You may not have wings or two heads or be able to sleep on a bed of nails, but you are unique and Johnny is the one who can
translate your individuality into glorious color for all to see. Write some information about yourself and fill out the contact form below. Your banner
will be made to the exact specifications of those made for carnival display just like the ones in the photo at the top of this page.
If you prefer, you can choose from classic themes such as the Fat Lady, Alligator Boy, Snake Charmer, Witch Doctor, etc. or you can request
something more specific, dealing with yourself,your family or any topic that interests you.
Note: Serious inquiries only.
To obtain a autographed copy of Freeks•Geeks & Strange Girls send a check or Money Order for $30. to: Johnny Meah • 315 5th Avenue North • Safety Harbor, FL • 34695.
To learn more about banners and their history, get a copy of this book:
"The long awaited third edition of Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls is now available. This edition, the first by Ron Turner's prestigious Last Gasp Publications, is totally faithful to the quality of the original in every respect.
Since this unique and critically acclaimed master work was last published, it has garnered prices as high as $300 on Ebay. Whether you're a serious collector of well researched books on the subject of unusual art or simply a fan of sideshows, this book is a true delight. The 170 page treasure chest of magnificent photographic images is embellished by the entertaining and informative writings of the most noteworthy historians in their field."
I had tried to resist the urge to climb down from the ladder where I was painting
and walk outside of the tent to see what was happening. The urge finally won and,
dunking my brush into a can of thinner. I exited the ladder and headed outside,
abandoning the banner I was painting.
The sideshow had been set up on the lawn in front of the first building of the
Smithsonian. I had been engaged to do an exhibition of banner art as part of the
Smithsonian's Spring Celebration Of The Outdoor Amusement Business. It was
March of 1980.
The entire cast of the sideshow stood on the bally platform,sequined wardrobe
sparkling in the sun.The crowd in front of the platform seemed mesmerized by the
man with the microphone at the front of the platform. It was Ward Hall.
I had known Ward for over a dozen years before we wound up in Washington
that day. He remained a part of my life until the day he died, through incredibly
good and painfully bad times.
Through it all the best image in my mental photo gallery remains the man
with the mike getting, for the moment at least, more attention than the
nearby Washington Monument.
Somewhere in the world there's a forest full of trees like the one pictured in this story. The fact is, I've never seen one that captivated my imagination like this one did. I stood viewing it with it's rough bark and deeply etched crevices and, wondering how many years of weathering the elements it had taken to age into it's current state.
I began to smile, think about the crinkled lines in my own face and it occurred to me that it might make an interesting photo. Me and the "Meah face tree!"
Enter my friend Norman who happily accommodated me and produced the nifty black and white version seen here. And that would have been the end of the story except tht when he sent me the proof of the picture he also enclosed another photo. This one from a file of vintage theatrical promotional pieces, showed a young woman in a white gown posed by a tree almost identical to the one I discovered.
There was something more to the two photographs placed together than intrigued me. It finally hit me. This was the fabric that children's' fairy tales are woven from. So why not write one -- or at least part of one?
Every so often one of my old banners pops up on an internet sales site prefaced with,"Johnny Meah, the self proclaimed Czar Of Bizarre".
As a point of fact,my ego doesn't extend to bestowing titles upon myself.
The Czar Of Bizarre title was given to me by Dave Osborn, the owner of a Western theme park titled Carson City in Cairo, N.Y.
I appeared in the park's saloon show as a clown ,doing a sword swallowing and juggling routine. Osborn M.C.,d the show, backed by his C. & W. band. At the start of the season he introduced me as," The most bizarre act in show business",then, a couple of weeks later it became." The Czar Of Bizarre".
I also M.C.,d a circus themed show in another building in the park and did all of the park's sign and pictorial work.
Another title that I used in the second half of my clowning career was "Junkyard Johnny". I didn't label myself with that one either, it came more as someone's observation than as a title. One year when I'd taken a detour from circuses and carnivals I rethemed and managed an amusement park in Old Orchard Beach, Maine.Since economy was the order of the day there I started using scrap lumber to construct a game concession at the front of the park. A friend came by while I was hammering a dent out of a piece of hardware and commented, "Ah, there he is, Junkyard Johnny.
Funny, I thought, and filed it in my mental filing cabinet for quite awhile. It came out of hiding on the first year I clowned on Gil Gray's "Doctor Pepper Circus" at the Texas State Fair.
I was headed out to do the "come-in" when a guy rushed over, telling me that the ringmaster / announcer wanted to know what my "clown name" was. I gave him a blank look. In those days , with a few exceptions like Happy Kellems, Bozo Ward and Jo Jo Lewis, circus clowns didn't have invented names.. Since when I returned to the craft I had created a sort of disheveled ,"sad sack" character I answered the fellow with, "junkyard Johnny".
Today the trappings of the Czar and all of his flashiness and Junkyard Johnny and his rumpled disarray hang in peaceful retirement in a hall closet. I do have one piece of wardrobe that I wear occasionally when I'm painting banners., a cap with Fred Johnson's "ALIVE" bullet on it, given to me by Fred's grandson, Randy.
I'll end with a word about Randy, a man who had no clever titles or needed any. He was my friend and one of the kindest, most uncomplicated people I've ever known. Randy Johnson passed away earlier this year and will be greatly missed.
As most visitors to this site have already noticed, I take periodic "Holidays" from my writing to attend to other segments of my life such as banner painting and speaking engagements. (I prefer the later term to "lectures", a word that tends to suggest an evening of stiff formality).
There were at least two more concert attractions beyond the standard ingredients mentioned in parts one and two.
Tanit Ikao was by far, the more interesting of the two. A woman of Austrian decent, she learned her unusual craft from her previous husband, a man who worked under the title "Blackman". Blackman was a well known theater personality in Europe who migrated to the U.S. with circuses, not as a concert performer but as a center ring attraction. His act featured the hypnotizing of huge reptiles, most notably alligators.
When they parted company, Tranit Ikao, a woman with teased white hair who was both stately and seductive in appearance, replicated the act.
Since I never saw her former husband perform, I can only guess that his whole act revolved around the pseudo hypnotism of reptiles.
Tanit Ikao, however concluded her presentation with a barefoot sword ladder climb ending with a gaff neck hang which was quite clever and sold well.
