Groups like this are becoming history.
“At school I’d see guidance councillors and they’d say, “What career would you like?”
And I’d say, “I want to be in the circus.”
And they’d say, “No, no, no, no, no. How about advertising?”
But since landing a summer job, aged 12, at a travelling fair in 1958, Al W Stencell has never left the circus. By the age of 27 he had started The Royal Brothers Circus with a man named Johnny Frazier, only two hours after they met…
“I started my own circus mainly because I kept getting deported from the United States when I couldn’t get a work permit,” Al says.
Having formed and toured two more circuses with his wife Shirley between 1976 and 1991, he has amassed a collection of 80,000 photographs and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia. Using this giant archive, he has since devoted his time to writing histories of the circus. Stencell’s latest book, Circus and Carnival Ballyhoo (ECW Press) – which he’s here to talk about at Blackpool’s Showzam! Festival – is a definitive insider’s history of circus sideshows – the freaks, natural oddities and working acts, the jamboree that drew in the crowds and coaxed the money from their pockets.
Al’s guidance councillors may have been onto something, if his accounts of seasoned sideshow patter are anything to go by. The little heists and stunts Al’s team used to pull at each town bear more than a little resemblance to those of the world of advertising – just reflected in a warped carnival mirror. Every aspect of the sideshow experience was designed to part punters from their cash. And as well as the efforts of the shills and barkers to get patrons into the shows, I’m amazed to hear about the professional brokering that went on behind the scenes with the local law enforcement.
“The big carnivals all had professional “patches”, as we called them, and they squared the police so that crooked games could work. They would tell the game operators and fortune-tellers what they could do and what they couldn’t do.
“You could maybe only take the mark for 20, maybe 30 bucks during the week, but then on the last night of the fair, the getaway night, there were usually no limits.
“If the town was solidly squared you could work strong all week, but if it wasn’t there would be certain levels you could work, and certain days you couldn’t. On kids’ day, for example, they would tone it all down because the state fairs were the lifeblood of the carnival. They had to go back and re-sign them for next year, so they didn’t want too much heat.”
Palmists were amongst the craftiest and boldest tricksters. ‘Screamers’ would offer a young man a private reading, then threaten to scream for help once they were alone. Al doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the claims of psychic or other paranormal abilities in any sideshow he has seen.
“They would promise you anything,” he laughs. “Many of those readers would say, ‘Well for an extra two dollars I’ll show you my privates’, and then they would lift their skirt and there would be a cat tattooed onto the side of their knee or something.”
Weird animals were a staple sideshow attraction, and sideshow owners were always upping the stakes to find, or fabricate, the most bizarre menagerie. In spite of failing to inspire any serious cryptozoological investigations, tracking down the origins of some of the more improbable creatures was still no easy task.
Back-end showmen (those placed at the far end of the lot to ensure steady customer traffic through the whole area) traded exhibits back and forth to keep their material fresh; the “Minnesota Iceman” – a purported ‘apeman’ corpse frozen in ice and acclaimed “the missing link” – became the centrepiece of Frank D Hanson’s show, and had allegedly travelled across America before it crossed Stencell’s path.
“Frank had given me this phoney story, but later on I talked to the showman Rick West who had been up to visit him, seen the creature and said that it looked like a Hollywood prop. Then a few years ago I was in Florida and I was visiting the Kolozsy family who were famous for back-end shows, and Pete [Kolozsy] said this chap up in Dollywood, Tennessee, painted all of Hansen’s shows. So I finally located him and he said he saw a picture of it up on a sculptor’s pole, so it was obviously made by someone in Hollywood, and a very good job.”
Some of the animals were real: the two headed or six legged cows and sheep were born on farms and there was a roaring trade in mutated animals, both alive and dead. During the early 20th century, the boom years for animal oddities, Variety magazine regularly ran adverts for farmers with mutant livestock. But as the wow factor wore off such exhibits began to lose their place in the limelight. Al seems quite upset by the fading of these curiosity sideshows.
“I went to an auction of show stuff in Florida about 10 years back,” he tells me. “They brought up Al Moody’s stuffed two-headed bull and it didn’t reach the minimum, so it didn’t sell. I walked away thinking I saw the death of the back-end business right there.”
As well as the giving inside story on classics such as the blade box queens and living unicorns, Al’s book also charts the decline of traditional freak show. As people began to lose their appetite for ogling the deformed and disabled, the law protested against the exhibiting of freaks, and care in childbirth improved, fewer people sought a career in freaking. But Stencell looks back fondly on the days of freak shows, pointing out that in those days freaks could earn a very good living, with their private lives sheltered from the prejudices of the world beyond the circus.
“There was a strong community; that was how I tried to present it in the book. The images show them with their kids and you see them backstage playing cards. The armless man would hold his cards in his feet, playing with the tattooed lady and the fat lady. That was quite good you know. Today there are literally no real freaks around, just illusionists and what we call working acts [non-freak acts performing such feats as sword swallowing, fire eating and so on].
“In the early days there was a whole edginess to it – the rigged carnival games, the girl shows, the sideshows, the freaks and the risqué stuff all went together for a night out that people wouldn’t find in their home town. You couldn’t find it anywhere else.”