Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Arthur H. Lewis: "Carnival"

If you've been reading this blog for a few months, or if you know me personally, you might wonder if I'm getting burnt out on "all-things-carnival". I can say without hesitation that I am not. I recently had the pleasure of meeting a genuine former carny. "J" was a bit taken aback by my intense interest in the subject. He's also spent time working with circuses, and his experience is that people would rather hear about that. But his true love is the carnival.

I had despaired of ever meeting someone who was authentically "with it"- but J's worked a variety of concessions, painted banners and been employed as a talker. He's also been generous enough to let me borrow a seminal book... in fact, it is indispensable to the history of the show circuit. "Carnival" (1970), by Arthur H. Lewis, is the most informative and compelling account of the subject yet. J explained to me that he used to make prospective employees read "Carnival" before starting them off on a "hanky-pank" (winner-every-time joint). He wanted them to have an idea what they were in for, and this was the book that delivered the goods.

Lewis had the pleasure to tour with several show companies of varying sizes. From the rail-transported Strates Shows to the small truck-bound outfits that play "still dates", the author was given incredible access to the men and women of the carny world. He was passed from agent, to lot-man, to operator, to show-owner, to concessionaire, to human freak, to patch, to kootch dancer... on and on. This is an insular world where access to one insider broadens quickly into many illustrative encounters. For many it's a family affair, and a trust gained and well-maintained is crucial to learning the ropes.

There are some real luminaries in this book. Lewis was able to meet and/or talk with the "Anatomical Wonder" Melvin Burkhart, legendary sideshow owner Slim Kelley, and the cleft-palate-cursed William Durks. But there is also a wealth of interview material with lesser known figures, such as Robert Noell... who pitted marks recruited from his tip against chimpanzees in brutal caged boxing and wrestling matches. The account of a match between Kongo and professional wrestler Bruno Sammartino was hilarious. I wasn't aware of just how strong some of these animal shows were played.

Arthur seemed to have found a way to get an especially intimate look at the girl shows that were fading away. At the time the book was written, traditional revues and burlesques were being replaced by cruder strip shows that appealed to the lowest sexual urges of the marks. Dance steps and live music were becoming a thing of the past. Kootch shows would sometimes employ audience participation- "serving lunch" was the name for a particularly racy scenario.

Along with all the aspects of carnival life I was already familiar with, there was also content about phenomena that I haven't found to be well-covered. For instance, I didn't realize that concessions for donnikers and ticket-taking were sought after prizes. One african-american woman tells a story about having serviced the facilities used by Judy Garland during a fair engagement. After the visit, women rushed to the stall to be the next to plant their seat on the space left warm by the celebrity. It turns out that there is a long tradition of happy service in the place where marks do "their business".

I was also pleased to come across insider accounts of the Bozo the Clown concession. Reading about a particularly renowned Bozo, I was reminded of the time I spent in the tip listening to the flow of insulting challenges of another vicious Bozo from his tank at the Allentown fair. Many of the operators and carnys Arthur toured with spent time and gathered stories in Pennsylvania. In that regard this was almost like reading local history. But I'd recommend this read to anyone, regardless of location. It is certainly one of the better written explorations of the genre.


Anonymous george maloney said...

My mother and father worked the ART LEWIS sideshows and I worked as a clown until I was 8. I am now writing about carnival life and sounds !

12:42 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Are you publishing any of it on the net? I'd like to read some of your stories in any medium.

4:41 PM  

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