The Front

  by Slim Price


The talker, never “barker”, of a show might be more important than the attractions themselves. A good talker can make even a mediocre show seem like the miracle of the universe. While each talker has his own style, timing, pattern and observation as well as “just guts” he can make or break a show.


Each location on the road has its own rhythm and dialect, and an artistic talker, without ever seeming to change does a little “verbal magic” to a tip to see the moment when the crowd is ready to buy. (turn the tip)


The price of the show used to change radically, given the time of day, location, even the weather. During the pitch the sign on the ticket-box might be one dollar to start.  As the talker continued his pitch though the ticket price could go down to as little as fifteen cents once the tip was turned. The sign would be changed in an instant to the "special price for this show only." Ticket sellers might have as many as four different sets of tickets for use during the “price cut.”


A rainy day means the show does not open at all, but to see a talker gather a crowd, however small, and hold them in the drizzle, is a thing of beauty. One great talker I remember well was named Justin.  He was thin as a rail and never appeared to look at the crowd, just over their heads.  He was always aware of every movement and mood though, and expert at picking his time to turn them.


I remember a day like that on Surf Avenue at Coney Island when I was just starting out as a “stick” (shill).  I was standing all by myself without a soul on the street when Justin told me to “spread out and start a crowd!” You see, the job of a stick is to block the sidewalk in a very subtle way in order to slow movement just enough so the talker can get, and then hold the tip's attention. A good stick will appear to raptly listen to the pitch, that he or she has heard hundreds of times before, while moving just enough to continue to “herd” the tip and making sure to keep them from moving away from the bally.


The other function of a stick is to rush to the ticket box and conspicuously buy the first ticket. I’ve worked with shows that had as many as four sticks in the crowd.  Personally I always thought of that as overkill. A stick will buy his ticket and move to the show’s entrance, and then circle around and repeat the action in order to get as many stragglers moving in as possible. When done well it’s an art form (and fun!)


Almost every show I worked with also had the ticket box gaffed with a small ridge around the edge and the box at eye level. The reason? When you got your change often the ridge would catch some silver only to be swept off by the ticket-taker into his own box.  A bonus of sorts you could say. So count your change! There are also false counts that can be used with bills, so listen to the count and look at your money, even today....


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