Monday, May 1, 2017

First of May, Choosing Day and Carny Weddings

The first of May is once again upon us, the signal for circuses to start the new season! Traditionally, May 1st is the beginning of the circus year, a date whose significance likely stretches back to the days of the early mud shows. These small wagon based shows had to wait each year for the winter thaw and the early spring rains to finish in order to travel their territories without getting stuck, usually around that date. Eventually, the term "First of May" came to be used as a derogative term for a member of the circus in their first year and one of the most derisive insults you could use against a circus veteran. Since the circus season starts on the first of May, the date is also referred to as "all clown's birthday," since a clown's career officially starts on that day as well.

Shortly after the first of May came "Choosing Day," at least, if you were on a permissive show like the Great Wallace Shows. On Choosing Day, held early in the season, the unmarried members of the troupe would select their mates of the opposite sex for the duration of the tour. Once chosen, the unofficial couple were stuck together as no swapping of partners was permitted after the day was out. While numerous shows were permissive enough to allow for "the old tradition" as Billboard referred to it, American society wasn't. Concerned for their reputations (and thereby their attendance numbers) the vast majority of shows stopped the practice, many going so far as to become "Sunday Shows," family friendly circuses with strict rules about fraternization between the sexes among other behaviors.

Unmarried couples who cohabitated as they did with Choosing Day were considered to have a "carny wedding," though this term also refers to other types of unofficial marriages as may have been necessary on a show when a priest wasn't available. In some cases, a more formal carny wedding ceremony was even performed usually consisting of the couple riding one rotation of a merry go round or Ferris wheel officiated by the show boss.

That's it for this week! I'd like to welcome anyone who's made it here from Motor City Steam Con where I'll be guest speaking again this year! Happy first of May and All Clown's Birthday!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Mighty Haag Circus

This week we're on to Louisiana's Mighty Haag Circus. Founded by Ernest Haag (1866 - 1935) Mighty Haag ran for an impressive 43 years before shuttering in 1938. Haag started on his path to the circus after running away from home on a boxcar at the age of 12 in 1878, Riding the train all the way from his home in Indiana to Philadelphia and then to New York, Haag made money as a shoe shine boy and by selling newspapers before joining up with the Robinson Two-Car Show as a member of the band.

After leaving the Robinson show, Haag continued as an entrepreneur selling juice at local events with a "spend a nickel get a prize "gimmick that successfully drew people in. Haag continued the juice business off and on, running a failed minstrel show in between until he finally decided to try his hand once more at the circus, purchasing a small tent for $20 and using it for a sideshow act. Haag next purchased a flat boat he'd spotted tied up on the Red River for another $20 recruiting a juggler and a minstrel show performer. This piecemeal acquisition became Haag's standard business model. Start a show, spot something useful on the river or the road, buy it and add it to the show. When Haag went from river to wagon show with a single second hand farm cart and one team of horses, he took the show all the way from Louisiana to Kansas, buying wagons and show pieces along the way.

By 1909 the newly dubbed "Mighty Haag Circus" was on rails, starting its run that first season with 10 cars and ending with 18. The show ran throughout the golden age of the rail circus until 1914 when it returned to wagons and then progressively became a modern truck show starting in 1918. The show became well known for its unique acts including the somersaulting elephant, "Major," a group of blue faced monkeys capable of "remarkable acts of intelligence," and M. Di'Faulham, an early daredevil pilot. Haag also leased (after a failed bid to purchase) the German "orchestrainia," an instrument who's description and design have since been lost to history.

