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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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Coney Island had a Mardi Gras celebration every September until 1954, but ATZ had no idea that Popeye the Sailor Man and his rival Bluto were once part of it! Many thanks to sideshow historian James Taylor, publisher of Shocked & Amazed! On and Off the Midway, for sharing this fun find.

In this 1935 cartoon, Popeye and Bluto perform duelling sideshow acts against the backdrop of Coney’s rides and amusements. “Oh, I’m King of the Mardi Gras, in fact I’m the whole bloomin’ show,” sings Bluto as he struts onstage in front of his awesome banner line.

I run the whole works here at Coney, What power supreme I enjoy!
Hey, speaking of kings,
I’m one of those things.
In fact I’m the real McCoy!

A few steps away, Popeye blusters on a makeshift stage and steals Bluto’s audience by resorting to dirty tricks.

“So the message is that, if you screw with a guy’s act, you’re the hero of this thing? Jeez,” writes Taylor on the Shocked & Amazed! Facebook page. “Still, how often you get to see Popeye AND sideshow together?” The sideshow acts and roller coaster climax are well worth the price of a ticket.

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February 25, 2012: Video: Happy International Sword Swallowers Day!

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Ringling Poster

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Side Show Poster. Printed by Erie Litho & Printing Co. Estimate $800- $1,200. Mosby & Co Auction. November 12, 2011

This rare and delightful poster from the 1930s advertising Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Sideshow is up for bid in Mosby & Company’s Fall Auction. Strange People from the Remote Corners of the Earth? The performers are not ID’d but we think the musicians are Margaret and Mary Gibb, from Holyoke, Massachusetts, who were celebrated as “The Only American-Born Siamese Twins” and the Texas giant is Jack Earle. Both were with Ringling in the 1930s.

Looking into the Gibb girls bio, we discovered that they made their show biz debut at the age of 13 in Dave Rosen’s side show and museum, then located at Bowery and West 15th in Coney Island. The date was April 11, 1926. After a couple of days, the Coney showman was arrested for exhibiting minors and the twins were given into the custody of the Children’s Society over the objections of their father, who said he was with them all the time.

The incident gets a mention in the book “Sodom by the Sea: an affectionate history of Coney Island” (1941):

The side-show successors of Chang and Eng were continually getting into legal hot water at Coney Island. Around the time of the First World War, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children objected to the appearance of eleven-year-old Godino and Lucio Simplicio, Filipino double monsters, and proved them to be without proper guardianship. The SPCC followed up its success in the Simplicio case by raiding David Rosen’s side show on the Coney Island Bowery because of the exhibition of thirteen-year-old Marjorie and Mary Gibb, Siamese twins from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Rosen had studied the law during the previous Coney Island controversy and wriggled out of the trouble by arguing that the girls were still in the custody of their father, by contract, and moreover were not violating the statute by dancing or singing.

However, the Gibb girls returned home for a while, announcing that they had been so shamed by the publicity that they were consulting medical experts as to the possibility of being cut apart. That in turn created more publicity, which made their parents so nervous that the operation was postponed. Several years later the Gibb girls proved to be still on exhibition at Coney Island, when their attorney, Abraham Reiss, raised the roof over the unfair competition furnished by a Cuban pair of Siamese twins who he declared were not genuinely married in gristle.

According to the Gibb Sisters obit in 1967, they went on to become vaudeville and circus stars with an act that featured dancing and piano playing. From 1934 through 1937, and again in 1939, they toured with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The twins were joined at the base of the spine and despite sensational articles from the 1920’s about proposed operations to separate them, the only direct quote that we could find states they did not wish to be separated: “We are perfectly happy as we are,” said the Gibb Sisters on their 50th birthday. “We never wanted to be separated.”

Mosby’s live auction is on November 11 and 12 in Frederick, Maryland, but the catalogue is online and you can bid now or in real time during the auction.

 

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Strange Girls

John Strong's Strange Girls Sideshow at Cha Cha's of Coney Island. May 21, 2011 Photo © Diana Taft Shumate

Cha Cha’s Club on the Coney Island Boardwalk is already a sideshow and we mean that as a compliment. On Saturday, the longtime home of wild women and wise guys welcomed John Strong’s sideshow aka the “Strangest Show on Earth.” Starting this weekend, Cha Cha’s will feature a troupe of Strange Girls, including a totally tattooed leopard woman.

Around 5:30 on Saturday, John Strong and his crew were seen raising a couple of gorgeous banners on the rooftop of the club, which is adjacent to Scream Zone’s Boardwalk entrance. The banners tout a beautiful girl with the body of a snake, a double-bodied girl and other female freaks. As old-pro sideshow banner painter G.M.Caldwell famously proclaimed: “It’s the front of the show that gets the dough.”

Once the banners were flying, a girl with a Burmese albino python draped round her neck stood on John Strong’s ticketbox while the showman brought out another snake. The bally began. Cha Cha’s has hosted the Squidling Brothers and other sideshows as late night entertainment, but as far we know this is the first time they’ve had a bally out front, which is a time-honored way for sideshows to gather potential customers. Patrons paid $2.00, the price of a child’s ticket, to see the show.

