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Vintage Sideshow Art: Armless Wonder by Dan Casola of 2525 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Vintage Sideshow Art: Armless Wonder by Dan Casola of 2525 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Vintage sideshow banners painted by Coney Island’s Dan Casola are hard to come by. In fact we’d never seen a Casola banner until we discovered The Armless Wonder–Lot #459 in the Mosby & Co. online auction of the late Bob McCord’s circus collection. We were wowed. In the late 90s, we had a cottage industry writing for Art & Antiques and other art magazines about collectors snapping up sideshow banners from the heyday of the midway. We learned that Coney Island’s Millard and Bulsterbaum, who had their banner painting shop at 2894 West 8th Street from 1915 until the end of the Depression, were considered the best in the biz. Their ads proclaimed “We Paint Banners That Get Top Money for Carnivals and Circus.” The banners that have survived are highly prized by collectors.

In a note on Mosby’s auction page, banner painter Johnny Meah says Casola was “a good artist, working mostly for the Millard & Bulsterbaum scenic art house in Brooklyn—–but largely unheard of.” He notes that the artist’s work was on view primarily in Coney Island and occasionally at fairs in nearby states where Dave Rosen, a Coney Island operator, fielded a sideshow. Rosen’s Wonderland Circus Sideshow was by the way in the building currently owned and occupied by Coney Island USA’s Sideshows by the Seashore. Casola was Meah’s favorite banner painter and he shares further reminscences in an essay “Cunning Crafters of Dreams.”

Now, thanks to Google Books, which has indexed selected issues of the Billboard, we’ve been able to find additional biographical info on Casola. In June 1942: “New on Surf Avenue is girl-underwater illusion, a 10-center operated by Dan Casola, designer and decorator. Dan is the one who designed the Atlantis Bar and Grille new last season on the Boardwalk.” The now-legendary Atlantis Nightclub was on the site currently occupied by Cha Cha’s and Nathan’s Boardwalk location at Stillwell Avenue.

In July 1942, in the Pittsburgh Gazette’s “Dimouts, Rationing Hit Coney Island Hard,” Casola is the talker for his illusion show and is said to have been in Coney Island for 25 years. “He says business is good at the illusion show he presents with ‘three nifty girls.’ ‘Ya only spend a dime folks and a ya get an eyeful, and ya got two eyes aintcha, so what are ya waiting for,’ he yells. That he said, gets em every time, dimout or no dimout.”

At the height of sideshow bannermania (1998), we actually did an unofficial “census” of banners in public and private collections. While Fred Johnson and Snap Wyatt were prolific artists and a body of their work has survived, other master banner painters have not been so lucky. We’d love to be able to close this post with a photo of another Casola banner. If anyone has more info about Dan Casola, please let us know. As for the marvelously gifted Armless Wonder, who painted pictures to sell to sideshow visitors, we’d like to identify him and see more of his paintings, too.

Mosby & Co Auctions, Fall Toy & Americana Sale, Lot 459, Circus Sideshow Banners, Armless Wonder, 92″ tall x 118″ wide, opening bid $750. Estimate: $1,500-$2,500. The sale end date is November 22, 2009 at midnight and on the 20th for liveauctioneers absentee bids.

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