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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”

December 8, 2012: Sunday Matinee: Princess Rajah’s Chair Dance (1904)

March 3, 2012: Saturday Matinee: Bluto & Popeye, Kings of Coney’s Mardi Gras

January 15, 2011: ATZ Saturday Matinee: Shorty at Coney Island

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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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Related posts on ATZ…

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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