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Crowd In Front of Freak Show Banners

Anonymous Photography. Crowd In Front of Freak Show Banners. Slotin Folk Art Auction, November 10, 2013

This weekend, a selection of vintage photos of carnival and circus sideshow fronts is up for bid at Slotin Folk Art’s fall auction. Though the photographs are black-and-white or sepia-toned, they convey how the flashy, spirited canvas banners entranced the eye and reverberated in the imagination.

Snake Dancing Woman

Anonymous Photography. Juanita Snake Dancing Woman. Slotin Folk Art Auction, November 10, 2013

When P.T. Barnum first brought itinerant entertainers together under one roof in his dime museum (which actually cost 25 cents), he had the building’s facade emblazoned with oval paintings and oversized banners. It boosted his ticket sales by $100 a day, or so he claimed. After the turn of the century, hundreds of circus and carnival sideshows toured the country, and long, glorious banner lines advertising a variety of popular entertainments competed with each other to attract customers.

Wonderland

Simmer Studio Wenatchee. Mason’s Wonderland A Circus In Itself. Black and white photography. Slotin Folk Art Auction, November 10, 2013

The above photo shows half of the banner line from a 17-inch wide photo for “Mason’s Wonderland – A Circus In Itself – Living Wonder of Air, Land and Sea.” A Giant Devilfish, Baboon Dog, Kangaroo Goat, and Mouse Circus were among the attractions in this sideshow, which toured the West Coast in the 1920s when carnival midways consisted of a dozen different sideshows and just a few rides.

Kay Bros Menaerie

Kay Bros. Sideshow & Menagerie. Black and white photo. Slotin Folk Art Auction, November 10, 2013

Professional banner painters working for canvas companies and private studios in New York, Chicago and other cities vied for commissions. “It’s the FRONT! of the show that gets the dough” was the catchy slogan that Caldwell’s Banner Studio in Los Angeles stencilled on the back of their canvases and trumpeted in trade magazines.

Bandit King Banner

Anonymous Photography. The Bandit King. Black and white freak show banner postcard. Slotin Folk Art Auction, November 10, 2013

By the 1950s, Billboard reporter Tom Parkinson was not exaggerating when he wrote that sideshow banner lines had “stopped more people than all the art museums in the nation and set more jaws ajar than surrealistic art.”

Slotin Folk Art’s live auction will be held at Historic Buford Hall in Buford, Georgia on November 9 and 10. Absentee, phone and online bidding are also available on auction days.

Tintype Bull Banner

Anonymous Tin Type Photograph. Group In Front of Bull Banner. Slotin Folk Art Auction, November 10, 2013

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Voltess

Vintage Sideshow Banner: Voltess, The Girl Who Defies Electricity circa 1930. Millard & Bulsterbaum, 2894 W 8th St. Coney Island via Urban Country

This vintage Millard and Bulsterbaum banner for “Voltess, The Girl Who Defies Electricity” was painted for Sam Wagner’s World Circus Sideshow in Coney Island. Variously known as Electra, Electricia and Voltara, the act features a girl who is said to be able to withstand high voltage and shoot sparks from her fingertips due to having been struck by lightning. The banner, which measures approximately eight by five, is offered for sale by Urban Country.

Algernon Millard and John Bulsterbaum established their Coney Island shop around 1915 at 2894 W 8th Street and were in business through the Depression. Their ads proclaimed “We Paint Banners That Get Top Money for Carnivals and Circus.” The studio was credited with introducing liberal use of orange paint and bold lines that made their banners visible from clear across the midway.

Millard and Bulsterbaum

Millard and Bulsterbaum, 2894 W 8th Street, Coney Island

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Sideshow Banner Guitar

Sideshow Banner Art Painted on Martin Guitar by Johnny Meah. Copyright © Johnny Meah

You’ve heard of player pianos but have probably never come across a player guitar till now. This one-of-a-kind piece of sideshow banner guitar art painted by Johnny Meah aka The Czar of Bizarre is up for auction on eBay under the category Art, Direct from the Artist.

As the auction description explains, this is a Martin guitar that was discarded by the manufacturer and given to Johnny Meah to decorate for a fundraising event in 2010. The guitar can’t be played but it looks great displayed so that both sides and the edges are visible. And it takes up a lot less space than a vintage sideshow banner which was typically eight feet tall by ten feet wide. The artist says the guitar took about the same amount of time to make as a full-size banner which would sell for upwards of $3000. A trompe l’oeil coin slot wryly invites the viewer to drop a penny in the Martin Player Guitar:”Press Red Buttons for Selections — Watch It Work!”

Now living in Safety Harbor, Florida, Johnny Meah spent many years on the road with carnivals and circuses, working as a showpainter as well as a sideshow sword swallower and fire eater. As a young man, he worked for a brief season with my concessionaire parents, and his father Hal Meah, a sketch artist who set up his easel at the Connecticut fairs on our route, taught me how to draw. By the time I caught up with Johnny again in the late 1990s, his sideshow banners were being exhibited in art galleries and museums.

In a Q & A that we did for Icon Magazine, Johnny said only about 200 of the 2000 or so banners he’d painted for midway shows had survived: “Since the actually collectibility of banners is a relatively recent phenomenon, I can’t get too upset about it. In the ’40s and ’50s they used to stick old banners under trucks to catch oil drippings. I literally remember doing it myself.” Visit Johnny Meah’s website for news from the Czar of Bizarre.

Art by Johnny Meah

Martin Player Guitar Art By Johnny Meah. Copyright © Johnny Meah

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