Mark Frierson - 10/1/03


Q. Before we get into your artistic skills, Iíd like to ask how you became interested in the sideshow?


A. The interesting part about this is that I went to the fairs ever since I was a little kid. Of course, I was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1964. I moved to Tampa, Florida in 1969. From that point on I went to the Florida State Fair every single year until the time I left. I also went to the Strawberry Festival, which was held in Plant City just outside of Tampa. I saw numerous sideshows, but the funny thing was, when I was a kid they terrified me. Back then banners were a lot more intense and graphic than they are today, they were quite frightening to me as a child. I remember my mother taking me to see the little black midget named Little Richard. We went to see him in his single-o attraction. I ran out of there screaming, I was so scared.


Q. As a kid you found the shows scary? What happened to change that?


A. What finally broke me was when I was at the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus when they still had a sideshow. My father had taken me. I remember looking at the front of the show, still terrified that he would take me in. Iím sweating all the way thinking, I donít want to see this, I donít want to see this. I assumed it was a horror show and I was going to be scared to death. Anyway I got in there and thought, ďhey, this isn't as bad as it is pictured on the front.Ē


I finally made the connection and realized that it was all just a lot of very intense exploitive banners to get you hooked and bring you in, but itís actually very mild on the inside. That was my first real sideshow experience. If Iím not mistaken, it happened in the year of 1974.


Q. Once you started to enjoy the sideshow what were some of the shows you attended?


A. After I was ďde-virginizedĒ on sideshows, I actually started attending with some regularity. I made a point to go because I was fascinated with them. Of course I saw Ward Hallís show back when it was still packed with all the great performers, Percilla and Emmitt and everyone, numerous single-o attractions. The Royal American Shows played the Florida State Fair back then. After Ward stopped bringing his show, Elsie Sutton brought her show in, she used a lot of the same people that Ward did. They kind of alternated back and forth between shows. Elsie had some other people performing that did not perform for Ward. I definitely got to see the last of the greats. Back when I first started going to the carnival as a kid there were still Girly Shows on the midway and all kinds of other things. I remember seeing the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car touring, it had a very graphic front, and their faces were riddled with bullet holes. That car is now on permanent display at Primm Valley Hotel and Casino on the California Nevada State line.


Q. Most people go into the sideshow to gawk at the freaks, see the exhibits, and leave. How did you start building relationships with the performers and freaks in the Sideshow?


A. Everything started coming together for me in February of 1980 at the Florida State Fair at Elsie Suttonís Sideshow. Previous to that I had gone to a lot of shows and was just an audience member. I hadn't gotten involved before that. I had talked to many of the people in the single-oís and just visited with them, but this year in particular I stayed and hung around. The other patrons would move on to see the next act. Melvin Burkhart would be standing on the stage, he and Dolly Regan. Dolly just sat up on the stage and read between shows. She couldnít really move and would have to be carried off, so she was up there the whole time. I was just a 14-year-old kid, but I started chatting him up. I guess I was asking, the right questions. Melvin would MC the show, but he would also move people along, down to see something else or maybe they might have gone into the blowoff. I started talking to them, and they realized I was genuine and not just there to gawk at them. They realized that I was a fan and that I really appreciated what they were doing. More importantly, they could see that I could look beyond the fact that they were freaks or that they had a disability. They befriended me. I kept coming back to see them during their shows. I guess I gave my phone number to someone; it must have been Dolly Regan and Melvin. Anyway, I got a phone call from Dolly Regan who told me that she wanted to give me Ward Hall's number. I didn't know who he was at the time. She said to call this guy and tell him that she sent me. She told me there was this big party going on over at the Showmenís Club. It was the rap up party for the filming of the movie ďBeing DifferentĒ. She said, ďAnd youíve got to go to itĒ, so I said Okay. I called and spoke with Ward Hall, he said sure come on down you can be our guest. I convinced my parents to drive me and we went all the way down to Gibsonton. This was in the hay day of the modern era of sideshows. Every single person that was working at that time was at the party. Percilla and Emmitt were there, Johann Petursson, Ronnie and Donny, Harold Spun, and just about everyone else you can imagine. People in the business I had never even seen in the sideshow were there. Melvin Burkhart was there, of course, all these people were in this movie. I got signatures and chatted with everyone. It was just incredible. So from that point on it was basically a done deal. I was in with the freaks; I was one of their family.


