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Billy Lynch shows

Bill Lynch Shows Carnival Poster. Photo via Halls Auction Services

This vintage advertisement for Bill Lynch Greater Exposition Shows recalls the days when some big carnivals had bill posters lining fences and filling windows with circus-style paper ahead of the show’s arrival. The artist’s fantastic aerial view of the midway features a beautiful girl whirling on a chair-o-plane high above the other amusement rides. Measuring 25 inches high by 38.5 inches wide, the one-sheet was printed by Erie Litho & Printing Company in Pennsylvania. It’s up for sale on March 17 at Hall’s Auction Services in Calgary with online bidding available. The pre-sale estimate is $1,000-$1,500.

According to an article in the Billboard, Lynch was a Nova Scotian who bought his first amusement ride–a steam-powered merry-go-round that operated on his native McNab Island– in 1920. He was just 18 years old. By 1928, Lynch had his own traveling carnival playing still-dates with a merry-go-round, Ferris Wheel, chair-o-plane, three shows and a string of concessions.

Bill Lynch’s big break came when he won the bid to bring his carnival to Nova Scotia’s Halifax Exhibition in 1929. The contract required seven rides and seven shows. Over the winter and spring, Lynch managed to double the size of his midway by borrowing or buying equipment and the show opened to great fanfare in Halifax. In 1935, it took 14 railroad cars to transport the carnival, which by then was also touring Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

The March 17th auction at Hall’s consists of items from the 40-year personal collection of “Canadian Picker” Scott Cozens. The auction will be filmed for a future broadcast of “Canadian Pickers” on the History Channel.

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Girl to Gorilla

Girl to Gorilla Banner by Fred Johnson. Circa 1940s. Hideaway Antiques, Toronto

The Girl to Gorilla Illusion was one of the top-grossing grind shows on the carnival midway. Sadly, there are few if any working today. If you know of one, let us know! The last G2G that we saw was Jack Constantine’s and it was quite a few years ago. This vintage Girl to Gorilla banner signed by master banner painter Fred Johnson is being offered for sale by Toronto’s Hideaway Antiques. It gives an impressionistic idea of what to expect on the inside.

As the talker on a vintage clip of Harvey Fillmore’s Princess Uraana show posted by YouTube user ZAMBORA57 says, “You’re going to see a beautiful girl change before your eyes very slowly into an ugly male gorilla…From the top of her head to the tips of her toes you’ll see the hair grow. The Ape Girl. The Ape Girl. The Ape Girl. Anything can happen…” The illusion is done with mirrors but when the “gorilla” breaks out of the steel cage, the screaming audience runs out of the tent, attracting a crowd for the next show.

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Party Poppers

Happy New Year! Champagne Party Poppers at Gristede’s. December 28, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita

The sight of packages of champagne party poppers in the supermarket for New Year’s brought me back to my carnival childhood and an essay that I wrote in the 1980s. Originally published in the Boston Review, “The Land of Prizes” is from a work-in-progress titled “Memoirs of a Carny Kid.” Does anyone else remember the Clam Shell Flowers? Happy New Year!

When I was a carny kid, De Cicco’s of Boston was one of the great wholesale houses of the carnival world. They carried hundreds of Oriental novelties including every one of the little “prize-every-times” in my mother’s balloon dart store. Winners in the game could be counted upon to look at the label “Made in Japan” and say, “What a piece of junk!” But I disagreed. I thought the prizes were wonderful stuff, my own private stock of here-today, gone-tomorrow toys.

The De Cicco brothers sold things by the gross, like big-time egg farmers. They sold red, white and blue rosette fans to wave like Fourth of July flags every day of the carnival season, and Daredevil Sam, the parachute man, to launch into the air. They sold pirates’ eye patches and villains’ moustaches, policemen’s badges and sheriffs’ stars, and the straw fingertraps called “Chinese handcuffs.”

They sold enough musical instruments to start a parade of marching bands: bamboo flutes with two or three notes to toot; kazoos to hum a catchy tune into; tin crickets to click like castanets; and guitars and banjos with rubber band strings to strum. And they sold every kind of whistle under the summer sun: leather and paper crescents that, after soaking up every drop of saliva, would stick to the roof of my mouth and let me sing like a Swiss warbler; balloon whistles that I tried to blow up, mostly because the long, drawn-out whine that was heard when the air escaped from them was certain to make my mother say, “why don’t you go out and play on the midway?”; and rubber razzers, imported from Hong Kong, of which my mother would gaily say as she gave them away everywhere in New England,  “Here’s a Bronx cheer – Phuuuuu!”

While the grown-ups were busy buying ten gross of this and twelve gross of that, I had the run of the house. Up one wide aisle and down the next, over dusty wooden floors and along countertops level with my beguiled eyes, I’d browse among trinkets and trick toys that I’d never see anywhere else, not even in those Cape Cod souvenir shops where almost everything came from China and Japan. By the time my mother’s order was ready,  I’d have picked out a slew of things and asked one of the Mr. De Ciccos to write up a bill for me too.

He looked over what I’d chosen: a mailbox bank with its own lock and key, a deck of miniature playing cards, and a handful of polished clam shells sealed with flimsy strips of paper that said those three magic words—“Made in Japan.” I knew that if I placed one in a tall glass of water, then waited until I couldn’t wait longer and went away, I’d come back to find a pink paper flower floating up from the opened shell. I couldn’t say how long it took for this Japanese water lily to blossom: in all the years I bought packages of shells at De Cicco’s, I never saw it happen with my own eyes.

The shells remained as mysterious to me as the party poppers that I shot off like fireworks—Bing! Bang!—whenever there was a lull in carnival business. Town kids scrambled to catch the streamers, as colorful and curly as Christmas ribbons, before they fell softly to the ground. While the cardboard champagne bottle that they’d come in was still smoking, I pulled it apart, anxious to get at the little bits of foreign newspaper that were hidden inside. There were seldom more than two or three elaborately printed symbols on the singed strip of paper, but they had come all the way from the other side of the world and I studied them with deep curiosity. What did they say to me?

I wouldn’t find out until I grew up and traveled to Boston’s sister city—Kyoto, Japan.  There I deciphered my long-lost ideograms in a book called Read Japanese Today. And I practiced my Japanese conversation with coffeeshop acquaintances. In the beginning I couldn’t explain to them why I’d come or, after, why I stayed for more than three years. But now I can tell you: I had come to find a home in the land of prizes, where my heart first opened, as slowly and imperceptively as the clam shell in its glass of water.

Copyright © Tricia Vita

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