Last night, I saw a lady at the store who looked like a carnival performer I once saw. When I was young, I loved carnivals. REAL carnivals. I’m not talking about something your church does as a fundraiser and calls it a carnival. I’m also not talking about a circus. A circus is a completely different thing. A carnival is, well, a carnival. Cotton candy; funnel cakes; rickety dangerous rides; sketchy employees; rigged games; cheap prizes; rough, flinty women; side shows; and a land armada of trailers where the workers live. A carnival rolls from town to town spreading joy and not a small amount of trepidation when it arrives.
I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky. We had carnivals, usually at least once a year. The Guthrie Shows was the big one. The Shriners sponsored it. It would set up in the parking lot of one of the local high schools for a week. Ray Guthrie was from Middlesboro, Kentucky and would roll his carnival all around Southeastern Kentucky. We loved it. There was also Myers Midway–excellent, too.
I’ve written before about how wrestling brought out the real Harlan Countians. The carnival brought our everyone. It created a vast melting pot of our small corner of Kentucky. You could see people from Holmes Mill to Pathfork at the carnival. When I was in high school, some friends and I stood in line for a ride behind some stereotypical Harlan Countians. Trying to get a rise out of them, we began to complain loudly about how bored we were and shouldn’t have vacationed in Harlan. A woman turned around, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and said: “Who sent you here fer a vacation? All we have here are back stabbins, back shootins and cooooold-blooded killins!” She wasn’t from the Chamber of Commerce.
When I went to college, I would still go to carnivals, albeit not quite the same as in Harlan. Lexington, Kentucky has the yearly Lions Bluegrass Fair. It has evolved into more of a state fair atmosphere over the years, but–in the 1980’s–it was pure carnival. It was the Guthrie Shows on steroids. Good stuff.
Why the love of carnivals? Let’s see…
As most folks know, carnival workers are called carnies. They are a singular subculture. They have a grizzled, dangerous look about them. They set up the carnival, operate the rides and run the games. It’s not a carnival without the carnies.
They often have missing digits or limbs. This doesn’t stop them from doing their jobs, of course. They’ll pull the lever to start the Tilt-A-Whirl with that one good arm with a smoke dangling from their lips. Sometimes, they’ll have an eye missing. Do they wear patches or buy glass eyes? Of course, not. They just leave a gaping hole or simply sew the eye shut. They’re carnies. I saw a carny with a lame arm. He just had it strapped to his side. You don’t see that outside the midway.
Carnies fascinate me. What is life like for them? They live in their trailers at the carnival. I imagine them drinking rot gut whiskey and playing cards far into the night, perhaps stabbing someone. The romance of it all is intriguing, but it probably sucks..
My Dad’s Uncle Jay was a carny for many years. Jay’s wife, Aunt Ruth, was a fortune teller. They were true carnies. I believe they may even have lived in Gibsonton, Florida at one point. Gibsonton is famed as the Winter home of carnies and sideshow performers. Such luminaries as Lobster Boy and Percilla the Monkey Girl called it home.
Jay was a barker. The barker is the guy who yells at you when you walk across the midway trying to get you to waste your money on something. After he retired, Jay came back to Harlan for a visit. As luck would have it, a carnival was in town. Jay went to the carnival and ended up staying there a week. Carnies all know each other.
My parents once visited Jay and Ruth in Florida. They were told that Jay’s house had a “big palm” in the front yard, as one might expect in Florida. As my parents drove down the street, they spotted it. Yes, it was big palm–a hand identifying the home of Madame Ruth, Fortune Teller. True carnies.
Once Ruth was trying to find Jay who was, apparently, wont to disappear on occasion. She came to my Granny’s house demanding to know his whereabouts. Granny responded with: “Why don’t you look in your crystal ball?!?!” Granny wasn’t impressed with carnies.
I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky, which had a bit of a carny flavor to it. No, it’s not because the residents looked like carnies, although a few surely did. It’s because there was a family in town that owned and repaired carnival rides. One member of that family was my younger brother’s baby sitter.
The patriarch of the clan was “Hoss,” a man whose girth no doubt led to his nickname. He had rides and parts of rides all over his yard. For a brief time, he even had a small Ferris Wheel. My little brother loved that house. The best days at the baby sitter were when he would come home and say “I played with Hoss today.” Hoss also had an even more imposing son called “Mighty Moe,” but that’s a story for another time.
When I was small, that house was a wonder to me. Why did they have all those rides in their yard? I thought they were part of a carnival. I was a tad disappointed when I found out they were just regular people.
Real carnivals had side shows or, as they were called in less politically correct times, Freak Shows. I know that we’re not supposed to call people freaks. It’s just not good form anymore. That is, however, what they were called. I didn’t come up with the term, so don’t assail me for using it here.
Sonograms and evolving human decency have largely destroyed the Freak Show as an art form. Modern medicine has also played a part in limiting the numbers of qualified entertainers. Surely, the Elephant Man and the Mule-Faced Woman would receive at least some rudimentary medical care before their conditions became acute. In days past, these unfortunate folks had little else to do but turn to the world of side shows. It’s not like they could work in service industries.
If you want a good look at this bygone world, rent Tod Browning’s classic film, Freaks, made in 1932. It stars real sideshow performers such as Prince Randian The Living Torso, Johnny Eck The Half Boy, Josephine Joseph and Zip The Pinhead. It was so disturbing at the time that Browning had difficulty even finding theaters to show it. It was banned entirely in England.
