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Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Meah’

Sideshow Banner Guitar

Sideshow Banner Art Painted on Martin Guitar by Johnny Meah. Copyright © Johnny Meah

You’ve heard of player pianos but have probably never come across a player guitar till now. This one-of-a-kind piece of sideshow banner guitar art painted by Johnny Meah aka The Czar of Bizarre is up for auction on eBay under the category Art, Direct from the Artist.

As the auction description explains, this is a Martin guitar that was discarded by the manufacturer and given to Johnny Meah to decorate for a fundraising event in 2010. The guitar can’t be played but it looks great displayed so that both sides and the edges are visible. And it takes up a lot less space than a vintage sideshow banner which was typically eight feet tall by ten feet wide. The artist says the guitar took about the same amount of time to make as a full-size banner which would sell for upwards of $3000. A trompe l’oeil coin slot wryly invites the viewer to drop a penny in the Martin Player Guitar:”Press Red Buttons for Selections — Watch It Work!”

Now living in Safety Harbor, Florida, Johnny Meah spent many years on the road with carnivals and circuses, working as a showpainter as well as a sideshow sword swallower and fire eater. As a young man, he worked for a brief season with my concessionaire parents, and his father Hal Meah, a sketch artist who set up his easel at the Connecticut fairs on our route, taught me how to draw. By the time I caught up with Johnny again in the late 1990s, his sideshow banners were being exhibited in art galleries and museums.

In a Q & A that we did for Icon Magazine, Johnny said only about 200 of the 2000 or so banners he’d painted for midway shows had survived: “Since the actually collectibility of banners is a relatively recent phenomenon, I can’t get too upset about it. In the ’40s and ’50s they used to stick old banners under trucks to catch oil drippings. I literally remember doing it myself.” Visit Johnny Meah’s website for news from the Czar of Bizarre.

Art by Johnny Meah

Martin Player Guitar Art By Johnny Meah. Copyright © Johnny Meah

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Sword Swallower Banner attributed to Nieman Eisman. Slotin Folk Art Auction, April 21, 2012

A rare and unusual “Champion Sword Swallower” banner attributed to Nieman Eisman, a master of the Chicago style of banner painting from the 1920s through the mid-1950s, is up for auction this weekend at Slotin Folk Art. The circa 1930s-1940s banner conveys the danger of this sideshow act by depicting the performer downing multiple swords from his arsenal as well as a glowing neon tube. While sword swallowing is an ancient art, electricity is a potent symbol of the modern age. As soon as the neon tube was invented in 1936, neon-tube swallowing became a sideshow craze. When the stage is darkened, the eerie glow of the neon illuminates the performer’s neck and chest, making it convincingly clear that the sword swallower is not up to any tricks.

When ATZ saw Johnny Meah perform this dramatic feat at the Barnum Museum a dozen years ago we were stunned. Fifteen years earlier in a carnival sideshow, a neon tube exploded inside him. When someone tried to wrench it out of his throat, shards of glass cut his windpipe. Blood gushed from his mouth onto the stage. Despite the physical hazards of the profession and the potentially fatal effects of neon, the art of sword swallowing is “not totally physical. In fact, very little of it is physical,” Meah told ATZ. Among the Kings and Queens of Swords whose bravura performances with neon we’re fortunate to have seen are Natasha Veruschka (“The World’s Only Sword Swallowing Belly Dancer”), Johnny Fox, Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Circus and The Great Fredini of Coney Island USA.

Neon sword

Swallowing a Neon Sword, Detail of Sword Swallower Banner attributed to Nieman Eisman. Slotin Folk Art Auction, April 21, 2012

Although this banner was not painted for a specific performer, it reminds us of the story of Prince Neon– William Knoll — who claimed to be the world’s first neon-tube swallower. He was also presumably among the first to be injured when, in July of 1936, a two-foot-long neon tube broke inside him just before the electricity was turned on. SWORD SWALLOWER DOES IT TOO WELL, SURGEONS TAKE FOOT OF GLASS TUBING FROM STOMACH was the headline of an item that flashed across the wire. Later on, Knoll “put himself out of business” with neon as we say on the midway. “A Daring Exhibition” indeed.

vintage sideshow banner

Detail of Sword Swallower Banner attributed to Nieman Eisman. Slotin Folk Art Auction, Aptil 21, 2012

According to the auction catalog, the banner was rescued from oblivion by the consignor in the 1970s and later attributed to Nieman Eisman by sword swallower and banner painter Johnny Meah and banner dealer Teddy Varndell:

In late 2003, the consignor contacted banner artist, as well as technical adviser on the HBO series “Carnivale,” Johnny Meah by email, and it was his opinion that Nieman Eisman was the artist of my banner. He later forwarded the materials to Edward “Teddy” Varndell, banner dealer and co-author of Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway. Mr. Varndell also believed my banner to be by Eisman.

In the early 1970′s the consignor worked at a TV station in production. In the prop room behind the studio, he found this “carny” banner, back-side up, covering a pile of stacked lumber. With the station manager’s OK, he replaced it with another tarp and he has had the banner since then. During early days at the TV station, traveling carnivals or circuses would bring performers, props and animals to the TV studio for promotions (back when productions were “live”). This banner was apparently left behind during one of these shows. Johnny Meah said circus banners in the ’50s and ’60s were considered so disposable they were often used under circus trucks to sop up oil leaks.

