Thursday, January 26, 2012

australia ... carnival art ... norma brophy

Carnival Art - The art of Norma Brophy

"The Boxing Tent" - Original Painting - Acrilic on circus tent canvas

sideshow alley, brisbane ekka, c. 1940

The Vapour Trail Blog

Dark pathways at the Brisbane Ekka

Sideshow alley, Brisbane Ecca, c. 1940 (State Library of Queensland)

As I wrote in my last post, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff have recently written a book on the black bands which played coon songs, jazz and the blues in circus sideshows down south in early twentieth-century America.

This week in Brisbane the ‘Ecca’ is showing: the Brisbane Exhibition, such an institution that the schools give their kiddie two days off to go see it. Flicking through a copy of Showtime: A History of the Brisbane Exhibition (UQP, 2008), I was interested to see the above photograph. It shows that in the 1940s, a waxworks tent in the Ecca sideshow alley advertised its wares with a wax model of a black American playing a banjo, entitled ‘The Singing Coon’.

There isn’t any evidence that black American bands ever played the sideshows of Australian events like the Ecca – not to my knowledge, anyway. (There were bands playing coon songs in the tent-shows of Australian bushranger/American Wild West Show impresario, E I Cole, in Brisbane at the turn of the twentieth century, although they would have been white Australians doing ragtime: obviously not at all the same thing). But this Queenslandish echo of those sideshow bands across the Pacific is intriguing, nonetheless…


Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs’ , and the Dark Pathways to the Blues and Jazz (University of Mississippi Press, 2007).

Joanne Scott and Ross Laurie, Showtime: A History of the Brisbane Exhibition (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008), p 88.

sideshow alley freak storm at sydney royal show

Freak storm: sideshow alley to shake up the Show
Daniel Lewis
April 4, 2007

"I actually think that we are all freaks" ... Rima Hadchiti performs in the Psycho Sideshow of Anarchy at the Easter Show. This year's Show has resurrected sideshow alley.
Photo: Peter Rae

IN A retro move stirring nostalgia in those who remember the bearded lady, the Royal Easter Show is bringing back the freaks that once starred in sideshow alley.

The Psycho Sideshow of Anarchy features acts like midget belly dancer Tiny Rima and the sword swallowing Space Cowboy.

This is the Show's 10th year at Homebush but when the Show starts tomorrow there will be a Big Top with three weird and wonderful shows daily, and the Tiny Top, which seats 36. It started in 2000 and tent master Tony Rooke is delighted to be appearing for the first time at an agricultural show. Contemporary sideshow, he stresses, has none of the exploitation associated with sideshow freaks in the movie Elephant Man.

Mr Rooke said some people took offence at acts like Tiny Rima, but "we treat Rima like royalty. She loves [performing]. Everybody's got something special about them."

Rima Hadchiti, 24, from Melbourne, is one metre tall and weighs 19.5 kilograms. Her father is a musician who encouraged her to dance and "entertainment was always in my blood". She has no fear of the label freak. "I actually think that we are all freaks. You will never find a person who is exactly like you. I'm just expressing my freakiness, like everyone else."

Space Cowboy - Chayne Hultgren, 28, from Byron Bay - swallows a torso-length steel sword and does a mind-reading act. He won't be doing the act where he guesses which one of five polystyrene cups has a knife in it by smashing the other cups with his hand after an accident last month in Adelaide. "The newspaper headline was, 'Psychic Needs Surgery After Slice of Reality'," he said.

Rod Berrell, 63, one of the Show's horse-riding greencoats in the Main Arena, said the Tiny Top it took him back. "One of the things I remember very vividly was Big Chief Little Wolf, the wrestler," he said. "He put an Indian death lock on me."

australian jimmy sharman's boxing troupe

Marchant, Bob (1938 - ) Jimmy Sharman's boxing troupe (1996)

Memories of Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Stadium

The photograph below from the National Library of Australia really took me back. It shows Jimmy Sharman's boxing troupe at a country show in 1959.

The drum (centre) would start beating to draw the crowd. Those like my brother and I would be attracted by the noise, and come drifting across the rutted dusty ground towards the stand. There we would stand, while the spruker expounded the virtues of the fighters.

"Come on, come on, come on. Give it a go. Survive three rounds and we will give you five pounds."

Each fighter would be brought forward and introduced to the crowd. "Surely some of you blokes can beat him. Three rounds, five pounds." The locals would hold up their hands and be called into the stand to be fitted out.

Inside we got near the ring, sat and waited on the hard seats while the dust motes drifted in the sunlight streaming down onto the ring. The fighters were brought out and introduced, the troupe fighter and then the local challenger. The bell sounded, and the fight began.

In today's terms it would all seem quite brutal, although we did not see it that way. It was just sport. It was only when fights were completely unbalanced that it became cruel.

Generally the locals were outclassed and it was over quite quickly. The local retired bearing his scars to the beer tent, there to stand in glory with his friends for giving it a go. However, there was one fight I remember that did not go according to plan.

The troupe boxer was a young, good looking, blonde bloke. He ran up against a very tough local who cut him to pieces. By mid way through the second round the troupe boxer's face was bruised and cut, his lips smashed. He kept going, but the crowd started to call for an end to the fight. It was no longer sport.

I actually saw a fair bit of boxing. Yes, I am aware of the health risks, but I am glad that I did see Jimmy Sharman's touring stadium before new regulations forced an end to the shows.

Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Troupe followed the show circuit through four states for six decades of working 11 months a year. In each town and city Sharman snr charged spectators to watch young black boxers teach half-cut local challengers to fight.

"Who'll take a glove?" and "A round or two for a pound or two" were famous Sharman catchcries.

Sharman jnr inherited what was "a bloody good business" a decade before his father died in 1965. He continued touring until 1971, when regulations barring boxers fighting more than once a week knocked the business out. In later years he reminisced about the show life. "They had so many freaks it wasn't funny," Sharman said. "There used to be Zimmy the Legless Wonder … Used to eat bananas under water … Zandau the Quarter Boy, Tam Tam the Leopard Man."

Australian Champion George Bracken's career started at Sharman's tents, he later progressed to professional boxing and went as far as contender for the British Empire Lightweight title.

George peaked his career in boxing when he beat Johnny Van Rensburg Aug 1959 after he had lost the British Empire Welterweight title to Aussie George Barnes in 1958.

Like his father, Sharman had one son, called James. Jim Sharman went into showbusiness but not the boxing tent. The Sydney theatre producer won world acclaim when he co-wrote and directed The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975.

Fred Brophy insists he will continue travelling with his tent boxing troupe, until he dies, even though the sport was banned in 1971 by the government, due to health concerns.

Final bell for showman Jimmy Sharman

The Age

April 26, 2006 - 6:46AM
Jimmy Sharman, the man who inherited his father's famous boxing troupe, has died aged 94.

Sharman died at Sydney's St Vincent Hospice on Monday.

Born James Michael Sharman in the Riverina town of Narrandera in 1912, his father James snr had established his colourful Sharman's Boxing Troupe at the Royal Easter Show a year earlier.

The troupe formed part of the Australian Show landscape for more than seven decades.

Sharman spent a week working in the ticket office for his father at the show in 1926, before turning his attention to rugby league.

As well as captaining Wests, he played seven seasons for the Magpies between 1934-1940.

But illness led him back to his father's tent in 1945 and he toured with the troupe, which often involved young black boxers teaching half-cut local challengers to fight.

His famous catchcries included "Who'll take a glove?" and "A round or two for a pound or two".

Sharman inherited the family business in 1955 and toured until 1971, when regulations barring boxers fighting more than once a week came into place.

The Sharman fame was later captured in a song by rock band Midnight Oil in the mid 1980s, titled Jimmy Sharman's Boxers.

"Fighting in the spotlight/Eyes turn blacker than their skin," the song says.

"For Jimmy Sharman's boxers/It's no better if you win".

Sharman had one son, also called James.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

sydney carnies and mrs woog

AN interesting post from Mrs Woog who runs a site called WOOGSWORLD. Her thoughts on carnies at the Sydney Royal Easter Show ....

"The streets of Sydney were empty on Good Friday, as it would seem the entire population had descended on the Royal Easter Show. Woogs included. We emptied out our bank accounts, wrote mobile numbers on kids backs, had several fights in the car and then we were there. We handed over $100 for 4 tickets. Mr Woog kept asking "What do we get for $100?" and I kept replying "Entry." It eventually dawned on him and he went pale.

Oh I love the show. I could sit and watch people all day. The fascinating mix of families that stroll by. There are clear groups of people that attend the Royal Easter Show. Too many to mention. I will however point out my favourites.

To me, the sideshow is not about the rides and games, but the people who run them. They are either morbidly obese or dangerously scrawny. Either way, they are without fault unattractive. They love smoking and grunting. You do not want to fuck with a carnie. I love them. I want to make a documentary about them... or at least watch a documentary about them. How did they become a carnie? Why is it ok to live in your ride? Where do your ten kids go to school? Where do you wash? Do you wash? What about carnie turf wars?? Oh the endless questions I would ask a carnie." 4 April 2010

carny australia

"SHOWTRAIN is a new Australian musical about a bunch of carnies trying to save their beloved carnival train from extinction. Inspired by the real life train that used to travel up the north coast of Queensland in the 1940s and 50s, Showtrain is a loss of innocence story as well as a tale of greed, love and revenge, but in the end it's a story about identity, place and belonging.

Set in a time when a nation is discovering its own identity, Jimmy Roper heads north in search of his father. Hitching a ride on the Showtrain, Jimmy is lured into an unexpected way of life and quickly becomes the new boxing sensation. The carnies, including one lonely clown, pin all their hopes on him to save their carnival from being wiped from the face of the earth."

On their website they have some interesting information about carny history in Australia.

"In 1929 a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald said of sideshow alley "So much outstanding talent is packed into this small area that one realises what a priceless opportunity is offered to see the world's wonders at the show. One must see them to believe them. They should not be missed!"

Sideshow alley developed as a unique place on the Australian landscape. It was a temporary site exisiting in any one location for only a few days During this time a small world would appear, of tents and canvas booths, with line-up boards out front and signs in flaming colours and bold words to attract the patrons.

Sideshow alley was fun. It was also a window on other worlds for many Australians particularly those in isolated rural areas. Here they could see people from other cultures and other lands and people with physical abnormalities who otherwise were hidden away, and stare at the wondrous diversity of nature.

Those who chose not to enter still absorbed the influences of wonder and self affirmation. For as they gazed at the Vanity Fair that was formed by the performers they knew unconsciously that they were white, not the hue of an Indian snake charmer a Chinese juggler or a Filipino fire walker. They knew they were of 'normal' stature not a giant or a dwarf a fat person or a skeleton man. They also knew that they were a settled people in comparison with the Showies who were nomadic and always on the move.

Following the Sydney Easter Show the Showies would head north, to catch the Showtrain after the Gympie show in late May, in order to winter in Northern Queensland among the amusement-starved, free spending North Queenslanders. The Showtrain was an efficient operation, the Showies themselves marshalling the caravans and trucks off the flat top carriages. In two hours from the time of arrival side show men and women could be ready with tents and joints up ready to take money.

The end of the second world war broughts bright hopes. The Federal Labour Government's Ministry for Post-War Reconstruction planned to engineer Australia's brave new future. However the promise of post-war prosperity was cut short for many Showies. The Royal Agricultural Society announced that the Shows were being cleaned up. A committee would scrutinise applications and exclude any shows that did not fit in with the new improvement plan. Performing animals and freaks were not to be displayed. Many of the best pre-war acts, skillful jugglers, illusionists and freaks were deported under the White Australia Policy. The travelling show further suffered from the advent of television in Australia, although many performers simply left the road and the nomadic lifestyle they had cherished for so long for a more secure and settled future in front of the TV camera."

Monday, January 2, 2012

carny frankensteins

The strange history of the Frankenstein carnival sideshows

After the 1930s Frankenstein movies took the world by storm, people began creating carnival sideshows devoted to Frankenstein freaks. Film writer Pierre Fournier takes us back to a time when carnies mixed with The Monster.

Step right up!

The place is somewhere in England. The time, perhaps the late Thirties or the early post-war years. A barker makes his pitch - a colorful pseudo-scientific spiel, no doubt - as the crowd jostles for a glimpse of the mysterious masked women on the platform. Behind the curtained arches waits Eve, The Sensation.

Who was The Midway Bride of Frankenstein? Was she a real-life "freak", disturbingly deformed? A giantess, perhaps? Or was she a sideshow creation, a variation on the timeworn girl-to-gorilla trick, done with mirrors?

Sideshows thrived on cheap scares. The original Victorian-era Spookshows materialized ghosts onstage using magic lantern projections and the illusion known as Pepper's Ghost. These attractions evolved into fairground Haunted Houses with their creaky doors and crooked floors, stuffed mummies, dungeon torture scenes, and narrow labyrinths with summer job kids in dayglo rubber masks lying in wait.

In the Thirties, Boris Karloff movies made Frankenstein a household name and The Monster began stalking the fairgrounds. Frankenstein dummies were added to displays, and green Frankenstein Monster faces leered from banners. The traditional Haunted House, otherwise unchanged, might be recast as Frankenstein's Castle.

Even as fairgrounds embraced The Monster, sideshow themes worked their way into Frankenstein fiction and films. Numerous short stories and comic book adventures had The Monster hiding out as a circus freak. In movies, just to name a few instances, Boris Karloff's mad doctor Neimann escaped from the lunatic asylum and hijacked Professor Lampini's traveling Chamber of Horrors Show, complete with authentic Dracula skeleton, as his ride to The House of Frankenstein (1944). In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the boys first encounter Glenn Strange's Frankenstein Monster packed in excelsior as an exhibit for MacDougal's House of Horror Museum. In Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Peter Cushing's Baron hires a shady sideshow hypnotist to unlock his defrosted monster's scrambled brains. In The Bride (1985), The Monster (Clancy Brown) finds brief respite as a circus performer and roustabout.

The Midway Bride of Frankenstein resurfaces in another British photograph, this one probably from the Fifties, of a tent foldout display painted with skulls, hellish faces and a very prominent topless victim overhead.

The art, as was often the case, might have been recycled from a jungle show or a Snake Lady exhibit. This Bride's booth, baking in the summer sun, pared down to the barest of essentials, reeks of hard times. No top hat barker here, no masked ladies to hook the crowds. No adults patrons in sight, either, but lots of children swarming excitedly around the cheap setup. Notice the kids at left, trying to sneak a peek at the scary wonders within.

I'm curious, too, about the secret Bride of the Fairground. I wonder what waited behind the tent flaps. I suspect the payoff might have been disappointing. At best, a mild scare to be had, or just a headshake at your own gullibility. But those garish posters exercise their fascination. The masked women hold silent promise. Even the later downscale display - She Is Real! She Is Alive! - is captivating. And that, really, is what you paid for. As you handed over your coins, you knew in your heart that nothing inside could ever match the thrill of your anticipation.

As Tom Norman - the British P.T.Barnum who had once displayed The Elephant Man - said, "It was not the show; it was the tale you told."

The photographs in this post are from the National Fairground Archives of the University of Sheffield. They keep a fabulous website tracking the history of Fairground attractions in Great Britain, illustrated with tons of vintage photos. The Frankenstein Monster, painted on banners or built up in plaster or papier maché, appears here and there.

On the site, be sure to see The Ghost on the Fairground about Ghost Shows and Ghost Trains, Horror on the Fair, a gallery of horror-themed photos, and Horror in Pop Culture and Fairground Art, a fascinating illustrated history of horror shows with an emphasis on movie-related influences, including Hammer Films.

carny oddities

Sideshow! Carnival Oddities and Illusions Provide Lessons for Skeptics


Get back issues, subscriptions, and merchandise at the CSI store.
Investigative Files
Joe Nickell
Volume 9.4, December 1999

Like Robert Ripley, I have always been attracted to the odd and the curious. Growing up in a small town, I scarcely missed a visiting solo act-like an armless wonder or a bullwhip artist-who performed at the local ball park. I paid admission to countless magic, hypnotism, and spook shows, not to mention animal and juggling acts, that played in the school auditorium or the local theater. And I must have attended every carnival or circus that came around.

In 1969 I worked as a magic pitchman in the carnival at the Canadian National Exhibition. It was there that I met “El Hoppo the Living Frog Boy” and witnessed “Atasha the Gorilla Girl,” who was transformed from beauty to beast before the eyes of frightened spectators. During travels in Europe, Asia, and North Africa in 1970 and 1971, I beheld various street acts, including nighttime fire-breathing and Houdini-style chain-escape performances in Paris, a “dancing” bear in Istanbul, a little old wandering conjurer at the Pueblo Espa—ol in Barcelona, and a snake charmer and other entertainers at the Medina in Marrakech.