I will confess that I have attended several freak shows. This is nothing of which to be proud, but it’s true. I’ve seen many of the typical freaks, such as Blockheads. A Blockhead is a person who will push a nail straight into his face just beneath his nostril. It’s gross, but anyone can do it if he or she is will to poke a hole in their face. It’s more of trick than it is pure freakiness.
Here are my personal Freak Show highlights:
Helga The German Giantess
I saw Helga at a carnival in Lexington, Kentucky. She was billed as The World’s Largest Woman. The sign claimed that she was OVER 7 FEET TALL!! I was with a couple of friends, and we were intrigued. We paid our money and were led to a dingy tent where Helga sat on a shabby throne. She wore a long, black dress and a tiara. I’m not sure how old she was, but I would have put her in her late fifties. It’s really hard to say what with her being a giantess and all.
She held court and prattled on about her adventures. Then, she stood up. I don’t know if she was really seven feet tall (they cleverly had her sit on an elevated stage), but she was big. REALLY big. Maybe 6’8″ and a good three bills. She asked for a volunteer from the audience. There were 6 or 7 people in the tent and some young fellow raised his hand.
The volunteer made her look even bigger, because she was about a foot taller than he was. She held out one of her gargantuan hands and ask him to hold it. My friends and I squirmed at the thought of it. On her hand, she had a ring with a large fake diamond (I say fake, because if it had been real, I doubt she would have been toiling in a Freak Show). He took her hand with all the enthusiasm of someone meeting a leper. Helga then boomed: “MAKE A WISH!!” Then, she took a step back and hiked her dress up to her navel. The giantess wore not a stitch of under-clothing. She dropped her dress and said “DID YOUR WISH COME TRUE?!?!” For some reason, this terrified us, and my friends and I fled from the tent.
More disturbing was that one of my friends kept saying we should go look for her trailer. We said “no” and slowly backed away from him.
THE LSD FREAK
I saw her in Harlan when I was a kid. She sat on the floor of a tent, chained to a post. She held a baby doll in one hand and drooled. The story was that she had been a normal college girl until a “bad trip” turned her into the LSD Freak. Now, she was a dangerous lunatic who had to be chained up. The barker said that if she escaped she would kill everyone. I didn’t believe that, because her condition appeared more catatonic than psychotic.
Now, she wasn’t a real freak, not in the classic sense. She was probably the wife or daughter of one of the carnies, but she disturbed me. Why? Because I wondered–even as a kid–about what kind of bad turn one’s life could take for that to be your job. The Elephant Man had little choice in regard to his profession, but this was something else entirely.
I felt sorry for her and the whole lot of them. But, I never forgot it. So, it must have been a good show.
As noted above, Blockheads aren’t really freaks. They’re just people willing to do something weird. Like a sword swallower (which I’ve also seen, by the way). I’ve seen several Blockheads, but one stands out.
Again, I was kid, maybe 10 or 11. This guy was billed as “The Human Blockhead.” He came through the back of the tent and was an unimpressive sight. He might have weighed 130 pounds. He was pale and somewhat unhealthy-looking, perhaps the pallor of someone who lives in a trailer behind a carnival.
The Blockhead disinterestedly pushed a nail into his face. People gasped. Then, he breathed some fire. Ho hum. He walked in box of broken glass with an apathy that made me think he really wouldn’t care if his feet got shredded. He laid on a bed of nails. Yawn. Then, he did it.
A couple of guys set up two folding chairs while The Blockhead lay in the dirty floor. The two men picked him up. He was stiff as a board. They placed the back of his head on one chair and his heels on the other. He was still perfectly straight. A cinder block was placed on his stomach. He didn’t budge. This was an impressive feat of strength. THEN, one of the guys picked up a sledgehammer and–BOOM!–smashed the block! The Blockhead just bounced up and back down like a steel beam. He was still perfectly balanced on the two chairs. The guys picked him up and laid him back in the floor. He stood up, took a bow and left with the same apparent ennui with which he entered.
I was there, and I saw it. It wasn’t a trick. They smashed a freakin’ cinder block with a sledgehammer on his stomach! I don’t know how he did it, but he did. I hope The Blockhead went on to bigger and better things. I doubt it, but I hope so.
I can’t discuss carnivals without mentioning the food. Corndogs, funnel cakes, cotton candy, snow cones and all manner of other food you wouldn’t eat anywhere else. Everything that can be deep-fried is deep-fried. And it’s all good.
There are still carnivals, although they are somewhat sanitized now. Oh, you’ll still see a two-headed calf or dwarf on occasion. There might even be babies in jars somewhere out there (Truthfully, I hope this one has been permanently eliminated). You might even see a blockhead. They still have all the crooked games on the midway, but I was never a fan of the games, anyway. Some folks still have freak shows, like The Jim Rose Circus. For the most part, though, the carnivals have lost their flavor.
Carnies remain the same–sketchy, dangerous and forbidding, but the rides seem safer. I guess decades of litigation took care of that. I haven’t been to a carnival in years, but I don’t think I can top what I’ve already seen. Why try?
I also saw Helga in 1978 at the Carbon County Fair in Lehighton, PA. Same act, except she told us that her second husband was a midget. “When he stood up, his nose was in it. When he laid down, his feet were in it. And, here it is!” Ha.
So glad you posted this. I have told people of this for decades, and they didn’t believe me. I rule!
Once seen, Helga was never forgotten.