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Archive for the ‘Artifacts’ Category

Muffler Man Restoration Project in Mortons Gap

Muffler Man Restoration Project in Mortons Gap, Kentucky. Photo by Joel Baker/US Giants

Thanks to girlie motorcycle blogger and Roadside Americana fan Fuzzy Galore, ATZ learned about the website “American Giants: A journal of my muffler men travels and findings.” Videographer Joel Baker and his crew have been traveling the country documenting the roadside giants known as “Muffler Men.” In Episode #4, our favorite, they visit Peoria’s UniRoyal Girl, the female version of the Muffler Man, and the Launching Pad Restaurant’s Gemini Giant, a twin to the long lost Astroman of Coney Island’s Astroland.

Now Baker is asking for help via Kickstarter to restore a headless, armless Paul Bunyan in rural Kentucky. We have a soft spot in our hearts for the fiberglass figures which date back to the 1960s and ’70s and were a common sight during our travels with the carnival but currently number less than 200. There’s something poignant about a collective effort to make this roadside character whole again.

In addition to cowboys, Indians, pirates, astronauts, and other variations, International Fiberglass also produced a 14 foot tall Paul Bunyan statue. It is not known how many of these were made but there are only about 15 of them known to still exist. This statue in Mortons Gap is an example of this model. However, it is in very poor condition.

You can help preserve this unique piece of Americana by supporting this Kickstarter campaign. Your contributions will raise the money needed to reproduce the statue’s original head, arms and axe. The statue will also be refurbished and repainted. This restoration project will be documented in an American Giants’ video episode.

The campaign has raised $976 of a $4,500 goal, but Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing funding model. The project must be fully funded by April 20th for the Muffler Man to be restored. Why not contribute in memory of Astroland’s Astroman? Thank you gifts include a time capsule message ($10 or more), American Giants T-shirt ($35 or more), and a reproduction of a 1970 International Fiberglass Catalogue featuring all the Muffler Men and other statues ($100 or more).

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Monkey Speedway Car

Antique Circus Monkey Racing Car. Photo by Architectural Anarchy, Chicago via 1st dibs

Coming across this photo of an “Antique Circus Monkey Racing Car” recently sold by Chicago dealer Architectural Anarchy rekindled the curiosity that I felt as a carny kid. My father’s story about how he had a real, live monkey on a trapeze in his popcorn trailer to attract customers in the 1940s began with mention of where he got the idea: a Monkey Speedway! It was at the Patriots’ Day Celebration in Boston. The term was one I’d never heard before because this long popular carnival attraction had by then disappeared from the midways of New England.

Monkey Speedway

Vintage Photo of Monkey Speedway. Photo © Tricia Vita Collection

Right through the 1950s and 60s, carnivals placed ads in the Billboard and then Amusement Business for Monkey Circuses and Speedways as well as managers to run them. “We are interested only in a show man that can and will work hard for a seasons bank roll,” said an ad for King Reid, New England’s largest carnival, in 1946. Carnival supply house H.C. Evans called its Monkey Speedway “The unbeatable carnival attraction! Equal to a free act!” A trio of trained monkeys in little metal cars raced around a wooden track while people placed bets on the laydown of numbers. The prizes were boxes of candy, my father said.

It was the crowd-stopping appeal of the Monkey Speedway that gave Dad the idea to put a monkey act in his popcorn trailer one spring when the show owner changed the location of the merry-go-round, leaving him up in front with no customers. After trying unsuccessfully to buy one of the Speedway monkeys, my father went to Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in New Hampshire, where they had monkeys for sale.

“So they sold me a little rhesus monkey for $15 and they put him in a small wooden cage. I put the cage on the front seat of my truck, and while I was driving back to the carnival, the monkey would look at me and I would look at the monkey, and I don’t know if I was more afraid of him than he was of me.”

Monkey Speedway

Vintage Photo of Monkey Speedway. Photo © Tricia Vita Collection

“After we got back to the lot, the monkey ate a few meals and got to like me. I’d built a small trapeze and fastened it to one of the rafters on the popcorn stand. I tried to train Roebuck to sit on it and swing. It was against the law to keep an animal in a food stand, but I had to take a chance because it was either that or go out of business.”

It took my father three weeks to get Roebuck to sit on the trapeze and swing. And when he did he was surrounded by a crowd of people who bought peanuts and popcorn and candy apples to eat while they watched the free show. “Some kids would do anything to to be near the monkey: They’d bring bananas. They’d throw pennies. And Roebuck would catch quite a few of them.”

When the kids would ask what’s the monkey’s name?” he’d say, “I’m Sears, he’s Roebuck,” and the kids would laugh.

Monkey Speedway, Cetlin & Wilson Shows

Monkey Speedway, Cetlin & Wilson Shows. Photo © International Independent Showmen’s Museum

Though my father bought and sold Roebuck years before I was born, I felt as though the monkey was my long-lost brother. I just knew that he missed the peanuts, popcorn and pennies as much as I did when we stayed from October through April in my grandmother’s house, away from the free-wheeling life of the road.

The Monkey Speedway is one of the long-vanished shows documented in the collection of the International Independent Showmen’s Museum in Gibsonton, Florida. And the tiny race cars, if you’re lucky enough to find one, have entered the realm of folk art.

Monkey Go Round, a German film released in the 1960s by Castle Films, is the fairytale-like story of a troupe of monkeys and their caretaker’s show biz comeback and will give you a glimpse of a Monkey Speedway.

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Spinning Glass

Spinning Glass. Sideshow Banner, circa 1915-1920. O’Henry Tent and Awning Co., Chicago. Morphy Auctions

It seems quaint today, but glass blowers used to be one of the working acts in carnival sideshows. “Have you ever seen glass finer than the hair of your head? This is made on a spinning wheel which revolves at the rate of 1000 revolutions per minute,” according to a century-old ad for a glass blower at a fair. “Every lady patron to the show will receive a pretty Souvenir FREE OF CHARGE of Spun Glass, which can be used as a book mark.”

This circa 1915-1920 sideshow banner from the studio of Chicago’s O’Henry Tent & Awning Co. is on the auction block today at Morphy Auctions along with another advertising Ho-Jo The Ostrich Man. The pre-sale estimate for the two banners is $600-$1,200 and bidding is available online.

sideshow banner

Sideshow Banner, circa 1915-1920. O’Henry Tent and Awning Co., Chicago. Morphy Auctions

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