Banner line at Bobby Reynolds’s exhibition at New York’s Erie County Fair, 1999 (author’s photo) (click for larger view)
Barnum and Sideshows
Such street performers harken back to the earliest form of what developed into the great English fairs of the early Renaissance. There, most of the “human curiosities” that later became fixtures of nineteenth-century American “freak shows” were exhibited (Bogdan 1990, 25). In late 1841, an itinerant showman named P. T. Barnum became proprietor of the American Museum in New York City, an entertainment enterprise that had featured contortionists, a banjoist, a lady magician, a lecturer on animal magnetism, a Tattooed Man, and similar acts (Harris 1973, 40).

Banner for the Fiji (or “Feejee”) mermaid, a “gaffed” curio on exhibit (author’s photo) (click for larger view)
Barnum had earlier toured with Joice Heth, supposedly the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington but actually an octogenarian fraud. Now he exhibited the “Feejee Mermaid,” billed as “the greatest Curiosity in the World” although it was only a monkey’s body grafted onto a fish (Harris 1973, 22, 62-67). Accusations of trickery only brought Barnum increased notoriety, and he soon schemed to have his bearded lady accused of being a man! A publicized medical examination helped boost cash receipts. When one visitor asked whether an exhibit was real or a humbug, Barnum replied, “That’s just the question: persons who pay their money at the door have a right to form their own opinions after they have got up stairs” (Harris 1973, 77).

Barnum exhibited increasingly diverse oddities-such as albinos, giants, dwarfs, and “The Highland Fat Boys"-along with ballets, dramas, magic shows, and “scientific demonstrations.” By the 1870s dime museums (Barnum’s was twenty-five cents) began to proliferate, and “the human oddity was the king of museum entertainment” (Bogdan 1990, 32-33, 37). It was traveling museums, linked to circuses as concessions, that presaged the later “sideshow"-so named due to being separate from the main attraction.

Actually there could be several sideshows, located in tents (or later trailers) on the midway, the place where the rides, shows, games, and refreshments are located. A carnival is essentially only a midway (Taylor 1997, 92-95).

The Ten-in-One
A major type of sideshow, often popularly called a “freak show,” since human oddities were usually among the exhibits, was known to insider “carnys” as a “ten-in-one.” As its name indicated, it consisted of a number of acts, often arrayed along a platform, with the crowd moving from one to the other in sequence. Since such shows were typically continuous, if a spectator entered the tent during, say, the sword swallower’s performance, he or she would be led by the “lecturer” through the remaining nine (approximately) acts or features-magician, fat lady, giant, etc.-and when the sword swallower was on again, that was the signal to exit the show.

At the end of each act or exhibit spectators might be offered a pitched item such as a “true life” booklet or photograph. Frequently giants sold huge finger rings and midgets offered miniature bibles. (I bought an autographed photo from “El Hoppo the Living Frog Boy” and an envelope of tricks from a magician.) Such an extra, inside sale is known as an “aftercatch” (Taylor 1997, 91; see figure 2).

Meanwhile, outside, a “talker” (real carnys never use the term barker) was periodically drumming up a new crowd (or “tip”) of potential customers, usually with the assistance of one or more of the acts to provide a taste of what was inside. This external pitch was held on a “bally” platform, the name deriving from ballyhoo (meaning sensationalized promotion).

The oddities and exotic acts that were featured in the ten-in-one were quite varied. In his book Monster Midway (1953, 102), William Lindsay Gresham discussed the traditional carny classification of human oddities, observing that “In addition to a born, bona fide freak, the same show will sometimes feature ‘made’ freaks and ‘gaffed’ [fake] freaks, all scrambled together.” For the following discussion, I have subdivided the first category and added other non-oddity divisions in an attempt to provide a more complete classification of sideshow acts and exhibits. (Sideshow attractions like the Fun House are not included.)

Figure 1. Carte de visite picture of midget Tom Thumb’s 1863 wedding, promoted by P. T. Barnum (author’s collection) (click for larger view)
One may think of “born” human oddities as of essentially two types. First is the more-or-less obvious anomaly. Examples include midgets like Barnum’s “Tom Thumb” (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and Lavinia Warren, who married in a highly promoted ceremony (Drimmer 1991, 172-182; see figure 1). At the other end of that spectrum was Jack Earle, whose extreme height brought him notice from a Ringling Brothers circus sideshow manager in the mid 1920s. “How would you like to be a giant?” the showman is said to have asked, indicating the important distinction between merely being noticeable and being a sideshow star. Earle soon became “The Texas Giant” (Bogdan 1990, 280).

Another example of the true type of oddity is represented by conjoined twins, the result of incomplete separation of a single, fertilized egg. The most celebrated pair were Chang and Eng (1811-1874) who came from Siam and thus prompted the term, “Siamese twins.” They eventually married, living in three-day shifts in their respective houses and fathering twenty-one children (Drimmer 1991, 3-27).

Sometimes the division of the single, fertilized egg that produces identical twins is even less complete than it was with Chang and Eng. The result can be any of various anatomical oddities such as “The Two-Headed Boy"-actually the Tocci brothers (b. 1877), who were two individuals above the sixth rib but who shared a single body below. In some cases the incomplete division results in a normal size body with a smaller, parasitic one-in whole or part-connected to it. Such was the case with “The Four-Legged Girl from Texas” (Myrtle Corbin), “The Man with Two Bodies” (Jean Libbera, b. 1884), and “The Girl with Four Legs and Three Arms” (Betty Lou Williams, d. 1955) (Drimmer 1991, 28-37; Parker 1997, 64).

Other genuine oddities include hirsute people like Bearded Ladies and “Lionel the Lion-faced Man” whose face was entirely covered with long hair (Parker 1997, 92, 94), as well as various Alligator Boys and Girls afflicted with the skin condition ichthyosis. Still others, like “Leona the Leopard Girl,” were dark-skinned people with vitiligo, a lack of pigmentation that could appear as a pattern of white splotches over the body (Meah 1996b).

Yet another example of the genuine anomaly would be the Frog Boy, although any of various deformities could qualify one for the sobriquet. Here was “El Hoppo” (previously mentioned, whom I met in 1969). Although the sideshow banner depicted a youth with a frog’s hindquarters, in actuality “Hoppy” was a grey-bearded man in a wheelchair, having spindly limbs and a distended stomach. To look more froglike, he wore green leotards (Nickell 1995, 221-222). Among others, there was Otis Jordan, an African-American who had (according to one of his many admirers) the body of a four-year-old but a normal head with “a noble, scholarly face” (Meah 1998, 56). Beginning in 1963 he performed as “Otis the Frog Boy,” part of his routine being to roll, light, and smoke a cigarette using only his lips. When his act was shut down in 1984 after a woman complained about the exhibition of disabled people, Otis moved to Coney Island where he continued with the more politically correct billing, “The Human Cigarette Factory” (Bogdan 1990, 1, 279-281; Taylor 1998, 55-61).

As with human “frogs” other examples of genuine anomalies that were imaginatively interpreted were those represented by “The Caterpillar Man” (also known as “Prince Randian, the Hindu Living Torso”); “The Mule-Faced Woman” (Grace McDaniels, who had facial tumors); various persons having vestigial feet and hands attached to the torso, such as “Sealo the Seal Boy” and “Dickie the Penguin Boy” who, his banner proclaimed, “Looks and Walks Like a Penguin"; and many others (Fiedler 1993, 23, 168-170, 291; Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell 1996, 68, 126; Taylor 1997, 95).

A second subclass of the “born” oddity is what is known in carny parlance as the “anatomical wonder,” that is, “a sideshow performer, usually perceived as a human oddity, but more a working act” (Taylor 1997, 91). A good example would be James Morris, who performed with Barnum and Bailey for many years. He could stretch the skin of his cheek eight inches and pull his chest skin to the crown of his head. Morris was only one of many who were styled “The Elastic Skin Man” (or Woman). Others who had the same harmless condition, known as cutis hyperelastica, were billed as “The India Rubber Man” or similar designation (although that term probably more often referred to a contortionist) (Drimmer 1991, 307; Taylor 1998, 95). Other anatomical wonders would include “Popeye, the Man with the Elastic Eyeballs,” who could cause one or both of his eyes to protrude to an incredible degree. Charles Tripp, “The Armless Wonder,” teamed up with Eli Bowen, “the Legless Wonder,” to perform amusing stunts like riding a bicycle built for two (Drimmer 1991, 87-93; Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell 1996, 48).

The second main category of oddities-what Gresham termed “'made’ freaks"-are typified by tattooed people. That sideshow genre was popularized after a Russian explorer’s visit to the Marquesas Islands in 1804. He discovered a French deserter named Jean Baptiste Cabri who had married a native woman and been extensively tattooed. Cabri returned with the explorer to Moscow where he launched a theatrical career, then toured Europe, regaling audiences with exaggerated tales (Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell 1996, 101-102).

Probably the most unique of the Tattooed Men and Women (both eventually appeared on sideshow banners) was Horace Ridler, a British prep-school-educated ex-army officer who was down on his luck and decided to transform himself into a circus star. His idea was to become tattooed all over with zebra-like stripes-a process that took a year beginning in 1927. Claiming he had been forcibly tattooed by New Guinea savages, “The Great Omi, The Zebra Man,” eventually became “one of the highest paid circus performers in the world” (Gilbert 1996, 104; Bogdan 1990, 255-256).

Other “made” freaks include a “crucified man,” Mortado, who had his hands and feet pierced surgically. In the holes he concealed capsules of “blood” that spouted forth when spikes were pounded through them. Later, utilizing a specially designed chair with plumbing fixtures, he became Coney Island’s “Mortado the Human Fountain” (Barta 1996).

Then there were the “gaffed"-or faked-freaks. Such manufactured oddities included phony Siamese twins like Adolph and Rudolph. A circa 1899 photo reveals that they lacked the close resemblance of identical twins (which conjoined persons always are). In fact, a harness concealed under their specially devised suit held Rudolph so that he seemed to grow from Adolph’s waist (Bogdan 1990, 8; Reese 1996, 190). Fake Alligator Girls and Boys were created by painting their bodies with a weak solution of glue and, after allowing it to dry, having them twist and flex to create the cracking effect that simulated ichthyosis (Meah 1996, 120).

Sometimes gaffing was done to enhance an oddity. A good example was William Durks whose deformity led him to be billed as “The Man with Two Faces” among other appellations. Durks had an eye and nostril on either side of a growth in the center of his face. He later enhanced the effect by using makeup to add an extra central “eye” and two “nostrils,” becoming “The Man with Three Eyes.” Actually Durks was one-eyed, his other being vestigial (Taylor 1997, 40-47). In packaging their exhibits showmen typically exaggerated claims and fabricated backgrounds. For example, dwarfs and midgets had inches subtracted from their height, and giants often wore lifts and tall hats to enhance theirs, which was inflated by as much as twelve inches (Bogdan 1990, 95-97).

Figure 2. Pitch card of a sideshow snake charmer (author’s collection) (click for larger view)
After human oddities, the second major category of sideshow performers consists of those who exhibit a special skill. They include sword swallowers, who must learn to conquer the gag reflex in order to swallow, not only swords-like Edith Clifford (b. 1884), “Champion Sword Swallower of the World"-but also umbrellas and lit neon tubes (Houdini 1920, 147-151; Mannix 1951, 96-101).

Other performers in this class are the Fire Eaters and Fire Breathers (who sip flammable liquid and spew it across a torch to produce great fireballs). Then there are performers of any of various “torture” acts. These include the Human Pincushion (who sticks needles through the flesh), the Human Blockhead (who hammers spikes up the nose), and others, including “fakirs” who lie on beds of nails. Other wonder-workers are Snake Charmers (whose act might consist of little more than wrapping a large snake about the body [again see figure 2]), contortionists (like “Huey the Pretzel Man”) and numerous Strong Men and Women, including Louis Cyr, whom Houdini (1920, 221) suggested was “the strongest man in the known world at all-around straight lifting"; William Le Roy (b. 1873), “The Human Claw-Hammer,” who could extract a nail driven through a two-inch plank using only his teeth; and Madame Rice, “The Most Diminutive Lady Samson in the World” (Taylor 1997, 91-96; Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell 1996, 78; Houdini 1920, 223-224; Bogdan 1990, 265).

Figure 3. Carny showman Bobby Reynolds presents a blade-box illusion at New York’s Erie County Fair, 1999 (author’s photo) (click for larger view)
A third major class of sideshow features is represented by what is known as an “illusion show.” An example-as old as it is effective-is a transformation effect such as girl-to-gorilla, skeletal-corpse-to-living-vampire, etc. (Taylor 1997, 93, 94). In 1969, on a break from my stint as a carnival pitchman, I joined spectators in a sideshow tent to see “Atasha the Gorilla Girl” standing, apparently, at the rear of a cage. As a voice chanted, “Goreelyagoreelyagoreelya, ATASHA, goreelya!” Atasha’s features were slowly transformed into those of a large gorilla. Suddenly, it rushed from the unlocked (!) cage, and lunged toward the crowd, sending some spectators screaming from the exit-an occurrence that helped draw the next “tip” (Nickell 1970; Teller 1997).

Of course, the effect was a magician’s trick. Often the bally talker slyly noted that the “Gorilla Girl"-or the “victim” in another illusion termed “The Headless Woman"-was in “a legerdemain condition.” Other illusions commonly featured in sideshows were “The Girl in the Fish Bowl” (wherein a living “mermaid” appears in apparent miniature in a goldfish bowl) and “Spidora, the Spider Girl” (which consists of a living human head atop an arachnid’s body) (Taylor 1997, 21, 93, 94).

An illusion of early vintage that was especially popular around the end of the nineteenth century was an effect known to magicians and carnys as a “blade box.” A young woman would lie in a box that was then intersected with a number of blades (figure 3). The secret? For that one paid an extra charge (another form of “aftercatch” called a “ding”) to come up on the platform and peer inside. To provide extra incentive to the male spectators, the magician might reach in and pull out his assistant’s costume! The spectators were thus fooled twice, since the costume was an extra one ("Science” 1997; Taylor 1997, 92).

Figure 4. “Giant Rat,” an individual sideshow feature at many carnivals. Note the word “ALIVE.” (Author’s photo) (click for larger view)
Still another major type of sideshow exhibit features animals. While the premier acts are shown under the circus Big Top, midways and carnivals often have animal presentations. In 1972 in Toronto, I visited an all-animal ten-in-one. It included a three-legged sheep, touted as “Nature’s Living Tripod,” and various alleged hybrids (zebra/donkey, turkey/chicken, dog/raccoon). These did not match their banner portraits, which showed the front half of one attached to the rear of another, but merely resembled a blend of features. There was also a ram with four horns, a sheep and cow with five legs each, and other oddities.

As billed, the “World’s Smallest Horse” was a “preserved exhibit” (a fÏtus pickled in a jar!), and the “World’s Largest Horse” was indeed in “photographic form.” To distinguish the living exhibits from such “curios” (as I describe them in the next section), banners still typically feature the screaming word “ALIVE.”

With the decline of the ten-in-one in the 1980s-due to their high overhead and the fact that the exhibition of human oddities could provoke complaints-individual animal and illusion exhibits became the mainstay. One was the “Giant Rat” show which I witnessed at the Kentucky State Fair (see figure 4). In such exhibits the giant creature was either of two types of South American aquatic rodents, usually the capybara (which belongs to the guinea pig family) (Taylor 1997, 20, 93; Encyclopædia Britannica 1960).

A fifth and last category of sideshow exhibits is reserved for any inanimate object, including preserved human or animal specimens. Barnum’s “Feejee mermaid” is one (albeit gaffed) example. Another would be any of various sideshow mummies, such as one alleged to be of John Wilkes Booth exhibited throughout the first half of the twentieth century (Quigley 1998, 69).

Curios I have paid admission to see include the bullet-riddled car of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde; a “sasquatch” (actually a rubber fake) “safely frozen in ice” (Nickell 1995, 230); and a concrete copy of the famous hoaxed petrified man which was billed as “the Cardiff Giant, ten feet four inches.” Although the fine print on the bottom of the banner confessed, “This is a facsimile,” the talker promised, “He’s a big son of a gun!”

Exit This Way
Most ten-in-ones featured an extra attraction (or “blowoff,” typically curtained from view, that functioned like an aftercatch to the entire show. For an extra fee, one might see a five-legged horse or an illusion like the Headless Woman (Mannix 1951, 45; Bogdan 1990, 103-104).

Often a spectator would ask of an exhibit, “Is it real?” Showman Ward Hall responds for carnys everywhere: “Oh, it’s all real. Some of it’s really real, some of it’s really fake, but it’s all really good” (Taylor 1997, 81). Echoing the sentiment is legendary showman Bobby Reynolds, whose traveling “International Circus Sideshow Museum & Gallery” features a huge banner ballyhooing “The Really Real Frog Band! Real Frogs!” Outfitted with miniature clarinets, drums, and other instruments are a band of stuffed amphibians. Has Reynolds gotten any complaints from the tip? “No. They'd look at it, they'd say, ‘Do these frogs play?’ and I'd say, ‘Well, they used to.’ ‘Are they real frogs?’ ‘They're real frogs.’ ‘Why don’t they play?’ ‘They're dead'” (Taylor 1997, 22-23).