I clowned on the Hunt Bros. Circus where both Tanit Ikao and the next act, a strongman named Jack Walch, appeared on two separate seasons.
Walch, a former T.V. Superman who was advertised to lift an elephant, was not only physically unimpressive nor capable of holding a concert audience's attention very long. Unlike Tanit Ikao, Walch needed all the help he could get, so the show combined his presentation with the Lunsfords, a couple who did a brief Western arts turn.
The "elephant Lift" involved the show's newly acquired baby Asian elephant, Rhanee, mounting a platform supported by four oil drums. Walch would stoop over under the center of the platform and raise his back, supposedly lifting the platform and it's passenger very slightly off of all four oil drums. This wasn't the crowd pleaser that it was intended to be because it was always questionable whether the platform ever left al four supports at the same time. But, like Tanit Ikao, it was at least a departure from Ridin' Ropin' cowboys and the grunt and groan theatrics of wrestlers, both of which have survived in more contemporary forms in today's entertainment world.
There were a few attempts to revive the concept of a concert or aftershow which were abandoned mid-season. The mechanics of a circus and the attention spam of audiences had changed and, much like the circus sideshow, the performers who once populated them have departed, following the arrows to the next celestial lot.
There were many monetary ingredient to a circus that combined to create overall profitability. The never ending vending of food, drink and novelty items during the performance. The last minute availability of comfortable reserve seating when the general admission customers discovered that they would spend the duration of the performance perched on rough planks. The sideshow, pit shows, elephant rides, etc. located
outside the big top. All of these fringe money grabbers, when combined, usually equaled the total price of admissions to the circus itself. The concert was part of this potpourri of profit.
But the concert grosses were shrinking. Americans interest in cowboys and Indians and their skills was changing and their taste for more violent entertainment was emerging. Enter the addition of wrestling to the circus after show.
With the advent of television came "professional" wrestling and whether you viewed it as a true athletic event or just sillytheatrics, it had become a formidable part of the culture. Cartoon behemoths with names like Gorgeous George and Golden Superman had become household words.
All of the elements of the movie Western were alive and well with pro wrestling; the good guy and the villain. Both forms of entertainment drew heavily on the centuries old melodrama.
The concert wrestling match was a modified version of the carnival athletic show, or "At" show in carnival parlance, however with circuses it resolved itself in one short bout rather than being a self perpetuating all night event.
Interestingly, most circuses continued to retain a Western element in the concert, a dual appeal, something for everybody" concept. The announcement still began with cowboys and cowgirls circling the track but gone now was Cactus Bob, replaced with the introduction of the wrestler who, for the sake of the story, we'll call "Crusher Carlson".
The first part of the concert announcement dealing with the Western performers was now greatly reduced to allow time to expand on the wrestler. The ringmaster would proclaim the wrestler's credits which were far less factual than those of Cactus Bob.
While being spoken of in glowing terms, "Crusher" could stride around the ring, projecting an aloof disdainful attitude, purposely designed to gain the audience's growing dislike for him.
Next, the ringmaster would offer a challenge to anyone in the audience who thought they could win a one-round match with the arrogant show wrestler. At this point, the "stick" (or the plant or shill using non-showbiz terms), would stand up in the reserve section and accept the challenge, at which point he'd be invited to join the ringmaster and wrestler in the ring.
It was vital to the theatrics of the piece that the supposed "local boy" exude an aura of wholesome physical fitness so we'll refer to him as "Homer Goodheart". To further establish this, en-route to the ring he would turn a non-existent wife or girlfriend in the audience and give an "I'll be O.K. honey" wave of reassurance.
Once in the ring, while Crusher gave him the once over, the ringmaster would ask him his name, establish that he was from whatever town the show was playing that day and end by asking what his wrestling credentials were. Homer would reply that he'd been a Judo instructor in the Marines.
At this point Crusher would shake his head, frantically wave his hands in a negative manner and utter one of his only lines; "No Judo Holds"! The ringmaster would remind him that Judo was an accepted form of wrestling and while the show wrestler argued to the contrary,the ringmaster polled the audience as to whether they'd like to view the impending mayhem.
Of COURSE they did! They couldn't wait to see the circus guy have the tar beat out of him by what they were now convinced was a local war hero.
The Judo issue would be reluctantly resolved with the ringmaster reminding Crusher that he had a contract with the show to "take on all comers", they'd exit the ring and the circus would continue.
The second concert announcement, or Act. 2 as I thought of it, would again have the Western contingent appearing on the track and Crusher and Homer, now clad in trunks or tights presumably supplied by the wardrobe dept., re-introduced to the audience. More theatrics would ensue, for example Crusher might take a swing at Homer, who would grab his wrist before the blow landed causing the show wrestler to wince in pain and complain to the ringmaster. Needless to say, more tickets would be sold.
The actual after show or "Act 3" would be anticlimactic to the announcements leading up to it, much the same as a movie where the previews were better than the actual picture. The match would either end in a draw or with the local guy winning or the show claiming a foul and skulking out of the bigtop.
It should be noted that both participants had to have specific talents. Like the carnival "At' show, the show wrestler had to be proficient in his craft because occasions would arise where he had to pin down a real local guy when the audiences ' sentiment called for it. Likewise, the "stick" had to give a convincing performance and be a believable actor in his "home town" roll.
King Bros./Cristiani circus offered a concert and one of the wrestlers who passed through it's canvas portals was Mike Lane, who went on to an acting career in films. His first movie roll was in a film titled "The Harder They Fall" with Humphrey Bogart.
So what became of the concert? Like many other forms of entertainment it fell victim to the faster pace of today's world. Circuses that once had a 2:00 matinee and an 8:00 night show now moved their matinees to 5:00. There was no longer an interval between shows. The night show crowd was queuing up toward the end of the matinee, leaving barely enough time to re-set props for the night show much less an after show lasting
another half hour.
It was economically impractical to do only one concert after the night show, besides the night concert was always shorter due to seats being torn down and loaded for the next move. (I always marveled at the patience of night show concert audiences, who had to endure the sound of crashing lumber and shouting workmen as all but the small section of seats they were in were torn down and hauled away.
As a brief postscript to the preceding story, there were a few other concert attractions beyond the wrestlers and Western arts performers already mentioned but I'll save them for the concluding installment.
(To Be Continued.)
