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Posts Tagged ‘sideshow banner’

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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November 4, 2012: Up for Auction: Ringling Bros Circus Side Show Poster

December 19, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Original Coney Island Motordrome Bike

November 16, 2009: Rare & Vintage: Coney Island Sideshow Banner by Dan Casola

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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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May 18, 2011: New Coney Island Freak Show Banners Pay Homage to Past

May 11, 2010: 21st Century Bars: Coney Island’s Freak Bar Featured in New Book

January 25, 2010: March 14-17: Coney Island Sideshow Banner Painting School with Marie Roberts

December 2, 2009: Dec 12-13: Open Studio with Coney Island Artist & Banner Painter Marie Roberts

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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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April 18, 2012: Rare & Vintage: A Neon Sword Swallower’s Sideshow Banner

September 28, 2011: Rare & Vintage: Auction of French Fairground Art

May 18, 2011: New Coney Island Freak Show Banners Pay Homage to Past

December 19, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Original Coney Island Motordrome Bike

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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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April 10, 2012: Up for Auction: Collection of Carnival Knockdown Dolls

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

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

November 16, 2009: Rare & Vintage: Coney Island Sideshow Banner by Dan Casola

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bannerline

New Bannerline by Marie Roberts for Coney Island USA. May 14, 2011. Photo © me-myself-i/Tricia Vita via flickr

Artist Marie Roberts, whose sideshow banners have adorned Coney Island USA’s building since 1997, has painted a new bannerline that pays homage to the landmarking of the building by acknowledging artists of the past. CIUSA artistic director Dick Zigun’s idea was “Marie Roberts channels Snap Wyatt.” Marie explains….

We chose Snap Wyatt – I always think of his forms as more Platonic and Piero like. We based the designs on his banners.

The central “Sideshows by the Seashore” banner depicts a stage with actual stars of the past… Bobby Reynolds, Jack Dracula, Sealo, Albert/Alberta, all performed in our building. The General Tom Thumb is for Dick’s past, Lionel is for mine.

The color is deep and rich recalling the polychroming on the Parthenon, the figures frieze-like, like Egypt perhaps.

The first time I wrote about Marie was more than a decade ago as part of a travel story for Islands Magazine. This third-generation Coney Islander spoke so vividly about her Uncle Lester, who had been a talker with the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in the 1920s, that I felt as if he were alive. Photos of him working and socializing with Lionel the Lion-Faced Man and other famous freaks left an indelible impression on Marie and continue to inspire her work.

Other sideshow stars portrayed in the frieze include…

–General Tom Thumb, who was 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds, found fame and fortune touring Europe with PT Barnum. He was born in 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which is also Dick Zigun’s hometown.

–Bobby Reynolds, sideshow legend and self-proclaimed “greatest showman in the world,” brought his museum of curiosities to the now-demolished bank building across from Coney Island USA in the 1990s. He returned to Coney to perform this spring at the Congress of Curious Peoples.

Jack Dracula was first tattooed by Coney Island’s Brooklyn Blackie in the 1940s. He had over 400 tattoos on his body, including his face, and was famously photographed by Diane Arbus. One of the shows where he found work was Dave Rosen’s Wonderland Circus Sideshow, which occupied Coney Island USA’s building in the 1950s and ’60s.

Weird Girls

Weird Women Banner by Marie Roberts for Coney Island USA. May 14, 2011. Photo © me-myself-i/Tricia Vita via flickr

The first time I wrote about David “Snap” Wyatt was in the late ’90s, when I chronicled the movement of sideshow banners into high-art venues for Art & Antiques, New Art Examiner and other magazines. Wyatt was a virtuoso who was snapping up work with traveling shows long before he attended Cooper Union and became one of the few banner painters with an art school education. During his 40-year career in the world of midway art, he also created figures of zombies and other creatures for several of his own sideshows.

My favorite Snap Wyatt banner is his Strange Girls gaff banner in the book Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls, which Marie has reinterpreted as Weird Women. Strange Men and the new banners of individual performers have yet to be hung.

Marie is teaching a banner painting workshop at Coney Island USA’s Sideshow School in August. She is also a tenured professor of art at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her painting student at FDU, Justina Cena, assisted with the pieces.

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Two Sideshow Show Marquee Banners Painted by Johnny Meah for Hall & Christ's World of Wonders. Size: 94 inches long, 35 inches tall. Mosby & Co Auction. May 14, 2011

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.

Strange Change Sideshow Banner featuring an image of a Half Man, Half Woman. Art Work by Johnny Meah. Size: 84 inches tall, 94 inches wide. Mosby & Co Auction. May 14, 2011

I first encountered Johnny Meah’s gloriously gaudy advertisements for World of Wonders at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Fair in 1996. As I wrote a few years later in an essay for Raw Vision

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.

Mosby & Co Auctions, Spring Americana, Toy & Circus Sale. The auction catalogue is currently online for the May 14, 2011 Sale.

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September 18, 2010: Photo of the Day: Takeshi Yamada’s Freak Baby Museum at San Gennaro

May 4, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Major Debert the Tiniest Man’s Sideshow Banner

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November 16, 2009: Rare & Vintage: Coney Island Sideshow Banner by Dan Casola

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Vintage Sideshow Art: Major Debert Tiniest Man by Millard & Bulsterbaum, 2894 W 8th St. Coney Island

Vintage Sideshow Art: Major Debert Tiniest Man by Millard & Bulsterbaum, 2894 W 8th St. Coney Island

This circa 1920s banner from Coney Island is among more than a dozen sideshow banners offered in a Mosby & Co. online auction that begins on May 5th. We first set eyes on the mysterious “Major Debert Tiniest Man” in Freaks Geeks & Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway. The 1996 book catapulted this unusual genre of American art from fringe culture into the mainstream. “Major Debert” was one of the prized Millard & Bulsterbaum banners from Coney Island owned by Jim Secreto, whose collection we got to see “Alive and On the Inside” when we profiled him for Art & Antiques.

This extravagant advertisement for Major Debert is 12 feet tall by 7 feet wide, a size that readily lends itself to hilarious exaggerations of scale. The Tiniest Man does indeed look tiny beside the gigantic faces of the “normal sized” man and woman who are oohing and aahing over him. Algernon Millard and John Bulsterbaum established their Coney Island shop around 1915 at 2894 W 8th Street across the street from Luna Park. 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.

This is the third Mosby auction featuring sideshow banners from the collection of the late Bob McCord. Back in the 90s, Bob began buying or trying to buy every sideshow banner in sight. He got quite a few from Johnny Meah, whose banners are also featured in the current auction, as well as some vintage pieces from the Secreto collection. Last year we wrote about the sale of an orange-hued “Armless Wonder” banner by Dan Casola from the same Coney Island studio.

Mosby & Co Auctions, Auction # 3 Closing May 20th, 2010 at Midnight, Lot #438, Opening Bid $850

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November 7, 2009: Thru Dec 31 at Coney Island Library: Artist Takeshi Yamada’s Cabinet of Curiosities

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