Carnys developed an us-versus-them attitude that derived from the hostility they frequently encountered from “rubes” (the locals). In the carnival subculture outsiders could be targets for rigged games, shortchange ticket sales, and other scams (Bogdan 1990, 88-89). For those forewarned-like readers of this introduction to sideshows-there was, and is, much to learn and appreciate.

Barta, Hilary. 1996. “Mortado,” in Wilson 1996, 159-161.
Bogdan, Robert. 1990. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Drimmer, Frederick. 1991. Very Special People. New York: Citadel Press.
Encyclopædia Britannica. 1960, s.v. “capybara.”
Fiedler, Leslie. 1993. Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York: Doubleday.
Gilbert, Steve. 1996. “Totally Tattooed,” in Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell 1996, 101-105.
Gresham, William Lindsay. 1953. Monster Midway. New York: Rinehart.
Harris, Neil. 1973. Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Houdini, Harry. [1920.] Miracle Mongers and Their Methods; reprinted Toronto: Coles, n.d.
Johnson, Randy, Jim Secreto, and Teddy Varndell. 1996. Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway. Honolulu: Hardy Marks Publications.
Mannix, Dan. 1951. Step Right Up! New York: Harper & Brothers.
Meah, Johnny. 1996. “Notes on Alligator Skinned People,” in Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell. 1996, 120-122.
—. 1998. “The Frog Prince,” in Taylor 1998, 54-61.
Nickell, Joe. 1970. “Magic in the Carnival,”
Performing Arts in Canada 7.2 (May), 41-42.
—. 1995. Entities. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Parker, Mike. 1997. The World’s Most Fantastic Freaks. London: Hamlyn.
Quigley, Christine. 1998. “Mummy Dearest,” in Taylor 1998, 65-69.
Reese, Ralph. 1996. “The Art of Gaffing Freaks,” in Wilson 1996, 189-191.
“Science of Magic.” 1997. Documentary on Discovery Channel, November 30.
Taylor, James. 1997. James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed! On and Off the Midway, vol. 4. Baltimore: Dolphin-Moon Press/Atomic Books.
—. 1998. Ibid., vol. 5.
Teller (of Penn and Teller, magicians). 1997. “Gorilla Girl,” in Taylor 1997.
Wilson, Gahan, et al. 1996. The Big Book of Freaks. New York: Paradox Press.


The marginalized world of carny culture was brilliantly immortalized—and humanized—in Tod Browning's classic 1932 film, Freaks. Instead of hiring actors in makeup, Browning cast actual sideshow performers with physical deformities, and presented them as sympathetic members of a unique community of entertainers. (The "monsters" in Browning's plot were two "normal" performers who humiliated the "freaks" while conspiring to murder one to obtain his inheritance.)

Drawing on this legacy, Drew Friedman illustrated 50 legendary carnival performers and bound them between covers in his 2011 anthology DREW FRIEDMAN'S SIDESHOW FREAKS (Blast Books). Among the exhibits were several stars from Browning's film, including Johnny Eck (born with no body below his waist), the beloved Simon "Schlitzie" Metz (subject of another Friedman fine art print), and "Prince" Randian, who despite being born armless and legless lived 63 years with relative self-sufficiency.

The above panoramic portrait of 33 human anomalies appeared as the book's endpapers, and is available as a fine art print. The work was adapted from a 1934 photo of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sideshow performers. (Unfortunately, none were identified on the photo.) It's a fascinating "class portrait" of a bygone era and a form of entertainment abhorrent to today's politically correct sensibilities.

In his Foreword to SIDESHOW FREAKS, Drew's friend (and fan) Penn Jillette recalls that his partner Teller "said that we did tricks and bits in our show so people would have an excuse to stare at us. People all just want to stare at other people." There is a tendency to view disfigured and odd-limbed carnival performers as creatures deserving of pity, exploited for their pathologies. Yet these people were entertainers who wanted to be marveled at. It was their job, and they were gainfully employed despite being disqualified from conventional forms of work. Some were capable of superhuman physical feats; others overcame severe physical handicaps to live long, productive lives, and in many cases to marry and raise families. They were social outcasts, but within their communities they found a sense of belonging and developed ways to cope with a world that viewed them as irredeemably "different."

Yet their condition is in many respects a metaphor for those among us—friends, neighbors, family, ourselves—who appear "normal," but feel detached, disconnected, isolated and alienated. Those who never quite fit in, who feel that acceptance is forever elusive, who can't find comfort in their own skin. Sideshow freaks compel us to confront our "inner outsider." As Penn notes in his Foreward, "Drew Friedman reminds us that there's only one human race and we're all part of it."
— Irwin Chusid

carny classics

Step Right Up for Carny Classics

What are the good sideshow literary classics? The Guardian takes note.

From the piece...

One of the greatest carny books of all time is Lobster Boy, the masterpiece of true crime writer Fred Rosen. I have written about it before, so I won't go into much deal here, but Rosen specialises in bleak, nasty, squalid crime, and in Lobster Boy he plumbs depths so banal and sad you'll want to cry, but will be left feeling so numb and dirty you won't be able to muster any tears. Lobster Boy is the story of Grady Stiles Jr, a man born with a genetic condition that fused his fingers and toes leaving him with lobster style "claws". Starting in the 1940s and ending in 1992 with Stiles's murder by a teenage stoner (and taking in violence, claw sex and murder along the way) Lobster Boy captures the dying gasps of the only world in which – for a century or so, at least – the two-fingered man was king.

Another book worth any carny aficionado's time is Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others by Daniel P Mannix. Author of Disney's The Fox and the Hound and the first popular biography of Aleister Crowley, Mannix was a connoisseur of the bizarre who ended his days living on a farm surrounded by miniature horses and reptiles. Freaks is his history of legendary sideshow performers such as Chang and Eng, or Grace McDaniels, the mule-faced woman. It's a blunt but sympathetic account of "freak life" and was pulped a month after publication in 1976: apparently the disco generation just didn't want to go there. Freaks remained out of print until Juno books issued a lavishly illustrated edition 20 years later.

carny lingo

Carnival Lingo

Note: There are many disagreements about the following terminology.

Sideshow folk are more inclined to consider the below terms as correct. Carnies might disagree but as a whole this list of terms is mainly correct for Carnival, Sideshow and Circus folk.
The List is excerpted from the "Ultimate Carny Lingo Compendium" in the book "On the Midway", (c) Blue Ridge Entertainment, - the list, constantly updated, is available free online at and includes carnival, circus and vaudeville lingo.

86'ed — Banned from the lot.
A&S Man — "Age and Scale" operator ("guess your age or weight" operator)
AB — Amusement Business Magazine, the former trade magazine of the outdoor entertainment industry. An off shoot of Billboard, it was the primary source of information for traveling shows and showpeople for several decades. Ceased publication in May of 2006.
ABA — A commercial "traveler's check," often purchased under assumed names, useful for carrying and transferring large sums of cash without bank or I.R.S. scrutiny.
Add-Up Joint, or Add 'Em Up — Game where points are totaled for the player. Although a fair enough game it is considered a game of chance and is illegal in some areas or states.
Advance Man — Employee who handles details such as licenses and sponsors before a carnival arrives in town, and sometimes handles bribes to local officials for leaving the carnival alone.
After-Catch — Items sold to show patrons after they have paid their admission and seen the show.
After-Show — Blowoff
Afterpiece — A multi-gag comedy act closing a medicine show.
Agent — The one who works a game, especially a game that requires some skill and finesse to sell to the marks, and most especially a rigged game. Sometimes the owner, sometimes an employee working on percentage. Many carnies feel that the name 'agent' implies dishonesty. Skilled agents would be bored (and overpaid) working a no-skill joint like a dime pitch.
Al-A-Ga-Zam — Greeting from one pitchman to another.
Alibi Store — A game in which the agent gives you an alibi, an explanation of why you didn't win when it appeared that you did — how you violated the rules (leaned over the foul line, etc.) He often offers you a "better" chance to win (for another fee, of course) but you'll never win a thing. There's no need to hide the gaff when the authorities inspect, and big replay profits (until the mark catches on, of course, and starts a beef.)
Alligator Man — Sideshow human oddity afflicted with skin condition, commonly icthyosis, that gives the skin a scaly, reptilian appearance.
Amusement Business — The trade magazine of the carnival industry, originally "The Billboard". (known as "the Bible") Many traveling showmen used to use Billboard as their address — the magazine would forward mail to them along the show's route.
Anatomical Wonder — A sideshow performer able to do stunts such as 'the man without a stomach' (pulling the gut in until the backbone shows), pulling themselves through a coat hanger or tennis racket, and other India Rubber Man stunts.
Annex — The area of a sideshow joint where the blowoff is located.
Arcade — A tent housing coin-operated amusement games — normally only on larger shows.
Arrow — A paper sign, consisting simply of a large (usually red) printed arrow, used to mark the route between towns. Taped to road signs by the 24-hour man the day before the show moves. Can be placed in any orientation: the occasional straight-up arrow to tell you you're on the right track, a single tilted arrow to warn of an upcoming turn, and two or three tilted arrows in a group to indicate where to turn.
At' Show — 'At' is short for "Athletic", and indicates a wrestling show where locals are challenged to enter the ring and beat (or last a certain amount of time against) the carnival's champion wrestler. This always presented a danger of injury to the house wrestler and a danger of monetary loss to the carnival, so the traveling wrestlers developed and perfected an effective repertoire of "concession holds", or "hooks," which would let them end the match in an assured victory at will. The hooks were so painful that the local boy would shout a loud "uncle" or "I give" or just "aaaaaargh!", eliminating any suspicion that the referee had ruled unfairly. Also called "catch wrestling".
Aunt Sally — "Aunt Sally" was a popular 19th-century game in Britain. It featured a figure of an old woman's head with a pipe in its mouth. The goal was to to break off the pipe by throwing sticks or balls. The game was sufficiently widespread and popular that by 1898 "Aunt Sally" was in mainstream use as slang meaning someone who became the object of easy but unfair attack. The current synonym is "straw man", a weak argument set up to be easily refuted (in the hope of winning your point by analogy).
B.C. — "Be cool," a warning to stop whatever you are doing or saying. Perhaps the Chief of Police is watching you while you're about to take all his daughter's money and not cough up at least a stuffed animal, so STOP whatever you are doing immediately and find out why the person said B.C.
"Baby Needs Milk" — When you see a fellow carny flirting with a townie, you might wander by and say this just to mess up your buddy's 'score', either as a joke or if you know that this particular townie has … oh, say, the police chief for a father.
Baby Show — Also known as 'unborn,' 'life,' 'bottle,' 'freak baby' and 'pickled punk show.
Back End — The far end of the lot, where the large shows and rides are located. This placement of strong attractions draws customers from the gate through the entire length of the lot. It doesn't help anyone if patrons linger at the front end and do not circulate, so a particularly strong back-end attraction can take home as much as 50% of its gross income, sometimes (when other back-end attractions are weak) even 100%. Concessions, wherever located, are considered part of the front end.
Back Yard — Sometimes also called "the livin' lot." Here, away from public access, are private trailers for living and storage.
Back Yard Boy — A general gofer, sometimes a 'roughie' but more often an inexperienced helper.
Backtracking — When an independent attraction or a small carnival does not have its entire season arranged beforehand, it may find that the only good lot in its next location has been already taken by another outfit. The only choice then may be to backtrack and replay a town you have already visited this season, resulting in sparse business and discouraged agents.
Baffle Blocks — Six-sided or eight-sided or more logs used as dice in a razzle-dazzle game. They resemble the dice used in some ancient Chinese gambling games.
Bag Man or Fixer — The official in the locale where the carnival is set up to whom protection money is paid, either to overlook actual violations or not to find imaginary ones.
Bail the Counter — As in "bail out of an airplane." Usually, the only way out of a joint is to "bail", or jump over the counter.
Ballyhoo - bal·ly·hoo (bāl'ē-hōō') n. pl. bal·ly·hoos

Sensational or clamorous advertising or publicity.
Noisy shouting or uproar.
tr.v. bal·ly·hooed, bal·ly·hoo·ing, bal·ly·hoos
To advertise or publicize by sensational methods.

Word History: The origin of ballyhoo has been the subject of much speculation. This spelling has actually been used for four different words: ballyhoo, "sensational advertising"; ballyhoo, a spelling of balao, a kind of fish; ballyhoo, a part of the name ballyhoo bird, about which more later; and ballyhoo, a sailor's epithet for an unpopular ship. This last ballyhoo (first recorded in 1836) was thought to be related to, or the same as, the word ballahou, from Spanish balahú, "a type of schooner common in the Antilles." First recorded in 1867, ballahou, besides being a term for a specific kind of ship, was also used contemptuously of inferior ships. But the connection between these sailing terms or the name of the fish and our word ballyhoo, first recorded in 1901, has not been established. There may, however, be a tie between ballyhoo and the creature called a ballyhoo bird. According to a July 1880 article in Harper's, the bird had four wings and two heads and could whistle through one bill while singing through the other. Anyone who has ever been on a snipe hunt will know what hunting ballyhoo birds was like.