Haag himself was loved by his employees, some going as far as to name their children after him (Harry Haag James, son of bandleader Everett James and aerialist Maybelle James and a famous big band musician in his own right). He was also a well known member of the community in Shreveport where the show's first winter headquarters was located, owning a sizable amount of real estate and acting as director of the city's largest bank for 18 years. After Haag's death from heart failure in 1935, the show carried on for another three years before closing in 1938. Many of the circus performers who received their start with Mighty Haag, as well as many of Haag's descendents went on to other large circuses including Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey. Haag himself in fondly remembered in his adopted home of Shreveport, most recently a performance in his honor being held on behalf of the local museum of art in 2014 at Pinewold Manor, the location of the original winter quarters.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Fred G. Johnson and the Art of the Bannerline

The sword swallower. The tattooed girl. The snake charmer and the spider girl. The sideshow banner line is one of the most indelible images of the circus and among the most recognizable figures in this uniquely American art form is Fred G. Johnson. Born in 1892 in Chicago, Johnson started working for U.S. Tent and Awning Co. at the age of 14 and later banner painter H.D. Cummings as an cleaning assistant . Cummings took the young Johnson under his wing, teaching him to paint despite Johnson's lack of any formal artistic training.

Johnson did his most notable work at the O. Henry Tent and Awning company where he worked for the majority of his career from 1934 to 1974, joining the company after Charles Driver, one of the original owners of U.S. Tent and Awning went to work (having briefly left U.S. Tent to start his own short lived banner painting business where Johnson was also employed). In O. Henry's employ, Johnson also created artwork for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair Century of Progress exhibit.

Over the course of his 40 year career, almost every circus, major or minor used Johnson's banners at one point or another. His bold, eye catching colors were created using a special mixture of oil paint, ground crayon, benzine and boiled linseed oil as well as several undisclosed ingredients. This mixture allowed Johnson to get the brightest colors with the least paint and the fewest coats. According to his own reports, Johnson could produce as many as four eight foot tall banners a day. His competitor, Snap Wyatt (1905-1984) averaged only one similarly sized canvas per day while Tattoo Jack Cripe, a student of Wyatt's claimed to average 8 to 10 hours per painting.
                                Banners by Tattoo Jack Cripe (left) and Snap Wyatt (right) 

In their day, works by artists like Johnson, Wyatt, and Cripe sold for around $85 and were considered simple advertising. In recent years, however, their work has gained a new appreciation as folk art. Johnson's surviving banners in less than ideal condition have sold for nearly $2000 at Sotheby's auction house while others have gone for as much as $5000 at other auction houses. Today, his works as well as those of other banner artists hang in numerous museums across the country including the State of Illinois Art Center Gallery, and circus museums in both Baraboo Wisconsin and Sarasota Florida.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Brill's Bible

It's rare that a single figure crosses the boundaries between the worlds of the circus, the carnival and the magician's stage. Aaron K. "Scoop" Brill was one such figure. Brill got his start managing and building props for a lion trainer before moving on to the carnival where, among other things, he specialized in building rides. Known on the midway as "Headline Harry," Brill set about documenting everything he could related to rides, attractions, and concessions before going overseas during WWII. 

Starting in 1946 after his return to the U.S. until his death in 1986, Brill began publishing A. Brill's Bible of Building Plans, making himself the keeper of design secrets for the outdoor amusement industry. For $1, an enterprising soul could purchased Brill's Bible, a catalog of blueprints and designs for everything from bleachers and carnival rides built from old truck parts to cotton candy makers and stage illusions like the "floating chair suspension" and "girl to gorilla" transformation, often used as a sideshow act. For an additional fee, one could then order full plans from Brill's catalog. Based on Brill's designs, one could practically build an entire show from top to bottom. 

While notoriously against government regulation, Brill claimed that he never designed a game or feature that wasn't on the up and up, though he did know the secrets of the carnival grifter. He trusted in his reputation as a businessman to get him through and considered selling the plans for rigged attractions was too big a risk for too little reward. Today, an original Brill's Bible can fetch top dollar at auction and his plans are bought, sold, and traded by magicians, carnies and outdoor amusement owners and enthusiasts even now, though many believe that not all of his plans are complete or entirely accurate (Brill was known to measure only a few parts of an attraction and then extrapolate the rest). His Bible even has a place in the Library of Congress. 

