Friday, August 1, 2014

1938 - Fair Time

With August here and the Marion County Fairgrounds preparing itself for the 2014 edition of the Indiana State Fair, I thought I'd get into the mood with a Life Magazine's September 1938 cover. It's a nice shot that you might be able to capture today - a man dressed as a clown enticing the crowd to enter (what appears to be) the fun house. 1938 was a time when country and state fairs came and went with the harvest season. They were a venue where hard-working farm folk could display and sell their wares while, at the same time, taking a break from the hard work of scraping a living from the soil. Now we're used to every event being directly linked to ticket sales. But, let's not veer into wanton sentimentality or wax poetic about the ways things used to be!

In the idiom of the carny, the fellow in the clown getup is known as the outside talker and it's his job to deliver the bally or ballyhoo which will build the tip or crowd of onlookers. You're probably familiar with the ballyhoo as a bunch of noise meant to attract attention, but according to Carny Lingo the term comes to us from the Streets of Cairo pavilion at Chicago's 1893 Colombian Exposition where Middle Eastern performers exhibit manager W.O. Taylor brought out Beledi dancers (a term he later corrupted to belly dancers) and musicians during slow periods in order to attract a crowd. Since these unscheduled calls to perform tended to rouse performers from relaxing between sets they often were heard to mutter "D'Allah hun", or (roughly) "Oh, for God's sake!" and mishearing this utterance, Taylor began calling them to "ballyhoo."

Attracting the attention everyone within earshot it’s known as making the opening and a good outside talker has many tools at his disposal to do the job. All he wants is for people to pause just a moment to pay attention to what he’s saying. That's right, today only you can witness a special free show unlike any other performed to date in this great country. Step into the cool comfort of the tent and out of the swelter of the midway and you'll witness wonders galore!

The crowd has assembled, now it's time to freeze the tip. Put simply is forcing the crowd to pay attention and drawing them closer. During daylight hours freezing the tip might mean bring out a couple scantily-clad dancing girls and at night there might be a fire-eater - anything to grab the crowd's attention and hold it. Gradually the curious crowd closer to the outside talker and the mere presence of a few mesmerized onlookers draws more attention and more spectators until a tightly-packed tip has been formed. Now it's time for the outside talker's next trick, the pitch.

The pitch is where the outside talker describes the wonders that are to be witnessed inside. Amazement and splendor await you just inside, see the scandal that rocked the caliphates of all Araby, Seraphim the Seductive Cobra of Cairo will gyrates and sway to the hypnotic music of the mysterious orient! See Sampson the Strongman of San Francisco tear battleship steel with his teeth! Meet Rita the Human Heatah and see the dance that brings young men's blood to a boil! See the tattooed woman and learn all the history they never told you about in school! Witness the Necro-Magical feats of Madam Wundry as she delivers messages from the great beyond!

Next comes turning the tip, that is to say turning the sales pitch into a call to action, driving the crowd toward the ticket booth and eventually inside the tent where the show will take place. The outside talker might even turn the microphone over to a grind man at this stage, a fellow whose only job is to maintain the call to action - that's right folks, twenty beautiful women on one stage right inside...step right up, don't be shy!

Once inside its time to make some real money. Typically, the inside money, that is to say money made inside the confines of the tent, doesn't have to be split with the house. Members of the show sell their pictures, bios, and other trinkets and once the show's over there's always one more special treat for those with the curiosity (and spending money). This is where you might get a chance to gaze upon a specially hideous exhibit such as (what supposedly is) a deformed fetus preserved in formaldehyde (also known as a pickled punk), catch a glimpse of the cabinet of death wherein lies the lovely (and naked) Lola, or maybe learn a lot from Lydia the Tattooed Lady!

So, if you're strolling the midway this summer and you hear the well-measured cadence of an outside talker mingling with the music of the calliope and the happy babble of fair-goers, pause a moment. You're hearing the sound of hundreds of years of history. Maybe you ought to part with a few dollars, step outside your busy schedule, and wander into the shady, salacious, and marvelous world of the sideshow tent. It just might be the greatest show on Earth.

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