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Voltess

Vintage Sideshow Banner: Voltess, The Girl Who Defies Electricity circa 1930. Millard & Bulsterbaum, 2894 W 8th St. Coney Island via Urban Country

This vintage Millard and Bulsterbaum banner for “Voltess, The Girl Who Defies Electricity” was painted for Sam Wagner’s World Circus Sideshow in Coney Island. Variously known as Electra, Electricia and Voltara, the act features a girl who is said to be able to withstand high voltage and shoot sparks from her fingertips due to having been struck by lightning. The banner, which measures approximately eight by five, is offered for sale by Urban Country.

Algernon Millard and John Bulsterbaum established their Coney Island shop around 1915 at 2894 W 8th Street and were in business through the Depression. Their ads proclaimed “We Paint Banners That Get Top Money for Carnivals and Circus.” The studio was credited with introducing liberal use of orange paint and bold lines that made their banners visible from clear across the midway.

Millard and Bulsterbaum

Millard and Bulsterbaum, 2894 W 8th Street, Coney Island

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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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Fire Eater Sideshow Banner

Fire Eater Sideshow Banner © Marie Roberts. Photo by AmusingtheZillion.com

If you happen to be in Chelsea, stop by Blue Mountain Gallery to see this lovely fire eater sideshow banner by Marie Roberts, though you have to know where to look. Along with two smaller banners, the former advertisement for the Coney Island Circus Sideshow hangs on the back wall adjacent to the desk. It’s an extra added attraction to the main exhibition “Occupied and Unwelcome,” a collaboration by Deborah Stern (Tucson, Arizona) and Marie Roberts (Brooklyn, NY) that merges the landscapes of Zuccotti Park with the Sonoran Desert. The show is on view through October 27th.

Blue Mountain Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, 4th floor, New York, NY 10001. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-6pm. Phone 718-486-4730.

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October 10, 2012: Up for Auction: Sideshow & Magic Banners by Fred Johnson

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August 21, 2012: Art of the Day: Out of Disorder (Coney Island) by Takahiro Iwasaki

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Harold J Potter Magic Circus

Harold J Potter Comedy Magic Circus Banner by Fred Johnson. Mosby & Co Auction. November 10, 2012

Decades before JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and the fictional Ministry of Magic, the original Harry Potter– a Michigan minister named Harold J Potter– performed magic for his congregation and with a sideshow. His repertoire included hypnotism, the bladebox and a premature burial illusion inspired by the tale by Edgar Allan Poe. These six banners painted for “Harold J Potter’s Comedy Magic Circus” in the late 1960s by master banner painter Fred Johnson will be up for bid in Mosby & Company’s November 10th Americana auction at their gallery in Frederick, Maryland. Bidding will also be available online beginning in late October.

Monster Museum by Fred Johnson

Monster Museum Banner by Fred Johnson. Mosby & Co Auction. November 10, 2012

Harold J Potter’s son says that his father was fascinated by Harry Houdini and Harry Blackstone as a boy and took up magic at an early age. The family consigned the Johnson banners, which are fresh to the market. In the banner shown below, a contortionist act is billed as Plasteena. The Bladebox is cleverly called “Six Section Sal” and there’s also a “Guillotine Gal.”

Fred Johnson sideshow banner

Plasteena Sideshow Banner by Fred Johnson. Mosby & Co Auction. November 10, 2012

After getting out of the Army in World War II, Potter started practicing magic again on the side in Detroit, according to his son. A minister by profession, he would perform some magic tricks during services. We’re hoping that some of his sermons will turn up! On weekends, Potter did the sideshow performances for which he commissioned the banners. In the summertime, he and his family toured Michigan doing tent shows.

Sideshow banner by Fred Johnson

Monster Sideshow Banner by Fred Johnson. Mosby & Co Auction. November 10, 2012

Banner artist Fred Johnson (1892-1990) was only 17 when he learned the secret of creating an eye-catching banner: color, not exaggeration. “We call it ‘flash.'” Johnson once said. During an illustrious 65-year career, the Chicagoan painted banners for all the big circuses, carnivals, and amusement parks, including the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

Magic Banner by Fred Johnson

Master Magician Banner by Fred Johnson. Mosby & Co Auction. November 10, 2012

Fred Johnson worked for Driver Bros Tent Co. from 1921 until 1930, and in 1934 he came to the O. Henry Tent & Awning Co, where he remained for 40 years. He imbued his Houdini-esque escape artists, Amazon snake charmers and master magicians with a quirky and mysterious quality that drew customers into the sideshows and continues to make his work prized by collectors.

