Monday, November 20, 2006

John Mowder: Interview With a Carnie. Part 2

This is the second part of a two part interview. If you haven't read the first part... it's posted here.

MD: I have a great sadness that I was not old enough to see that legendary back-end atmosphere. I don’t think I am the only one that feels that way. Now we have crap like Jerry Springer and reality television. Ugh. And at the carnival, it’s all rides and games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but the real magic was under the small tents. Tell me about some of the “freaks” or human oddities you worked with/around.

JM: I have been around real human deformities (Stiles family, etc.) and gaffed deformities (alligator-skinned boy, half man-half woman, two headed babies, etc.). They were all regular people shopping and finding laundry mats and fixing a truck during the day... but at night they became the strange and unusual, behind gaudy (yet simple) eye-stopping banners... and their “unusual’ stories were told by talkers over loud, crackling horn speakers. The carnival today is a traveling amusement park. I believe that marks today might support a sideshow at a large volume spot like a state fair... but those back-end showmen aren’t around today... and the real freaks are getting disability benefits or have found a town and a job. The midway has become all very PC and family-only oriented. There is no bally stage of freaks or girl shows to walk the children quickly by.

MD: I know that you’ve worked a girl show as well. What was life like in the back of that tent? And what was it like in the front? Was it any different then going to a strip bar nowadays? Would it have been the same type of girls working in them?

JM: Girl show gals didn’t last long. They were usually escaping small towns for many reasons. Carnies don’t care about pasts beyond the business. Whether the girl was “working” beyond the show and recruiting Johns in the show was up to her... and the gal show owner. All of this depended on a “legal adjustment” that the show office and patch usually took care of. The last “girl show” I know of was at the Shenandoah County Fair in Woodstock,Virginia... about 1986. The farmers wanted the “gal show” and the town PC’ers did not. The show contracted a girl show producer and a show was framed. The show did very well that week... while the week-long fight between the farmers and town people played out in the local daily. That was the last girl show. The green and white tent we used was housing a watermelon sale the week before... in some parking lot. The producer hired some bar dancers from Baltimore and housed them at the Holiday Inn across the street. It was a lucrative finale for the girl show business. The show in the tent was probably a little “stronger” than what goes on in a bar.

MD: That's just one more missed opportunity for me to lament. You mentioned that you worked as a “patch”, and you explained earlier what that was. Do you have any interesting stories about a particular “beef” that you resolved?

JM: It was usually, “If you didn’t understand the rules of the game, then why did you play?" "No you can’t have a refund because you stopped someone from playing who read the rules and understood the game." "How much did you spend?" - Give them some ride tickets and tell them not to play games that they don’t understand.

MD: Some people simply don't learn the lessons. As far as I’m concerned- if you don’t know better by this point, then you pretty much deserve whatever you get. Anyway… unfortunately we have to wrap this up. But before we end I want to touch upon your work as a show painter. Much of your current artwork reflects an aesthetic obviously earned through your efforts on the midway. What do you think you carry with you from that experience?

JM: It’s an ongoing love of color and the challenge of making a complex yet simple, multidimensional, engaging image. On the midway it's all about attracting attention and curiosity... enough to stop and ponder as the dimensions unfold. The carnival was one big palette for me. My choices of color, shape, line, form, and texture all have traces of sawdust... it’s in the shoes. Thanks for the interview... I didn’t think anyone was interested... it’s so far away.

MD: Thank you, John.

John Mowder's artwork can be seen online at this site. Have a look!


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