John Strong

John Strong's Strange Girls Sideshow at Cha Cha's of Coney Island. May 21, 2011. Photo © Bruce Handy/Coney Island Photo Diary via flickr

The Strange Girls and Giantess banners were last flown in Coney Island in “Dreamland,” a temporary assemblage of amusements brought by Thor Equities to the former Astroland site in 2009. But Joe Sitt shut down the amusements and John Strong, whose Texas- based sideshow tours the carnival and fair circuit, has been trying to make a Coney Island comeback ever since.

Strong’s “World’s Finest Shows” with its 150-foot “world’s largest bannerline,” is currently playing Kings County Fair with Reithoffer’s carnival. The fair is at Aviator Sports in Marine Park through May 30. Strong is also eyeing two additional locations in Coney Island for his museum and freak animal show: 1109 Surf Ave near Jones Walk and another spot on 12th St. and the Bowery. The 12th Street location is the former site of the Coney Island Arcade, which was destroyed by a fire and is currently being demolished. We’ve heard of at least two other parties hoping to rent the site for rides and/or games, so Strong may have to make do with two locations in Coney island.

Last May, Strong’s on-again, off-again deal to lease the Grashorn Building, Coney’s oldest, from Joe Sitt fell through and he made a deal to set up on the north side of Surf Avenue across from the Cyclone. ATZ contemplated the possibility of Coney Island hosting a trio of rival sideshows in 2010, but it was not to be. Will Coney Island host a multiplicity of sideshows this season? The more the merrier school of thought is that a concentration of sideshow talent is good publicity for Coney Island.

Update, May 31…

Cha Cha’s stint as a sideshow with a Boardwalk bally was officially over on Saturday night. John Strong’s sideshow can now be found at the 1109 Surf Avenue location near Jones Walk. From the F train on Sunday afternoon, I could see he’d already gathered a crowd. Having the sideshow bally and ticketbox out front at Cha Cha’s drew onlookers, but Cha Cha’s bar lost business. People didn’t realize you could walk past the talker and just have a drink at the bar. Or they’d buy a ticket for the show, but not a drink. Now if you go to Cha Cha’s, there’s live music with a $5 cover which includes one drink.

Update, June 5th…

John Strong’s freak animal show, including live as well as mummified and pickled specimens, is set up at the corner of West 12th and Bowery, on the site of the now-demolished Coney Island Arcade. Both shows left Coney Island on June 12th and are on the state and county fair circuit.

John Strong

John Strong's Strange Girls Sideshow at Cha Cha's of Coney Island. May 21, 2011. Photo © Bruce Handy/Coney Island Photo Diary via flickr

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Giantess Banner Painted for John Strongs Sideshow in Dreamland Park, Coney Island.  Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Giantess Banner Painted for John Strong's Sideshow in Dreamland Park, Coney Island. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

The $600,000 question is why did an allegedly savvy businessman like Thor CEO Joe Sitt let more than half a million in allegedly overdue rent go unpaid until just two weeks before the end of the season? ATZ bets there’s more to this story than we’ve read in the papers.

On Sunday night the word from the locked down Dreamland was John Strong had torn down and packed up his “Strangest Show on Earth” and would be leaving Coney Island on Monday Tuesday evening for a Tennessee fair. Though the sideshow operator failed to “Save Coney Island” as boasted, we’ll forgive him because the front of his Strange Girls show was gorgeous in a retro sort of way. The bannerline evoked an earlier Dreamland Circus Side Show’s circa 1926 banners by Coney Island’s Millard & Bulsterbaum. Strong’s banners were painted by Jorge Rivero and Coney Island’s Takeshi Yamada, who also operated a freak baby show featuring his fantastical creations.

Over the weekend Dreamland Park was abruptly locked down by Thor Equities because of a rent dispute with the park’s manager. At 2 a.m on Friday morning, guards from Epic Security stormed in, cut the locks on the gates and took control of the property. In the morning Thor’s pr guy Stefan Friedman notified the media: “Dreamland has been locked out because it has not come close to meeting its financial obligations in many months. We are hopeful that Dreamland will soon pay its rent so it can quickly re-open the rides and allow Coney Islanders and visitors to continue enjoying what has been a spectacular summer so far.”

Night Shot of Banner Painted by Jorge Rivero and Takeshi Yamada for John Strongs Strange Girls Show. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Night Shot of Banner Painted by Jorge Rivero and Takeshi Yamada for John Strong's Strange Girls Show. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

The Coney Island Rumor Mill offers the following scenario: Perhaps no one owes Thor $600,000. Perhaps it’s a ruse to enable Thor CEO Joe Sitt to get rid of his carnival tenants asap and deliver the property vacant to the City. If that story sounds crazy, it’s no crazier than the scenario offered by Thor’s spokesman. A deal to sell most of the land including the Dreamland site to the City was expected when the Coney rezoning passed in City Council at the end of the July. At the time the NY Times said that Sitt would keep only the property at Surf & Stillwell. This land was rezoned for a high rise hotel. But that news is already three weeks old and no announcements have been made yet. Mayor Mike is running for re-election and time is running out for him to be able to claim he “Saved Coney Island” and win our vote!