Q. You were how old then?


A. I was 14 years old. The party was in May, and I turned 15 in August.


Q. How soon after you met Melvin did you start painting banners?


A. That same year, I started painting banners because I had met Melvin. He was such an inspiration to me and such a likable character. I had been looking at the banners on the shows for many, many years. I was in art class in high school that year; we had to do a project so I choose a banner. I went to an awning company and had a canvas made. I painted it in my art class; the thing was I had never done a banner before, so of course I was completely lost. In fact had never painted anything before. I had always drawn with pen and ink or something like that, this was my first painting ever. Because the class was an hour long by the time I got everything out and started doing my work it was time to go. This banner took me about six months to paint. I could only work on it five days a week for one hour a day. I actually finished the banner on October 31, 1980, Halloween. When it was done, I gave it to Melvin Burkhart for his birthday, which was in February. After I gave it to him he took it to Coney Island and hung it behind him during the next season. John Bradshaw was so impressed by my work he called me and hired me to paint all the new banners for his sideshow. Dolly Regan called me, she told me that Dean Potter needed some work done and asked me if I would be interested. So I went over to Dean's and he actually had some old oneís, I believe they were Sigler or Snap Wyatt banners, I'm not really positive. They were from a Magic Illusion Show. He wanted me to alter them and turn them into something brand new instead of painting new banners. Knowing now what I didn't know then, I made a horrible mistake. I should have just offered to paint him new banners and took the others in trade. No one knew at that time they were going to be what they are now. I ruined, by accident, some very valuable banners, but it did get me my start.


Q. You mentioned Sigler and Snap Wyatt. Did you ever get to meet any of the old masters?


A. Unfortunately I didn't get to meet any of the masters. I could have met Jack Cripe but it just never happened for some reason. I ended up meeting a relative of Sigler. It wasn't Jim Sigler; Iím not sure who it was now, but a younger Sigler. I was working at a paint shop doing lettering, sign painting lettering. He came in and we talked for a while. Later I ended up meeting a Nephew of Jack Sigler we are still friends to this day. I did meet Johnny Meah at the age of 15 for the first time. Ward Hall introduced me to him. Johnny is a really great guy. He also inspired me. He told me that I did good work, gave me some pointers, and sent me on my way.


Q. What is the difference between your banner painting style and Meahís?


A. We paint in two completely different styles and mediums. He uses oils and I use acrylics. Frankly it really makes no difference, the last banners I painted for Ward Hall, I put them down on the ground he looked at them and asked me if it was bulletin paint, (sign painterís paint). I told him no, then he said it sure looks like it to me. I told Ward I only worked in acrylics. He was very impressed that I could get so much vibrancy out of acrylics.


Q. Who had the greatest influence on you as a banner artist?


A. It's hard to pick any specific one because they all were great in there own right. Each one of them had their very own unique style. If youíre familiar with their work it is relatively easy to tell who painted what, by just knowing who was famous for what. Fred Johnson painted his characters with big round bug eyes, you know and things like that. I took the best parts of everybody I liked, combined them with what I already did, and came up with my own style. I like them all. Fred Johnson is like the Grandfather of the banner painters as far as everyone is concerned. You know he was great but I think the greatest banner painter artistically was Jack Cripe.