Hypnotist Banner by Fred Johnson

Hypnotist Banner by Fred Johnson. Mosby & Co Auction. November 10, 2012

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Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde Crime Show Banner. Photo via RR Auction, Amherst, NH

Among the popular attractions on carnival and park midways in the 20th century were crime shows featuring life-size figures of 1930’s gangsters like Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. A vintage sideshow banner used to advertise one of these shows will be sold at RR Auction’s Gangsters, Outlaws and Lawmen Sale on September 30. The painted banner, which is said to date back to the early 1930s, is the work of a Kansas City painter named Gene and has a pre-sale estimate of $10,000 – 12,000. The banner’s lurid headlines enticed customers inside and at the same time instructed that crime does not pay: “Crime Wave… Boy & Girl Gangsters… See Inside… The Wages Of Crime Is Death.”

Why aren’t Bonnie and Clyde mentioned on the 12 by 9 foot banner? According to the auction catalogue:

It is believed that this banner being offered here is one of the first ever Bonnie and Clyde roadshow banners. Interestingly enough, Bonnie and Clyde were still alive when this banner was in use. This is why their names are not printed at all upon the poster as the roadshow profiteers were not stupid, because if their names were on it, that might have led to a visit from the gangsters, and the outcome of that visit could have been less than pleasant.

After Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed and killed on May 23, 1934, their bullet-riddled death car–as well as some imitations– went on to become a lucrative sideshow attraction on carnival midways and at Coney Island Cincinnati. The car is currently on display at a Nevada casino. Crime may not pay but it sells tickets and artifacts associated with dead celebrity outlaws have become marquee investments.

Among the more than 100 items in the sale are Bonnie Parker’s Colt Detective Special .38 revolver, which was found taped to her thigh at the time of her death (Est. $150,000 – 200,000), and her cosmetic case (Est. $5,000 – 10,000). “In those days the items were allowed to be kept by the posse members as part of their service in tracking down these outlaws,” says auction house owner Bobby Livingston. Online bidding for the Gangsters Auction opens on September 24.

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Madame Twisto Sideshow

Madame Twisto Sideshow Banner © Marie Roberts. Photo by AmusingtheZillion.com

Artist Marie Roberts is a third-generation Coney Islander who has been painting the banners that emblazon the facade of Coney Island USA’s headquarters since 1997. Madame Twisto, the name bestowed on the girl who contorts herself inside the bladebox, was Marie Roberts’ very first sideshow banner. Countless Madame Twistos have graced the sideshow stage since the banner was painted. Honestly, we were surprised and delighted to see it again. Having first met Marie in 1999, the banner seems like an old friend.

This early canvas is one of dozens of the artist’s works from the past 15 years on view at the Art Room in Bay Ridge. At the opening reception on Saturday night, banners trumpeting the 2000 Mermaid Parade and Coney Island sideshow stars Insectavora, Scott Baker, Donny Vomit and the Black Scorpion mingled with a miniature banner line and recent paintings on Japanese paper. All of the work is for sale and may be viewed by appointment through August 24. You may also commission a banner portrait for your home, office, or stage persona. The Art Room will be open for Friday night’s Summer Stroll on August 10 and 17 from 6pm- 10pm.

The Art Room, 8710 Third Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11209. Phone 347-560-6572. Email theartroomnyc@gmail.com

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World's Strangest Girls

Vintage Sideshow Banner for World’s Strangest Girls. Photo Courtesy of JMW Auction Gallery, High Falls, NY

Our favorite genre of word banner is on the auction block. World’s Strangest Girls! The sideshow banner asks the customary questions: “Why WERE THEY BORN? CAN they LEAD NORMAL lives? HAVE CHILDREN? HAVE NORMAL HUSBANDS? SEE & TALK TO THEM.”

We first came across the World’s Strangest Girls in the seminal 1997 book Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway. A splendid cavalcade banner by Snap Wyatt from the ’60s depicted an all-girl freak show–sword swallower, fire eater, tattooed lady, dancing midget, frog girl, alligator-skinned woman, and freakiest of all, a woman with tree roots instead of hands and feet.

Jay Werbalowsky of JMW Auction Gallery tells ATZ the unsigned word banner is from the collection of well-known gallerist Phyllis Kind, who closed her SoHo gallery and retired in 2009. Kind’s first gallery opened in Chicago in 1967, where she showed the work of Roger Brown, Ed Paschke and other artists who came to be known as the Chicago Imagists.

When we interviewed Paschke in the late ’90s for an essay about the influence of sideshow banners on the art world, he recalled fellow artists buying banners at the auction of Riverview Park and introducing them to him as well as to Kind. Friends presented Paschke with a banner of Siamese twins, which he had to fold in half to display on the walls of his studio. “I’ve always liked that kind of larger-than- life, over-the-top feeling,” the artist told us. “A heightened sense of reality is I guess the term I would use.”

The World’s Strangest Girls word banner is large enough–9′ 8″ x 11′ 5″– for a loft with 12 foot ceilings or a spacious lobby. Or perhaps you’d like to frame a Strange Girls show of your own and take it on the road? The sale is on May 19 at JMW Auction Gallery in the Hudson Valley town of High Falls, New York. Live bidding on the item is available on liveauctioneers.com

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