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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

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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Carnival Scale

‘Fool the Mad Genius’ Carnival Scale. Image Courtesy of Skinner, Inc. Marlborough, Mass.

In the carnival business, the Fool the Guesser concession used to be known as “Age and Scales” and every midway had one. My mother and her first husband worked it for a spell in the 1940s. They had a sit-down scale similar to the beauty pictured above and for years afterward it remained a fixture in the barn at our winter quarters. “We’d guess their name, age, weight, shoe size, their mother’s name, their husband’s name,” Mom would tell me. “You name it, we guessed it.”

The season that stood out was the time they gave away name-brand, gift-boxed chocolates as prizes and everyone who played won a prize. Mom said they got a truckload for practically nothing because the boxes were cellophane wrapped with best wishes for the holiday, which they carefully removed. Was the holiday Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day? I’d have to go back and check the transcripts of the oral history interviews with Mom. But I clearly remember my mother saying there was nothing wrong with the chocolates. The biggest problem was giving away all of the prizes before they melted in the summer sun!

On June 2nd, Skinner is auctioning this rare example of a vintage carnival scale along with the original hand-painted sign used by the operator. The catalogue description for Lot 134 reads:

“Fool the Mad Genius” Carnival Scale, America, 20th century, wooden tripod stand supporting an oak armchair and 21-in. dia. silvered brass scale marked Frederick C. Allen, Los Angeles and calibrated 0-400 hundred pounds, together with a painted sign where the “Mad Genius” challenges participants that he can guess their weight, their age, how many cigarettes they smoke, number of family members and the age of their car, ht. 102 in.

Saturday’s live auction will be held at Skinner in Marlborough, Mass. Absentee, phone and online bidding are also available on the day of the sale.

UPDATE June 3, 2012:

The price realized for the carnival scale and sign was $4250.00.

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