Q. Most people know you for your banners and gaffs. What other types of things have you done in the sideshow business?


A. I have experienced quite a bit in my very short-lived life as a sideshow performer. I appeared with Tim Derremer's Sideshow one year at the Florida State Fair. He needed somebody to do the Human Block Head and the Iron Tongued Wonder. So I volunteered. I came out there one day and I couldn't go back because after doing the Block Head all day my nose was so sore and raw, I could no longer do it. This gave me a whole new appreciation for these guys. These sideshow performers today, the one man sideshows and troupes that do club dates where they do one show a night, I doubt very seriously that they could hack it on the midway, working a real sideshow. These guys donít have any idea what itís like. Those guys in the past were real troopers and anybody who can do that many shows a day and still walk out of there unscathed has got to be tough. I have also opened several museums. One was in the flea market in Oldsmar, Florida. I ran it for a while then I opened the ďStranger Than Fiction MuseumĒ at the Boatyard Village in Clearwater, Florida. I ran it for a long time, very successfully. Some guy made me an offer to lease my collection and put it into a permanent attraction in Kissimmee, Florida. I closed down my museum and leased it to him. He in turn, ended up burning it to the ground. I pretty much lost everything. What didn't get burned or destroyed I ended up selling. It was just completely disheartening to me. I didn't want anything to do with it anymore. Then I, well prior to that I had purchased a sideshow from Jerry Willenkin, in a nutshell he saw me coming. I was green and I paid way more than I should have. Basically, I got a lot of junk. It was old and beat up but I wanted so badly to get into the sideshow business. Some of the exhibits were pretty cool. I was already collecting oddities, so as far as I was concerned I was adding to my collection, getting into the sideshow, and hopefully going to make some money. So to me it was a great idea, even though everyone tried to talk me out of it. My parents thought I was insane. I packed everything up and finally got on the road, all the way from Tampa, Florida to Dallas, Texas. As soon as I arrived, right across the street from the lot, I turned the corner too sharp and snapped my axle right off of the trailer on the curb. I was off to a bad start, and it was all down hill from there. I lasted two and a half months and came home with my tail between my legs. I was totally discouraged with everything. I was humbled and degraded I now had an $8000.00 dollar pile of crap that I couldn't do anything with. I ended up being sued by him to get the money I still owed him, had to pay it off and a lot more plus court costs. It was a very expensive lesson learned.


Q. Those are the hardest lessons to learn.


A. Especially when I was that young. It taught me a very valuable lesson, to stay behind the scenes of the sideshow instead of trying to do it.


Q. I have heard a tape of you doing bally on a show. Do you like working that part of the show?


A. I enjoyed it very much, but I donít think I have a great radio voice or anything. Wayne Murray was very well known for doing bally he has a great voice for it. Doug Higley also has a terrific voice. I did it more or less because I believe I can write pretty good bally. I did it mostly for friends and sometimes for myself for my own show. The ďGallery Of FreaksĒ was my own personal show. I did some for Jeff Murray and Malcolm Garey. Thatís pretty much it. Itís not like I was officially hired to do bally or bally tapes. That was Wayne Murrayís job, thatís what he did, it was just fun for me.


One time when I did have my show out I was traveling with Malcolm Garey, he was pretty well schooled in the sideshow business. I was green and figured it would be better going out with a friend who actually knew what he was doing. We decided we would tour on the same circuit, and he would help me along. We got this spot in Baton Rouge on the same lot. They were supposed to have room for both of us. As it turned out they only had room for one show. Malcolm said he would just sit and I would work because I was new and needed the experience. I asked him why didnít we just setup both shows? We both could profit from it. We combined our shows and just split the profits. He said it was a great idea so we did it and had this gigantic sideshow. We combined it with the giant snakes, frogs, and all kinds of stuff. I think we had a big monitor lizard in the back of his RV. He backed it up to the tent and we had a little platform that people could walk up to the tent and look down in the trailer. We actually had to build a bally platform for this specific spot since we were going to be there for two weeks. We both got up there and did physical bally. I really enjoyed doing that. It was like lassoing people and pulling them in. We had a line of people the whole time we were there and the tent was always packed. We out-grossed every single major ride on the midway. That was a pretty big deal for a sideshow. This was the spot to end all spots. It was the Bill Dillard Shows, a festival right across the street on the beach. They had a big college there and it was hosted by one of the local radio stations.


Q. Out of all your experiences you have had in the sideshow what did you like best?


A. There is a rush about being up on the stage in front of an audience. Having them look at you with their jaws dropping down to their knees because you have done something so incredible that they canít believe it. It's very strenuous and exhausting. I respect the people who do it, very much. It's not for me I had my try, now I can say I did it. The sideshow acts I have done since then have been for the amusement of my friends, family and co-workers. My co-workers, after they see me do those things, they donít screw around with you. They figure you're invincible by eating broken glass or sticking your hand in a raccoon trap. They think youíre either invincible or youíre incredibly insane. It kind of works in a strange reverse psychological way.


