Authors: Thomas Nealeigh
Dedicated to my family: Alice, Grennan and Charlotte. To my Mum and Dad, thanks for giving me the freedom to lead an interesting life.
Special thanks to: Wayne N. Keyser and James Taylor, for their amazing resources of carny and sideshow lingo; Aye Jaye, for sharing true stories about his life on the lot with me; also John Robinson and the fantastic resources of SideShowWorld.com.
And of course, much thanks to the many, many sideshow performers I have had the opportunity to meet and work with over the years.
So most nights I take time for cutting up the jackpot with some of the old-timers on the backlot. Usually after a quick stop by a grab joint, I head over to the G-Top to catch up on how the midway spun out for everyone. Always got to see if it’s been a red date.
Sorry, I forgot. You’re just a First of May, aren’t you? Nights like these I just get going so much that I forget anything else but the midway. You probably didn’t understand a word of what I was saying. Don’t worry – I’ll make sure I fill you in with what I mean as I go along, so just stick with me, right? You need to understand that this is no fireball
show, right? Everything is on the level. Well, as much as it can be, anyway. You see, it’s Big Mike – he runs this outfit – he don’t take no truck to gimmicks or gaffs – that’s anything fake – as far as the game joints are concerned. We ain’t no Sunday school, but our front end runs pretty legit. Even if he could get away with it – and he could, with all the bagman pays out – he wouldn’t do it. I’ve seen him set a goon squad on some crooked flattie, and give ‘em the ole DQ, in other words, kick them off the lot. Shows are another thing though – he doesn’t mind bouncers or dings (fake mummies and that sort of thing) with the working acts. Besides, he figures having them keeps the do-gooders off our backs.
OK now, hold up there, greenie. I can see by the way you’re eyeing at me you don’t know what I’m talking about. You’re a real gazoonie, ain’t you? Well, I don’t have time for any gilly tagging along on our boards, so listen up and listen good. Until you get a circuit under your belt, that’s a season on the road with us, stay out of the G-Top – that’s the gambling tent – strictly for carnies only. If you think you know
cards or can gamble pretty good, nothing will fix that quicker than playing one of the games going on in there. Trust me, son, any agent worth his weight will have you stuck in a build-up faster than I can turn a tip – you know, pull in a mark and take money off him. I’ve seen it happen – before you know it, you’ve gambled away your whole bankroll and got nothing but the bare walls of the bunkhouse for company… assuming you can even keep that! Otherwise you’re scrambling for some place on the boards or you’ll have to carry the banner. Um… that means you’ll be sleeping under someone’s truck or under a canvas tent.
Keep up with me, now – not all of this will make sense right away! But stick with me, kid, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.
Listen here, back-yard boy, I want you to understand that you are talking to the one and only ‘Clown Prince of the Sideshow’! That’s the handle the other carnies have given me over the past few years, but you can call me Tony. My pops, Charlie, owns
the Ten-in-One you signed on for. Ten acts – One show. Pops says we come right down the line from some famous circus folks – but that don’t buy us any respect from anyone here. Well, it does, but not as much as the roll we have by the end of each night we’re on the circuit.
Money’s what it’s all about, right? We’re well-respected by Big Mike and the other carnies here – that’s why you always find our show at First Call, the best location on the lot, without a crescent in our banner line, meaning we get the space to unfurl our banner straight. We help get the townies in the gate and pull them all the way through to the back end. We’re known for giving the marks a great time with our Boston Version – that’s the best version of our show we can do – before they head out into the rest of the carnival…
we don’t take all their money under our top, so they still have plenty to spend on the rest of the midway. Everyone appreciates that.
Some pitchmen and talkers, they’re not happy if a mark leaves their joint with
even a dime in their pockets – but my pops and I, we understand how it works. You always need to leave a mooch a dollar for gas, that’s what my pops says. We do right by the other people on the lot, and they do right by us. And you’d better, too, if you’re going to be on the road with us. Around here there’s no time to be cleaning up after a milk baby, you know? Since this is the first season you’ve ever signed up for, you’re a ‘First of May’. That means you’re what we call ‘green help’, a ‘greenhorn’ or ‘gazoonie.’ So I’m going to be calling you those names until you’re with it.