Band Organ — A mechanical, air-pressure operated musical device, usually incorporating such instruments as a pipe organ or calliope, drums and various rhythm instruments, glockenspiel, etc. Operated, like a player piano, by a punched paper roll. The essential and charming accompaniment to the carousel, often located in the ride's center column.
Banner — Canvas squares hung in front of sideshows depicting (usually in greatly exaggerated form) the wonders to be found inside. A single show would have a banner or two, a ten-in-one would have a banner line in "modular" twelve-foot sections. Standard banner sizes were 8'x10' or 10'x12', with larger sizes, perhaps 14 or 16 feet, on the ends of a bannerline. Banners spanning the attraction's doorway might be 36'x8'. Taller doorway banners, perhaps 36'x10', were tied off at an angle at the bottom, affording enough room for the crowd to walk under them.
Barker — "Barker" was never an authentic carnival term. Carnies call the person gathering a tip for a show a "talker" — the "outside talker" attracts the tip and the "inside talker" or "lecturer" conducts the crowd through a ten-in-one show, describing the acts and building interest in the "blowoff". Moreover, "hurry hurry hurry", the phrase you often hear chanted by the "barker" in movies, is far less sophisticated than the real outside talker's intricately contrived appeals. Some authentic samples can be heard elsewhere on this disk. The term "barking" was in current use in mainstream culture in the early 20th Century to mean drawing customers by talking in a continual flow of repetitive lines and phrases. "Barking" was also called a "grind pitch" by some professional talkers. "Come on we got tomatoes today girls, a tisket a tasket, I sell them by the basket." Used primarily by vendors at a stationary spot, such as a vegetable stand or the doorway to a show (perhaps most recently heard from the doorways of Times Square sex shows.) It's easy to see how the general public applied the term to the carnival talker. Differentiated from the "street cries" of vendors who traveled the street in wagons, whose cries tended to be more musical and more piercing in tone to attract the attention of people inside their houses.
Barnstorming — Operating an attraction from spot to spot with little pre-planning or advance publicity, hoping to generate enough business on short notice. Barnstorming would generally be done in the off-season when carnivals had ceased business.
Bat Away — Orders (q.v.) giving the OK to take players’ money any way you want to. Only used when the 'fix' is in to the degree that even legitimate beefs won't bring any heat from the cops.
Bearded Lady — A female "human oddity" with a beard, usually genuine, though there have been occasional gaffs.2
Beans, or Beanies — Amphetamines ("stay awake for days" pills), often found in truck cabs during jumps, right next to the bulk package of condoms. Invaluable when you have to take down a ferris wheel late at night after closing and then drive all night and all the next day. Captain Don Leslie, interviewed for the Sideshow Central website in 2004, said that one-day stands with the circus were particularly taxing: "You were working 18 or 22 hours a day, you can’t keep that f'n pace up very long. At night, when you’d go to the office, they’d give you an envelope with gas money for the truck and there’d be speed in there. The show gave them to you, so you wouldn’t wreck their f'n trucks."
Bed of Nails — A common carny show stunt, and as with most such stunts (sword swallowing, fire eating and the like) the secret is that there is no secret, you just do it. The usual bed of nails has so many nails set less than 1" apart that lying on them, though uncomfortable, does not puncture the skin. The average performer can safely allow an audience volunteer to stand on his chest while lying on the bed, and can allow a cinderblock to be broken on his chest with a sledgehammer without ill effect (inertia keeps the shock wave within the cinderblock, which isn't too hard to break.)
Beef — A complaint from a patron or law officer concerning anything about the show.
Bender — Contortionist.
Bibles — Items, often (but not always) miniature Bibles, sold for extra income by performers in a ten-in-one. The freaks might also sell pitch cards containing photos and biographical information, etc.
Bill — A poster (as also used in the circus.) Also, a roster of performers (as also used in wrestling).
Billboard — See Amusement Business.
Blade Box — An act in which the performer (usually a woman) lies in a box while steel blades are pushed through it, apparently a traditional "cutting a woman in half" illusion, until the "blowoff" is announced: "Sheila is going to step behind the curtain for a moment and remove her costume. We are not doing this to be lewd or crude, she must remove her clothes to be able to perform this act; a woman could never possibly accomplish such a feat while hampered by even the tiniest item of clothing (here, honey, just hand out that costume and I'll fold it up nice for you) and now that she has prepared herself, she will recline in the cabinet and (opening the curtain as Sheila, lying in the cabinet, waves her arm to the crowd) I'm going to close the lid. Notice that the lid has openings for 13 steel blades (the crowd also notices even more openings they will get to peer through). Now I am not going to cut this beautiful young lady, because as I insert each blade she is bending, twisting and contorting her body in and around every one of these blades of steel, just like a snake, just like a rubber band, she can bend her body as these blades threaten to sever the most delicate parts of her body. (Pause for a look down into the box.) And now, I'm going to give the real men in the audience a chance to come up on stage and see for themselves! Sheila invites each and every one of you up here to see how she does it. You're going to see how her amazing body can twist around these razor-sharp blades, you're going to see the texture of her skin! But you should know that this lovely and talented little beauty receives no pay for displaying herself to your eyes in this fashion. Sheila feels that exposing her act and her body this way is worth one dollar, because she is paid only through your curiosity and your generosity. Now if I can get you all to line up at the foot of the stairs, just hand your dollar to the man at the foot of the steps and come up and see this beautiful little girl in the state she is in now, unashamed and waiting for you to view her." Of course, when you paid your dollar and looked into the box, the girl (who had so conspicuously handed out her garments) was wearing a tight bathing suit, and the tip was moved through the area so fast they hardly had a moment to figure out that they hadn't seen a nude girl, even though they had seen the "magic secret" of how she was contorted around the blades. A classic "blowoff" feature.
Blade Glommer — A sword swallower.
Blank — An engagement with poor attendance, or a player who looks like a good mark but who actually has few dollars to spend.
Blind Opening — A bally by the outside talker, or introduction by the inside talker, phrased in general terms that could apply to any (or a changing array of) attractions. It might describe the horror and thrill you'll experience seeing nature's strangest oddities, but it did not need to be specific about exactly which oddities.
Blocks — Pitchman's term for watches.
Blockhead Act — An act in which a man "drives" a spike or into his nasal passage. Actually the spike inserts very easily, and the "hammering" is mimed.
Blow Your Pipes — To become hoarse from screaming at 'marks' all day long.
Blowoff (sometimes shortened to "the blow") — This is where the real money is. Why? Because you don't have to split your "inside money" with the front office! At the end of a carnival show, the crowd (sometimes just the men) is often offered an extra added attraction for an extra fee, something you can either pay to see (if you have a strong enough stomach or perhaps a strong enough desire to see a lady you think might be naked, as implied with the "blade box") or you could "blow off" and leave without seeing the extra feature. Since the "inside talker" was also usually the magician, he would do his brief magic act for the ladies and children while the gents paid a little extra to go behind the curtain to see the blowoff. Always implied was the idea that the "good stuff" is in the attraction you haven’t paid for yet. It might be simple to the point of crudity: "OK boys, this is how it works … now that there's just us men in here, the tattooed lady is gonna go behind the curtain and any of you that wanna go with her can give me a dollar and follow along. She's gonna sit in a chair, she's gonna lift up her dress and she's gonna show you what you've all been waiting to see. Now who's man enough to go back there and see for himself?" More often it was a bit more subtle: "Boys, we all know what you came here to see, and you've seen a good show already. I know there isn't a single one of you out there who doesn't think he already got his money's worth. But you came in here to see more than a set of knockers. And you're going to see A LOT MORE, I promise you. We couldn't tell you everything on the outside because you know there's women and kids on the midway. But back here we can talk right out. It's going to cost you another half a buck — but if it's the last fifty cents you have in the world, it'll be well spent. Lulu's going to put on a show you'll remember the rest of your days. And there ain't no fooling, neither. She's going to come out just the way you want her to, and you're gonna see it ALL!" It might even be possible to do a second ding after they've seen the lady naked: "Boys, us dancers, we don't get paid, only what we get in tips. Now I'm going to show you fellows something you may have heard about but I bet you ain't never seen it. And if you want to stay for it, why your tips will be the only pay I get. But it's worth it, believe me. You'll thank your lucky stars you did, and with what you'll learn tonight, when you go home you're going to make your own little ladies VERY happy they let you come in here! Let me give you a little hint. When I start this little private show just for you, there ain't going to be but two things on this stage, me and this soda bottle."
Blue One — A blue date is one that does poor business. Opposite: "red one."
Booster — Most often, a person dealing in stolen ("boosted") goods, but also someone you can look to for illicit substances.
Booth — A game run by community group or sponsors, not by professional carnies.
Boston Version — Cleaned-up version of a strong show routine.
Bouncer — A rubber reproduction of a pickled punk (q.v.). There were any number of reasons for using reproductions instead of genuine specimens including local legal restrictions and easier availability.2
Bozark — Rarely heard term specific to wrestling matches in carnivals: a female wrestler or boxer.
Bozo — Character who insults customers to induce them to try to throw balls to spill him in a dunk tank. The joint is usually named "Dunk Bozo," in less sensitive days it was known as the "African Dip" or (in even older days) "Nigger Dip". Bozo's "calls" over a loudspeaker are very effective at drawing customers. Bozo is often made up as a sort of "nightmare clown," but (as in the great depiction in the Jodie Foster/Gary Busey movie "Carny") he's definitely not a sweet guy - his taunts grow more embarrassing, barbed at the start and increasing to real nastiness, trying to make the current mark so angry he'll continue throwing balls until he hits the switch and dunks his tormentor.
BR — "Bankroll," the money an agent flashes to dazzle the mark who comes to believe he actually has a chance of winning it. Or the cash supply glimpsed in the possession of a mark who really needs to have it taken away by a good agent (you). Also, exaggerated stories carnies tell each other.5
Broad Tosser — Operator of a three card monte game, rarely seen in carnivals today because it is so widely known to authorities and public alike as an unwinnable swindle.
Buck — Slang for $100. "My speeding ticket was a buck forty!"
Build Up — A game with the premise that a customer can earn an assured prize with continued play, PLUS all his money back, but each play costs twice the amount of the previous play. The cost grows huge with surprising speed, and most players give up and abandon their money after play becomes far more expensive than they planned.As a verb, " to build up." It also refers to the type of agent you are: flattie, alibi, buildup.
Building a Tip — What the "outside talker" does, gathering a crowd of potential customers (a "tip"). He then "turns" the tip, sending them to the ticket booth.
Bull — A promoter of wrestling matches.
Bullet — A round painted panel within a banner giving descriptive or promotional information about the banner's subject. A banner, for instance, might depict a "Frog Boy" as a green frog-shaped animal with a human head. Now anyone with any sense knows that such a creature could not exist. Inside is just a man with flipper-like arms and legs. But the bullets on the banner are the convincers: "Alive!" says one. Okay, he's alive. "You won't believe it!" says another. And, indeed, as promised, the people coming out of the show can be heard to say "I didn't really believe he was going to look like that banner."
Bumper Car Game — "Bumper Cars" are a well-known ride, but the Bumper Car Game was popular at one time both as a hanky-pank or a gambling game. H. C. Evans made a lovely chrome bumper car - about the size of a roller skate and quite heavy (18 pounds), the car was pushed with considerable force to bounce back and forth along a short straight track with bumpers at each end. When the car stopped, a pointer on the side of the car indicated one of a series of numbers painted along the track, thus choosing your prize or advancing game play.
Bunkhouse — A trailer providing extremely spare housing. The owner rents space to workers who don't own personal trailers and who don't make enough to afford a motel. The trailer is split down the middle, on each side are closet-sized cubicles big enough for a mattress and about 18" to move around. Some "rooms" have one bed, some have bunks and others in the "fifth wheel" section have an elevated bunk with a little more elbow room.
Burn the Lot — To allow agents to cheat brazenly and leave the locals so outraged that they won't allow yours or any other carnival in their town for a long time.
Burr — Operating expenses.
Butcher — Strolling refreshment merchant, peddler of lemonade, candy, pretzels, and other edibles.
Cake Eaters — Locals, rubes.
Cake Cutting — Short-changing.
Canvas Joint — A game housed in a portable canvas-on-wooden-frame shack.
Capper — Confederate or shill.
Call — What an agent says and does to attract marks to his joint — "Hey, buddy, win the little lady a great big bear, just three in the basket, here, you can try it free!" Dealing with innumerable passersby and needing to attract them with the 'joint' equivalent of a bally, certain phrases become second nature when they are successful, so a particular agent might be associated with a certain call. Once the call has worked, the agent "closes the sale" using his tried-and-true assortment of "cracks."
Carnival — An outdoor entertainment usually consisting of an overall management that carries some of its own rides and concessions, plus additional offerings by independent showmen, ride owners and concessionaires. The benefits of being with a large carnival include a steady route with no planning, and many of the costs are included with the rent, like electricity, clean up costs, insurance and placing your concession. The downside is that you have to pay through the nose for it. The basic nut is high — rent will vary but most county fairs will run between $25 to $80 per foot (1999 prices). If your concession is a 10 foot center concession you will pay for a side and a half and it will come to between $375 to $1200 for 7 to 10 days rent. Additional dings may add up to $150 per spot plus money to the lot man. Also, the large shows always play a certain number of still dates or blanks on which you will still have to pay full rent; you can lose a lot of money and have to play a couple of spots to catch up.
Carny — A person who has traveled with a carnival, normally for at least a full season. Concession owners, show owners and sideshow folk prefer to be considered "showmen or showpeople" The term Carny has been cast as a negative term in the last few years but a lot of showpeople wear the name Carny as a desirable badge.
Carny Marriage —A Carny marriage is a couple that live together but have not engaged in any legalized ceremonies. The sign that they are "married" in the eyes of their fellows is a ride once around on the carousel or ferris wheel; a divorce is less formal, sometimes with a ride turning in the other direction, but more often at the end of the season or when both parties just say "to hell with it."
Carousel — A perennial favorite ride. A turning platform with seats, some made up on poles as animals, especially horses, and some of which move gently up and down in a slow "galloping" motion. Music (traditionally a mechanical band organ) provides atmosphere.
Carry the Banner — To be penniless, to sleep in the town park. A medicine show term.
Center Joint — Concession that can handle players from all four sides (also "Four Way Joint"). Usually pays at least 1½ times the rent a similar-sized line-up joint would pay.
Chart — A table of values used to convert the numbers you rolled in game play to a final score. See "Razzle Dazzle" in the Games chapter. Enables so many possible ways of confusing a mark that an agent can easily "build him up" again and again, letting him believe that he is very close to a big win, but really never letting him get a winning score.5 A "Chart Store" is a joint featuring this type of game. NEVER play a chart game!
Check Up — When an accumulation of money is taken out of the agent's apron to a safer place. The money is counted in front of the agent, and the agent gets his cut later.
Chester — A child molester. A carny might be more likely to notice someone's undue interest in and behavior toward children because he is always observing the behavior of individuals in the crowd, and because venues like a carnival, where there are a lot of children and more than the usual chaos, tend to attract such predators.
Chill — To get the mark to leave ("He was getting rangy, so I chilled him.") Or for the mark to lose interest ("He chilled when he'd spent all his money.")
Chopped Grass — Dried herbs used in medicines being pitched.
Chump — Sucker. Naive, gullible player (as in W.C. Fields’ line "Never give a sucker an even break or wisen up a chump.")
Chump-twister — A carousel.
Ciazarn — Carny talk, a sort of "pig-latin."
Circus Candy — Cheap candy in an impressive looking box.
Circus Jump — A difficult move between lots, usually calling for tearing down, driving, setting up and opening for business on the new lot without time to sleep.
(to) Clean the Midway — To be so skillful an outside talker that you can gather a very large tip and turn almost all of them. If you're good, and you're really "on," the midway looks mighty empty after your bally.
Clem — Another term for "mark," particularly a gullible rural local.
Clerk — A concession employee, usually a less skilled person operating hanky-panks and other un-rigged games, whose chief function is to collect players' money and make change. Paid much less than agents.
Clutching — "Riding" the clutch on a ride (same function as the clutch on a car), ostensibly to provide a few thrilling speed variations or outright jerks to please the riders, but really to generate "thrown change." Search under the seats after a few rides, and you'll find all sorts of dropped coins.
Color — Blood, especially when drawn intentionally by "blading" with a small hidden piece of razor, drawn for show, in carnival wrestling matches.
Committee — Representatives of the local sponsor, usually a local charity with whom proceeds are shared. A sponsorship arrangement goes a long way toward cooling police scrutiny of the games, and often includes the sponsor's advertising and ticket-selling efforts as a part of the arrangement. Sponsorship makes it easier at times for the show to locate on public land. Members of the committee may count tickets at the end of the day to make sure the charity gets its agreed share. Occasionally or often (depending on who you ask) the committee members may be on the take.
Concessions — The food stands, games and shops on a midway, given the right to be there by virtue of a hefty payment to the carnival owner (usually on a dollars-per-front-foot basis), often plus a percentage of the gross, plus electrical charges, bribes and more. If you understand that the food stands, also called 'concessions,' at your local sports stadium are working under exactly the same arrangement, you’ll understand why a hot dog can cost $5.00.
Concession Manager — Second in authority only to the carnival owner, the concession manager supervises the location of the concessions, arranges for security personnel, and handles beefs arising from concession operation. Generally takes home about half of the 10% collected from the games.
Cook House, Cook Shack — Sometimes a large eating establishment open to the public, like a restaurant or cafeteria. More often, the place where personnel eat, not open to the public.
Cool Out — Convincing a mark that he has not been taken. The term comes from the big con games.
Cop — To cheat or manipulate a sucker at some point in a game, or to take anything (particularly but not exclusively if you take it by subterfuge.)4 An agent might arrange his counter at just the right height and invite pretty markjs to lean over for an extra-close throw so that he can cop a feel (of breast.) Also, when a rigged game malfunctions, carnies say that it copped.5 The H.C. Evans Company catalog elsewhere on this disk sold pegs for a Pitch-Till-You-Win game with the claim that they couldn be set to "cop or blow as desired," meaning they could be set to easily accept a ring thrown by a customer or be impossible to ring.