THE CIRCUS CONCERT
The most recognized or often used definition of the word, "concert," suggests some sort of musical performance, however digging deeper, you'll find another meaning; something connected to or working in harmony with something else.
The circus concert or after show had no connection to music but it was, for many years, an appendage to the main show.
The circus performance would be twice interrupted by a "concert announcement," with the ring master dramatically shouting, "clear the track, there are horses on the track," and riders in western garb would gallop around the hippodrome track, assembling in front of the center reserve seating section while the band played something appropriate to their thundering arrival like "Oklahoma." The ringmaster would then begin the concert pitch.
"Ladies and gentlemen we interrupt our show to introduce these talented performers, direct from the Western plains of the United States. They appear with us through a special arrangement with the famed Bar Z Ranch in Laramie Wyoming. Each and every one of these cowboys and cowgirls present their own special skills of riding, roping, shooting and knife throwing. If you saw nothing more than Princess Eaglefeather outline her courageous partner with those razor sharp knives, leaving only inches between life and death, you'd leave well satisfied. But in addition to the lovely princess, besides several others like Mike Morgan, the two time World's Champion Roper, We're proud to present none other than Hollywood Western star, Cactus Bob O'Brien!" (Band strikes a chord as Cactus Bob rides into the center ring).
Before concluding my recap of the concert announcement, it's necessary to point out that there were actual Western movie stars like Colonel Tim McCoy and Lash LaRue that were featured in these circus concerts. But for every bona fide movie star, like my fictitious Cactus Bob, there were dozens whose only connection to the movies was attending them.
Back, now, to the end of the "concert announcement, with the ringmaster saying;" At each and every performance, you'll see Cactus Bob re-create the scene that won him an Academy Award nomination in the Film, "Two For Tombstone". Many of you will remember that scene where he lassoed two galloping horses and their riders simultaneously! And that's a guaranteed performance, Right Bob?" (Bob smiles and gives a thumbs up.) Now ladies and gentlemen, this show is not a part of the main circus performance and never advertised as such. Because it's an extra added attraction, there's an extra charge to see it. The price? Just one dollar! The ticket sellers are ready to wait on you, just hold up your hand and they'll come right to you.
"I'm going to send the performers back to get ready for their show," (performers exit the track, Cactus Bob rears on his horse and exits the center ring. The ringmaster reminds the audience that the ticket sellers will remain in the audience and then proclaims; "And now, on the with the show!"I'll grant you that by today's standards, the preceding may sound like pretty cornball stuff but from the 30's into the 50's these shows played well. Sadly, much like the free-standing Wild West shows that inspired them, they too, began to wane in popularity. Although iconic film stars like John Wayne, Clark Gabel and Clint Eastwood continued to garner high box office scores in Westerns and T.V. Series' like Gunsmoke and Bonanza held up in the ratings, the interest in western skills like those presented in the circus concert ceased to captivate audience's interest.
Although the "good guy/bad guy" theme had always been central to westerns and continued in the newer films, the new cowboy heroes no longer sat around campfires plunking on guitars and singing about tumbling tumbleweed, likewise, they didn't simply give the heroine a peck on the cheek or occasionally exit up the saloon stairs for what we were left to assume would be a night of unbridled whoopee. Now, they actually hopped in the hay with their leading ladies.
To illustrate this new found sagebrush sexuality, a popular comedian was doing a routine based on the principal players in Gunsmoke where Chester hobbles in with a worried look and says; "You'd better get your ass down to Miss Kitty's Mr. Dillon!" Dillon replies, "Where to you THINK I've been getting it, Chester?!"
Indeed things were changing in Westerns but one thing remained, the "good guy/bad guy" theme. Which brings us to the next phase of the circus concert: Wrestling.
(to be continued)
Some of my readers were familiar with Bob, if not on a personal basis at least by reputation.
The auction, to be held in Frederick, Maryland on May 15th, will feature approximately 50% of Bob's banner collection, along with other collectible items assembled over the years. There will be a color catalogue available shortly and information regarding the auction company, location and other pertinent data appears at the end of this newsletter.
Keith Spurgeon, the dealer/collector from whom I learned of the auction, tells me that the banners will be offered in two seperate auctions, this one in May and the next on an undetermined date in the fall. There are approximately 120 banners that comprise the entirer estate offering.
Although this would seem to qualify as a "Lifetime collection" it, in fact, only represents a relatively short segment of McCord's life. To understand the seemingly short, (mid 90's to mid 2000's), period in which all of the collection was assembled, you'd have to understand McCord himself. This is a formidable task but I'll attempt it in the form of a short biography.
Bob McCord was born into the technical end of the Hollywood film industry, his father being a highly respected lighting specialist. As a youngster, Bob spent many of his early days on the sets of both motion picture and television productions, eventually working with his dad on such iconic T.V. shows as Death Valley Days and Gunsmoke.
As is the case with many children who grow up in an industry that appears exciting and glamorous to the outside world, Bob became restless and bored. He had plenty of company in his apathy, as he was surrounded by other sons of actors and technicians who were equaly as jaded by their surroundings.
There were many distractions readily available in a money glutted environment, one such diversion, (besides the obvious ones), was planes, Many of his friends had pilot's licences and some owned light planes. The desert locations where many of the westerns were filmed were natural runways for small aircraft.
So it was that one scorching hot afternoon Bob and a couple of his cohorts, numb from a day of "hurry up and wait", a situation symtomatic to all film making, taxied their four seater past the movie set and lifted off toward the nearby cloudy mountain range.
The following afternoon the shattered remains of Bob McCord awoke on a rock mountain top to observe the dead body of one of his friends a few yards away amidst the rubble. Around dusk a search party reached him and air lifted him to a hospital.
As Bob told me, his long recouperation afforded him a lot of time to ponder what his life had been and to begin forming a vision of what he wanted to do with the rest of it. There was no forehead-smacking "eureka, that's it!" epiphany here. He just knew that a major life style change was in order.
Forty years ago, Calabasas California looked much like any small town in America distinguished only by it's star resident, The Motion Picture Actors Home. It was a suitably tranquil location for the elderly and infirm who'd once graced theater screens around the world. It was here that Bob started a business that became one of the most popular restaurants in the Greater Los Angeles area, the Sagebrush Cantina.