And see, ‘with it’ is what you want to be. When you’re with it, you’re educated, you understand how the carnival works, so no one can take advantage of you – and you can help watch everyone else’s backs, too. We look out for each other here. There’s no one else but us – this is our world! From one end of the midway to the other, through the backlot and back yard, front end to back end. Rides, games, shows, single-os – shows with just one attraction – grease joints where a mark can get a bite to eat… each
and every single agent, pitchman, talker, jock and act needs to make their nut, you know, the cost of just paying everything it takes to run your show, to stay on the road. And there is no place for us but the road. No other place for us to go. No other way to make any money. I mean, what else could some of these guys do? Go straight?
Why, my pops and I have been on the road since I can remember! We’ve got sawdust in our blood. I don’t think I’ve ever slept in a bunk that wasn’t bolted to the floor – and spent more than a couple nights carrying the banner, too. Oh! Wait, hold on…
See that girl over there? The one standing by the show tent? No, no – not the girl on the bally stage, where you shout your pitch to get the townies into your show… I’m pointing to the one at the ticket box over there. That’s my Delilah. She’s a bit sweet on me, and I won’t take to anyone having any beef with her. You want some girlie of your own? Well, sure you do! It gets lonely on the lot, sometimes. You should have no trouble finding one. Maybe you’ll get some
townie at each spot, or maybe a girl on the circuit – or even some lot lizard if you get desperate enough. I heard from some guys that they have a girl in every town on the circuit. Some guys even have a couple of wives along the way! You’d think they were movie stars, the way they talk. Not for me, though. Oh no, there’s only one girl for me – and that’s Delilah. Sometimes I could just stand here all day watching her… but we’ve got to get going if I’m going to show you all around.
Now this is front end. Every place you see a grease joint – that’s concessions – and they make good money if they do it right. And they’re always considered front end, no matter where they are. We have games up through here – punk joints, flat stores, bendovers and all the rest. Call them whatever you want – they are all games – and most of them are covered in garbage and paste (you don’t think we’d spend a lot on prizes do you? We’re here to make a buck), anything to keep the mooches coming and dropping a wad at trying to win a cheap little prize. This is where a good agent, the
guy who runs the game, can really rake in the bucks – especially from townies on their way out after the shows. Some of those hayseeds just never want the night to end!
Now we need to wrap up this little tour, so let’s keep moving. This is the back end. Here’s where most of the rides are: your flat rides – flatties – for the kiddies,
(those ones will rough the change right out of your pockets), plus a few of the bigger ones for the adults. And then some dark rides, like the tunnel of love or a haunted house. Then over next to them is where the real big shows are, because it helps draw the crowds through the whole carnival – spending their money as they go – and on their way back through to get out, too. You have to have a great banner line to make the marks take notice. See over there, how each of those big banners says what acts the rubes can expect to see once they’re in the joint? You have the Ten-in-Ones (freak shows), magic shows, girly shows (that’s where you can meet a fine girl, if you want), crime and drug abuse shows (showing the horrors of an illegal life), then a tableau or
two (just model villages and things to look at), depending on where we are. There’s also single-os, then the museums, grind and ding shows (where it’s a ‘free’ show that they make you pay to get
of), animal shows and baby shows. We’re lucky on this circuit because Big Mike has a good mix of live working acts and freak shows, and that keeps the citizens coming through the gate. And the circuit knows Big Mike – they know he’s never burned a lot or caused a beef with the locals – so I think we get a better deal than most. All I know is it brings out the citizens to see our show.
We have to hurry – it’s almost time for the shows to start!
Behind the shows and rides is the back yard. It’s the living lot where the jocks and carnies keep house. Donnikers are over there – that’s the toilets. Over there’s the private trailers and tents for those who can afford them, and bunkhouses for those who can’t – that’s where you’re going to be. Don’t forget to keep your valuables locked up, if you got any. The carnies look out for each
other, but there’s still them that’ll rob you blind if they need a hook-up or have lost their bankroll at the G-Top or something. You might want to think about getting a grouch bag to keep your stuff while you’re on the midway. Then right over there’s the showers, if the water’s working. Right here’s the cook shack, if you want to eat. You
eat here, too, rather than out on the midway with the rubes at a grab joint. Less expensive… and better food, too! If you keep in good with the management, they may even extend a bit of credit if you find yourself short.