Corn Punk or Corn Slum — A pitchman's remedy for corns.
Count Store (or Add-em-up) — A game in which the final score is counted up by the agent, certain numbers winning prizes. The agent miscounts or sets very unusual combinations of numbers as winning numbers, thereby reducing the payout. At one time, count stores were not open in the daytime because women and children were not allowed to play. One former carny said, "The nice part of a 'count store' was that you never gave anything away. My game could not be beat. I only gave it away if I wanted to. I could always keep the same flash. If you packed it nicely you could use it year after year. [And why did] they give me dollars if I didn't give them prizes? Entertainment, my friends! Many more people will pay for entertainment than will pay for teddy bears."
Cowboy — Hooligan who comes on the lot looking for ways to cause trouble.
Crack — A phrase an individual carny polishes and tweaks until it is super-effective at getting the attention of passing marks to stop and play. Cracks are developed and learned by instinct and by observation, and different ones may be employed to influence different types of marks. All of these comments are "when he says / then you say" phrases, as in, when he says "I've already spent too much," you say, "I know, with so much invested you're bound to win!"
Cradle — A pedal or handle to secretly control a rigged game.
Crescent — When there is not enough room to rig all your banners, you may crescent (curve) your banner line to avoid "drop offs"
Crime Show — A midway attraction featuring memorabilia from famous criminals ("Bonnie and Clyde's Death Car" was a famous feature).
Cut — Your (the agent's) share of the money, your percentage.
Cut-In — The fee for getting electricity hooked up to your joint by the electrician (juice man).
Dark Ride — A "haunted house" that you ride or walk through. The animated scary surprises inside are known as "tricks" or "gags."
Dealer — An agent who works a percentage game.
Dead Man — An extra anchor stake for a guy wire or banner line, buried in especially soft earth.
Deuce Reader — An "Admission $2" sign.
Devil Baby — A gaffed exhibit, ostensibly a freak featuring horns, fangs, hoofed feet, and claws, usually constructed to appear mummified or otherwise preserved.
Dime Museum — A collection of specimens, exotic objects and live acts and performances, usually set up in an old store front. These were both the original museums and the original freak shows, most popular primarily in the 19th and early 20th Century. Present-day roadside museums are their descendants.
Ding — (1): The offering, to those customers already inside your show, of the chance to see a really special added attraction, not advertised on the outside, for an additional fee. The blade box illusion is a classic ding ("Come up and see how she fits in there for just a quarter - she couldn't do it if she had any clothes on") (2): Expenses (over and above the percentage) paid to the carnival operator, such as charges for utilities, trash collection, insurance, badges, advertising, official shirts and ID cards, parking for your living trailer or RV, and tip to the lot manager. You might have to pay the operator's man to sell tickets, since they don't trust you. And, of course, they didn't tell you this in advance, nor did they tell you about the "pay one price for everything" promotion (so most of the crowd will be riding all day instead of buying tickets to your show) and somehow the operator's percentage, quoted to you as 50% of your gross, has mysteriously jumped to 57% and the guy who told you 50% is nowhere to be found. And those "inside sales"? Not this time, unless you want to pay 57% of that money too. And on and on… You don't like it? Well, you're now blocked in by rides and trucks, and you're unable to leave.
Ding Show — I remember going into an "absolutely free" show in Atlantic City in the 1960s. Inside, before getting to see "the real stuff," I was stopped at a gateway by the iron grip of the proprietor, saying "Aren't you going to give a contribution?" No mention of what I was contributing to, but for a buck I got to see a series of cardboard dioramas depicting great naval actions, obtained free from the local Navy recruiting office. A Ding Show is absolutely free, except that you aren't getting out without being strong-armed for a "contribution."
Direct Sales — Concessions where a customer can buy a souvenir or other similar item.5
Do-gooders — Individuals who are self-righteously convinced that the carnival business is too disreputable to allow, that all show animals are certainly being mistreated, and that the display of human oddities is demeaning and immoral. They have succeeded in getting many restrictive laws and regulations passed, resulting in a lack of show work for freaks, who almost universally disdain do-gooders and their motives.
Dog House — An enclosed booth occupied by the ride jock.
Dollar Day — (See "ding" above) One of the hated "hidden costs" a showman may be forced to accept, offered as a promotion to the public by fair sponsors: $1 parking, $1 admission, $1 rides. You may have the most spectacular ride on the lot, but on Dollar Day everybody rides for a buck, and you can't "opt out" even if your regular charge is $2 or $3 or more.
Donniker — A rest room or toilet. Possibly derived from the need to pull down one's knickers in the outhouse. In Australian slang today, an outhouse is a "dunny".
Donniker Joint, Donniker Hole — A particularly unfavorably placed joint, or unfavorable place to locate a joint. A bit like being seated next to the kitchen or restroom door in a restaurant. Also "Larry loc," from "larry", meaning anything broken.
Double — A two-performer medicine show bit; or to perform more than one role. Also, a $20 bill.
D.Q. — Short for "disqualified." To be thrown off the lot and ordered not to return. Might happen to a rowdy mark or to a worker who steals or messes with something he should leave alone, or causes more problems than he's worth.
Draw — Money, a small percentage of total pay, advanced nightly to the ride help. Give them too big a draw and they'll come back tomorrow drunk, if they come back at all.
Drop the Awnings — To close down a joint after the night's work is done.
Drop Counter Box — Ticket box with a specially-rigged counter designed to drop a portion of the change a ticket-buying mark is due into a hidden box as it is pushed toward the buyer.
Dropcase — A briefcase or suitcase equipped with folding legs often used by street vendors to display their wares. The pitchman's "keister and tripe" was a different arrangement for the same task.
Drop-Offs — Banners in a lengthy banner line for which there is no room at the current engagement.
Drug Abuse Show — An act where the performer supposedly has been driven insane, become deformed or mutilated, or has even given birth to a hideous mutant baby because of drug abuse. It's really a basic geek or "wild man" show dressed with a modern theme. The pitch or banner would usually say something like "See the shocking and heartbreaking victim of drug abuse!"
Ducat (sometimes 'ducket') — A free game ticket or other free pass to something, dispensed either as an enticement to play or to cool down a disgruntled player. Give an unhappy man a ducat to the girl show and he may attain a happier attitude. Especially when the girl show operator, seeing the ducat, points the customer out for a little special attention from the girls. The agent who gave out the ducat will get a bill from the girl show for 'services rendered.' Sometimes also used to refer to money.
Duck Pond — Game in which customer selects a numbered toy duck from among those floating around in a circulating stream. Can be run straight or as an alibi store ("See, kid, those red numbers mean a prize from the bottom shelf only.") Or those 6's (the giant stuffed dog) become 9's (a penny plastic soldier) really fast.
Duke — When a shill (game operator's employee posing as a member of the crowd) persuades someone to play. The shill gets a fee for this, often a percentage of what the agent extracts from the mark.
Duke Shot — A demonstration game-shot made by the operator of an unwinnable game, or by the shill, to convince the mark that the game can be won. Also used to describe an immoral or illegal move by a carny.
Educated — Knowledgeable. A mark who has been "with it" at some point in life is probably too 'educated' for the game.
Electric Chair Act — An act (often called "The Human Dynamo") in which the performer (usually named "Mister Electrico" or the like) would appear to be immune to the effects of electricity — actually a phenomenon of high voltage electricity which permits an ungrounded person to light neon or fluorescent tubes at a touch, and do other similar stunts without being harmed. The widespread availability of second-hand "quack" medical devices suitable for powering this phenomenon made it easy for carny electricians to rig the gaff, but this is a very dangerous stunt if done wrong. See Ray Bradbury’s classic fantasy novel "Something Wicked This Way Comes" for a wonderful depiction of this act.
End — The percentage of the gross a paid agent gets from the owner of the joint.
Emby — A particularly gullible mark.
Fair Date — An attraction booked to draw crowds to a sponsored stand. Often big-name concerts, stunt driving shows, or wrestling matches. "Kenny Rogers is playing a fair date on the 15th" means that he will be a special featured attraction at [whichever] fair on that day.
Fairbank — When the agent allows the player to think the agent has "cheated" himself, giving the player an (illusory) advantage. He may allow the player to win a small initial game, give him an extra ball, miscount the score in the player's favor, all to get the player play longer in hope of winning big.
Fakir — The "Indian Fakir" was an early embodiment of the "Blockhead" and similar modern performers. With his "lifelong study of mystical Hindoo yoga," he might lie on a bed of nails, swallow swords, eat fire, etc. The word does not mean "faker," but comes from the Arabic "faqir", literally meaning a poor man (from "fakr" meaning "poverty"). A Muslim holy man who lived by begging, a fakir (like religious ascetics all over the world) might engage in stunts to show his piety and increase his income from begging.
Fast Count — When the carny tallies a score swiftly so the player cannot confirm the result.
Feature — A game that an agent operates especially well, his specialty.
Fence-to-Fence Operation — A carnival where the carnival owner also owns all or most of the concessions and rides. A reputable owner can thereby keep away competition and keep away dishonest games. See the alternative, the "independent midway."
Fireball Show — A carnival of the most disreputable sort, full of dishonest games, really strong kootch shows and the like. Also a "Burn'em Up Outfit."
First Count — The right to be the first person to count the tickets or money, on the theory that the first count is most likely to be the most accurate and honest count (unless, of course, they've been rehashing some of the tickets.) Also a good opportunity to divert some of the funds into your own pocket.
First on the Right — The first 'hole' or two on the midway just to the right of the entrance. The sweetest loc (location) for most joints, as joints in that location are usually the first ones the crowd gets to.
Fix or Ice — A payoff to operate without too much scrutiny from authorities, either as "protection money" to keep the police from shutting you down even though you're operating legally, or as a bribe to allow you to operate fixed games and 'strong' shows. Also 'patch,' which is also the term used for the person who puts in the fix with the local authorities. "Sheriff, we need a couple of your men to work off-duty security. Some of our games are a little tough, but we don't play to no kids. If a player feels he's been cheated have your men bring them to me and I will personally take care of any problem. By the way, we want to donate this $500 to your favorite charity, I'm sure you'll see that they get it."
Flag, or Flag's Up — Signal that the cookhouse is open.
Flash — Showy display of large and expensive-looking prizes, even though they may be completely unwinnable by the player. Also, the decorating you do on anything, from making a better sign to making anything look nice. "His joint was flashed good."4 One former carny said, "Flash is everything - the prizes you put out there and the way they are arranged."
Flasher — A game using electronics or lights as indicators of the game’s result, bypassing local laws against mechanical wheels or similar devices.
Flat Store or Flat Joint — A game that really has no winning number. As hard to win as many legitimate carny games are, this one is designed to be entirely unwinnable. So called because the "wheel of fortune" or whatever other rig is played there, once set vertically for all to see, is now set flat horizontally so that only the player and the agent can see it. It should be noted that an agent can make just about as much on a "hanky pank" (a game that you win every play, dispensing "slum" prizes) as he can make on one that can never be won. Ostensibly paid off winners in cash, not prizes, except there were no winners, and after you lost a bunch of money they would throw you some sort of prize. "Almost all of the carnies don't like the flatties because you can't win at their game and they take people for lots of money. I have seen a flattie take people for a week's pay, their car, sometimes even their home. There is no way any other type of agent comes close to making the money a flattie does."
Flatten — To stop operating a game in a winnable fashion (in which the operator can generally keep a pretty high percentage of the income) and start working as a flat store (in which the operator can keep it all). The operator might have peeked an especially attractive poke and decided not to chance losing any of the mark's money.
Flattie — The operator of a Flat Joint or any less-than-legal game.
Floater — An operator who travels from one carnival to another.
Flea Powder — Pitchman's term for powdered medicines.
Floss — "Candy floss" is the industry's real name for what the public calls "cotton candy".
Flukum — Any mysterious liquid, from homemade liniment to back-room hacked-together Sno-Kone flavoring.
For It — Similar to "With It". Describes someone who doesn't travel or work in the carnival but is connected in some way.
(to) Frame a Show or Joint — To build a new show or joint, or to gather a medicine-show cast.
Freak Show — A show where human oddities displayed themselves (often selling photos, Bibles or other memorabilia). These were often ten-in-one shows and usually featured born freaks, 'made freaks' like tattooed people, and working acts like sword swallowers and fire eaters.
Front — Generally, the outside of a show, as in "show front", "talking the front", etc. A 200-foot front pretty clearly means the entrance and banner line of your show takes up 200 feet of the midway. Locations on the midway are usually paid for by the number of front feet the concession occupies (in addition to many other dings). A center joint is sometimes charged for two sides, sometimes all four.
Front End — The place on the midway that has games and concessions, since the large rides are generally referred to as the "Back End".
G-Top — The "G" is for "gambling." An "after-hours club" open only to carnies. A combined convenience store, bar, snack stand and casino. The gambling might be just a friendly (but wary) game of poker, or it might be organized and more elaborate. When the lights go out on the wheel, signaling that the lot is closed for the night, the G-top starts filling up. One former carny said, "You haven't played games unless you've played with people who do it all day for a living! … I've seen people lose a whole week's pay in 10 minutes — cars they worked a year for, the money they were going to eat on tomorrow. … That's how you learn the "tricks of the trade", in the G-Top."
G-Wheel — A rigged wheel of fortune — 'g' stands for 'gaff'.
Gadget — Girl-show slang for a "g-string."
Gadget Show — A midway attraction featuring mechanical novelties, like a miniature animated village or circus parade, usually housed in a trailer.
Gaff — The mechanism by which a game is secretly controlled or 'faked'. "The game is gaffed" is more frequently expressed as "the game is G'd". Along with "gimmick," This term is still used by magicians to indicate the secret apparatus by which a magic trick works. A gaff may also refer to a fake freak exhibit, like a "pygmy mummy" made of rubber and cotton in someone's kitchen.
Gaff Banner — A very attractive banner promising a world of wonders and a plethora of famous attractions … with cleverly-worded bullets like "Past and Present" indicating that few (or none) of the attractions was actually there in the flesh. Photographs and other "museum" exhibits might show and tell you all about famous freaks.
Garbage — Cheap souvenirs sold on the midway (pennants, balloons, hats, etc.)
Gasoline Bill Baker — House name for the editor of Billboard's pitchmen's department.
Gazoonie — The lowest form of carny, the itinerant day laborers who come and go at the drop of a hat. Also refers to a very young and inexperienced worker (who probably won't be able to take the hard work and will be gone in a few days.)
Geek — An unskilled performer whose performance consists of shocking, repulsive and repugnant acts. This "lowest of the low" member of the carny trade would commonly bite the head off a living chicken, or sit in a bed of snakes. Some historians distinguish between "geeks" who pretend to be wild men, and "glomming geeks" whose act includes eating disgusting things. See the 1949 movie "Nightmare Alley" for a good geek story as well as for an excellent depiction of the mentalist’s technique of "cold reading". In later years the geek show turned into a "see the pitiful victim of drug abuse" show. "Geek" as a verb ("he geeked") is one of several terms in use among wrestlers meaning to intentionally cut oneself to draw blood.
Genny (pron. "jenny") — The generator truck. (See "Light Plant").
Giant Rat — The sideshow's "giant rat," often billed as "giant killer rats from the Amazon," usually capybaras, gentle animals but very high-maintenance. They produce incredible amounts of waste and require constant care. Showmen found that capys drew good crowds, but if they delegated the animal care they soon had a dead animal, and if they did it themselves it would eat up their time. Most operators switched to using nutrias. "These killer rats feasted on the flesh of dead American soldiers in Vietnam!"
Gibtown — Gibsonton, Florida, retirement spot (or winter quarters) for many show people. Pioneered by Jeannie (the "half-girl") and Al Tomaini (the giant), a married couple who retired from show business to open "Giant's Camp" fishing camp there.
Gig — To take all of a player's money in one short session instead of leading him to increasing losses on the belief that he’ll probably win in just one more try. Considered crude by more skilled carnies.
Gig Artist — An agent who lacks the skill to remove all of a mark's money without causing a beef, generally because he gets it all too quickly.
Gill or Gilly — Anyone not connected with the show; an outsider. Also, to carry stuff from place to place (see Circus term "Gilly Wagon," a small utility cart.)
Girl in Fish Bowl ("Living Marmaid") — An illusion show: the viewer looks into the "fish bowl" (sometimes a lens, more often simply a dry mockup) to see a girl, often with a fish tail, apparently living underwater.
Girl Show — A show in which pretty women are the primary attraction. These could range from the "review" (such as a "Broadway Revue" with fully-clothed performers) to the racier "kootch" or "hootchie-kootchie" show (a strip show, and … hey! Did you see what she did with [uh … that part of her body]?) Often, these shows are designed to play either "strong" (nude, and to varying degrees of raunchiness) or partly or fully clothed.
Girl-to-Gorilla Show — An all-time moneymaker, this illusion show features a girl being changed (magically or "scientifically") into a savage gorilla, which then "breaks out of its cage" frightening the crowd away. It uses a half-silvered mirror ("one-way mirrors" are not really one way, they just show whichever side is more brightly lit). There are variations on the theme, like skeleton-to-vampire or in older times, "Galatea," after the myth of Pygmalion the sculptor and Galatea, the statue he brought to life. Simple upkeep and a little showmanship can make this show really frightening, but I have never seen it done with even the minimal care needed to arouse anything but disappointment. "Zambora, the ape girl, the ape girl, she's alive! Only the brave are invited to see the ape girl! She is locked in a solid steel cage for your protection, and under bright lights you'll see the change begin: her forehead will begin to recede, her eyebrows will protrude, fangs will begin to grow in her mouth, and her clothes will fall away from her body! A heavy coat of hair will grow from every square inch of her skin, the long straggly hair of a gorilla!"
Glass Bender — A midway joint craftsman who manufactures knicknacks (little unicorns and the like) from glass rods using a propane torch. Often seen these days at booths in shopping malls.
Go Wrong — When an agent loses money despite his skill at keeping the game from being won.
Going South — Stealing money (some of it goes into the apron to be counted, other times you 'go south' with it.)
