Ballyhoo Baby

Photography by Virginia Lee Hunter

By: Grainne Rhuad

Ballyhoo – bal·ly·hoo (bāl’ē-hōō’) n. pl. bal·ly·hoos-

1.Sensational or clamorous advertising or publicity.

2.Noisy shouting or uproar.

I have the attention of a dozen sets of 11 year old eyes.  They are rapt, in awe at my skills.  This doesn’t happen very often, that I amaze to the point of silence so many young people, but today I have a trick up my sleeve.  A trick learned at the breast.  The incredible trick of bouncing a ping pong ball from any point and landing it directly into a gold fish bowl.  Every time.  From a corner position, no problem.  Over the shoulder without looking?  Piece of cake.  I naturally fall into the intonations of a pitch-person while I’m explaining the game rules to the children gathered on this summer afternoon for a birthday party.  I have to stop myself when they start to look in their pockets for change.  I don’t mean to, but somehow I bring out the money whenever I get a ping pong ball and a stack of fishbowls around me.

It’s something I come by honestly.  I was born with this skill.  It probably comes from the fact that while floating comfortably in amniotic fluid my mother was running the goldfish pond with a family carnival.  She also ran the duck shoot, but not if she could get out of it, she didn’t like the sound of the pop guns and always felt like she was being shot at.

It was the summer of 1970 somewhere between Oregon and Florida when my mother noticed she was pregnant.  Travelling with a carnival and working the duck pond, she had set out to see the world.  Joining a carnival was an inexpensive way to travel in this time, and she wanted to get out of the family home in California and see the world.  She hadn’t counted on meeting someone while on the road and growing a family but that’s how it happened.

She did finish out the summer season with the carnival and returned home to Santa Cruz to give birth to me.  When the next season came around she took me with her, setting me in a Moses basket behind the booth counter.  It wasn’t until I suffered terrible sunburn in August that she finally gave in and returned home.

I like to think it was this early travelling that made me so enamored of carnivals, circuses, freaks and geeks.  However I really cannot say for sure that this is so.  What I do know is I have always been intrigued by fringe communities of all sorts.

Somewhere around four my mother in exasperation threatened to sell me to the Gypsies the next time they came through town.  Two weeks later she had to take it back when I wouldn’t stop asking when the Gypsies were coming.  Her strategy of fear had not worked.  I wanted to go with the Gypsies.  I wanted to be snug at night in a trailer made for travel, safe in the knowledge that those that mattered to me were all around.  I wanted to see exotic places, meet people while being protected.  I even wanted to work.  It was with some sadness that I listened to her explain that Gypsies don’t actually buy children.

Yes, all my life I have been in love with travelling groups of people.  I wistfully wished that I had been alive to see Coney Island as it was at the turn of the century.  A haven with Strong Men, Snake Dancers, Sword swallowers and fortune tellers.  I reached early adulthood at a time when places like Coney Island were rundown and nearly abandoned.  Do-gooders who felt it was their duty to “protect” the infirm and disabled seemingly had won a war against carnivals both travelling and stationary.  It was not en vogue to have midgets or “little people” as they were now supposed to be called as primary entertainers.  Conjoined twins were being separated as a matter of course thanks to advances in science.  It was impolite to stare at wolf-boys; those with hypertrichosis. It was impolite to mention differences at all, let alone regale in them.

Watered down carnivals could still be found at your state and local fairs.  You could play games, after you received strict instruction from the grown-ups in charge of you that day not to talk to the “dirty carnies” and “please don’t risk your lives on those unsafe rides.  Those people are drunk when they put them up.”

Of course as a youth none of us listened to this at all.  The carnies were exciting, they had tales to tell if you wanted to listen of alligators and swamps; of beautiful women who had stolen their hearts; of worlds we never saw in suburbia full of music and strangeness.    Why on earth would one avoid talking to someone with so many stories I wondered?  Of course my own mother was not one to caution me in the normal way.  She would tell me to be wary of the carnies wanting to give you something; the other ones are usually fine.  As a result I would spend hours observing who acted what way with the shills, approaching the workers who looked the most interesting.  This ultimately got me banned from going to the fair with a lot of my friends.

