The Dancing Turkeys

by William D. Naylor


An introduction to William Naylor, William had a rich background of experiences with the Medicine Show and Carnivals during the late 1880's and the 1890's. He was a well-preserved man of 72 years of age, about five-feet-seven in height, 145 pounds,  Quite gray but not bald. Smooth-shaven. Had a pleasant though a bit cynical facial expression. Rather serious, but an evident sense of humor, and somewhat repressed frown. His personal appearance, as to dress, he was neat although it is obvious his suit had done service for a long time. In conversation he sometimes shows a definite tendency to break away from the subject and become rather excited over some political or social thought that came to his mind. While he enjoyed a bottle or two of beer, do not think he is a serious drinker.


"When a man's in the carnival business its a good deal like when he's playing the races; he's either in the mazuma big or he's on his heels and washing his own shirts. There doesn't seem to be any half-and-half spot he can land in. He's either broke or flush; he either makes it fast or don't make it at all.

"But that don't mean that a real carnival man is ever on the town. He keeps a front and eats...not because it is handed to him from a back door or in a bread-line, but because he figures out some way to make it on his own.

"You don't see any genuine old-time carnival bird working the street for a dime, or picking up crumbs from a kitchen back door. They're independent and even if they're down to the last two-bits you'd never know it by looking at them, or hear it from their own lips. They might do a lot of cussing in private; to themselves, but never a hard-luck story to the outsiders....

"They've always got some kind of an idea tucked back in their head that they can pull out and turn into ham-and-egg money somehow.

"Even if the show goes flat, they'll raise tickets to the next burg someway and that without passing the public collection plate.

"And they'll raise it on the square...according to the 'ethics' of the profession which is: "[?] give the 'suckers' nothing... or their money, but when you give them give them something!" Just like Barnum with his horse (with its head at the back of the stall and its tail in the manger!) gave the suckers nothing and still he gave them a dime's worth of 'experience' for looking at the bronco in reverse!

"That's the way a carnival man is; he don t give them any thing, yet he gives them 'something'...  entertainment, experience, or amusement for the chicken feed he takes away from them at his rack, or wheel or ring-board. And if he has a run of 'mud-luck' he always finds a way to get out somehow, raise a stake and climb back into the game.

"That's the way it was when I invented the 'dancing turkeys' when I got into the carnival racket after quitting Doc Porter's  Medicine Show.

"It was down in the Ozark Hill country of Arkansas at a country fair and it was one of those 'dry hauls  None of us were dragging in enough to even pay ground rent.

"I was running a rack but none of the yokels  in that neighborhood seemed to have ambitions to be big league baseball pitchers and they'd just stand around and look at my babies, grin and never spend a dime for a handful of balls. Even when I'd spiel 'free throws' they'd back off, look suspicious and hang onto their dimes....

"It got under my skin and I figured there must be something they'd go for if I could only frame it up.

"Well, I finally got my inspiration.

"The town was one of those backwoods places like there used to be along in late 1890's where there wasn't any 'stock laws' and cows, hogs, horses, chickens and turkeys...and hound dogs...ran around without restraint.

"The turkeys wandering around the street, gawky and dumb looking, gave me my big idea... I'd invent 'dancing turkeys!' The natives ought to go for that sort of a show... They did.

"I got a big dry goods box, about four feet square, fixed it up with a wire cage on top; the back of the box open; bought a couple turkeys, a Tom and a hen; put 'em in the cage and was ready to exhibit my dancing turkeys.

Those natives fell for it in a dime a piece. And it was a good show!

"I'd spiel a crowd in  had 'em roped off so they couldn't get too close to the cage, then start the

performance.  The turks would be standing or squatted there as sleep and stupid as common turkeys are, then I'd start playing on a tin flute, something like an Indian snake charmer, sort of slow and soft at first.  The turks would perk up, as if listening to the music, then they'd start to step around, jerking  first one foot then the other just as if they were keeping time to the tune. I'd watch 'em and as they stepped faster I'd play faster and pretty soon those darned birds would be doing a regular tap dance or...maybe you ought call it a 'turkey trot' around that cage.  Then I'd ease down on the music, shoo the crowd out, and fill the tent with a new bunch of suckers...

"Pretty soon I had plenty of dough. And my dancing turkeys was a sensation!

"How'd I train 'em so quick?'

"Simple: I just had a tin bottom in the cage and a big coal oil lamp under it;  a negro kid inside of the box to turn the lamp up when I'd start to play, and turn it down when I'd kick the side of the box after the turks had danced long enough...

"It was worth the money and the natives got all they paid for... You know a turkey can lift his feet awful quick when he's standing on something hot; and  he looks darned funny while he's doing it...."

Re-printed from the Library of Congress, American Memory, American Life Histories: Manuscripts for the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.  From an interview conducted with William D. Naylor on October 20th. and 31st. 1938, by Earl Bowman


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