The pre-sale estimate is $3,000 – $4,000. This weekend’s folk art auction consists of 1,500 lots, with the sideshow banner set to be auctioned on Saturday. Slotin Folk Art’s live auction will be held at Historic Buford Hall in Buford, Georgia on April 21 and 22. Absentee, phone and online bidding are also available on auction days.

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February 25, 2012: Video: Happy International Sword Swallowers Day!

May 8, 2011: Up for Auction: Sideshow Banners by Johnny Meah

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Not for Junior

Currently up for sale on eBay, these hand-painted, text-only signs for a carnival girl show continue to exert a powerful lure, just as they did on the midway in the 1940s. “NOT FOR…Junior” “Intimate SEXY! “It Tells ALL!” “It Shows ALL!” “Adults ONLY…”

La FemmeA seller in Texas rescued the trio of tantalizing signs from an old show trailer, where they were stored for more than thirty years. “This is a must for any collector of carnival or sideshow memorabilia,” writes eBay seller gm3320 in his description. “These signs were a great ‘come on’ of what was inside. The show was never as risque as the signs described. There will not be any more of these Traveling Girly Sideshows like in the early days.” His asking price is $1,495 or best offer. The dimensions are 48 inches wide by 60 inches high.

The wooden signboards are akin to word banners, one of our fave forms of carny advertisements. Based on the text, ATZ’s best guess is that “La Femme” was probably what was called a “posing show.” Looking through old issues of The Billboard, we discovered that a “La Femme” Posing Show managed by Jack Norman was actually part of the lineup of Hennie’s Brothers Shows 1948 season!

It Tells AllThe show featured a talker, two ticket sellers and four performers. Ads like these were plentiful too: “WANTED— GIRLS FOR POSING SHOW Must Be Young and Attractive (experience not necessary)” and “Have complete outfit for Posing Show, will furnish to a capable manager that has people and can get money with same.”

The job required the girls to strike poses reminiscent of famous paintings or models in an artist’s studio. The phrase “posing show” first caught my ear as a carny kid in the 1960s, though the Sunday school outfits that my concessionaire parents traveled with didn’t have girl shows or posing shows.

At night when the grownups cut up jackpots about carnival days gone by, my mother had a story about how her first husband had helped Zorima, Queen of the Nudists’ husband frame a posing show. I asked, ‘what’s that?’ Mom said they put up sheets and the girls would pose behind the curtains.

Living TruthWhen I pestered her for details, Mom would say “Zorima was a beautiful girl,” but that she’d never been inside the show and didn’t know what they did. “You don’t want to tell me,” I complained and we’d argue. By then I was a teenager. “Tricia, I’m telling you the truth,” my mother would say. “We didn’t go in the shows. We were busy working our joints.” Clothespin Pitch. Devil’s Bowling Alley. Guess Your Name, Age, Weight and Shoe Size.

As for the beautiful Zorima, she must have have been an imitator of the original Queen Zorima, whose nudist show was the sensation of four world’s fairs, including the 1935-36 California Pacific Exposition and the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.

LaFemme

UPDATE November 23, 2011, 1:40 pm

Many thanks to Johnny Meah, master sideshow banner painter and friend going back to the little New England midways of our childhood, for the following update on Posing Shows. It Tells ALL! After writing this post, ATZ sent him a note: “Came across this on eBay and thought you might enjoy seeing it. I imagine that you painted some of these too. Would love to hear your comment.” Visit Johnny Meah’s website- The Czar of the Bizarre– for news, art, prose, and to download a font in his idiosyncratic handwriting style.

MEAH ON POSING SHOWS:

In the heyday of backend shows with carnivals, the female pulchritude dept. fell into four categories : The white revue, the black revue, both of which were tented burlesque shows with a band, a comic, sometimes a variety act, a chorus line and two or three feature strippers. Next was the cootch show, strictly strippers usually working to recorded music. And the posing show—-as the title implies, girls posing behind a gauze or cheesecloth curtain, either nude or as close to it as the local law would permit. The blowoff,(added attraction for another fee), would be very simple—-the curtain was raised!

In many cases these shows were operated by the same person who operated the cootch show and were utilitarian masterpieces for the operator as they could use the same girls for both shows, running them back and forth between the two shows. When legal porn theaters came in it took its toll on all of these shows, the first casualty being the posing show. Seeing a statue-still girl standing behind a gauze curtain suddenly wasn’t very exciting.

The posing show became extinct and remained so for many years until one year two operators on Royal American Shows, the biggest railroad carnival of the era, decided, for God knows what reason, to resurrect the idea. The show was titled Girl World, themed to “girls of all Nations” who appeared behind the obligatory gauze curtain on a revolving stage with appropriate ethnic music. The show was not only a financial disaster but a mechanical monstrosity as well. The front had a triple cantilevered top sign, the top of which had a painting of a girl sitting on a globe of the world. It was so high that even on a mildly breezy day they had to have a guy seated on the roof of the wagon to lower it in sections the moment the wind picked up. Towards the end of the season, to salvage some of the money dumped into it, it became—–what else—–a cootch show.

For the most part, posing shows had silhouettes of girls painted on the front panels, below which hung “bally boards” bearing slogans like RACEY, SPICEY, NAUGHTY, EXOTIC, RISQUE, etc. These same worn out slogans also appeared on most cootch show panels. One day, tired of the repetitiousness of these slogans,I painted, “SCINTILATING.” The owner came out on the midway, looked at it and said, “What the hell does THAT mean ?!” I painted it out and replaced it with “EXOTIC”.

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November 11, 2011: Up for Auction: Rack of Vintage Carnival Knockdown Dolls

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