Built in stages and having a sort of jigsaw puzzle appearance, the patrons of the Cantina were has eclectic as it's decor. Seated at one of the enormous dining patios you might see movie stars like Sylvester Stallone, a group of leather-clad bikers and the mayor all enjoying the sumptuous Mexican cuisine that the place was famous for. When you tired of the people-watching you could let your eyes wander through the ever growing collection of things that sat on rooftops, hung from walls or leaned in corners. See that thing on top of the bandstand? It is a bobsled! Bob sponsored the Jamaican Bobslet Team and wardrobed them for the Olympics. See the stage under it? I performed on it for a week! See that tall, gangly guy over there? That's Bob McCord. Although he was there most of the time, many of the clientel didn't know who he was! I did. He was a true friend to me.
Bob died last year but his myriad interests remain in the form of his collections. Go see and bid on his banners. This is an opportunity to take home not only a valuable piece of Americana but a tiny piece of a truly unique individual who loved all things unusual as much as you do!
I am a firm believer in reincarnation. Not necessarily the Shirley McClaine variety, but the Johnny Meah variety. (Shirley has her problems, I have mine).
Show business, the category I've fumbled through most of my life, has honed my belief in this recycling process. Nothing ever really dies-It simply goes away to some sort of outer limits rehab clinic and hangs out there until it's time to show up again. Whatever it is that's supposed to have died goes through the industrial version of what the Catholic church calls Limbo. (For those of you who may be a bit Catholicism impaired, Limbo is like a suburb between Heaven and Hell. When your life chart doesn't scan properly, you get sent there until God finds time to figure out where you belong).
Anyway, the thing that died winds up on this sort of limboesque conveyor belt which takes its lifeless carcass through marketing, development and packaging. The corpses of things like Vaudeville, Broadway musicals, Circuses, and of course, Sideshows have all been there. Other notable visitors include hula hoops, electric cars, and Regis Philbin.
Public apathy, overexposure, and things that are purportedly bigger, better and infinitely more fun are generally sited as the cause of death. For example, the toe tag on Vaudeville simply reads "Movies". The movie tag says "Television," Etc., Etc.
The coroner's report on Sideshows was a little more complex, in fact, using the Limbo analogy, it could easily have Mel Brooks overtones much in this manner:
God is beeped on the eleventh hole. The scanner has blown out all of the circuit breakers. He shows up in the computer room, golf bag slung over his shoulder and frowns at the card he's been handed which is still smoldering from the scanner meltdown. "So what's 'politically incorrect' mean? Get Nerdman down here to explain this to me!"
A bland looking guy with rimless glasses and a belt full of pagers arrives and attempts an explanation.
"O.K.," God says, "There's this guy-he's nine feet tall. People stare at him, so he figures he'll take advantage of the situation and charge them to look. What am I missing here? I built this guy and I kept him around for a while so I could look at him!" Nerdman shrugs.
"And this 'political' thing," God sputters, "Politicians are my biggest mistake! I admit it, I screw up every once in a while-now get this thing fixed!" God stomps off, golf clubs clanking as Nerdman pages somebody in Engineering.
Of course nothing returns looking exactly like it looked the last time. Things change, either physically or conceptually. In the case of the sideshow, the tent and bannerline are pretty much gone but the idea of taking a peek at weird people doing weird things is back, bigger and bolder than ever.
From the mid 80's through the late 90's I was getting more work than I ever would have imagined, high paying gigs in extraordinary venues- doing not much more physically than I'd done in carnival sideshows for years. Why? Because there were very few practitioners of the sideshow arts left and even fewer that were entertaining enough to hold the attention of a non-sideshow audience. Sword swallowers were in very short supply.
A handful of isolated events occurred within this time frame that began a slow resurrection of Fakir acts, (using the proper term for what most physical sideshow acts evolved from). The event having the highest impact was the emergence of Jim Rose and the group of entertainers he had developed in small California clubs. When Rose and his group did the legendary Nine Inch Nails / Lollapalooza tour, the whole entertainment industry sat up and took notice. At the same time, a Rennaisance Festival entertainer named Johnny Fox, who, incidentally, was around long before the Rose explosion, came into prominence. Both Rose and Fox, neither of whom came from a sideshow background, created a new excitement by dramatically raising the quality and production level of the acts.
In the nineties, television offered several well crafted documentaries and the introduction of the Ripley and Guinness Shows, a rehash of You Asked For It plus several specials like Wow. Interest in the acts once relegated to carnival and circus sideshows was steadily growing and there were new, young performers learning the acts.
Last month in Pennsylvania the first official congress of sword swallowers took place in conjunction with a tattoo convention. Many of you who visit this site are already aware of this. Some were there and participated in it.
As the lights dimmed on the stage that day it would be interesting to fantasize Mary Shelley's fictional doctor looking to the electronically charged Heavens, shrieking, "It's Alive-Again!"
A peek into the future and fun stuff from Shocked & Amazed
Can't get enough of Johnny's stories? If the response to each issue of CZAR NEWS is any indication there are quite a few of us, so TRY not to jump up and down with glee when I tell you that something VERY SPECIAL is coming soon from Johnny. I'm not at liberty to say much more, but we'll give you more info next month. Trust me, it's a good one!
Here is some good news you're bound to love:
Our friends at SHOCKED & AMAZED recently put out a beautiful "Best of" compilation from their rare, early issues in convenient book form! Lot's of great photos inside, so visit their site and check it out: (http://www.shockedandamazed.com)
More good stuff next issue...
Time to Redecorate!
Not everyone has the wallspace for a full size Meah banner, but don't panic -- now YOU can hang your very own Johnny Meah Masterpiece in YOUR OWN HOME!
Grab yourself a SIGNED & NUMBERED LIMITED EDITION print of BABY IRENE she's a "tidal wave of fun" and she'll brighten your living room right up!
While you're redecorating, why not set the mood in your bedroom just right with a beautiful ANATOMICAL VENUS?
NATE EAGLE'S HOLLYWOOD MIDGETS would look fabulous in the kid's room, and don't forget Valentine's Day is just around the corner -- nothing like the WORLD OF WONDERS to make your sweetie smile!
Let me quickly put your minds at ease by telling you that this isn't a diatribe about false accusations. Most will agree that as the political campaigns heat up, we're already overdosed on that sort of thing. The character, (actually plural, characters), that are being assassinated here are the colorful oddballs of showbusiness past. The executioner is that venerable cartoon we know as Father Time.
