The Back Lot

by Slim Price


Maybe it’s just brittle bones or brittle thinking or both, but I remember the end of the forties, the fifties, and into the sixties as a softer world. It even seems the air was softer. On the road, no thought was given to television or radio, and the music we heard was just whatever came from the lot, or sometimes the grandstand. Possibly counter pointed with a hot rod race, marching bands, maybe a country and western show, whatever. The major rhythm of our lives was probably “The Jenny,” and I’d often find myself walking to the music.


The only newspaper anyone cared about was Billboard, which at that time was almost totally dedicated to carnival life. Who died, what show was where, who had equipment to sell, messages from and to, a digest of our lives. I recall one ad that ran for a couple of issues from someone trying to find a home for a “lion with cage at no cost, just come and get it,” because whoever owned it was not able to feed or transport it. Thinking back I don’t think I ever saw a copy of BB that wasn’t in tatters from being passed from hand to hand.


The skies were more honest then, not constructed from jet contrails, and sunsets sang. When we worked, we worked hard, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, heat, cold, sometimes rain, set-up, tear down, and it all seemed like the natural flow of life. The day usually started about eleven-thirty in the morning and would end when the crowd got thin, which might be sometime between ten and midnight, except at Hartford-Danbury.  After closing there might be time to relax or just flop.


Thinking back I have the sense of not knowing what time it was for weeks at a time. The clock was pretty meaningless, we just did whatever was needed at the moment when it was needed. Mornings were different though. Generally speaking, carnies found whatever wash-up and elimination facilities there were, which could vary considerably from lot to lot, from a spigot somewhere to the donniker. None of which were elaborate. Then, usually, most everyone migrated to the back lot.


To a carny, this was the patio, back porch, or back yard. You might see someone with a batch of laundry, folks just chatting, sunning themselves, trying a gag, or just there. Carnies are probably the most open, sharing culture there was at that time. There were never any barriers that I was aware of.


This was a place to learn, to ask how a performer did whatever he did. Magic was seldom exposed of course, but you might see magicians from town, talking to, swapping tricks, or just gabbing with those who did magic in the shows. Otherwise, you could ask just about any performer how his act worked, and even be allowed to try it, with minimal instruction. Sometimes a “true-believer” would get hooked, develop an act and join a show.


I know of a couple of kids who became performers this way and in particular one young couple, the Bellingers.  They built a bed of nails, learned to do the pincushion act, and developed a nice routine. I’d run into them once in a while, and enjoyed knowing how they got started. Funny, I call them kids now, but we were all pretty much the same age back then.


My first love was always the Ten-in-One, but I had itchy feet, so once in a while I’d poke around the Amusement Parks on the east coast. Back then, if you knew the names and the language it was easy to find a job working at a park. Today, the parks use shiny-faced kids to work there, but “back when I was still around,” there were some real characters.


Here is a story about one of them named Joe Bathalon.  Joe was a Basque, and looked like a leather beach ball. When I met him, he was in his 60'’s and whenever he got short of funds he’d have another birthday. We were all onto his little scam, but because he was a charmer, all of us would give him a gift of a couple of bucks.


He had a beautiful wife Kathy who was a full-blooded Indian from somewhere way up in Canada. Kathy at that time was about twenty years old, which should tell you something about Joe’s prowess.  Anyhow, Joe was the best ride operator I ever met and he taught me a lot. Before I met him, I had no idea what you could do with a clutch to “improve” a ride. He taught me how to run the erratic Jenny, (Merry-Go-Round) which was the centerpiece of the park where I first met him.  He taught me the art of getting on and off, inside the ring or outside, and especially how to deal with the awesome shock that you could get from the clutch lever when it rained.  Naturally, “The Jenny” was very popular when it rained because it had a roof.


With clutching, rides can be a source of “thrown change,” which bought me many a lunch. Part of my lunch hour was devoted to going through the seats.  You see Joe had shown me just where the bonus “thrown change” ended up.


Joe’s special province was the Ferris Wheel. It was an ancient Big Eli, a forty-footer, and when I graduated to it, it was like attaining priesthood. I don’t think he ever allowed anyone else to touch it. I even learned how to load it, which was an art in itself with a wheel as eccentric as this one was. Joe’s claim to fame on Big Eli was his impulsive “rides.”  Now remember he was sixty, maybe seventy, and then some.  On impulse he would stick an arm into the running wheel, and ride it up to the top.  At that point he would become inverted, feet to the sky, and come back down, just barely escaping dismemberment! He did this just to play.


I owe so much to the people and the life I was blessed to live.


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