ATZ is a fan of word banners and if we had wall space in our apartment we’d try to win these beauties. Painted by Johnny Meah for Hall and Christ’s World of Wonders Sideshow, these two marquee banners are among the circus and sideshow items in Mosby & Company’s Spring Auction. The live auction is on Saturday, May 14, in Frederick, Maryland, but the catalogue is online and you can bid now or in real time during the auction. A couple of other banners by Meah, including a Half Man, Half Woman act (shown below) and a Bed of Nails act depicting “Tortura High Priestess of Pain” came directly from World of Wonder’s C.M. Christ and are also in the sale.
The name “Meah” takes me all the way back to my childhood days traveling the New England carnival circuit with my concessionaire parents. Hal Meah, a sketch artist who set up his easel at the Connecticut fairs on our route, taught me how to draw. His son, Johnny, began his career at age nine as “The World’s Youngest Portrait Artist,’ but I remembered him as a 20-year-old who hopscotched from carnival to circus to fairgrounds, snapping up sign painting jobs. Since a showman has to play a variety of roles in order to make a living, Johnny augmented his repertoire with sideshow lecturing, fire eating, and swallowing swords.
Twisted Sister, Minnie the Mermaid, the Electrifying Voltara and other Strange Girls–Alive and on Stage–were seen by hundreds of thousands of people. The artist used every trick of the banner painter’s trade to pull in a crowd –vibrant colors (“flash,” in the lingo of the midway), bold lines, eye-catching exaggeration, and tantalizing wordplay.
Fairgoers were razzle-dazzled into spending two bucks to go inside, where what they actually saw was a contortionist, a girl in a goldfish bowl, an electrocution-proof woman, and other classic sideshow acts. The artist’s disclaimer appeared in small script near the entrance: ‘Fantasy art scenes are not intended as a true depiction of illusions presented in the inside of this show.’ At the same time, his hand-lettered signature proudly took credit for his creations: ‘All ‘Banner Art’ by Meah Studios, Riverview, Florida.’
Sideshow impresario Ward Hall, whose midway shows have flown the artist’s banners for more than thirty years succinctly explained to me the drawing power of Johnny’s art: “Because he has been in the sideshow, he understands what is required to sell tickets. And that’s what his banners do.”
Visit Johnny Meah’s website- The Czar of the Bizarre–to view his new work, read his writings, and download a font in his idiosyncratic handwriting style.
Related posts on ATZ...
September 18, 2010: Photo of the Day: Takeshi Yamada’s Freak Baby Museum at San Gennaro
November 16, 2009: Rare & Vintage: Coney Island Sideshow Banner by Dan Casola