Of course the show world never had an exclusive on characters. Not too long ago every occupation was brimming over with strange, idiosyncratic souls that were as colorful as an explosion in a paint factory. Writers like Damon Runyon reveled in them and managed to bestow a whimsical dignity upon them.
For whatever reason, true characters have become an endangered species and we are steadily creeping toward a homogenized society.
Much like the sterilization of Times Square, (you'll note that I'm behaving myself and not using the "D" word), the carnival business has lost most of the wonderful characters that made it interesting. When carnivals started patterning themselves after corporately owned theme parks, the erosion of the characters that inhabited them began. The glib, flashy folks that operated gaming concessions were replaced by salaried MacDonaldesque youngsters. Girl shows and sideshows evaporated and those who operated them or performed in them faded into oblivion, leaving behind a sort of lobotomized version of a once exciting industry.
So where did these people go, guys with names like Slim the Pipe, Hot Half Harry, Commadore Dick or Rumbling Red? Some years ago I saw a film called Tin Men. The story revolved around a group of aluminum siding huxters and it was almost like attending a homecoming event for me. For all practical purposes, these were the same guys who populated carnival concessions in a bygone era and whoever wrote and directed the film had nailed them right down to their last colorful quirk!
I grew up around and pretty much wallowed in carnival characters, happily absorbing them like a sponge. Of course, in that absorption process, you guzzle everything, not just isolated parts. One of those absorbed categories was weird words and speech patterns, the result of which produced a mental vault of cryptic words and phrases and a rapidly diminishing audience who understand them. Phrases like "Oshiki Koshiki," (drunk), "Taking it on the Arkadelphia," (leaving somewhere unannounced, usually in the middle of the night and frequently with the company funds), or the granddaddy of all nonsequitous space fillers, "Strom." Strom can be a noun, verb, adjective or whatever you want it to be, I.E., "- I stashed the strom," or "I strommed Gladys last night."
Also thrown into the mix are obscure ethnic slang words. There was a Jewish flat store agent who was called, (and answered too), Nofka Harris. "That's an unusual sir name, Nofka," I commented to a co-worker, Benny Glassberg. He smiled. "It's not a name, it means whore. Harris will do anything for money."
Interestingly, there were a lot of people like Harris with disparaging nicknames like Lenny the Puke, Crazy Morris and Pisser Scully. Although there were some who didn't exactly snap to attention upon hearing their sobriquet, they rarely became enbattled about them.
Nicknames that are spawned from conformity usually assure that the bearer is a little left of center and, therefore, qualifies as a true character. I freely admit to being a lifetime, card carrying member of the character club, having enjoyed or at least tolerated, several nicknames that I've earned by virtue of sheer quirkiness. Being a rather frugal soul, (cheap by standards of some), I've built or repaired many things out of scrap.
One day, while in the process of hammering the dents out of something or other, a friend wandered up and asked why I didn't buy new material. I gave him my "high price of hardware" lecture, whereupon he shook his head and commented, "Junkyard Johnny."
Several years later, when I was clowning on a circus in Texas, the ringmaster came to me before the season's opening performance. "I want to introduce you to the audience," he said, "What's your name?"
"Johnny Meah." I replied.
"No, I mean what's your clown name?"
This fellow was fairly new to the business and evidently wasn't aware that most circus clowns of that era didn't use contrived names. He looked terribly disappointed, so I said, "O.K., how about Junkyard Johnny?"
The name stuck for the rest of my clowning career.
Out of all forms of comedy, observational humor has always topped my personal preference list. One of my favorite evergreen pieces is George Carlin's "All My Stuff", which is based on a simple premise. The compressed version of "All My Stuff" pinpoints our penchant for acquiring "stuff" and, not too surprisingly, running out of room to accommodate it.
There's a wide variety of "stuff" and an even wider variety of reasons we hang on to it. Certain items fall into the "What the hell did I save THIS for?" category. But even these items require an elapse of time before you shake your head and pitch them in the dumpster.
Personal memorabilia is the next, and in most cases, largest category. No matter what you've spent your life doing there's always stuff that reminds you of pleasant times, personal accomplishments, etc. Unfortunately these items too, will eventually make their way to somebody's dumpster because your heirs won't have any room for it either.
Last of all, there's "real valuable stuff". The question here is why and to whom it is valuable. Obviously you thought it was valuable but does anybody else?! The bowling ball clock that the V.F.W. awarded Uncle Harry will, in all probability , just make a bigger crash in Cousin Willy's dumpster a few years after the reading of the will.
During the past fifty plus years of painting banners and show fronts, I've accumulated an enormous pile of drawings, created for my own use as an aid to laying these things out. I try not to duplicate any of my drawings, as I find the challenge of presenting the various stock characters in new settings and more interesting poses keeps my interest level peaked. Although the acts in a sideshow are pretty much alike, (a fire eater, a sword swallower, etc.), they will get more attention from the public if they're given a different slant. My personal enjoyment comes from the mental exercise involved in creating a "new sell".
It stands to reason that some clients aren't up for new, innovative portrayals of standard stuff. Some are traditionalists and some, lacking any imagination, recoil in horror if what you're proposing doesn't look like every other banner or show front on the midway. You learn to deal with this because you develop a fondness for eating regularly and besides, as your career moves ahead, you start finding clients who have more confidence in your ideas and your ability to present them.
Considering the fact that I've spent at least half of my life living in cramped circus sleepers and travel trailers, it's a wonder that I managed to save many of my drawings, but I did. About three houses ago I felt that I'd hit the space jackpot. But the feeling was fleeting as, much like Carlin's revelation, I was still confronted
with excess "stuff", including all of the many potfolios crammed with drawings. Some are preliminary pencil roughs, many are finished pen and ink pieces and there are ink and watercolor renderings as well.
Over the years gallery owners whose establishments featured my banner shows have wanted to buy all or part of the collection. Likewise fans and collectors. I declined the offers, mostly because I've never completely sorted it all out or concluded which ones I found to have enough personal significance to keep.
