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Circus mermaids and freaks, Coney Island sideshows, and a traveling circus and carnival take center stage in this trio of literary novels that we read over the summer. Wondrous and horrific by turn, these stories will have you turning their pages well past the witching hour.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Hardcover, $26.99.

The Book of SpeculationErika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation is a suspenseful novel that combines some of our favorite things — traveling shows, sideshow performers, mermaids, family secrets and rare books. The rare book is the 17th century log of a traveling circus which the narrator receives in the mail from a stranger along with a mysterious message: “A name inside it–Verona Bonn–led me to believe it might be of interest to your family.” The women in Simon Watson’s family, including his mother and grandmother, were circus mermaids who drowned, always on July 24. The novel alternates between the magical tale of Simon’s ancestors documented in the logbook and his present life on Long Island, where he is in danger of losing both his job as a librarian and his family’s historic home. As the date of his mother’s death approaches, Simon becomes convinced that his sister, who ran off with a carnival, is doomed to drown as well. Can the revelation of a family secret save them both?

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. Scribner, 2014. Hardcover, $27.99; Paperback $16.00.

Museum of Extraordinary ThingsCoralie, the enchanting heroine of Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, was born with webs between her fingers. Pressed to perform as a “human mermaid” in her father’s museum of freaks and curiosities in early 20th century Coney Island, she escapes after hours by swimming the Hudson River. Sightings of “a sea monster” become a tabloid mystery. Coralie’s story unfolds parallel with that of Eddie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant living on the Lower East Side who works as a newspaper photographer and fishes the river for his supper. It’s clear that their worlds are going to intersect and they are destined to fall in love, but that doesn’t lessen the allure. First published in 2014, Hoffman’s novel was on the New York Times bestseller list and was the Long Island Reads selection for 2015. Set in 1911, the year of both Manhattan’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Coney Island’s Dreamland Fire, the story has an authentic ring to it. Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson was among the early readers of the manuscript.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. Ecco/HarperCollins, 2015. Hardcover, $26.99.

Church of MarvelsThe Church of Marvels of the novel’s title is an 1890’s Coney Island sideshow, but the sideshow has burned to the ground and its proprietor Friendship Willingbird Church is dead before the book begins. Her twin daughters Belle, a beautiful contortionist and sword swallower, has fled to Manhattan, while Odile, who was born with a curvature of the spine, struggles to make a living as the Target Girl on Coney’s Wheel of Death. Initially, we were disappointed the novel did not have more scenes set in Coney Island or the sideshow, as we had anticipated. Leslie Parry’s exquisite prose and the surprising twists and turns of the narrative won us over. Odile’s quest to find her missing sister takes us inside the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the tenements and opium dens of the Lower East Side before circling back home to Coney Island.

Related posts on ATZ…

May 17, 2015: Summer Reading: Undertow by Michael Buckley

December 1, 2014: Autumn Reading: Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow!

November 22, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Brooklyn Theatre Index of Coney Island, Brighton Beach & Manhattan Beach

November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

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Spinning Glass

Spinning Glass. Sideshow Banner, circa 1915-1920. O’Henry Tent and Awning Co., Chicago. Morphy Auctions

It seems quaint today, but glass blowers used to be one of the working acts in carnival sideshows. “Have you ever seen glass finer than the hair of your head? This is made on a spinning wheel which revolves at the rate of 1000 revolutions per minute,” according to a century-old ad for a glass blower at a fair. “Every lady patron to the show will receive a pretty Souvenir FREE OF CHARGE of Spun Glass, which can be used as a book mark.”

This circa 1915-1920 sideshow banner from the studio of Chicago’s O’Henry Tent & Awning Co. is on the auction block today at Morphy Auctions along with another advertising Ho-Jo The Ostrich Man. The pre-sale estimate for the two banners is $600-$1,200 and bidding is available online.

sideshow banner

Sideshow Banner, circa 1915-1920. O’Henry Tent and Awning Co., Chicago. Morphy Auctions

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November 23, 2013: More Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner

November 7, 2013: Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner

June 27, 2013: Photo Album: The Front of the Show at Meadowlands Fair

February 4, 2013: Rare & Vintage: Girl to Gorilla Sideshow Banner

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Rutland Fair Sideshow

Rutland, Vermont Fair Sideshow, 1941. Photo by Jack Delano for the U.S. Farm Security Administration Collection, Library of Congress

Among the more than 200,000 images of rural life by photographers working for the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration during the New Deal are hundreds of images of the American sideshow. Taken by Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, and Russell Lee at state and county fairs in Vermont, Ohio, Louisiana and Texas, the photos document the midway shows of the late 1930s and early ’40s and their glorious banners.

