Sunday, November 19, 2006

John Mowder: Interview With a Carnie. Part 1

One of the benefits of attending the drawing sessions that I’ve been frequenting this year is the opportunity to meet and talk with a diverse cross-section of the population. These are folks that I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to meet otherwise. Given my mini-obsession with all things “carnival” lately, you can probably imagine my surprise and pleasure to meet someone who is genuinely “with it”. John Mowder has years of experience plying the circuit, and he is entirely generous with his stories and show wisdom. He graciously agreed to sit down with me and do this interview. I will post it in two parts...

MD: Why don’t we start out with a general overview of your show experience. Tell the readers about the wide array of functions you performed in the carnival world.

JM: I’m not much of a mechanic. Everything else I have done. I have ran every type of joint on the midway. I have owned rides, sideshows, fun houses, games and food concessions. I have been a lot man – placing rides and concessions on locations everywhere from county fairs to volunteer fire department parking lots and city streets. I have patched – been the office representative to disgruntled patrons. I have been the show painter on 100 midways.

MD: And from the conversations we’ve had together, I know that you’ve been in a variety of situations- from Podunk “rag shows” to large outfits with a regular circuit. What would you say was your favorite set-up?

JM: I love the creativity that comes with the small “rag show”- turning junk into an attraction with some mystery lights and color. The larger shows are full of newer “slick” equipment. I welcome the challenge of producing within limits. An unlimited production budget is no real hands-on challenge.

MD: What are some of the tricks that you’ve employed to “flash” your joints in some of those small shows? When you talk about the requirement of “creativity”, what do you mean specifically?

JM: In flashing a joint (displaying prizes) the joint always had to look overstocked- that way people would think that you wouldn’t mind giving a prize away. I once had a funhouse... and I remembered on the second day… that I had played the spot a couple of years before. I repainted the back of the funhouse in the morning, turning it from funny to scary... reversed the trailer and sent them through the same maze with the lights out. Those kinds of creative solutions couldn’t always be easily applied on a larger show due to time and space and the general attitude of the “office”. The smaller show was always about “whatever it takes”.

MD: What kind of places would you show up with a “rag show”? Were the marks different on those lots than with the big shows? Did you have to adjust your pitch?

JM: A carnie booked his equipment wherever he could find the best spot. One week you may be sitting behind a fire hall booked with a carnival with five rides... and the next week on a fairground with a thirty -five ride show. Most carnies spend most of the season with one show and then move around to others for the bigger spots and warmer weather in the fall and winter. Often as much money is made with a five-ride rag show behind a fire hall, or small festival... as is made with a state fair. Sometimes a pitch changed with the perceived sensitivities of the marks. The “bobo” in the dip couldn’t say things at a church-sponsored spot that he could say behind a fire hall. A sideshow act that worked in Farmville may be just too unbelievable on the streets of Baltimore.

MD: I’m glad you brought up the sideshow, because it’s definitely something I wanted to talk about… You started carnie-life on the cusp of the downfall. There was the Grady Stiles controversy and the little disabled girl that was put off by the sight of “freaks” being displayed for money. You were around when all of this went down. What was the mood in the business at that time? Did people realize that the whole thing was going to irrevocably change?

JM: PC (political correctness) became the crippling enemy over probably 10 years. Paying money to see a physical deformity became "not cool". Working acts (fire eaters, sword swallors, gaffed acts... like electric girl, who lights fluorescent bulbs from her tongue, etc. ) and illusions (the headless girl etc.) were OK... but not enough to stop traffic in more and more spots. Fewer and fewer shows were on the midways. These days it is hard to find a back-end operator (shows were always around the back-end of a midway). Those tents and banners and sounds and

Continue on to Part 2.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mowder is the coolest artist in Pittsburgh, hands down.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

Excellent interview. Would liked to have read more. He, being both a Phg. artist and a carny/circus man, has to be a real treat for you to talk with. For some reason he doesn't fit my conception of what a carny operative would be like (I took a peek at his website), but then there are likley lots of surprises in that world.

Keep up the good (and entertaining work). Something for everyone here.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for the encouragement. John has no end of interesting stories. If you knew him, he'd fit your conception even less (I believe).

Honestly, I would have liked to write more. There was plenty I could have asked him that we didn't have time for. The way we did the interview was by taking turns at his computer... all written. Meanwhile, he told me additional tales that he did not necessarily want included on a public forum. John has an intense level of respect for the magic of the carnival, and he wasn't looking to disillusion anyone.

7:28 AM  

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