The Carnival Barker: Recalling a Dying Art

Fairs–that is, open-air public festivals at which entertainment is provided for a price–are both a current phenomenon and a tradition dating to ancient Rome. Fairs tend to be held in rural areas–there is already sufficient amusement in cities–and they serve as occasions for the loosening of inhibitions that bind fairgoers in their everyday lives.


Southwark Fair by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

 

There to encourage the fairgoer to depart from his workaday virtues of thrift and reserve is the carnival barker. At the lowest level of the profession, he encourages children and adults to part with their money in the hope of winning hopeless games of chance. At the higher reaches of the guild, he entices farmers and tradesmen to inspect deformed beasts–the six-legged pig, the two-peckered billy goat; to contemplate without embarrassment a human oddity; or to purchase a ticket to a show featuring music and dancing girls.

Barkers are, within the world of the traveling carnival, the most learned of professions, glib persuaders. The grizzled carney who takes tickets on the Tilt-a-Whirl is a ditch-digger compared to the lawyerly status achieved by a barker who can coax people into a tent to look at Lizard Boy, the bearded fat lady, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, or the bored hermaphrodite.

The licentious atmosphere that fairs create has historically resulted in public disturbances, causing governments and the respectable burghers whom they serve to regulate fairs by means of charters; one town is granted the right to hold a fair for a certain number of days, usually at the end of the summer harvest, since fairs often include competitive exhibitions of farm animals, produce and rural crafts and skills.

In fair towns such as the one I grew up in the annual event would attract 100,000 people to a county seat whose normal population was 23,000, transporting the residents from rural slumber to a moderate-sized city without moving an inch.

Left at liberty to wander the carnival midway, an impressionable young mind with an ear for a well-turned phrase becomes a connoisseur of carnival barkers. The man who claims that, within his tent, there is a boy who walks, who talks, who wriggles on his belly like a reptile, is to be avoided. We know who’s inside; it’s Brad, the kid with the bad eczema, finally turning a profit from his affliction–with the addition of a green rubber mask.

The man who drones into the microphone outside the show that promises “Live models, in the nude, definitely not for Junior!” loses our interest after awhile. Because of our age, we won’t be able to get in to see whoever’s on display inside, and the customers who do part with their money are a forlorn crew; hare lips, club foots, and teenaged boys in blue jeans and white t-shirts with rolled-up sleeves, trying to prove they are men. No wonder they have to pay good money to see a naked woman.

No, the best show, even if you can’t afford it or they won’t let you in because you’re too young, is the Club Ebony. The barker’s patter is the best on the midway, and it is recited over a thumping backbeat, a precursor of sorts to Jamaican dub and rap. Jimmy Rushing, the rotund singer who is featured on some of Count Basie’s most memorable recordings, called the come-on before the black revue the “bally-hoo.” Rushing was a product of the traveling “territory” bands of the midwest, and knew whereof he spoke.


Jimmy Rushing

 

The revue you will see more of–if you part with the price of admission–is brought out one by one; the ribald comedian, the dancing girls, the R&B house band, a soul shouter, a sultry female blues singer. Each gives a tantalizing taste of the full range of his or her talents, then stops; you don’t give away what you can sell.

When the crowd has been whipped to a froth of anticipation, the barker makes his final pitch; “It’s showtime–if you’re in line you’re in time,” he begins to call. The entertainers leave the stage and disappear behind the curtain, and the rubes follow them into the tent if the barker has done his job.

The air of sadness that hangs over a fairgrounds at night is a reflection of its artificiality; beyond the tents and the rides one can see farmland and the road out of town, and the hard work that is to be done the next day looms over the gaiety. The spectacle of the carnival is a momentary illusion for the fairgoer, and for the hard-bitten men who must strike the tents and hit the road for another town soon, it is just a job. Their manufactured enthusiasm is sustained by electricity, like the calliope one hears from the merry-go-round that the children ride.

The patter of the barkers is heard less frequently these days; traveling carnivals have nothing to bring to a small town in the summer that can’t be found on the internet every day of the year. Traveling side shows are expensive, because they require a number of talented or unique human beings, unlike automatic games of chance or carnival rides, which can be operated by a single person, unskilled and normal. The genus has evolved, and the descendants of the pitchmen of the midway can be found on Rush Street in Chicago, luring convention-goers into nightclubs to drink overpriced beer and watch pole dancers.

As a matter of fact, the last time I saw Brad the Lizard Boy was on the northside of Chicago. He was on his way to an underground film festival, and was excited about a particularly grotesque childbirth film that he’d heard about.

A taste for bizarre spectacle, once acquired, can apparently be refined but is never lost.

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