The drawings are now sorted out. Quite a task, as each one has it's own story to tell. Where was I when I did this one? Who was the client and how many other pieces did I do for them? What show did I go out with that season? As some of you know, there are numerous answers for all of the preceding self-posed questions, for example "Where was I?" I've had studios in several locations, but have also painted banners at the Smithsonian and done large scenic work in theme parks. "Who was the client?" The answer there ranges from Neiman Marcus to Dippy Dan the Reptile Man. Lastly, "What show did I spend the road season with, (and what did I do there)?" Responding the THAT one could easily fill another News Letter!
Save for the drawings that my wife and I have decided to keep (a fairly modest amount compared to what I started with), I'm offering the rest for sale. All of them are signed and some are dated. They vary in size and the medium used. I'm compiling short, informative bits of information to accompany each piece.
So there you are and Bob's your uncle, (An english phrase that I'll expliin in another newsletter). The bally is over, now I'll now move on to the "turn".
There are 120 drawings, so, to determine which pieces you'd like, contact me at:
315 5th AVe. N.
I'll mail you a complete list of drawings, including description, size and medium used and prices.
Offers for entire collection considered.
The year of Moon Goon, the year of the skyward gazing rural New Yorkers, would also be my last year as a carnival lotman. The job was beginning to have more adverse side effects than the last few seconds of a t.v. pharmaceutical commercial.
I enjoyed the creative aspects of doing the lot layouts, the logistical problem solving, even the often dangerous arrowing of the route. Stressful as all of it could be at times, it still gave me a feeling of accomplishment. Unfortunately, each year new duties would be tacked onto the lotman title, many of which would have been considered a full time job unto themselves in any other industry. I was tired and becoming very unhappy with myself.
At the same time I was busy contemplating just how long I could hold up in my role as the company pack mule, the face of the carnival business was undergoing radical changes. Shows, once the lifeblood of the industry, were disappearing. Sideshows, motordromes, girl shows and the like were giving way to more rides. Game concessions, once operated by professional agents who received a percentage of the game's gross as an incentive, were now operated by low salaried clerks. The new corporate philosophy seemed to be based on the notion that the volume would overcome almost anything. The color and hustle were gone and the carnival had become a portable McDonald's.
I've found that, as you go through life, you collect pieces of philosophy that work for you. For me, the best of these little homespun adages has been; "Always trust your gut." In instances where I've chosen to ignore those internal rumblings the results were often catastrophic.
I was sitting in my pickup, blandly observing the empty midway area and trying to tune out the war drums that were playing inside of me. Shelby, N.C., was a lotman's delight in that it abounded in level, uncluttered space. Here, a classic horseshoe configuration could be employed -- a throwback to an era of unlimited space and beautiful pastoral settings. The rumblings of discontent would abate -- at least for a few hours.
I was shuffling through a portfolio of lot layouts from previous years when the fair manager pulled up on his golf cart. We exchanged the usual banalities reserved for people you hadn't seen for a year, then, as he began to pull away, he paused, saying; "We're looking forward to having you at the rotary meeting tomorrow night."
My facial expression must have clearly projected the fact that I had not a clue as to what he was talking about.
"You're supposed to speak about this year's midway right after we finish our meeting-didn't they mention it to you?"
"There's so much end-of-the-season business going on that I'm sure it just slipped by me", I lied, "but I'll be there, you can count on it!"
And there it was, another hat to wear: public speaker. Of course it hadn't been mentioned to me, it was another of my employer's last minute brainstorms. I wondered if the fair manager realized that when I finished his rotary club gig I'd have to drive all night to lay out the lot for our number two unit.
I plodded into the business of pacing off ride dimensions and tapping in grading stakes with less than hoped for enthusiasm. I don't know how much lower my spirits would have sunk if I had been told that, following the layout of unit number two, I'd be required to drive another two hundred miles to supervise the paving of the midway at Greenwood, S.C.
Due to the close proximity of the last fair, equipment began to arrive before I'd finished the layout. I pushed myself into sort of "fast forward" mode to accommodate the new burden suddenly inflicted on me.
I saw him running in my direction before his shouts became audible, a thin young man with long blond hair flying behind him like the tail of a kite.
"Mr. Mee, Mr. Mee!"
I looked up from the grading stake I'd been hammering into the ground, thereby acknowledging the mangled attempt at my last name. He slowed to a trot, flailing his arm in the direction of the sideshow which was half set up across the midway from me.
"Miss Lola's real sick and she keeps calling for you," the boy said with a trace of panic in his voice.
I followed the gaunt ride man toward the sideshow. It was a small operation run by a young couple who were new to the business. The couple and their two daughters were pretty much the show, except for the annex attraction, Lola Conklin. Lola was one of the true legends of the sideshow world-a flawed legend at times but most assuredly a legend in every sense of the word.
It was an unseasonably warm day so the sidewall hadn't been hung. The sideshow, with all of the wonders the still rolled up banners would proclaim, was laid bare to the curious eyes of the strolling towners who'd braved the heat for a midway preview. The blowoff curtain hadn't been pulled up on the last center pole so the explosion of brightly colored ostrich plumes and artificial tropical plants that adorned the tiny annex stage looked even more wildly out of place than usual. Laying prone on the platform, turban half askew, was Lola, the bearded lady.
Lola looked at me with eyes that could only belong to a soul already halfway to another galaxy and said, "Johnny, you've always been my friend-", and died.
The couple who owned the show had been standing nearby and seemed dumbstruck. The man hesitantly moved forward, his mouth finding it difficult to form the obvious question.
"Lola's dead," I said.
"Christ," the neophyte sideshow operator said, "What should we do?"
To the casual reader this probably seems like a pretty stupid question, but I knew exactly what he meant. It would be easy to explain the Conklin dilemma by saying that Lola was a female impersonator but, at least by show business standards, that wasn't quite the case.
Lola was a few steps further down the path of transexuality than anyone I'd ever known. Lola's mother was an itinerant chorus girl. To enhance her own bookability, she dressed Lola as a female at age twelve and the two danced as a mother/daughter team. She never returned to male attire-and yes, "she" is the correct gender usage because Lola not only dressed as a woman for the rest of her life but thought of herself in those terms as well. If she had a male name nobody in the business knew it and even the most time-worn documents in her personal belongings referred to her as Lola.
As much as I detest footnotes, I will throw in a quick sidebar to this story: There were quite a few bona-fide bearded ladies, two of whom are still alive and working. They weren't all impersonators. Any other questions? Good. Now we'll move on with the story. Incidentally, the life and times of Lola Conklin will be presented at a later date on this website, however, for the sake of this episode, I'll deal only with the end of Lola's life and how it affected me.