Goon Squad — On some shows, a gang of the tougher guys who act as 'enforcers,' beating up a carny because he's cheating the office or his boss, for instance.
Grab Joint or Grease Joint — An eating concession in which the customer takes away food served directly over the counter.
Grease — Any salve being pitched.
Green Help — New, inexperienced workers. Sometimes you just gotta have a warm body to work, but they rarely come with brains and either can't (or won't) do the job, or make expensive mistakes.
Grifters — The crooked game operators, short change artists, and clothesline robbers, shoplifters ("merchandise boosters"), pickpockets and all other types of criminals associated with some carnivals.
Grind — In the "outside talker’s" spiel from a show front, the compelling and rhythmic verbal conclusion meant to move the patrons into the show. It differs from the opening bally, which is meant to get the attention of midway strollers and "build a tip", or sell them on the show they can see. Also means to stay in the joint and work even though there's almost no business.
Grind Show — A show or attraction the customer can walk through and see at any time without being guided through. It has no bally, no beginning or end time; the front men and ticket sellers just "grind away" all day. Most of the shows on carnival midways today are grind shows, the grind blaring over the midway from an audiotape loop and sound system.
Grind Store — Usually a small game that needs a lot of action to make a profit, generally one that operates on pennies, nickels, or dimes.
Grinder, Grind Man — Before the days of endless tapes luring people into grind shows, the "grind man," usually the ticket seller, would give a rhythmic and continuous spiel. Considered a less-skilled job than "outside talker," since the grind man's chant was much less complex than a full bally.
Grouch Bag — A small bag used to keep one's valuables in when your costume had no pockets, as valuables would not be safe out of your sight in the dressing area.
Ground Score — Money or other goodies found while "reading the midway."
Gunner — A confederate who helps run a Six Cat.
Half-and-Half — A hermaphrodite, a very valuable blowoff attraction often forbidden by local authorities. Some were real freaks, others were "made" by (at the least) shaving and making up one side of the body, or by the use of hormones to grow breasts so a performer born male could also display his upper "female" half. "Now folks, behind this curtain you are going to see the most bizarre attraction you have ever seen — and I'm going to introduce her to you all right now. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Albert-Alberta. This beautiful lady is our star attraction, but she is so unusual we are banned from advertising her on the outside. And since she is not advertised on the outside, she is not included in your general admission ticket, there is an extra charge for what you are about to see. We make no apology for this policy, because when Albert-Alberta goes behind this curtain, and you go with her, you are going to view her entire body, and you will plainly see that she is, in fact, a hermaphrodite. You've heard your neighbors talking about the half man/half woman, but Albert-Alberta is not half man/half woman … she is all man and all woman. You will see her body in its entirety, as bare as my right hand that you see before you right here. Now you must be between 18 and 80 years old to enter, because if you're under 18 you wouldn't understand it, and if you're over 80 you couldn't stand it. When you enter I want you to go right up to the edge of the stage. Get as close as you can so that you can see Albert-Alberta's body in every detail as she displays herself to you, unadorned, unashamed, unlike anything you have ever seen before. The fee for this attraction is 25 cents, it's time to go in right now. And those of you who are under 18 years of age, please step down to the other end of the tent where you will be entertained by our magician on the main stage."
Handle — How a game is rigged. Also used in the "CB radio" sense to mean the name (not your own) or nickname you go by.
Hanky-Pank — A game where every player wins a prize every time. A 5¢ prize dispensed for every 50¢ play adds up to big profits!
Hard Cash — Refers to all change, nickels, dimes, quarters, fifty-cent pieces, even the occasional silver dollar (more common in the past than now) or loonie (Canadian dollar coin.)
Hawker — A strolling refreshment or souvenir merchant, peddler of lemonade, candy, pretzels and other edibles (more often called a "butcher")
Headless Illusion — Illusion show where a living 'headless' person is displayed. It’s a simple illusion done with mirrors, using the same principle (but achieving exactly the opposite effect) as the "Spidora" illusion. Usually pitched as a 'medical miracle' following a tragic accident.
Heat — Problems, arguments or battles between the show, or its people, and townspeople. Most heat was caused by the show conducting illegal activities, but sometimes an outfit "burning the lot" ahead of your perfectly fair "Sunday School" operation could leave a lot of heat for you.
Heat Score — A sum of money extracted from a mark at the cost of some heat ("Looks like I pushed this guy too far.")
Hey Rube! — In the 'old days,' a call for help when a carny encountered more trouble with outsiders than he can handle alone. These days, 'hey rube' still works, but it's more likely to be "It's a clem!" or "wrang!" or simply "fight!"
High Grass — Slang for a particularly out-of-the-way rural area.
High Pitch — A sales pitch (generally for medicine) delivered from a raised platform.
High Striker — Classic carnival game: A bell atop a high (sometimes 30-foot) post lined with lights and graded from "wimp" at the bottom to "he-man" near the top. Use a heavy maul to strike the lever at the bottom, and see if you are strong enough to send the "follower" up the wire to ring the bell. Often the operator could, by leaning against a guy wire, slacken the wire leading to the bell, preventing the follower from traveling all the way to the top.
Hold Out — To steal from the boss by keeping a portion of the cash for yourself.
Hole — A place on the lot to put your joint, particularly (but not exclusively) if you have a center joint and need an open area. You would go to the lot man and say "I have a 20x20 center joint, do you have a hole?" Also used to mean a non-competing vacancy for your type of concession (there might not be a hole for you if there were enough of your type of concessions already on the lot.) If you are an agent looking for a job you show up on the lot and say "I'm looking for a hole." How many holes a joint occupies is based on its frontage. A 16' joint usually takes four 'holes'.
(to) Hopscotch — To book your joint at various individual dates throughout the season, playing your choice of events rather than traveling with a single carnival.
Hot Snake — A term (also used in zoos) for a poisonous snake.
Human Pincushion — An act in which the performer sticks sharp objects into his flesh. Also known as "Fakirs," from the Indian term. The secret to this act (like the secret to many sideshow acts) is that there is no secret. Puncturing one's flesh is painful, but less so than the audience thinks; you can learn to tolerate the pain.
Human Skeleton — Human oddity who is extremely emaciated from a disease or muscular disorder.
Human Torso or Half-Man — Human oddity born without legs, or without arms or legs.
Ikey Heyman Axle — A gaff for a wheel of fortune; a secret friction brake on the axle stops the wheel wherever the agent wants.
Illusion Show — A show consisting solely of illusions, like Headless Girl, Spidora, Mermaid, Snake Girl, etc.
Independent Midway — On some engagements a single carnival owner, who has booked and approved rides, games, shows and food concessions to travel with the carnival for the season, may not contractually control the entire lot (fence to fence). Then the sponsors can rent spaces to others: booths for the Girl Scouts to sell cookies, hot dog stands run by the Lions, as well as rides, games and shows who play only independent stands. These independent operators may be as honest as the Girl Scouts or they may, unbeknownst to the sponsor, be crooked. Either way, they operate entirely free from the supervision of the major carnival (which has a reputation to protect). The independent area is usually fenced off from the carnival and may not even charge admission, but the public doesn't know about the business arrangement; they just know that a game on that lot cheated them, and they blame the big show. Additionally, independent operators draw business away from the big show and its concessions and attractions.
Inside Man — The agent operating a game that depends on an "outside man" to build up business.
Jackpots — Troupers’ tall tales (regular folks might say "war stories") of their former exploits. "Cutting up jackpots" is the expression given to swapping these stories.
Jake — One of the stock medicine show characters: a comic blackface character.
Jam — A small-time confidence game, or high-pressure selling by pitchmen.
Jam Auction (see previous definition) — A show on the midway where giveaways of slum merchandise are used to excite and confuse the audience into purchasing inferior goods, usually under the pretense that the auctioneer is distributing valuable items as an advertising promotion by the manufacturer. The technique involves giving away small slum items to everyone at the start, then unexpectedly alternating giveaways of slightly more valuable items with sales of them for almost nothing, confusing the marks as to whether, at any given time, they are putting up money "as a good faith gesture" that they will get back or whether they are tendering payment. When the audience is thoroughly confused the agents add the final wrinkle: the sale of almost worthless (but apparently valuable) merchandise for what seem like outrageous "bargain" prices.
Jenny — A merry-go-round or Carousel
Jig Show — Black girl show, from "jigaboo", a very uncouth epithet for black people.
John Robinson — To give an abbreviated performance, or to set all the tops on the back end end-to-end to increade the midway's apparent size.
Joing — To "jo" a game is to rig it so that it cannot be won.
Joint — Any carnival midway concession. Described by their layout for placement purposes; line-up joints fit with others in a row, center joints attract customers to all four sides and need to be in the middle of an open area. You could have a stick joint (built on the ground) or a trailer joint.4
Jointee or Jointy — An agent, a person working a game.
Juice — Another term for bribes paid to local police.
Juice Man — The carnival electrician and operator of generators that can fill an entire 18-wheeler. Collects fees from each operator for "cut in" to the power supply.5
Jump — The move to the next engagement.
Kayfabe — Primarily a wrestling term, occasionally heard on the carnival lot. Inside information about the business, not to be disclosed to the public — "the straight dope." Sometimes used as a signal to stop talking too frankly because outsiders, or the authorities, might overhear: "Kayfabe, guys! Have you met my good friend Officer Jones?" To let something slip out because you just won't shut your mouth is to "break kayfabe." To "kayfabe someone" is to withhold information from them.
KB — When an operator has to give a disgruntled and complaining customer his money back.
Keister — A portable display case for the pitchman's wares, or a circus wardrobe trunk, or any luggage. You set up you keister on top of your 'tripes,' or tripod.
Key Girl — A swindle in which an agent sells keys to the room of a woman working in the carnival to players who believe she will dispense sexual favors. The foolish victims might find anything from an empty room (the carnival having moved out while the victim went for his "reward’). In a variation more commonly known as a "badger game", the girl’s angry "boyfriend" shakes the victim down for more money under threat of violence or exposure.
Key to the Midway — Any non-existent thing that you might send a pesky kid off to locate for you. "Hey, kid, you seem like a smart fellow, so go down to the other end of the lot, find Big Sam, and get the key to the midway for me." Or "lightbulb grease" or a "left-handed monkey wrench". You might send them looking for someone who doesn't exist, or send them to a specific carny just to bug your buddy, too.
Kick — The pocket (or wherever) a carny keeps his personal money.
Kid Show — Circus term for a sideshow.
Kootch Show — The raunchy version of the "girl show" … no revue, no "posing," and definitely no clothes, just a close-up view of what men want to see. According to stripper Ann Groff, quoted in Lewis' Carnival, "Only a few peddle their asses. A girl has to be pretty hungry or pretty drunk to lay a mark … it just isn't done."
Lay Bear — "Well hey, little darlin', you wanna win one of these big bears? Come on, you get five balls to knock these milk bottles off the shelf, you can do it … wait a minute, you know, we're closing now, but there's one of these bears I got put away special for you in my trailer, would you like to see it? You would? Just come with me … how old did you say you was? Fifteen … I mean, you said 18, right? You're just gonna love this bear … is that your sister? She can come too, I might just have two bears…"
Laying Dead — When you have no booking for your joint, ride or show at some point during the season.
Laying it Down — When the agent describes how the game is played.
Layout or Laydown — The place on a joint’s counter where the "mark" puts his money to bet, or the chart that shows odds, payouts, etc.
Layout Pin — Stake used by the lot manager (sometimes called the "layout man") to mark where your joint is supposed to go on the lot. You may desperately want to move one of these while the lot manager's not looking … but if you do, the lot manager's going to take that stake and whack you upside your head without any doubt!
Larry — Damaged pitch merchandise.
Lecture Store — A storefront rented temporarily by a pitchman.
Lecturer — An individual who talks inside the show, lecturing on the various acts. Often, acts (especially human oddities) lecture on themselves.2
Left Hand Side — In relation to the entrance or main ticket booth, the left side is considered a poorer location for concessions than the right side. Most people tend to enter and turn to their right, and many have spent all their money when they come around to the left hand side. Newcomers to the amusement business and people who don't make the lot man happy end up on the left hand side.
Light Plant — The "genny," the huge 18-wheel-trailer containing massive diesel-powered generators supplying electricity to the lot. Notorious for being an added expense ("ding") charged to carnies along with their rent, even more notorious for being shut down immediately when the lot closes for the night, leaving tired carnies to trudge back to their trailers in the dark.
Lineup — The row of concessions side-by-side along the side of the midway.
Line-up Joint — After hours, an empty wagon or joint may be a temporary place of business where local prostitutes with extra energy service carnies with extra cash.
Lobster Man — Human oddity with any of what are now called "limb reduction disorders," a birth defect giving their arms and/or legs the appearance of a lobster's claws.
Loc — Your location on the lot. A loc near the major rides or on the right-hand side is usuallky pretty good, but a loc near the kiddie rides is a less favorable position.
Lookie-Lou — More a regionalism than strictly a carny term. Same as "lot lice," they'll walk around and see what they can see, but they won't part with a dime.
"Losum Game" — This term is often given by some as a carny term for a game play that should be aborted. However, it is almost certainly a misunderstanding of the German or Yiddish "lassen ihn gehen," pronounced "loz im gain," meaning "let him go." If a carny knows that further playing of a particular mark will present a problem, he will tell his co-worker "loz im gain" instead of saying "You're fleecing the sheriff's son, you idiot, now cut it out!" The agent needs to end the game and possibly refund the mark's money rather than find out what the consequences might have been. You can see the phrase "in action" (though not in a carnival context) in a scene featuring Mel Brooks as an indian in "Blazing Saddles." My source says "I remember an old flattie who was playing a mark and the head of the store told him to "loz im gain". The mark, probably Jewish and thus knowing the term, replied "Hell, why didn't you say 'loz im gain' 40 bucks ago?"
Lot — The show grounds.
Lot Lice — Locals who arrive early to gawk and stay late to browse and don't spend anything.
Lot Lizard — A prostitute who works truck stops or rest-area parking lots. Not terribly important on the show grounds, but fairly familiar between stands.
Lot Man, or Lot Manager, Lot Marker or Layout Man — The guy you need to be very nice to, and pay (sometimes as much as 10% of your gross) because he decides where your joint is placed on the lot. Can make thousands of dollars in one large engagement like a State Fair. Pay him well and stay on his good side and you get a good location; cross him and you won't make a dime.
Low Pitch — A sales pitch delivered from ground level.
Lugen — An unbelievably dumb, easy mark.
Major Ride — A spectacular ride for adults, often owned by the carnival.
Mark — A carnival term for a townsperson, in the sense of 'victim.' When a carny spotted a towny with a big bankroll, he would give him a friendly slap on the back leaving a chalk mark so other carnies would know that this customer had lots of money. Often the ticket seller would mark the 'mark.' The booth would have a high counter, above the average person's eyesight, and the ticket seller would short-change the customer, leaving the change on the counter. If the customer didn't notice or didn't count his change, the ticket seller would lean over to give him some "friendly" advice about the best attractions, putting his hand on the customer's shoulder to point him toward the show he simply must see … and simultaneously dusting his back with chalk from a hidden supply. If the customer instead complained about the wrong change, the ticket seller could always push the remaining change to him and say "I told you to take it." And what do you do when you spot a mark? You "play" him - that's right, just like you play a fish.
"Mark" was first coined during the gold rush days. A miner would come to the camp or a town with his
find, usually gold chunks. One of the first things he did was go to the barber/dentist and get a bath and a haircut before heading over to the saloon or assayers office. This is when the barber would mark his hairline in back alerting the whores and saloon keeper that they had a 'live one' for their gambling tables.
Marker Stake — The lot man places marker stakes to define your joint's space on the lot. Get caught moving one and you might get hit with one.
Mender — A patch or lawyer who travels with the carnival.
Mentalist — Magician, often working with an assistant, whose act consists of 'reading the minds' of the patrons.
Merchandise Wheel — A "wheel of fortune" that distributes as prizes blankets, dolls, novelties, groceries or any kind of merchandise. A classic "hanky pank" in which the prize (won on every play) always costs far less than the fee for a single play. That means the wheels are making a profit and everyone is satisfied. Many carnies and townies alike preferred this arrangement, because both the "games of skill" and games certified to have an element of chance both often ended in disappointment, but merchandise games always sent you home with something and drew large crowds.
Merry-Go-Round — Carousel
Midway — When games and sideshows were attached to a circus, the midway was the game and sideshow area between the main ticket booth and the entrance to the big top, literally "midway" between the two. You would
often hear sideshow ballys claiming that "the big show doesn't start for 45 minutes, there's plenty of time to see this entire exhibit."
Military Payday — Oh, lordy, everybody's gonna get well today! Payday at a big military base: just think of all those lonely men with all that money in their pockets! "Step right up, boys, the first ball's free and the girl show's right over there! You look like a healthy young man, private … these girls can do things they just don't do back in Missouri! So you think you're a good shot, soldier? Try to shoot the red star entirely off this little card!"
Missing Link — A person, ape-like in appearance (either faked or real), supposedly the legendary "missing evolutionary link" between prehistoric and modern man.
Mitt Camp — A fortune telling booth (from "mitt," slang for "hand," read by a palmist.)
Money Store — A game that pays off with cash instead of prizes.
Monkey Girl or Boy — Human oddity afflicted with hirsutism. Such individuals might also be called Wolf Boys, Dog Boys, etc. The amount of excess hair might be as little as a moderate beard on a woman, or a coat of hair as thick all over the body as it is on the normal person's scalp.
Mooch — An especially easy mark.
Moss-Haired Girl — A "made" human oddity from the 19th century, also known as a "Circassian girl" (the Circassians are a Caucasian people living in the Caucasus but not speaking an Indo-European language). A white woman would stiffen and bush her hair, much in the style of the 'Afro' hairdo. The pitch which usually accompanied the act involved kidnapping by 'Arabs' and being forced into harem life, followed by a harrowing escape culminating in refuge there in the show.2
Motordrome — A daredevil show involving motorcycles which race around inside (and by centrifugal force) up the wall of a circular enclosure (generally billed as "The Wall of Death".)
Mug Joint — A concession that sells souvenir photos to customers.

