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Ward Hall BiographyThe official biography Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow! was published with great fanfare earlier this year in celebration of Hall’s 70th anniversary in show business. More than a dozen years ago, while traveling with S & S Amusements as the High Striker Girl, ATZ had the honor of being on the same midway as Hall & Christ’s legendary World of Wonders. At the Great Allentown Fair, where the patrons love shows, the throng in front of the banner line and the torchlit bally stage conjured up the long ago golden age of the midway. Hearing Ward deliver his classic pitches against this backdrop was one of the unforgettable moments of the season.

In 1946, Ward Hall left his Colorado home at age 15 to join Dailey Bros. Circus after answering an ad in Billboard for a magician and fire eater. Though the teen did not yet know how to eat fire, a friendly canvasman taught him the skill and before long he was also working as an outside talker on the sideshow’s bally stage.

“I didn’t know what to say, so I looked over at Norma, who was selling tickets, and she hollered at me, ‘Tell ’em about the painted-face mandrill.’ Well, I did that and then I looked back at Norma and then she would tell me what to say next,” Ward recalls. By the 1960s, burlesque dancer Sally Rand had crowned Hall “The Silver Throated King of the Carnival Talkers” in an NBC documentary Carny. Sideshow historian James Taylor gave Hall the title “The King of the Sideshow” in the 1995 volume of Shocked and Amazed–On & Off the Midway.

Author Tim O’Brien, who first wrote about Ward as a reporter for Amusement Business, has masterfully researched and organized material spanning the showman’s career in sideshows, circuses, theater, movies and television, and his partnerships with Harry Leonard and Chris Christ. Photos, clippings and anecdotes from their life on the road are interspersed with chapters about the art of the bally, the value of the banner line, carny lingo, and Gibsonton, the Florida town fondly known as “Showtown USA,” which Hall and Christ call home.

Ward Hall Pete Terhune

Ward Hall and Pete Terhune. Photo © Paul Gutheil via Casa Flamingo

Among the subjects covered in the book are why there are so few sideshows and freak shows today compared to 30 years ago. Hall says it has to do with economics, not political correctness–spectacular rides have replaced shows on carnival and fair midways.

Also of interest are details of legal cases which were fought and won by Ward, such as a three-year court battle that successfully overturned the 1921 Florida law banning the exhibition of human oddities. The plaintiffs included Pete “Poobah” Terhune, a dwarf who worked with Ward and his partners for 55 years as a fire-eater, snake handler, circus clown and king of the pygmies. In the 1971 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional because the plaintiffs “must be allowed to earn a livelihood.” The chapter “Ward Meets Pete: How a Dwarf Won the Heart of a King” is a loving tribute to Pete, who passed away at age 82 in 2012.

Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow! The Official Biography by Tim O’Brien. Casa Flamingo Literary Arts, Nashville, TN, 2014. 262 pages, 100+ photos & illustrations, $24.99

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Two Sideshow Show Marquee Banners Painted by Johnny Meah for Hall & Christ's World of Wonders. Size: 94 inches long, 35 inches tall. Mosby & Co Auction. May 14, 2011

ATZ is a fan of word banners and if we had wall space in our apartment we’d try to win these beauties. Painted by Johnny Meah for Hall and Christ’s World of Wonders Sideshow, these two marquee banners are among the circus and sideshow items in Mosby & Company’s Spring Auction. The live auction is on Saturday, May 14, in Frederick, Maryland, but the catalogue is online and you can bid now or in real time during the auction. A couple of other banners by Meah, including a Half Man, Half Woman act (shown below) and a Bed of Nails act depicting “Tortura High Priestess of Pain” came directly from World of Wonder’s C.M. Christ and are also in the sale.

The name “Meah” takes me all the way back to my childhood days traveling the New England carnival circuit with my concessionaire parents. Hal Meah, a sketch artist who set up his easel at the Connecticut fairs on our route, taught me how to draw. His son, Johnny, began his career at age nine as “The World’s Youngest Portrait Artist,’ but I remembered him as a 20-year-old who hopscotched from carnival to circus to fairgrounds, snapping up sign painting jobs. Since a showman has to play a variety of roles in order to make a living, Johnny augmented his repertoire with sideshow lecturing, fire eating, and swallowing swords.

Strange Change Sideshow Banner featuring an image of a Half Man, Half Woman. Art Work by Johnny Meah. Size: 84 inches tall, 94 inches wide. Mosby & Co Auction. May 14, 2011

I first encountered Johnny Meah’s gloriously gaudy advertisements for World of Wonders at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Fair in 1996. As I wrote a few years later in an essay for Raw Vision

Twisted Sister, Minnie the Mermaid, the Electrifying Voltara and other Strange Girls–Alive and on Stage–were seen by hundreds of thousands of people. The artist used every trick of the banner painter’s trade to pull in a crowd –vibrant colors (“flash,” in the lingo of the midway), bold lines, eye-catching exaggeration, and tantalizing wordplay.

Fairgoers were razzle-dazzled into spending two bucks to go inside, where what they actually saw was a contortionist, a girl in a goldfish bowl, an electrocution-proof woman, and other classic sideshow acts. The artist’s disclaimer appeared in small script near the entrance: ‘Fantasy art scenes are not intended as a true depiction of illusions presented in the inside of this show.’ At the same time, his hand-lettered signature proudly took credit for his creations: ‘All ‘Banner Art’ by Meah Studios, Riverview, Florida.’

Sideshow impresario Ward Hall, whose midway shows have flown the artist’s banners for more than thirty years succinctly explained to me the drawing power of Johnny’s art: “Because he has been in the sideshow, he understands what is required to sell tickets. And that’s what his banners do.”

Visit Johnny Meah’s website- The Czar of the Bizarre–to view his new work, read his writings, and download a font in his idiosyncratic handwriting style.

Mosby & Co Auctions, Spring Americana, Toy & Circus Sale. The auction catalogue is currently online for the May 14, 2011 Sale.

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