The quandary, at least as seen by the young sideshow owner, was whether Lola should be taken out of drag and re-dressed as a man for the sake of the coroner's inquiry. It would certainly simplify things; get rid of the padded bra, lose the personal paper goods and invent a male first name. In the layman's eye the carnival business was a sort of "no questions asked" existence, so lack of credentials or known next of kin wouldn't be a concern. But it was for me. I had known Lola as Lola all of my life.
"What do you think Lola would want?" the show owner asked, but before I could reply he answered his own question. "You're right, bury her as a female." He knew exactly what I'd say.
I knew the coroner in Shelby. The previous year a woman with the carnival had been murdered during the fair and, as an office representative, I was dispatched to deal with not only the coroner but all other levels of law enforcement as well.
"Let me talk to the coroner when he comes, I'll see if he'll go along with the plan."
Shortly after I'd made the statement, the ambulance, a uniformed officer and the coroner arrived. I gave him as condensed a version of Lola's story as I thought necessary to illicit his aid. He listened with more than superficial interest and when I finished he said, "I understand and I'll try to make this go as smoothly and quietly as possible," then, "I'll let you know something as soon as I can."
My answer came the following evening but, in true political form, not from the coroner himself.
I had finished my little talk after the rotary meeting and those in attendance were coming up to the dias to shake hands with me. The last in line, a small, nondescript fellow retained his grip on my hand, pulled me close to him and whispered, "-By the way, your bearded lady was a man." Then he was gone, instantly absorbed in a group of Rotarians now exiting the meeting hall.
I turned to the fair manager and asked who the last fellow was. "I think he works in the coroner's office. Why?" On the way back to the fairgrounds I explained the situation to him and he was, understandably, not too happy about it.
One of the singular trueisms found in the mostly uninformed statements made about the traveling show community is that we do get to "leave town". The fair manager doesn't, the coroner doesn't-they live there.
I don't believe that the coroner was necessarily indifferent to the plight of a female impersonator. He was put in a very awkward position and, being an elected public official, could only make an unbiased appraisal of what he was confronted with and how he must deal with it under the guidelines of his job. If there is a body of people more critically viewed than show people it is, most certainly, people in public office. I wasn't happy with the coroner's course of action-but I understood it.
The next day the whole smoldering pile of shit hit the proverbial fan. The aroma from such an event is like an aphrodisiac to the news media, so every network pseudo news program and numerous tabloid papers descended on the fairgrounds.
The sideshow owner and I had arranged a makeshift funeral in the tent. We had sent word out to show people who were playing fairs in the nearby counties and managed to locate a local minister to conduct the service. By 2:00 p.m. the tent was filled with visiting show folks who'd come to pay their last respects to Lola. The midway was jammed with t.v. remote vehicles, reporters and photographers. We mostly succeeded in keeping the press out but not without a few skirmishes.
Then it was over. The news types scurried off to write their "Impersonator Laid to Rest After Lifetime of Duping Midway Patrons" stories and the fair and my employers were audibly pissed about the unwanted publicity.
We buried Lola in a tiny cemetery on the fairgrounds, created to accommodate a sideshow fat man who'd died there several years prior.
When I got back to the show office I encountered the carnival owner's son. "Is that mess over now?" he asked with a scowl. "The funeral? Yes, it's over" I replied.
"You guys should never have done that. It's going to bring us nothing but media heat for the rest of the spot," he snarled.
"A person -- a friend, died," I said quietly.
He stared at me with contempt and said, "You'd better figure out what's more important to you, this show or some old fag!"
I nodded and left the office. In the bed of my pickup I found a half decent looking grading stake. I walked back to the cemetery behind the cattle barn, carefully printed, "Lola -- a very important person" on it and tapped it into the fresh ground.
Two weeks later the season ended. I've never laid out a lot since.
My favorite lots to lay out were the ones I'd never seen before - blank canvases, so to speak. Here, save for whatever obstacles naturally occurred there like uneven ground or overhead wires, you could be as creative as the equipment allowed you to be.
I'd walk out the area in several directions, checking for problem areas and consulting the list of equipment I had to locate for that particular engagement. In that walking, consulting process a picture would begin to emerge in my mind. By the time I returned to my vehicle the picture was pretty complete and I could turn around and see what the midway would look like.
I'm not suggesting the possession of some uncanny power like Peter Hurkos saying, "De Salvo put the body over there," or Kreskin telling you your card was the Three of Clubs. I already knew what the equipment looked like and I had the empty lot right in front of me. Some people have the ability to visualize things and I'm lucky enough to be one of them. Conversely, I've known people who'd have to take their own hand out of their pocket to tell you what it looked like.
Mental panorama in tact, I'd next grab my hammer, a bale of grading stakes and my clipboard and stride off to whatever starting point I'd decided upon. If the midway are was paved, then the hammer and stakes were replaced by two cans of spray paint; one white, one black. Even visions can be flawed, so the black can was my "eraser."
The mechanics and erection of portable amusement equipment has become a lot more sophisticated over the years. Today's Lot Man has to know far more than how much space each piece requires.
When I first got into the business most rides where unloaded manually and assembled literally from the ground up. Help was plentiful so you used as many laborers as were needed to manhandle the parts into place. Rides were referred to as "pigiron" because that's what they were made of.
Now most equipment is trailer mounted, raised and leveled with hydraulic rams, and parts once put in place with sheer muscle power are now easily swung into place by electronic booms. Because the core machinery stays permanently affixed to a semi trailer, the Lot Man must make sure that each location is accessible and allows clearance for the assembly of the piece as well as its safe proximity to its neighboring ride.
Although advanced engineering technology reduced labor costs and improved safety, it created new logistical problems and far greater responsibilities for the Lot Man.
We'll use a high capacity ride requiring two semis to transport it as an example:
Semi #1 is the center load. It's driven onto its location, the tractor's removed and it's leveled. Semi #2 carries the sweeps, (arms on which the ride cars are suspended), and the other hardware and scenery needed to complete the ride. This semi has to be backed in to within 25' of the side of semi #1, forming a sort of "T" formation if you were observing all this from overhead. When this ride is up and operating it requires a 60' circle, however on the setup it's now using nearly twice that much room - and the ride next to it has to set up at the same time.
