quarter to see her. Twenty-five cents to see the smallest horse you've ever seen or your money back. This is the smallest horse ever born. A fully grown two-year-old horse that ain't as tall as a bale of hay! Tiny Tina, the world's smallest horse! Why. you've never seen a horse so small and it's only a quarter to see her. Mom and Dad, bring the kids. Here's a show for the whole family to enjoy. Tiny Tina, the world's smallest horse! Why, you've never seen a horse so small. A horse, not a pony! A fully grown two-year-old horse that's not as tall as a bale of hay...."

I walked over and there was this guy standing by a pile of burning boxes. It was real cold that morning. He started smoothing back his hair, telling me, "I bet you've never seen hair like this. I'm seventy-six years old and I've still got all my hair. I've been riding boxcars most of my life, sleeping on cardboard boxes. And I finally came into a gold mine Tiny Tina. I wouldn't trade her for a racehorse. I got together a master plan. Me and my buddy spent eight months catching her momma in the southwest wilds of Arizona and seven months catching her daddy. We mated them and we got Tiny Tina. Now, we only pay $500 for this space and we'll make $500 in quarters the first night." And he said, "It's not a rip-off. It's not a rip-off. It's the only real, authentic show on the fairgrounds. Mot like that over there" and he pointed over to the so-called Pickled Punk Show, which was a big trailer truck that was supposed to be filled with freak babies that were born and didn't live, or lived for a little while, and were put on display in jars of formaldehyde. Randy had told me this was illegal, and they'd been busted for having real flesh on the midway, and now they only had photographs of the pickled punks’ That’s a rip-off," the Tiny Tina man said. "They get you in there, and you think you're seeing the real thing, and it's nothing but photographs." He said, "The biggest rip-off that was ever on the carnival grounds was the Man-Eating Chicken. They painted a big picture of a big chicken chasing a little teeny man. And when you went inside there was a guy sitting at a table eating Kentucky Colonel Fried Chicken. Well, they get a lot of money on the first night, and then after that they're not too popular." This townie was standing there listening to the whole thing, and he said, "I sure would like to start a man-eating woman show. I could do that day and night." I could tell from the way his tongue was goingin a kind of lascivious Mick Jagger mouth coming out of a bunch of pimples that he'd be good at that.

As we were talking the Tiny Tina man got out a little teeny saddle. It was so darling a little leather saddle so small you could put it on a cat. And I said, "My God, that's not the saddle that goes onto the horse, is it?" And he said, "Well, when she was born, that's what went on her." So he hung it up over a fluorescent light that shone down over these bales of hay and outlined a kind of grave that Tiny Tina was down in. When I saw that little saddle go up on the fluorescent light I couldn't resist. I asked the man if I could take a look. He thought I worked there, so he let me, and the guy who wanted to start the man-eating woman show, go inside. And down there, in what looked like a small horse's grave, was this, well, I can only describe it as a pig. It was a very overweight teeny little horse that looked like a pig. Because it never gets a chance to graze it had put on enormous weight, and it just stood there on its stubby little piano legs staring straight ahead. It wasn't going anywhere in that little grave down there. I walked down and said, "My God, that's quite a little horse you got there. Aren't you afraid it's ever going to get stolen some day?" And he said, "No, no. I keep a hot line around Tiny Tina. At night, when I let her out to graze by my trailer, I put an electric wire around her that's attached to earphones, and if anyone tries to step over that wire I hear the signal and wake up and shoot the guy." (Everyone down there carries a gun.) And he said, "Tiny Tina never gets a rest. She tours all around in the winter, Puerto Rico, South America, Florida, and, in the summer, up here."


To be Continued


Special Thank to Kathleen Russo, the Estate of Spalding Gray and official website of Spalding Gray

All stories are re-printed with the permission of the Estate of Spalding Gray

All stories are copyrighted © Spalding Gray & Spalding Gray Estate and posted here with their expressed permission,


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