Is the Coney Island dream over for the amusement operators who came from Georgia, Florida and Texas to Thor Equities Dreamland Park? Over the weekend rumor had it the carnival equipment was being held hostage by Thor Equities, but we’ve also heard folks are free to leave. While John Strong was spreading the word about a “breakout attempt” with monster trucks crashing through the gate, Glen Geren and some of the other amusement operators said they’d be sticking around. They’d paid their rent to Dreamland’s manager and were waiting to see if the park would reopen after today’s scheduled court hearing.

UPDATE 8/25: No “official” word yet about what happened in court. I’m kind of surprised the NY Post didn’t cover it! The Coney Island Rumor Mill says the judge is expected to make a decision on Wednesday. But the folks inside Dreamland say that they were told the park will reopen. With all the twists and turns we’ve been through in Coney, I find it hard to believe anything until I see it with my own eyes.

John Strong already packed up and tore down his sideshows and is set to leave tonight for Tennessee. Anthony sent someone over yesterday to beg them to stop working and put the show back in the building, but John Strong had already made the decision to load up and go. If and when Dreamland reopens, it will be minus two sideshows.

UPDATE 8/28 When I talked with Geren yesterday he said they have one more shot with the NY Supreme court today. Everyone is waiting till then to start tearing down. But there was a lot of hoopla on Thursday because Thor’s people said to clear out by midnight tonight! What they meant was people who were not ride help. Whatever happens next, remember there’s a lot more to this story than what we’ll read in the papers in the coming days.

Yes, ATZ has photos of “Closed” signs hanging on Dreamland’s gate, but we’d rather end this post with a photo of our friend Takeshi Yamada whose studio is in Coney Island. And a very important reminder: While Thor Equities “Dreamland Park” is currently closed, Coney Island still has 43 rides including the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel open for business. There’s also the Ringling Bros. Boom A Ring Circus, Coney Island USA‘s Circus Sideshow and Burlesque, Dreamland Roller Rink, the Coney Island History Project and much more to enjoy.

Artist and Coney Island Resident Takeshi Yamada Created a Mermaid Baby and other Freak Babies for his Sideshow in Dreamland.  Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Artist and Coney Island Resident Takeshi Yamada Created a Mermaid Baby and other Freak Babies for his Sideshow in Dreamland. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

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Cha-Chas Schedule of Events, photo by me-myself-i/Tricia Vita

Cha-Cha's Schedule of Events, photo by me-myself-i/Tricia Vita

photo via me-myself-i, flickr

We heard all about the East Coast-West Coast rivalry between Dick Zigun’s Coney Island Circus Sideshow and John Strong’s Circus Sideshow. Almost everyone, including the sideshow operators, agrees the publicity is good for Coney Island. But we’d heard nothing at all about the Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow coming to Coney to challenge Ringling until we saw this note scrawled on Cha-Cha’s schedule: “Every Saturday Beginning May 30, Squidling Brothers Sideshow Karnival of Kuriosities.” Since Squidling rhymes with Ringling, and Ringling Brothers Coney Island Boom a Ring Circus will be just down the Boardwalk, ATZ wondered if the name was a product of JT Thomas’s wry humor.

Turns out the Squidlings are a real, live sideshow troupe from Philadelphia who performed at Cha-Cha’s Rockabilly Fest last summer.
Their MySpace page ballyhoos a sword swallower who performs upside down on a trapeze, a human see-saw on a bed of 1,500 nails, and a clown with a homemade flame thrower built into his sword. Ringling clowns take note!

Squidling Bros Circus Sideshow & Burlesque at Cha-Chas

Squidling Bros Circus Sideshow & Burlesque at Cha-Cha's

Also on this summer’s schedule at Cha-Cha’s: Live Jazz (Mondays), Live Rock, Blues and Classic Rock (Fridays), Latin Jazz and Classic Rock (Sundays) and a Rockabilly Fest on Labor Day Weekend.

Cha-Cha’s of Coney Island, Boardwalk just east of Stillwell Ave

Cha Chas Bar & Cafe on the Boardwalk next to Shoot the Freak in Coney Island, photo by me-myself-i/Tricia Vita

Cha Cha's Bar & Cafe on the Boardwalk next to Shoot the Freak in Coney Island, photo by me-myself-i/Tricia Vita

photo via me-myself-i, flickr

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New sideshow banners by Marie Roberts on Coney Island USA’s Building advertise this summer’s special guest freaks. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i

New sideshow banners by Marie Roberts on Coney Island USA’s Building advertise this summer’s special guest freaks. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i

photo via me-myself-i, flickr

This season at Coney Island USA’s ten-in-one circus sideshow, “Special Guest Freaks” will join the resident sword swallower, fire eater, snake charmer, escape artist and human blockhead. The new banner advertisements painted by artist-in-residence Marie Roberts are already decorating CIUSA’s building on 12th Street and Surf Avenue. The guest freaks include The Lizard Man, Jackie the Human Tripod, and England’s Mat Fraser

Coney Island Circus Sideshow, 1208 Surf Avenue at 12th Street, Coney Island

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