Millard and Bulsterbaum banner

Sideshow attraction, county fair in central Ohio, 1938. Photo by Ben Shahn for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, Library of Congress

The two banners seen above–Human Freaks and Personality Fat Girl are the work of the Coney Island studio of Millard & Bulsterbaum. The firm’s name and address — 2894 W 8th Street — can be seen in the lower right corner of the banners. “Just one more bolt of cloth will make it,” says a tailor depicted fitting the glamorous fat girl with a new costume. Algernon Millard and John Bulsterbaum, who were in business from 1915 though the Depression, were considered the best in the business.

cat with 6 paws

Rutland, Vermont Fair Sideshow, 1941. Photo by Jack Delano for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, Library of Congress

This banner for a 28-toed cat and a cat with six paws was part of a banner line also featuring sea gull ducks, midget mules, a pop-eyed cow, and a “Charlie Chaplin chicken.”

Ohio Fair Sideshow Attraction

Sideshow attraction, county fair in central Ohio, 1938. Photo by Ben Shahn for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, Library of Congress

In this nicely framed shot by Ben Shahn of a homemade front for the single-o “Ramo- 4 horns, 3 tails,” a weird, alligator-like creature appears on the bally stage.

Nudist Colony Banner

Sideshow attraction, county fair in central Ohio, 1938. Photo by Ben Shahn for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, Library of Congress

After a sideshow promoter made Zorine, Queen of the Nudists and the Zoro Garden Nudist Colony the sensation of San Diego’s 1935-1936 California Pacific International Exposition, imitators sprang up on carnival and fair midways. This banner for the “Nudist Colony” at a county fair in Ohio asks “Are they ever ashamed?” Shows featuring talkers and inside lecturers dressed as nurses and doctors helped explain the wonders and mysteries of medical science in the days before television and the Internet. Step right up to the College of Hygiene Science!

sideshow banner 1939

Sign at sideshow at Gonzales, Texas county fair, 1939. Photo by Russell Lee for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, Library of Congress

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November 7, 2013: Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner June 27, 2013: Photo Album: The Front of the Show at Meadowlands Fair November 4, 2012: Up for Auction: Ringling Bros Circus Side Show Poster May 4, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Major Debert the Tiniest Man’s Sideshow Banner

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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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November 4, 2012: Up for Auction: Ringling Bros Circus Side Show Poster

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“You want to go to the circus? Good news, you live in the circus!” says Tyler Fleet aka Tyler Fyre at the beginning of this sweet documentary short “The Down Home Daredevils.” Tyler and his wife Jill, whose stage name is Thrill Kill Jill, are the doting parents of two adorable little boys–Hank Lightning and Duke Dynamite. They’re also sword swallowers and fire eaters, and in Jill’s case a snake charmer, with the Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show.

The film by Corcoran College of Art new media photojournalism students Ben Dorger, Jenny Harnish and Emma Scott follows the family from their home in West Virginia to the Hell City Tattoo Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Hank, who is a toddler, joins dad onstage to do a make-believe straitjacket escape and Duke gets his first taste of applause as a babe in mom’s arms. “What the kids do in the show is up to the kids,” says Jill. “We’ll nurture them right into the show. It’s the family business.”

The film premiered at this year’s Coney Island Film Festival and was among “ATZ’s Top 10 Coney Island Film Festival Picks.”

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February 2, 2013: A Coney Island Classic: 60th Anniversary of “Little Fugitive”

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Midway at State Fair Meadowlands

Rides and Funhouse Showfront on the Midway at State Fair Meadowlands, NJ. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

The midway at New Jersey’s State Fair Meadowlands, which runs through July 7, is alive with eye-popping painted showfronts for funhouses, entrancing sideshow banners, and flashy signage hawking fair food. We’ve been going to the fair in East Rutherford since 1996, when Johnny Meah’s eighteen-foot-high, 104-foot-wide showfront for Hall & Christ’s Weirdest Women in the World first lured us there, on assignment from Raw Vision to write about the art of the sideshow banner. It’s the front of the show that gets the dough, and it’s the front of the show that continues to attract our interest.

Girl to Gorilla Show

Girl to Gorilla Show, 4 C Productions, State Fair Meadowlands, New Jersey. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

This year, the fair has a Girl to Gorilla show, which hasn’t been on the road since 1996, and four other sideshows owned and operated by Lindsey Constantine. She learned the business, including how to talk on the bally stage, from her dad Jack Constantine, who started Four C Productions in 1972 and is now semi-retired.

“Beauty or Beast? SEE the only LIVING woman with this Mysterious and Unknown Ability…Alive…The Ape Girl.” This awesome set of Girl to Gorilla banners was painted by the late Lew Stamm, whose showfronts are highly regarded in the business. He also did projects for amusement parks such as Gold Rush Junction, Silver Dollar City, Dollywood and Dixie Stampede. “They were done for my father in 1991. My dad traded his car for them,” said Lindsey.

Girl to Gorilla Show

Girl to Gorilla Show, 4 C Productions, State Fair Meadowlands, New Jersey. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Across the midway is the World’s Smallest Woman, whose delightful advertisement has her sitting in a giant chair dwarfed by a “normal-sized” dog. The showfront trumpets her as being only 29 tiny inches small with hands 2 inches wide. This particular “World’s Smallest Woman” is named Gloria. For nearly 30 years, she has supported her family as one of Four C Production’s five “World’s Smallest Women” who travel the U.S. carnival and fair circuit.