Q. How has your background in the sideshow helped you with your career?


A. I think Iím actually more respected and appreciated for being an artist because, first of all Iím kind of the last of a dying breed. Iím helping to keep alive an art form that would otherwise be dead. Because of that and the other things, I have applied my art to, movies, television and publications. It is the same type of thing but presented in a different format. It has introduced me to a whole new audience than I would have had otherwise. Now with the Internet, it's like I am known all over the world for my art. It really makes me feel good. I have so many good friends and fans through what I am doing, I appreciate them all.


It makes me feel good to be appreciated for what I do, to know that Iím taken serious and just not another person out there doing it for a hobby that no one takes seriously. I consider myself very blessed because there arenít very many artists that are making a living doing their art. So many people have to work a job they donít like just to pay the bills. To be able to do what you love, make money doing it, be liked and respected for what you do. I pretty much got it made as far as that goes.


Q. There are a lot of young people that want to get a break, find someone to mentor them, and help them get a start in the sideshow. What do they need to know today to get a start in the business?


A. My take on this is, that the sideshow art, whether it is performing, banner painting, or gaff building is definitely a coveted art form. It's like the skills and secrets of a magician. They should never just be given away randomly to whomever. They shouldn't be sold, it's something that should be definitely passed down to someone as an apprentice, a person should seek out someone to instruct them and help them as a mentor. Then the mentor can see that they are genuine, See that the individual isn't there for the wrong reasons or just because they think itís cool and they think they are going to be hip if they know how to do these things and can impress their friends. If a person wants to continue the art form they should do it because they believe in its historical legacy and are doing something personally to ensure that it is not going to die out. It has been passed on in this manner from one person to another, much like some cultures have done for many years to preserve their history. This is how it should be done. Today with the technology the way it is, we have the Internet and other ways where people can find things out. If they gain the knowledge and then use it for their own selfish reasons or because of greed, it is very, very wrong. Some people have a limited knowledge and then try to use it for themselves or to teach others. Without the proper training these things can be extremely dangerous. They are setting themselves, and those people whom they try to teach, up to get hurt and potentially setting themselves up for lawsuits. I'm speaking of performing the skills of the various acts like fire eating and sword swallowing. Granted these things have their roots in science and physics. If they are practiced and done correctly they are relatively harmless. However, if you do anything the wrong way, it can either harm you permanently or kill you. There are many sideshow acts that could be potentially fatal or cause bodily scaring and alter your anatomy in ways that you will never be able to repair. There are a lot of kids out there today that see these things and think, ďThat looks so easy, I can do that.Ē They sometimes end up hurting themselves and others.


Q. More and more people are starting to collect sideshow art. There are a lot of people not in the business trying to create it. What advice do you have for the buyers?


A. As far as what I do, as it becomes more popular you will see a lot of people trying to jump on the bandwagon. It doesn't matter if it is fashion, music or whatever. Everyone is going to want to cash in on it, to become popular, make money or a combination of the two. People are coming out of the woodwork wanting to capitalize on anything and everything right now. If you watch eBay with any regularity, you will see people that are calling themselves banner painters. They are just reproducing the old classic banners. Some people are painting pathetic banners, something they think looks like a sideshow banner. There aren't many people painting banners for sideshows. A lot of them are painting banners in the style of banner painting and using them for different reasons like advertising.


My take on this is, if you want a sideshow banner then go to a sideshow artist. Johnny Meah, John Hiner, and myself are basically it. There are individuals that are art students or may have worked in a sign shop that have been contracted by some showmen that want to save money and get something whipped up for their show but that doesn't make that person a banner painter. It doesn't make them a show artist because it was a one shot deal. There have been show owners that have wanted to save money that have painted their own banners also.


Q. How do you feel about people buying and selling sideshow banners at online auction sites?


A. There are the banner artists that are known and the people that think they are ďbanner artistsĒ that will never be known for anything. A lot of these people that are paying for these banners at online auction sites donít realize that most of these banners will never be worth anything. I do think you should buy art because you like it, not for an investment, but you are really going to cut your throat if you buy a banner because you like it, and itís not painted by a true banner artist. A real sideshow artist is one who has painted for real shows on a consistent basis and for many years and is known for their work. Otherwise you are just buying a painting of a sideshow banner.


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