Mugboard — The painted board with a head-high hole that you stick your face through to get your picture taken at a mug joint.
Museum Show — A show in which the exhibits are not alive. The show might contain preserved, stuffed, or mummified freak animals, or other exotic items of interest, such as the weapons or cars used by famous murderers. Also called a still show. A very easy grind show to work, it could still be truthfully billed with the claim "$1,000 reward if not absolutely real — please do not touch or feed the animals on exhibit".
Nanty — Nothing. (Compare the British circus use.)
Nelson — A nelson (or "full nelson") is a full day's work on the lot, to be paid in cash at the end. Watch out for a "red light job" when you go to collect your pay! (I have not been told whether there is a "half nelson," a half-day's work also known as a "quickie.")
Novelty Act — Wrestling term, a "freakish" performer hired to appear in wrestling events as a special attraction. Might be a giant wrestler, midget, "hillbilly," hairy beast, grotesque or deformed person, or a trained animal (such as "Man vs. Chimpanzee" matches).
Nudist Colony — A sideshow attraction that enjoyed considerable popularity over the years. The prospect of seeing naked flesh was a strong lure, but the show on the inside featured girls in skin-colored tights.
Nut — The "overhead," or operating expenses of a show or a joint (still used in the movie theater business as "the house nut"). Supposedly from the idea of creditors removing the nuts from wagon wheels and not returning them until paid. A show always seeks to 'make the nut' and begin making a profit above expenses. A show that hadn't yet 'made the nut' was said to be 'on the nut' and one that had was said to be 'off the nut'. It was good if you could count on your show to always 'carry the nut.' Also "burr".
Oats — Money a carny steals from his boss.
Octopus — A flat store set up as a center joint - four counters, each with an agent (four man trap), called an octopus because it has eight arms (four men) to grab money with.
Office — The administrative office wagon. Also used as a signal that a confidence game is in progress and you'd better not say anything to queer the operation or clue the mark to his peril.
"On The Lot And In The Air" — "I have arrived at the lot, the attraction is set up, and we are ready to begin serving customers."
Opening — See "bally"
Orders — Restrictions set on the operators by the carnival owner, allowing or disallowing the girl show to work hard, or games to cheat.
Outcount — In an add-up game, to count faster than the mark can count up his score, affording you the chance to count inaccurately (either to send him away too intimidated to see that he won, or to count in his favor to induce him to stay so you can build him up.)
Overcall — To call marks when they are in someone else's frontage, considered unethical unless you have established eye contact with the mark. Stretching this too far too often might get you a visit from the goon squad.
Outdoor Amusement Business Association — The largest trade association for the carnival industry, with almost 500 member carnivals.
Outside Man — A shill used to promote a game by making bets to raise the payoff.
P.O.P. — "Pay one price," the admission plan allowing the customer to ride all he wishes and see every show for a single admission fee. Not good financially for show operators.
Panorama — An popular early exhibition using a very long canvas, painted with various scenes, often depicting the exotic sights seen on the lecturer's travels to exotic lands. The canvas would be rolled from spool to spool across the stage as the sights were described. Later lecturers successfully used motion pictures taken on their travels to exactly the same effect.
Paper — Posters, handbills or advertisements for a carnival.
Paste — Pitchman's term for razor-strop dressing. Also, cheap prizes (possibly from "paste" imitation jewelry).
Patch — Carnival employee who handles payoffs to local police and settles customer complaints arising from rigged games. Each agent working a rigged game pays some amount every night so the patch can take care of problems that money can take care of.5
Peeking (peek joint) — A game in which the operator looks at the number hidden under a customer-selected game piece to determine the score. This arrangement allows the agent to miscall a known score using either speed or sleight of hand. For instance, "that ticket’s not a 6, it’s a 9", or obscuring part or all of a number with a finger — for instance, changing 138 to 38 by placing a finger over the "1".
Peek the Poke — When an agent employs an accomplice to search for and point out players with plenty of money so they can be selected for the swindle.
Percentage — The agent or dealer takes as his earnings a set percentage of the gross. An agent always works on points only. Theme parks hire some kid at a low wage to be a game operator — if you offered a real agent a wage he would laugh at you.
PC Game — "Percentage" game, a game which pays off in cash, essentially a gambling game.
Physic Opera — A medicine show.
Pickled Punks — A carny term, never used in front of the general public, describing deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde. These were prime attractions, often presented as the deformed offspring of crazed degenerate drug addicts. Real punks were sometimes seized by authorities, since possessing human remains is illegal in most jurisdictions. Fake punks, called "bouncers," are now more often exhibited, floating in jars of weak tea (the color hides the artificial look). Bouncers are also popular with showmen because they can be crafted with especially grotesque features.
Money Store — A game that pays off with cash instead of prizes.
Monkey Girl or Boy — Human oddity afflicted with hirsutism. Such individuals might also be called Wolf Boys, Dog Boys, etc. The amount of excess hair might be as little as a moderate beard on a woman, or a coat of hair as thick all over the body as it is on the normal person's scalp.
Mooch — An especially easy mark.
Moss-Haired Girl — A "made" human oddity from the 19th century, also known as a "Circassian girl" (the Circassians are a Caucasian people living in the Caucasus but not speaking an Indo-European language). A white woman would stiffen and bush her hair, much in the style of the 'Afro' hairdo. The pitch which usually accompanied the act involved kidnapping by 'Arabs' and being forced into harem life, followed by a harrowing escape culminating in refuge there in the show.2
Motordrome — A daredevil show involving motorcycles which race around inside (and by centrifugal force) up the wall of a circular enclosure (generally billed as "The Wall of Death".)
Mug Joint — A concession that sells souvenir photos to customers.

