“You got a spare fin, kid?”Nightmare Alley is a thus-far terrific novel detailing the rise and fall of carny worker Stanton Carlisle. (I’m eighty-eight pages in.) The novel begins with a description of a carnival geek, the wild man whose act involves biting the heads off chickens and snakes. In an introduction to the 2010 New York Review Books reprint of Nightmare Alley, Nick Tosches notes that as late as 1960, Billboard ran geek-wanted ads in its carnival section. Yes, Billboard had a carnival section. So off I went to Google Books.
“No. Let’s get on back to the tent. You got the new Billboard to read. Zeena left it under the stage.”
William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley (1946)
Here are three geek-related Billboard ads. The definitions that follow the ads are from Conklin Shows’ Carnival Dictionary, which distinguishes between two kinds of geek:
Geek: A snake-eating wild man. The snake is pushed into the geek’s face who bites its head off and spits it out. He doesn’t actually eat the snake.(Note: it’s usually glomming geek.)
Glooming Geek: A geek who uses his hands to glom [look at] the thing he is going to eat instead of having it pushed in his face. He appears to like it and chews it up well, not spitting it out like an ordinary geek.
Grinder: “A person who has a certain ‘set spiel’ or sequence of words that he delivers from the front of a midway attraction as long as the show is open.” Slum: “Cheap merchandise, on the smallish side, such as jewelery or gilded plaster bookends, sold at stands or given as prizes in games of chance or skill.” Agent: “The concession clerk.”
Did you notice the shout-out to Chuck Watkins and Schoonmaker? These ads often function like a message board or Twitter. Again and again, there are exhortations to come on: “Bob and Little Mac, come on.” “Lee McDaniels, come on.” “Chuck (Pop) Wilson, come on.” And at least one ad offers reassurance that a particular carny has already come on: “Filipino Jimmy is here.” Which meant what?
The Hi-Striker is what you think: the familiar ring-the-bell-and-win-a-prize attraction. String: “An open-front show with a long line of canvas banners.” The Iron Lung seems to have been just that: a man or woman in an iron lung.
We have capable Skillo Agents, no head. Brownie Cole, contact. Also want Man and Crew for Line-Up Store. Can place 3 good Men on Grind Store for soldiers’s pay day in Guthrie. Ray Bona, answer. Want Girls for Girl Show, salary and bonus. Need 6-Cat Gunner and Ball Boys who also up and down concessions. Following contact me: Norfolk, James Moore and Lightning. Have five good spots for you. Also want Colored Girl Show to join first week in August.” Billboard, July 21, 1956.]
Grab joint: “A centrally located snack stand.” Hanky-pank: “A game of skill that caters to young and old alike; small prizes. ” Gunner: “One who operates the device which controls the game.” Line-up: “A store or joint in the line, as opposed to one in a central position. ” A joint is “any kind of carnival stand.”
So much of the recent American past in these ads: polio, World War II (women taking over jobs), and of course Jim Crow and de facto segregation. Carnivals in many states must have been racially segregated, as these home movies appear to suggest.
William Lindsay Gresham also wrote Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1953), now out of print. (NYRB, how about it?)
A related post
Nightmare Alley (the film)