Monday, August 1, 2011


“You got a spare fin, kid?”

“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)
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.

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.

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.
(Note: it’s usually glomming geek.)

[“To join at once capable Grinder for Geek Show. Best Geek on road. Want sober Agent for new Race Track and Blanket Wheel, join immediately. Man and Woman for flashy new Two-Headed Baby Show. Doral Dashan wants Ticket Seller who can grind, also Female Impersonator. All people who can stand prosperity and sober. Use couple more Slum Agents, Man for Ball Game, Hit & Miss.” Billboard, July 6, 1946.]

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.”

[“CONCESSIONS — Can place Hi-Striker, String, American Camp only, and another other Legitimate Concessions. SHOWS — Can place Wild Life, Arcade, Iron Lung, or any other Shows not conflicting. RIDES — Can place WHEEL for Duals, Fly-o-Plane or Spitfire. HELP — Can place Second Men on all Rides who drive. Chuck Watkins, Schoonmaker, come on. GEEK WANTED IMMEDIATELY FOR SNAKE SHOW. COME ON. GIRLS — Jack Chickerelli can place Girls for Revue and Posing Show. Can also place one Colored Girl Dancer for Harlem Revue. AGENTS, ATTENTION — Lew Bernstein can place Agents for Count Store, 1 Pin Agent, 1 Skillo, and 1 Wheel Agent. Must be sober and able to cut it.” Billboard, August 12, 1950.]

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.

[“This show has 15 proven fairs in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Want flashy Bingo, Grab, Hanky Panks of all kinds, Bear Pitch, Novelties, Age & Weight and Long and Short Range Galleries. Will book Girl Show, with or without own equipment, white or Colored. Want Talker for newly framed Geek Show. Have first-class Geek ready to operate. Want Foremen for Roll-o-Plane, Chairplane and Merry-Go-Round and Ride Help who can drive semis.

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.”

[Billboard, April 18, 1942.]

[Billboard, May 1, 1943.]

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)

comments: 5

Stefan said...

What a fun post, Michael! As a kind of encore, you might enjoy Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, which is a flawed but really funny and disturbing novel. To entice you further, I should mention that Chip Kidd designed its cover. (Though perhaps that's not enticement--I remember discussing Kidd with you but not your opinion of his work.)

Michael Leddy said...

I’m writing down that title.

I like what I’ve seen of Chip Kidd’s work. I think there’s a joke in here about judging a book by its cover, but I’m going to let it go by.

Anonymous said...

Actually, this is the kind of stuff that makes one want to kill one's self.... Sorry, but it's so awful, sordid, exploitative, and degraded. Aaaaaaaaaargh!

Anonymous said...

two EXCELLENT books:

Secrets of the Sideshows - Joe Nickell

Side show - Howard Bone


Rube Thomas said...

Those who beleive the carnival or midway to be a depressing or "exploitative" do not and can not really understand the mystery, history, myth and legend. Yes, there may have been a little exploitation. Thats how a fellow could succeed in showbiz. That's business for you.