World's Smallest Woman

World’s Smallest Woman, 4 C Productions, State Fair Meadowlands, New Jersey. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Four C’s World’s Smallest Horse, Snake Illusion and Oddity Museum featuring such attractions as a Giant Nuclear Radiation Beetle and a Fiji Island Mermaid are also on the midway at the New Jersey fair.

World's Smallest Horse

World’s Smallest Horse, State Fair Meadowlands, New Jersey. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

The hot, humid weather is perfect for Drown the Clown, the great Joey Liberti, who has been working the dunk tank since he was a kid. The ballgame/show was a fixture at Little Italy’s San Gennaro Festival until last year, when a group of swank boutiques and new residents of Mulberry Street in the neighborhood now called NoLita lobbied the community board to shorten the festival. Although they were unsuccessful, Drown the Clown was one of the casualties of the gentrifiers’ efforts to take the carnival out of the street fair and make it culturally and politically correct by their standards. Ironically, century-old photos of street fairs in New York City and elsewhere in the U.S. show an array of ball games, as well as sideshows and Ferris wheels.

Drown the Clown

Drown the Clown, State Fair Meadowlands, NJ. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

There used to be a dunk tank in Coney Island –no more! You have to go to Jersey to be properly entertained and insulted by the dunk tank king. As the sign on the stand says, “CLOWN JOKES MAY OFFEND SOME PEOPLE. IF YOU DON’T HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR YOU SHOULD NOT STAY.”

Deep Fried Buckeyes

Deep Fried Buckeyes, State Fair Meadowlands, New Jersey. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Deep-fried Buckeyes, in case you’re not familiar with fair food, are an irresistible confection made of peanut butter and chocolate. The masterful showfront for this food concession is ablaze with advertisements for deep-fried treats: Oreos, Snickers, S’Mores, Twinkies. There’s even a Deep-fried Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich and a Deep-fried Grilled Cheese. The most over-the-top food at the Meadowlands Fair is the Krispy Kreme Doughnut Burger, which is breakfast, lunch and dinner rolled into one, and is on the menu at Little Richard’s Cafe.

Doughnut Burger

Doughnut Burger. State Fair Meadowlands, New Jersey. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Our vote for the most unique showfronts at the Meadowlands Fair goes to the restrooms. When you gotta go, you have a choice of Royal Flush at the Buckingham Loo…

Restroom with Showfront

Restroom with Showfront at State Fair Meadowlands, NJ. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Or Toon Town’s Tinkle Run. The clean and attractive portable restrooms are staffed by attendants.

State Fair Meadowlands runs from June 21 through July 7 and also features an array of rides and free shows including Circus Maximus, Rosaire’s Royal Racing Pigs, Fireworks, and the last Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Qualifier before the July 4th contest in Coney Island. We took NJ Transit from Penn Station to Secaucus Junction and then hopped on a free shuttle bus to the fair. Trip time: 25 minutes.

Restroom with Showfront

Restroom with Showfront at State Fair Meadowlands, NJ. June 23, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

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April 18, 2012: Rare & Vintage: A Neon Sword Swallower’s Sideshow Banner

November 4, 2011: Up for Auction: Ringling Bros Circus Side Show Poster

October 8, 2010: Traveler: Most Beautiful Video of the State Fair of Texas

May 4, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Major Debert the Tiniest Man’s Sideshow Banner

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Girl to Gorilla Show

Detail of Girl to Gorilla Showfront by Lew Stamm for 4C Productions Coming to State Fair Meadowlands

“Beauty or Beast? SEE the only LIVING woman with this Mysterious and Unknown Ability…Alive…The Ape Girl.” Jack Constantine’s Girl to Gorilla Show is coming to New Jersey’s State Fair Meadowlands, which opens on June 21 for a 17-day run. It’s the first time since 1996 that his Four C Productions is bringing it out. Just a couple of months ago, we wrote in a post about this classic midway illusion: Sadly, there are few if any working today. If you know of one, let us know.

This awesome set of Girl to Gorilla banners was painted by the late great Lew Stamm, whose showfronts are highly regarded in the business. “They were done for my father in 1991. My dad traded his car for them,” said Lindsey Constantine, who is co-owner of the sideshow company. The rest of the set including the ticketbooth is currently being painted prior to its appearance at the fair. It’s the front of the show that gets the dough!

The Constantines are also bringing their popular World’s Smallest Woman, World’s Smallest Horse, Snake Illusion and Oddity Museum to the New Jersey fair.

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February 4, 2013: Rare & Vintage: Girl to Gorilla Sideshow Banner

August 6, 2012: Art of the Day: Madame Twisto by Marie Roberts

April 18, 2012: Rare & Vintage: A Neon Sword Swallower’s Sideshow Banner

November 4, 2011: Up for Auction: Ringling Bros Circus Side Show Poster

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