Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Meah’

Not for Junior

Currently up for sale on eBay, these hand-painted, text-only signs for a carnival girl show continue to exert a powerful lure, just as they did on the midway in the 1940s. “NOT FOR…Junior” “Intimate SEXY! “It Tells ALL!” “It Shows ALL!” “Adults ONLY…”

La FemmeA seller in Texas rescued the trio of tantalizing signs from an old show trailer, where they were stored for more than thirty years. “This is a must for any collector of carnival or sideshow memorabilia,” writes eBay seller gm3320 in his description. “These signs were a great ‘come on’ of what was inside. The show was never as risque as the signs described. There will not be any more of these Traveling Girly Sideshows like in the early days.” His asking price is $1,495 or best offer. The dimensions are 48 inches wide by 60 inches high.

The wooden signboards are akin to word banners, one of our fave forms of carny advertisements. Based on the text, ATZ’s best guess is that “La Femme” was probably what was called a “posing show.” Looking through old issues of The Billboard, we discovered that a “La Femme” Posing Show managed by Jack Norman was actually part of the lineup of Hennie’s Brothers Shows 1948 season!

It Tells AllThe show featured a talker, two ticket sellers and four performers. Ads like these were plentiful too: “WANTED— GIRLS FOR POSING SHOW Must Be Young and Attractive (experience not necessary)” and “Have complete outfit for Posing Show, will furnish to a capable manager that has people and can get money with same.”

The job required the girls to strike poses reminiscent of famous paintings or models in an artist’s studio. The phrase “posing show” first caught my ear as a carny kid in the 1960s, though the Sunday school outfits that my concessionaire parents traveled with didn’t have girl shows or posing shows.

At night when the grownups cut up jackpots about carnival days gone by, my mother had a story about how her first husband had helped Zorima, Queen of the Nudists’ husband frame a posing show. I asked, ‘what’s that?’ Mom said they put up sheets and the girls would pose behind the curtains.

Living TruthWhen I pestered her for details, Mom would say “Zorima was a beautiful girl,” but that she’d never been inside the show and didn’t know what they did. “You don’t want to tell me,” I complained and we’d argue. By then I was a teenager. “Tricia, I’m telling you the truth,” my mother would say. “We didn’t go in the shows. We were busy working our joints.” Clothespin Pitch. Devil’s Bowling Alley. Guess Your Name, Age, Weight and Shoe Size.

As for the beautiful Zorima, she must have have been an imitator of the original Queen Zorima, whose nudist show was the sensation of four world’s fairs, including the 1935-36 California Pacific Exposition and the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.


UPDATE November 23, 2011, 1:40 pm

Many thanks to Johnny Meah, master sideshow banner painter and friend going back to the little New England midways of our childhood, for the following update on Posing Shows. It Tells ALL! After writing this post, ATZ sent him a note: “Came across this on eBay and thought you might enjoy seeing it. I imagine that you painted some of these too. Would love to hear your comment.” Visit Johnny Meah’s website- The Czar of the Bizarre– for news, art, prose, and to download a font in his idiosyncratic handwriting style.


In the heyday of backend shows with carnivals, the female pulchritude dept. fell into four categories : The white revue, the black revue, both of which were tented burlesque shows with a band, a comic, sometimes a variety act, a chorus line and two or three feature strippers. Next was the cootch show, strictly strippers usually working to recorded music. And the posing show—-as the title implies, girls posing behind a gauze or cheesecloth curtain, either nude or as close to it as the local law would permit. The blowoff,(added attraction for another fee), would be very simple—-the curtain was raised!

In many cases these shows were operated by the same person who operated the cootch show and were utilitarian masterpieces for the operator as they could use the same girls for both shows, running them back and forth between the two shows. When legal porn theaters came in it took its toll on all of these shows, the first casualty being the posing show. Seeing a statue-still girl standing behind a gauze curtain suddenly wasn’t very exciting.

The posing show became extinct and remained so for many years until one year two operators on Royal American Shows, the biggest railroad carnival of the era, decided, for God knows what reason, to resurrect the idea. The show was titled Girl World, themed to “girls of all Nations” who appeared behind the obligatory gauze curtain on a revolving stage with appropriate ethnic music. The show was not only a financial disaster but a mechanical monstrosity as well. The front had a triple cantilevered top sign, the top of which had a painting of a girl sitting on a globe of the world. It was so high that even on a mildly breezy day they had to have a guy seated on the roof of the wagon to lower it in sections the moment the wind picked up. Towards the end of the season, to salvage some of the money dumped into it, it became—–what else—–a cootch show.

For the most part, posing shows had silhouettes of girls painted on the front panels, below which hung “bally boards” bearing slogans like RACEY, SPICEY, NAUGHTY, EXOTIC, RISQUE, etc. These same worn out slogans also appeared on most cootch show panels. One day, tired of the repetitiousness of these slogans,I painted, “SCINTILATING.” The owner came out on the midway, looked at it and said, “What the hell does THAT mean ?!” I painted it out and replaced it with “EXOTIC”.


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

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

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

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

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