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.