Me? A carny?! No, no… not me. I’m a showman, son. You’ll see once the night starts. Carnies, they’re the ride and food jocks, the canvas men, pitchmen and agents, too. You’ll be one once you’re with it – if you last the season. But being in the show –
is being with it in a whole other way! Here, come back onto the midway with me and I’ll show you.
Do me a favour, will you? Don’t say ‘midway’ when you’re around the carnies,
OK? It’s something my pops says, but it’s really from back when the circus had sideshows with it. Nowadays, most of the chumps will go to an arena or something to see a circus. All they care about is animals and high-wire acts. There’s no room for us there any more. Circus doesn’t care – they call us ‘kid shows’, you know? They’ve got squeaky-clean gags and shows and clowns – no room for a grift or girly show. Seems like no one wants to see freaks any more, either. Well, I mean, that’s what I hear the people saying – but we never have any problems bringing in the bucks at the big shows. Thing is, there just aren’t that many true freaks any more. Most of these guys in the sideshows are working acts and gaff what they do – in other words, they use make-up or prosthetics – or have stuff done to themselves so they can call themselves freaks. Even then they still need to be working acts. Good thing we have Big Mike. He cares about us, you know?
Look – just forget I told you any of that, all right? I have to get ready for the show. You want to see why they call me the ‘Clown Prince’ right? Well, in about an hour you’re going to see me hanging upside-down from that crane over there. It cost a bit to get that thing, let me tell you, but Pops insists that we’ll bring in so much from this stunt that we’ll more than make up for the
So, here’s the stunt. See, I’m going to be tied up in this straightjacket, with these chains wrapped around me and then all these padlocks locked through the chains, too. That’s where you come in. You’re my shill for this gag, my ‘inside man’ to help me sell this to the yokels. That’s why I didn’t give you one of our show’s shirts or anything, so you don’t stand out. You just wear your street duds and, when I’m pulling volunteers out of the crowd, you just have to make sure to get yourself where I can see you. It will probably be best if you stand right next to the hawker – that’s the guy selling refreshments – who’ll be walking through the crowd right then. Remember, you have
to pretend you’ve never seen anything like this before. You’re going to make sure no funny business happens with the buckles of the straightjacket, and then double-check the chain gets wrapped around me and the padlocks fastened the way we went over it earlier, right? Pops will be checking to make sure the ankle harness is set the way it is supposed to be – and I know I can trust him – but I want you to double-check everything he does. Just don’t make it look like you’re checking up on him, OK?
Then after I’m up in the air, leave it up to me. Big stunt like that will bring the crowds running to our tent – the lot man, who’s the guy who owns the grounds, and Big Mike have been setting this up with the papers and press, so there should be a lot of people here to see it. Then be ready, OK? Because once I’m out of the jacket and chains, Charlie (that’s my pops, remember?) is going to look to clear the midway when he turns the tip – that’s getting the people in – into our show. After that, just keep close, because we’re going to run the grind – in other words, go through the show – like
there’s no tomorrow. Like I said, Charlie will be the outside talker – and there’s none better when he’s on his game – then Murphy will be the inside talker and getting the acts through the grind. We’re lucky, we already have a bender and fakir, and I can do some work with fire and a few other things – and then we have another couple of working acts to round out the show. Between the blade box and the blow-off, we’ll make our nut, even a little more if we do an after-catch – that’s selling them some slum (junk or something else) once they’re inside.
So your job, as Charlie makes the pitch to turn the tip, is to be one of the first to step up to the monkey box and buy a ticket. Head right on in like you can hardly wait to see the show – and the rubes will follow in right behind you. Once you’re in you go on through and exit out the back. Don’t forget to come back around front and do the whole thing over again – buy another ticket and walk through! We’ll be running the bally all night, so you can be sure we’re going to need you every show. Last kid in your place ended up wandering off in the middle of a
night and leaving us short – so try to keep it together, OK? Remember, you don’t get paid until after we count out at the end of the night. I know it’s hard not to get caught up in everything going on, but you’re working here, now… and there’s a lot of work to do.