Now, add a couple dozen more rides, each with their own individual peculiarities regarding setup, 40 or 50 concessions, a couple of shows and funhouses, several diesel light plants and that's what the Lot Man has to contend with every six to ten days. What about the business of arrowing the route? Hell, the Lot Man had to get there anyway, didn't he? Might as well give him something to do on the way!
Continuing my "day-in-the-life-of" saga in Lenoir, N.C., it's now early afternoon and the lot's nearly laid out.
The fair manager had walked out to chat with me. The phone company man had come to hook me up, (the phone that would eventually go into the show's office was first installed in my trailer so I could field emergency calls from units that were broke down or lost). Several locals had already driven over my stakes en-route to the Grange Hall or the Cattle Barns.
It would be several hours before the first batch of equipment from Allentown would begin to arrive. I walked to my trailer to get a cold drink out of the fridge which was now on the brink of defrosting itself all over the floor. I was in the process of hurling water from the overflow tray out the door when the phone rang.
It was the first of several calls reporting mechanical problems en-route. Despite fairly up-to-date equipment and several decent mechanics on the payroll, hardly a move went by without a couple of breakdowns and an occasional accident.
Since this segment of the story precedes cell phones, (hard to imagine as that may be), the driver of the crippled vehicle had only two options; either sit in the cab and wait for one of the mechanics to arrive or walk to the nearest payphone and try to get a call through to me.
Other than knowing that the truck in question could no longer move in a forward direction, the driver didn't seem to know what the problem was. He wasn't too sure of where he was either, other than saying that he was "on the shoulder just past an exit."
"What number's the exit?" I inquired.
"I'll go look," and I heard the phone clink against something, then the diminishing sound of footsteps crunching through gravel.
Presently, he returned and gave me the exit number information, adding that maybe he should head back to the truck and wait for the mechanic.
"Good idea, go stay with the unit," I said, adding, "By the way, what was the last town you recall passing?"
"Wait a minute, I'll go ask somebody --."
And before I could stop him there was another phone clunk and more gravel crunching. After several minutes the driver said, "Henderson."
"Okay, I've got you located now - what's your name?" I almost regretted asking, expecting more clunk-crunch sound effects but he responded brightly, "They call me Moon Goon," then hung up.
I returned to bailing out my refrigerator, cheered in the knowledge that somewhere out on the Interstate half of a $200,000.00 ride was in the able hands of Moon Goon.
TO BE CONTINUED...
I've occasionally wondered if any of the patrons of a carnival midway ever thought about how the equipment got there or what psychology was employed in its positioning. Probably not. Why would they? Their sole purpose in being there was to have a good time, not to analyze the inner workings of the operation.
The question had cropped up again in my early morning musings as I drove west on I-40, an interstate that runs along the upper edge of North Carolina. It was 4:00 AM. Several hundred miles behind me, the carnival was fast asleep. When they awoke they'd begin the longest day of their week, opening for business at 10:00 AM for the last day of the Allentown, PA Fair. They'd operate until around 11:00 PM, then tear down and begin the same trek that I was making to Lenoir, NC. The moment that the first vehicle in the convoy passed through the gates in Allentown en-route south they were in my care, following the paper arrows I'd spent the day stapling or taping up on light poles. The arrows would guide them safely from the back gate of Allentown to the front gate of the fairgrounds in Lenoir. There, they'd park and wait for me to come and fetch them to be located. I was the Lot Man and they all respected me because they knew that I respected them.
Here, in September, the ranks of the show usually swelled to over two hundred people: ride and show operators, concessionaires, mechanics, and electricians - they were all my responsibility for several days per engagement. In the absence of the show owner, I was in charge of everything, good or bad, that happened to the people and the equipment.
It had been an easy jump for me, mostly all interstates, no surprise construction areas requiring re-routing and, from all reports, a dry fairgrounds in Lenoir to set up on. I finished the arrowing off of the interstate and through Hickory. To the west, the Smokey Mountains were becoming visible in the dawn mist, as though they'd been hiding there all night, getting ready to pop out and surprise the tourists.
I pulled into a strip center parking lot, parked and jogged to a convenience store at the edge of the lot. The fairgrounds in Lenoir was in the middle of nowhere so there'd be no coffee available there. The convenience store was my last shot for much needed caffeine.
Walking slowly back to the cab of my pickup I casually inspected my trailer tires. I'd been kind to myself that year, purchasing a new dual wheel pickup and replacing my road-weary pull trailer with a 34' fifth wheeler. It was home, summer and winter. It was also a monstrosity to deal with when arrowing the show throughout the city streets and interstate interchanges with narrow shoulders.
I sat in the cab, sipping my coffee and looking up at the mountains. The Smokies and I had known each other for a long time, sharing as many twisting, turning adventures as the treacherous roads that snaked up and down the mountains contained.
A few miles up the road I stopped and stapled a "confidence arrow," pointing upward, indicating straight ahead. This told the drivers that they were still on the right route. This configuration was used when there'd been no change of route number for many miles.
A few months before, I'd posted another such arrow at a crossroads in a small NY village. The handful of stores that populated the intersection's four corners apparently comprised the entire downtown area of the little hamlet. The whacking of my slap hammer must have sounded particularly loud in the mid-afternoon calm and when I reached my vehicle and turned around there were four patrons from the corner bar, drinks still in hand, staring solemnly up the pole in the direction the arrow pointed in. They wasted not a glance toward me as I drove past them. I was sorely tempted to find a place to turn around and see if they were still keeping their aerial vigil.
Somewhere between slapping up that lone arrow and driving through the back gate of the Lenoir Fairgrounds, the vision of those four rural New Yorkers looking up the telephone pole kept hovering around the corners of my brain. There were many similarly funny images in there to keep it company and, more to the point, these little vignettes could only be experienced by someone who, like myself, was engaged in the business of routing and laying out a traveling show.
That morning, as I prepared to start laying out the midway area, I decided to start jotting down some of the stories I'd collected along the way. The year was 1977 and I'm still jotting!
In the next couple of installations, I'll concentrate on the highlights of ten years as a carnival lot man. As has been the case throughout my life, serving in that capacity was not the only thing I functioned at during that period. This serialized "Lot Man" story will, however, deal with that subject alone, as there's a wealth of material there to play with.
TO BE CONTINUED...