Mugboard — The painted board with a head-high hole that you stick your face through to get your picture taken at a mug joint.
Museum Show — A show in which the exhibits are not alive. The show might contain preserved, stuffed, or mummified freak animals, or other exotic items of interest, such as the weapons or cars used by famous murderers. Also called a still show. A very easy grind show to work, it could still be truthfully billed with the claim "$1,000 reward if not absolutely real — please do not touch or feed the animals on exhibit".
Nanty — Nothing. (Compare the British circus use.)
Nelson — A nelson (or "full nelson") is a full day's work on the lot, to be paid in cash at the end. Watch out for a "red light job" when you go to collect your pay! (I have not been told whether there is a "half nelson," a half-day's work also known as a "quickie.")
Novelty Act — Wrestling term, a "freakish" performer hired to appear in wrestling events as a special attraction. Might be a giant wrestler, midget, "hillbilly," hairy beast, grotesque or deformed person, or a trained animal (such as "Man vs. Chimpanzee" matches).
Nudist Colony — A sideshow attraction that enjoyed considerable popularity over the years. The prospect of seeing naked flesh was a strong lure, but the show on the inside featured girls in skin-colored tights.
Nut — The "overhead," or operating expenses of a show or a joint (still used in the movie theater business as "the house nut"). Supposedly from the idea of creditors removing the nuts from wagon wheels and not returning them until paid. A show always seeks to 'make the nut' and begin making a profit above expenses. A show that hadn't yet 'made the nut' was said to be 'on the nut' and one that had was said to be 'off the nut'. It was good if you could count on your show to always 'carry the nut.' Also "burr".
Oats — Money a carny steals from his boss.
Octopus — A flat store set up as a center joint - four counters, each with an agent (four man trap), called an octopus because it has eight arms (four men) to grab money with.
Office — The administrative office wagon. Also used as a signal that a confidence game is in progress and you'd better not say anything to queer the operation or clue the mark to his peril.
"On The Lot And In The Air" — "I have arrived at the lot, the attraction is set up, and we are ready to begin serving customers."
Opening — See "bally"
Orders — Restrictions set on the operators by the carnival owner, allowing or disallowing the girl show to work hard, or games to cheat.
Outcount — In an add-up game, to count faster than the mark can count up his score, affording you the chance to count inaccurately (either to send him away too intimidated to see that he won, or to count in his favor to induce him to stay so you can build him up.)
Overcall — To call marks when they are in someone else's frontage, considered unethical unless you have established eye contact with the mark. Stretching this too far too often might get you a visit from the goon squad.
Outdoor Amusement Business Association — The largest trade association for the carnival industry, with almost 500 member carnivals.
Outside Man — A shill used to promote a game by making bets to raise the payoff.
P.O.P. — "Pay one price," the admission plan allowing the customer to ride all he wishes and see every show for a single admission fee. Not good financially for show operators.
Panorama — An popular early exhibition using a very long canvas, painted with various scenes, often depicting the exotic sights seen on the lecturer's travels to exotic lands. The canvas would be rolled from spool to spool across the stage as the sights were described. Later lecturers successfully used motion pictures taken on their travels to exactly the same effect.
Paper — Posters, handbills or advertisements for a carnival.
Paste — Pitchman's term for razor-strop dressing. Also, cheap prizes (possibly from "paste" imitation jewelry).
Patch — Carnival employee who handles payoffs to local police and settles customer complaints arising from rigged games. Each agent working a rigged game pays some amount every night so the patch can take care of problems that money can take care of.5
Peeking (peek joint) — A game in which the operator looks at the number hidden under a customer-selected game piece to determine the score. This arrangement allows the agent to miscall a known score using either speed or sleight of hand. For instance, "that ticket’s not a 6, it’s a 9", or obscuring part or all of a number with a finger — for instance, changing 138 to 38 by placing a finger over the "1".
Peek the Poke — When an agent employs an accomplice to search for and point out players with plenty of money so they can be selected for the swindle.
Percentage — The agent or dealer takes as his earnings a set percentage of the gross. An agent always works on points only. Theme parks hire some kid at a low wage to be a game operator — if you offered a real agent a wage he would laugh at you.4
PC Game — "Percentage" game, a game which pays off in cash, essentially a gambling game.
Physic Opera — A medicine show.
Pickled Punks — A carny term, never used in front of the general public, describing deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde. These were prime attractions, often presented as the deformed offspring of crazed degenerate drug addicts. Real punks were sometimes seized by authorities, since possessing human remains is illegal in most jurisdictions. Fake punks, called "bouncers," are now more often exhibited, floating in jars of weak tea (the color hides the artificial look). Bouncers are also popular with showmen because they can be crafted with especially grotesque features.
Picture Gallery — A tattooed man.
Pig Iron — Rides disassembled for transport. What do you do with pig iron? You haul it, move it, bolt it, and then you block and level it. Hauling a major ride may take three 18-wheel vehicles, and setting it up may take two to three days, a hundred 18-inch sections of railroad tie, and a dozen men.
Pigpen — The area where you congregate the turned tip before admitting them to the main tent.
Pinhead — Human oddity afflicted with microcephaly, the head coming to a point, a fact which was often further emphasized by leaving a top knot of hair to emphasize the head shape. Pictured at left, the legendary and much-loved pinhead "Schlitzie".2
Pit Show — Show in which the attraction is displayed in a pit, like an alligator, snakes, sometimes a geek.
Pitch — Selling merchandise by lecturing and demonstrating, once common on carnival lots and city street corners, now almost exclusively found on late-night cable TV infomercials (which would, in the old days, be called a "gadget pitch." Many pitches included promises that valuable prize coupons would be found in certain boxes. Medicine pitches had a life of their own. Medicine pitchmen would travel rural areas, carrying entire crews of entertainers/salespeople, offering free entertainment and repeated opportunities to buy the sponsor's "medicine", usually a type of liniment.
Pitch Cards — Cards containing photos and biographical information, sold for extra income by human oddities in a ten-in-one. The example pictured here was sold by Grace McDaniel, "The Mule-Faced Girl." She was a famous human oddity, much in demand for her genuinely freakish appearance as well as her intelligence and professionalism. From a "Fat Lady" on the Strates Show in 1941: "I know you folks in here would like to see me walking around. And while I'm walking around I have a few little souvenirs that I'll pass out to the men and the men only. Something you boys can have fun with and you'll get more laughs out of than anything you've ever seen before. You can show them to the girlfriends or the wives, it's perfectly alright. Now as I said before I pass them out to the men and the men only for 10¢ each. If you'd like to have one now I'm going to start on one end of the show and pass around here just one time."
Plant or Power Plant — Generator.
Plaster — Cheap prizes made of plaster that appear more valuable than they are, currently today used for description of any cheap prize (although "slum" is a more common term). In collector's circles, "chalkware."
Platform — The raised stage where acts perform. It can refer to platforms inside the show or the bally platform on the front of the show.
Playing a Mark — Stringing along a player at your joint to get the most you can get of his money.
Plush — Stuffed animals (the term is in common use today in many industries).
Points — Similar to usage in real-estate: an extra fee, figured as a percentage of the gross, paid (in addition to footage charges and the various dings) to the owner, who usually splits it with the concession manager.
Poke — A carny's "stash" of money. It might be big, after a really good stand, or empty after a poor week or large expenses.
Popeye — A "working freak" who could literally pop his eyeballs out of their sockets.
Popper — Popcorn wagon, usually also selling floss and candy apples, sometimes drinks.
Posing Show — A girl show (ostensibly "artistic" and "educational" to get around objections on the grounds of nudity) in which female 'models' pose in imitation of famous works of art. The 1939 New York World's Fair had a posing show called "Jack Sheridan's Living Magazine Covers," in which bare-breasted models posed in depictions of magazine illustrations. Fredric Brown, in his novel The Dead Ringer, had something revealing to say: "if you’re a carney you stay out of the posing show. The models don’t mind posing in practically nothing at all for the marks, the suckers. They don’t count; they’re outsiders; you might almost say they aren’t human beings. It’s strictly impersonal. But it would be indecent for someone who knows them to go in and watch. It’d be as much Peeping Tom stuff as looking in trailer windows or over hotel-room transoms."
Poster Joint — Any game in which the prize is a flashy (but really quite inexpensive) poster.
Privilege — Rent paid to operate on a midway, usually based on a joint's front length in feet.
Professor — Title often assumed by any showman who wished to appear to be an "expert" who might demonstrate in the name of education exhibits or acts that might be open to objections under the simple guise of entertainment.
Proposition — The business deal offered to an independent to book with a certain carnival. If there's no "hole" for your type of joint, you might not get a proposition at all; if the owner needs something good on the "back end" to attract customers past all the joints, and you've got something like a girl show that he needs, the proposition might be very favorable.
Punch and Judy — A traditional children's puppet show, unchanged in form and content for centuries, more familiar in its original form in Britain. The standard plot pits the shrill, violent Punch against his shrewish wife Judy, with an array of beatings and murder that would be wholly unacceptable to many modern adult sensibilities. In America the term might refer to any puppet show, in ignorance of its origin. The show often appeared in old-time sideshows as entertainment for the children while their parents viewed stronger attractions. The "swazzle," the in-throat whistle used to create the Punch puppet's voice, was sometimes sold as a pitch item.
Punk — A child. Also a stuffed animal on a 'knock 'em over' game.
Punk Joint — A game that appeals mostly to kids (usually a hanky pank).
Punk Ride — Kiddie ride.
Punk Robber — An agent who plays rigged games ('duck pond' in its gaffed form), or games with impossible propositions, aimed at children.
"Put 'em on the send" — To extract every last dime a person has and allow them to go home (or to the ATM) for more money.
Question Mark Show — The banner or trailer may merely say "?" or "What Is It?" It's a show you can frame for almost nothing, displaying some badly-lit messed-up bouncer (q.v.) with absolutely nothing in the way of explanation, or any strange and ultimately unidentifiable thing.
Quickie — A half-day's work on the lot, to be paid in cash at the end. Watch out for a "red light job" when accepting such work!
Racket — Any operation that depends on deception for success.
Racket Show — A carnival that derives most of its revenue from fixed games.
Rag — A small stuffed prize, usually kept out of sight under the counter, leading customers to believe that the smallest of the prizes on open display above is the smallest prize they stand to win.
Rain Tip — The type of crowd you get in the exhibit tents when it rains. They only want to get out of the rain. They don't spend a dime, and they immediately exit in favor of rides and games as soon as the rain stops.
Rangy or wrangy (rhymes with "tangy") — Worked up, usually in a vulgar sense (possibly a variant of 'randy'). A show could be rangy ( a really 'strong' kootch show), or the patrons might be in a rangy mood (a very hot Saturday night, or being able to afford too much beer 'cause it's payday) or a patron may be rangy or ranged up (drunken, disorderly, disruptive, spoiling for a fight.) "He's w rangin' the joint" would mean the customer is giving the jointee a very hard time. May also apply to an aggressive animal.
Razzle or Razzle Dazzle — A flat store game using a conversion chart to confuse the player. The cost per game can be built up astronomically play by play with the enticement that the winning score is almost (it's always "almost") certain to be achieved and very valuable payoffs won on the next play. Sometimes just called 'football.' Designed to empty the mark's pockets as quickly and completely as possible. A definite swindle covered in our "Games" chapter.
Reader — A pitchman's license to sell. Also, a phony driver's license (an indispensible item in a business where agents might require a sudden change of identity.)
Reading the Midway — Walking down the midway with your head down, looking for lost change or other valuables.
Red Light Job — You are the victim of a red light job when you undertake some work on the lot and, when you go to collect your pay, all you see are the red taillights of the employer's car receding in the distance.
Red One — A profitable engagement. Opposite: "blue one."
Rehash — To give a customer a free replay, or (very profitable but very unethical) to resell used ride tickets.5
Revue — A girl show that features more entertainment than bare skin.
Ride Jock, Ride Monkey — Carnival employee who runs a ride. Susan Adcock, in her carnival blog "Cliffhanger," says "A good ride jock can make you scream with delight. He can also, given the right ride, empty your pockets and make you throw up on yourself and your friends. Be nice to him. He's usually a pretty good guy."
Right Hand Side — The right side, after entering a midway through the main ticket booth, is the most desirable location, since most midways are designed to induce the crowd to turn to their right upon entry.
Robin Marx — Sort of a "utility name" when a carny wants to give a false name for himself or anyone else on the show. That's "robbin' marks" … get it? Sort of like calling yourself "Don E. Kerr" (donniker).
Roughy — An employee of the carnival, who may be called on to handle any number of duties, from relieving an agent who needs a break to enforcing management rules, from hiring help to "checking up" the agents' money and dispensing percentages at the end of the day. Sort of "middle management" on the lot.
Rube — A derogatory term for the outsider to show business; also, "towner," "townie," "sucker," or "chump". From the name "Reuben"; the term is in wide usage today. Modern carny usage includes "Clem". Viz. the old adage "never give a sucker an even break or wisen up a chump."
Score — To separate a mark from a significant amount of cash.
(to) Screw the Carnival — To leave the business mid-season (maybe school is starting, maybe you finally figured out that you're not going to make any money with the kind of fees you have to pay these days.)
Set Up — What you do after a jump: take it all off the truck and turn it into a carnival.
Shake Machine — Any ride that naturally (or by skilful operation of the clutch) tends to shake change loose from riders' pockets. These rides tend to produce plenty of vomit as well. The operator can "keep his shakes."
Sharpies, Sharpers — Players who have practiced a carnival game to the point where they can easily win.
Shill — Also "outside man," "stick," "capper," "front-worker" or "timber." Employee who poses as a customer, playing a game (and being secretly allowed to win) or buying a ticket, in order to motivate other customers to do likewise. If the agent needs to attract business, seeing him win "proves" to potential customers that the game can be won, and sometimes allowing the shill to win prevents a potentially costly win by a townie. Without a good shill, an entire tip may stay perfectly still after a bally, all with cash in their hands, and not one of them will go for the ticket boxes, unless some brave soul leads the way. Sometimes the shill would rush up to the ticket box, buy a ticket and move toward the show entrance, and go around and do it again. At medicine shows, shills were often the first to "buy" a bottle, breaking the public's reluctance to be the first to speak up. A good stick knew how to stand in a position that would block the progress of the passing crowd, slowing them enough to pay attention to a bally and subtly herding the tip closer. From shillaber, of uncertain origin, which referred to disreputable folks known to associate with con men and carnival acts.
Short Change — A classic con, any of several ways of confusing a mark about the honest count of the money you were exchanging. Also, many shows had the ticket box counter at eye level and gaffed with a small ridge around the edge. The ridge looks like a simple expedient for preventing loose change from rolling, but when the change was swept toward you, the ridge would catch some coins which were quickly pocketed by the ticket-seller.
Show — The carnival itself. The show moves from spot to spot, but it's still the same show unless you move to a different show.
Showman — The preferred title of many proud, lifelong outdoor amusement entrepreneurs, who would be very unhappy to be called "carnies."
Showtime — Trade publication of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association.
Sideshow — Any show on the circus midway (since such a show would be ancillary to the "big show" (the circus.) However, the term can refer to carnival shows other than (for instance) "girl shows", and it most commonly refers to a freak show or ten-in one. These days, "sideshow" also refers to the performance genre flowing from the old ten-in-one: from bed-of-nails and electric-chair and sword-swallowing acts to piercing and "geek" acts.
Signal 25 — Replaced "Hey Rube" in some quarters to signal a fight. Some police departments use this code as radio shorthand.
Simp Heister — Carny slang for a ferris wheel.
Single-O — A show consisting of a single attraction. From the railroad slang for "single occupancy."
Skill Game — Games where players with ability have a good chance to win.
Skin Show — A girl show featuring nudity as the main attraction. Plays very well on military paydays.
Sky Grifter — A tent-revival evangelist of the more mercenary sort.
Slick — To slick someone is to catch them in the act of doing something.
Slough — To tear down or leave, or get rid ofsomething or fire somebody.
Slum — Cheap prizes, bought in bulk, by the game operator for as little as $1 per gross. Also 'hooch.' 'Slum,' 'plaster' and 'paste' were all used synonymously, though each sometimes had a more specific meaning. Shown here: inflates wholesaling for at most 50¢ each. Oriental Trading Company, U.S. Toy, and Rhode Island Novelty are good sources. A game like the duck pond would use slum, cranes used crane stock (the small plush that fits in the bear claw and crane machines), other games used crazy ball stock (about a 16" piece of plush.) Referred to by their cost: $2, $4, $6, $8, $10, $12 and $24 pieces of plush.
Smark — A combination of the words "smart mark." Used mostly in the wrestling field, but finding its way onto the carnival lot, the term refers to people (probably) like you and me: a fan who believes he or she is "in the know" based on a certain amount of inside knowledge, but who is obviously (to those who are really "with it") a poseur who is much less informed than he thinks he is, and who is certainly not a real veteran.
Snake Drop — Originally by John Strong, this is a heck of a gag for a "See the Giant Snake" show: let them look at the boa for a little while, then drop a modest-size rubber snake on a string from above the pit. Scares the old crowd out while giving them double the thrill they paid for!
Snorting Pole — A pole extending from floor to tent-top in the center of a kootch show stage (q.v.) used by the strippers to pose, swing around on, and mime various acts of a sexual nature.
Soft Lot — A wet or muddy lot.
Spectacular Ride — A super ride (Pirate Ship, Sky Wheel)
Spidora — Illusion show giving the appearance of a giant spider with a woman's head - a mirror hides the woman's body and makes the creature appear to stand supported only by its web.
Spiel — The selling phase of a bally, made on a show front by the talker to the gathering tip, convincing the onlookers that they absolutely must see this show, to be followed by the "grind" phase during which he attempts to keep up the ticket-buying momentum.2
Spindle (or "Chicago Set Spindle") — A classic two-way game, a spinning arrow like a "wheel of fortune" which could be operated honestly (even then your odds were not that good) or gaffed. The mechanism appears fair, but the pins ("twisted" like a drill bit, their cross-section varies at different heights/twists) are set alternately to catch or miss the pointer. If the pointer were dropped just 1/16" by the secret gaff, the operator could choose whether the pointer would stop on an odd- or even-numbered pin (good prizes or slum).
Sponsor — The local charitable organization that publicizes and, in the public's perception, "legitimizes" the carnival. A local sponsor is valuable. If the American Legion or Jaycees or Lions Club arranges a carnival's license and location in advance, for a percentage of the income, their prestige can often keep the police away. Moreover, their efforts to publicize the show as a fundraiser for their charity can increase profits greatly, as it is also strongly in the sponsor's interest to maximize attendance.
Spoof — A small trick or gaff.
Spoofer — The really big plush animals displayed as a game's largest prizes. Can wholesale for $15-$20 or more. Handy to give away when a mark has been separated from a bit too much of his money without a prize.
Square — To settle a dispute without resorting either to the law or to fisticuffs. Also used by the patch to mean the process of "fixing" City Hall, including bribes and the lavish dispensing of passes to keep the police happy.
Stick — See "shill," above.
Stick Joint — A portable concession fashioned from rough lumber and canvas.
Still Date — An engagement not backed by a fair but which has been running regularly for a number of years. Usually run by a local charity, attendance is usually good but can be spotty.
Still Show — Also called a "museum show," an exhibition of stuffed freak animals, sometimes even a freak show using only photographs of famous freaks.
Sting — When an agent beats a mark for less than $100.5
Stock — General term for prize merchandise.
Store Show — In the off-season, especially during the depression era, a good attraction might come into a town and rent an empty storefront to squeeze out some more performance time from the year. The best location was close to a Woolworth Five-&-Dime store. The attraction would stay for a week in smaller towns, six weeks to two months (or as long as business would hold up) in larger towns.
String Show — A ten-in-one, possibly called a "string show" because several acts are "strung together." Others use the term to mean a show in which the audience moves through the tent (and out) along a walkway marked by rope barriers.
Strong — Describes a successful operation ("I have a strong flat joint" or "He is a strong agent") or an aggressive quality ("Did you have to play the mark that strong?") or running a game "strong" with the gaff in use. When a girl show works strong all the clothes come off, all restrictions are gone, and the girls do the most amazing things with parts of their bodies you didn’t know a woman could use for that purpose! Also 'work hot', 'work tough.'
Strong-arm — To put a lot of pressure on marks to play, or to remain to play for bigger prizes. Also, an agent skilled at earning more by such tactics.
Sucker or Sucker Job --- A term used to describe those not in the business of Shows, Carnivals or Circuses. Also used to describe those people who get into the business and are totally new to it.
Sunday-School Show — Generally, a clean show, particularly a show which can be worked strong, but is cleaned up for this venue. Also 'Boston version,' 'Sunday Schooler.'
Swing — To steal money from your boss.
T & K Operator — A traveling pitchman, referring to his "tripes and keister" (q.v., the sales display case and supporting tripod). As quoted in Arthur H. Lewis' Carnival, "A T&K man can work practically anywhere, from the back of a trailer, and sometimes out of the rumble seat of our old Hudson. That was a 'high pitch.' If he had to set the tripod on the ground, then it was called a 'low pitch.' Bob'd sell textbooks, ink eradicators, can openers, fruit juicers, medicine, rattlesnake oil, spark plugs — you name it."
Tableau — A grouping of figures, the term most commonly used in wax museums and their midway counterparts, the wax shows. They were usually of historical scenes, but could be literary, mythical, horrific, etc.2
Talker — Never "barker". The man who makes the spiel to build a tip in front of an attraction. If he talks inside the attraction, he is a "lecturer" or "inside talker".
Tattooed Man — This exhibit wouldn't make a dime today, but there was a time when a person with tattoos covering their entire body was considered "bizarre".
Tear Down — To disassemble the rides, pack up the stock, and depart for the next engagement.
Teaser — A curtain positioned in the open doorway of a show, allowing patrons outside only a partial "teasing" view of the wonders inside.
Ten-In-One — A carnival midway show with ten acts or attractions.
Three Card Monte — A gambling game formerly seen on carnival lots, now seen on big-city streets. It was first known to have been played in rance, where it is known as "bonneteau" (A "bonneteur" was a courtier who tipped his hat too much, the implication being that he was being so obsequious because had a hidden agenda.) The game is always a swindle and can be played anywhere, often on an upended cardboard box. The operator is sometimes called a "broad tosser" because the game calls for finding the one queen amid two number cards tossed in a rhythmic pattern. A simple but undetectable sleight allows the operator to win or lose at will — he might lose to a shill so the mark believes that the game can be won, or he might make the shill lose several times when any idiot could follow the "money card" so the mark thinks he can easily spot the winning card if he bets. The shill might even mark or bend the money card (while the operator is looking away) to make the mark certain that he spot it, but a second and equally undetectable sleight easily switches out the marked money card and switches in a matching-marked neutral card. There is always a confederate to watch for police and act as a shill. A good team can take all of someone's money quickly. An entertaining line of patter and a growing tip makes the game a hypnotic attraction for the unwary. "Inky dinky finklestein, three times nine is twenty-nine ... You must be the luckiest man alive, pal, move your feet I want to see if you're standing on a lucky spot." A skilled practitioner can fool any audience with manual dexterity, but there is also a gaffed "card-with-a-flap" version called "The Dutch Looper" or "English Monte." Played to a crowd it is "open monte," and played privately fleece a particularly wealthy mark it is "closed monte".
Throw Stock — To award prizes in games. The agent's profit can turn on as little a thing as a ¼" larger or smaller star the customer has to shoot completely off a card, and the first place his profit will be reflected is in the percentage of stock he throws (percentage of cost of prizes given out to dollars taken in.) An agent may decide to loosen up his game a little and be seen to throw stock to keep his tip going, either to real customers or to shills, or he may throw stock to appear to be an un-gaffed game when the police are around. Sometimes used to mean throwing too much stock, thereby losing money.4 Sometimes agents refer to their job as "selling teddy bears."
Throwaway — When a game operator lets a member of the crowd be seen to win a large prize, thereby stimulating business.
Tip — The crowd gathered in front of an attraction to hear the outside talker's bally. They watch the free exhibition on the bally platform, and if the talker is convincing enough, he can "turn the tip", getting them to buy tickets and go in to see the show. When the entire tip has been turned by a talker's opening, it is said that he has "cleaned the midway".1
Torture Show — A museum show displaying implements and scenes of torture.
Trailer — One who trails a medicine show selling refreshments (especially an unauthorized person.)
Trailer Joint — A concession housed in a portable trailer rather than in a canvas-and-wood shack.
Tripes — The folding tripod to support a "keister" (pitchman's sales display case).
Trouper — A person who has spent at least one full season in the traveling amusement business. In common use in theater as well.
Turn the Tip — When the crowd of onlookers (the tip) watching a bally crowd up to the ticket box and start buying tickets, the talker has turned the tip. During the active ticket-buying, he stops "spieling" (the selling portion of the bally) and "grinds," keeping up the excitement with rhythmic phrases (if a talker ever actually did say "hurry, hurry, hurry!" it would be during the grind.)
Twenty-Four Hour Man — An employee who plans the route to the next town and marks the way with arrows.
Two Dollar Bill - Not so common today but was considered bad luck to accept during previous decades mainly due to the fact that there were too many counterfeits circulating.
Two-Way Joint — A game that can be run fairly or rigged.
Under the Blue — To work a rigged game without a fix or patch to keep you out of trouble.
Universal Ticket System — First seen in the 1970s, this admission plan requires the purchase of tickets at a central ticket booth rather than paying for each ride or show at the front of the ride or show.
University Horn — One of the old indestructible, harsh-sounding, horn-shaped public-address speakers made by University Sound (also by Electro Voice and Atlas Sound), good for blasting the midway with your grind-show ballys (on an endless 8-track tape using a cheap pre-recorded tape recorded over on one of those awful 8-track home recorders). Simple PA hookups, including one or two university horns, were usually supplied by audio engineer Wally Baptist, who operated Baptist Sound in Illinois. You could frame a whole show with just Brill's Bible, the O'Henry banner catalog, and the Baptist Sound catalog.
Walk Back — Someone who actually returns after a period of time to buy your product.
Walk Money — The ticket-seller needs a lot more than his/her salary to get a living wage. Some depend on short-changing. Some won't, but all of them hope for enough money from "walks", the money people walk away from the booth without remembering to pick up. "Walk money" also comes from people who don't think to take discount offers for larger purchases - "Here's $10, give me 20 50¢ tickets" will get them 20 tickets, but $10 might have also bought a sheet of 24 - the next guy who buys (the remaining) 4 tickets will pay $2, and that will go right into the cashier's pocket. "I only get $5 an hour but I make it up on walks."
Walk Through — A show the patrons walk through at their own pace, passing the exhibits along the way. Also called a "grind show" because the bally is always grinding, calling for patrons to come in constantly rather than building a tip.
Wax Show — A show featuring wax statues of famous people, often murderers or notorious criminals.
Whale Show — A trailer or rail car equipped to display the frozen or preserved carcass of a whale.
Wheel — The Ferris Wheel is just called "the wheel." Since it's visible from most of the lot, the wheel operator puts out the ride's lights at a signal from the office, indicating that the other rides, joints and concessions can close for the night.
Whistling Gopher — A mark who departs with a whistle of disbelief after he hears the price of your ride or show or product.
Wide Open — A show or carnival where "anything goes": the girl shows can play as "strong" as they want and the games can take the marks for as much as they can get. A show could never play wide open without the police turning a blind eye to the whole affair, after big payoffs by the patch.2
With It — "I’m with it" means "I work at this carnival (or at some other carnival)." Generally pronounced "widdit!" Some claim that it is not really used at all, favoring "on the show" as the actual term. A carnival term not used in the circus.1 If I was walking down a midway and an agent or a talker tried to call me in I would say "with it," in other words "you're wasting your breath talking to me."4
Wobbly — A person (usually a drinker) who hangs around the food stands looking for odd jobs like peeling onions, emptying the garbage, raking up the trash, etc. They usually work for food and a couple bucks for the bar. Probably from the nickname ("Wobblies") of radical anti-capitalists the Industrial Workers of the World.
Working Act — A performer whose attraction is something he does (magician, contortionist, "blockhead") — a skilled performer rather than just a human oddity.
Working "Hot and Cold" — Operating a game that treats some customers one way (take the money and give nothing) and others the opposite (give the Sheriff's pals lots of stock). Every now and then, the arrangement might be reversed (a pleasant game for Mom and Dad and the kids, a very expensive proposition for a particularly rich and dumb mark, or for someone the owner doesn't like).
X — When an operator purchases the e(X)clusive rights to operate his type of game or ride on a particular lot, closing out competition from similar attractions. If you can't work because someone else has the X, you've been "X'ed out."
Yellow — Traditionally, a color superstitiously considered bad luck for an agent working a joint. Also forbidden: eating peanuts under an awning.