After Brill's death in 1986, the business was bought by David L. Hewitt, who, with the help of his children restored the original catalog and plans, adding additional notes gathered from Brill's estate. PDF copies of the 1970 edition of Brill's Bible can be purchased from and originals can occasionally be found on auction sites. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Hey Rube!

     "Hey rube!" The call goes up along the midway. Perhaps a townie has gotten a little too fresh with one of the bally girls. Perhaps he's found one of the circus workers engaged in grift. Whatever the reason, the sound of the words "hey rube" meant there was going to be a fight and would bring in any circus hand within ear shot running.
     Shows that had issues with towners or "gillies" had to be careful however, lest they "burn the territory," ruining both their own reputation and those of any circus that came to town in their wake and making it near impossible for anyone to book a show in the area. Often shows that allowed (or even advertised for) grifters or "fakirs" also had a "fixer," "patch," or "legal adjuster" whose job it was to smooth over any ill will by providing bribes to the local authorities in advance. Shows like those run by John "Pogey" O'Brien one of the most notorious grift show owners (and one time lessee of P.T. Barnum's circus) often sold the "X" or exclusive right to run a particular scam in exchange for a cut of the profits. Three card monte dealers, short change artists, pick pockets were all common types of grifters on the lot, and those were only the simple scams. Some shows even had grifters who engaged in complex long cons.
      More legitimate shows, ones without authorized grift would also send a party like the "advance clown" ahead to make sure the local community had a good opinion of the circus by visiting hospitals, nursing homes and local businesses before the show's arrival. As small mud shows gave way to large rail circuses with regular yearly routes, it became increasingly important for a show to appear clean and above board for the sake of repeat business. To the "Sunday School Show" like Ringling Bros. and many other large circuses, grifting was a bane, one that their owners fought hard to prevent, even hiring local muscle to keep con artists off the lot.
     In the end, be it at a circus with grift or an honest Sunday school show, woe to the townie who causes the words "hey rube" to be uttered. The words still hold the same power today on many circuses and carnival lots and have also been adopted into military parlance, used to signal a ship in distress and in need of air support starting in WWII. More recently, they've been adapted to social media by many circus workers, used as a call for help and support to other shows and circuses around the world and a way of letting other shows know about possible thieves and bad actors floating from show to show.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Bearded Lady Then and Now: Madame Clofullia, Julia Pastrana, and Their Legacy

Madame Clofullia, born Josephine Boisdechene in Switzerland in 1827 was America's first famous bearded woman. By the age of 8, she had reportedly grown a beard 2" thick, likely caused by a condition called hypertrichosis, the same condition responsible for so called "werewolf syndrome" in extreme cases. Her performing career began at 14 when she started touring Europe with her father to assist her family financially. Josephine later married Fortune Clofullia, a French painter and gave birth to two children, a daughter who died in infancy, and a son, Albert who himself would go on to be exhibited as "the infant Esau" due to his own hirsute appearance at a young age.

In 1853, Clofullia brought her family to America, joining P.T. Barnum's American Museum. Much to Barnum's chagrin, Clofullia proved so genial, proper, and ladylike that she failed to generate the amount of controversy and more important the attendance that either of them expected. In an effort to help recoup his investment, Barnum hired William Charr to sue Clofullia, disputing her gender. Testimony from both her father and husband and examination by three doctors later and Clofullia's gender was definitively proven. While attendance did rise in the days following the suit, Clofullia never received the uproar Barnum expected.

A year after Clofullia's American debut, Julia Pastrana, a bearded woman born in Mexico who also suffered from a then undiagnosed genetic anomaly called gingival hyperplasia which caused thickening of her lips and gums made her own debut. Purchased by a customs official in Mexico (a practice that was not unusual for the time when it came to human oddities) she first performed in 1854 at the Gothic Hall in New York, billed as a hybrid of man and beast. Pastrana was, in fact, an accomplished performer, able to dance, speak three languages fluently, and graced with a beautiful singing voice. Of course her performance had little to do with why the audience was there. Her billings are reflective of some of the worst stereotypes and racism of the day, referring to her as "the baboon lady" and "the bear woman" among other unfortunate sobriquets.

