13 January 2009

Professions: Wandering Showmen

By Karen Mercury

Circuses and road shows once were the main entertainment in America in the 1800s. Family members traveling about in mule-drawn vans doubled as acrobats ("long-distance double somersault leapers"), jugglers, tightrope walkers ("rope dancers"), or musicians. Marionettists and puppeteers were skilled woodcarvers and costumers making their own "little people" dolls, sometimes figures enacting the story of Orlando Furioso, the travails of Dr. Faustus selling his soul to the devil, or the battles of David and Goliath, the most clever puppets being "figures that fell apart and reassembled themselves."

Sideshow acts were fire-eaters spinning plates, "punch men" who depicted the antics of Punch and Judy with metal diaphragm "swazzles" inserted into their mouths to change their voices, and experts at the "London Ghost Show," an illusion with mirrors. There were rope dancers, trained muzzled bears, human skeletons, roughnecks and razorbacks, and tattooed performers.

Showmen had to build their own sets with hand-stitched curtains of velvet, sequins and spangles of beaten gold. Three-inch curtain fringes were even hand-wrought from gold bouillon, apparently a cheap commodity back then. Entering a town, they would first go to the keeper of the main tavern and arrange for the show, making a deal with the town crier. They would parade up the main street in motley clown outfits, the one-man band loaded down with musical instruments, bells on his ankles, elbows, and head, followed by apprentices with banners that assured townspeople that the shows were "refined in nature" and "on a high moral plane." Food or furs were often accepted as admission on the frontiers of Minnesota, and showmen often hoarded the turkeys and passenger pigeons.

Showmen rarely did matinees, since the filtered sunlight spoiled the effects of the stage. Inside the tent the stage was lit by "lighters," iron baskets filled with pitch pine that burned with a yellow glow and helped hide the marionette strings to prevent the audience from figuring out how they worked--men jealously guarded the backstage area. Audiences weren't too picky about lighting, but sometimes they became irate about other items.

"One Saturday, for example," wrote David Lano, "we were performing Doctor Faustus in Berryville, Virginia. I spotted a big mountaineer who followed the rope-dancing with attention so rapt that I was sure he had never seen a show. With mounting excitement visible on his rough features, he next watched the puppet show. He was mesmerized. In a sense he began living out the play, as part of it. I began to feel uneasy, and sure enough, when Mephistopheles came in at the end to carry Faustus away to Hell, the big mountaineer leaped to his feet, yelled 'Git back, you devil!' whipped out a pistol and whang, sent a bullet at the innocent puppet.

"The audience went straight into a panic, scrambling for the exit. The bullet passed through the backdrop, missed the puppet, but lodged in the shoulder of one of our Negroes helping to hang up the puppets as they came off the stage. The town marshal appeared and took off after the mountaineer, but he galloped away on his long shanks and disappeared before the Law could touch him."

The doctors wouldn't treat a black man, and the marshal, "outwitted by the gun-toting hillbilly, came back, resolved to put on his own show of maintaining law and order, arrested Grandfather on a charge of inciting to riot and made him pay a fine!"

In larger cities, museums often imitated Barnum's famous American Museum in New York, and exhibited permanent collections of "curiosities" such as stuffed mermaids, sea serpents, fetuses in alcohol bottles, and firearms of "The War Between the States." The second floor held living attractions like giants, dwarfs, and fat ladies. The third floor was where the vaudeville theaters would set up.

The advent of the automobile freed people from their farms, and soon even the smallest rural towns had a movie house. The circuses of the gypsy trail were soon gone, and the mechanized semi-trailers of Barnum and Bailey didn't do justice to the wandering showmen of the Far West.