In 1854 she married her new manager, Theodor Lent and in 1859 the two discovered that Julia was pregnant. Neither mother nor child would survive the birth, however, dying mere days from one another. Lent, in an effort to continue cashing in on his wife's fame had both her and the infant preserved via a combination of taxidermy and mummification. While exhibiting their remains, Lent also came upon a German woman, Marie Bartel who suffered from the same conditions as Pastrana and whom, like Pastrana, he wed and exhibited alongside the remains of his first wife and son, billing her as Julia's sister, "Zonora Pastrana." Lent eventually went insane and was committed by Zonora in 1884, dying in an asylum in St. Petersberg,

Zenora sold off the bodies of Julia and her child which made their way from side show to museum to medical exhibit before being rediscovered in Oslo's Institute of Forensic Medicine in 1990. Thanks to the efforts of visual artist Laura Anderson Barbata, Julia's body was repatriated in 2013 after nearly 10 years of presenting her case for giving Pastrana a proper burial in Mexico. Unfortunately, the body of her son had been destroyed by vandals years before. Barbata's sister also produced a play written by Shaun Pendergast and performed entirely in the dark called The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrna, the Ugliest Woman in the World.

The tradition of the bearded lady, one of the icons of the circus sideshow continues today. Among the most accomplished bearded women currently performing is Jennifer Miller, founder of Circus Amok, dancer, filmmaker, writer and university professor, she also works with a variety of grass roots organizations like Milk Not Jails with whom Amok partnered for their show MOO. Through her performance, Miller takes on social, political, and gender topics, bringing the legacy of women like Madame Clofullia and Julia Pastrana into the 21st century and using it to further the cause of social awareness. Jennifer has also won a Bessie award in 1995 and an Obie in 2000 for her performances. She can be seen in the documentaries Un Cirque a New York and Juggling Politics.

So there you have it, three bearded ladies, their lives and legacies. Till next time,

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman    

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


     Whew, just when I think I've got this thing back on the rails... Anyway, this time for sure, Rock. 

     Since Dr. Future-wife and I have been watching a lot of Ru Paul's Drag Race lately, I figured we'd talk this week about Barbette, the female impersonating phenomenon of the early 1900's. Born Vander Clyde Broadway in Round Rock, Texas in 1899, he found his calling early in life when his mother took him to see his first circus around the age of 8 in Austin. According to legend, Broadway fell in love with aerial performance and would spend hours practicing the high wire on his mother's clothesline. During the summer, he worked in the cotton fields to earn enough money to see every circus that came through town. 
     Broadway's big break came when, after graduating high school at 14, he responded to an ad in Billboard placed by one of the Alfaretta sisters. One of the duo had passed away unexpectedly and the remaining sister was auditioning for a replacement to continue the act in nearby Austin. The only stipulation? Vander Clyde Broadway had to perform as a woman. Adopting the name Barbette, he began his career in 1919, performing on both the high wire and trapeze on the vaudeville circuit before embarking on a European tour in 1923. 
     Barbette became the toast of the Paris art scene playing at venues like the Moulin Rouge and Casino Royale. He was also artistic muse to the likes of photographer Man Ray and poet Jean Cocteau who by all reports fell in love with Broadway's female alter ego. So convincing was Barbette that one night when he removed his wig as he was wont to do at the end of every show revealing himself as a man, a Russian sailor taken with his female persona was so distraught that he drew his pistol and shot himself. 
     Barbette went on to perform both in Europe and America with Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey before retiring in 1938 after a combination of injuries suffered during a fall and pneumonia ended his performing career. In his retirement, Barbette turned to training other performers as well as working in Hollywood, most notably as "gender illusion coach" to Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot
     Barbette's accident in 1932 left him suffering with chronic pain for the remainder of his life however. In 1973, he died of a self inflicted drug overdose. His grave marker in his home town of Round Rock bears only one name, Barbette.