Artwork by Lino M.

When I was a teenager, I ran a scam of my own to get into the carnival while it was in town. I very carefully lifted the daily stamp from the ticket office.  These stamps were used to identify who had paid and for how much.  You received a stamp of a certain kind for just paying entry, and a stamp of a separate kind if you had bought an all access pass.  These stamps I was not foolish enough to keep, instead I quickly stamped both of my arms in their entirety.  Once home I got them slightly wet and made an impression so as to copy them.  A born game runner was I and I was not about to pay full price for anything.

The following year our Carnival got wise and tried to randomly change the color of the stamp pad.  To combat this we cut a section out of the fence near the rabbit hutches.  Our skinniest, most innocent was sent in with all our collective money daily and stamp bought they came out and transference commenced.   I don’t know how kids do it nowadays with the prefab bracelets they use instead.  It may be that the magic of the carnival is something they have to pay for.

I did make up for my stolen summer days at the carnival.  I never played the games; it would have been unsporting of me as I knew how to beat most of them.  Instead I just watched people.  The midway is a delicious slice of the human comedy.  You see young men and women trying to impress their dates.  You see couples tired out and see which ones are still in love and which ones are holding it together for the kids.  You see kids who tell you all you need to know about the parents, from Veruca Salt’s who get whatever they want so their uninterested parents can stare at teenage booty to over-involved mums who are making up for childhood lost with their own kids.

And of course there are still the Carnival folk themselves with their stories.  Love lost, love thrown away, adventure found, disillusionment with America, Mexico, Norway, Greece.  They come from everywhere these workers and they end up on the midway for so many reasons.

Most commonly however you will find that carnies have an abiding love for the world.  The sites, the people the sounds the differences in dialects and foods.  They tend to be people who would live on the outskirts anyway, but nevertheless they love to see and know people.  This I can relate to.

This too may be something that was nurtured in utereo.  The need to know people.  The small stories, that are anything but, the cultures that change as you travel day to night.  A habit I have that annoys some people and sometimes makes me blush is I naturally modulate my voice to whatever linguistics I am around.  I will speak like an Aussie, mimic a southern drawl, and speak like I walked out of South Central, L.A.  Sometimes people think I’m making fun of them, but I’m not, I simply cannot help but match their cadence.

It is this ability to blend in, to taste for a minute a community, to appreciate it to its fullness and then move on to another that is the hallmark of the wanderer, the troubadour, the carnie.

More recently I have noticed a new generation finding the weird.  Stage shows that include flame dancing and swords swallowing along with other flagrant acts of self abuse have experienced resurgence in popularity.   Very often they are opening shows for rock concerts or side shows to festivals like Lollapalooza or Ozzfest.  The Aforementioned Coney Island is experiencing a renewal.  Sideshows are becoming a pop-culture go-to from literature to film.  Even comics are tipping a hat to sideshows with series’ like Golly , by Phil Hester (Phil also penned The Crow, Swamp Thing and Brave New World) Golly features a hardworking carnie who finds himself the champion of mankind in the war between heaven and hell.

Artwork by Phyllis Davidson

All in all I think it’s a good thing this return interest to the fringe, the weird.  It’s an inescapable part of human nature but it also serves to remind us all that we are and can be what we want to be.  Society only has as much claim on us as we chose to give it.

8 Comments on “Ballyhoo Baby”

  1. absolutely wonderful …. really, there is book in there somewhere ….. but you know that already …

  2. What a wonderful piece. I grew up watching The Little Rascles and your childhood adventures made me think of this. Adventures I longed for and that left me full of motivation for yet another adventure. I so appreciate your admiration for cultures that are intreaging and too often marginalized by our dominate cultures. The images that flooded my mind from reading your words were a true delight. Time to hit the road and pay attention to the unusual and grow.

  3. That was a wonderful story. I especially liked your reflection on Coney Island. That broad, bland hand to create an equality that means sameness, that bleaches the rich colors so the pale ones don’t wilt, seems to have pervaded the world of the wild and wonderfully free. We need the vibrancy of the daring, the bold, the blessed insane. They add dimension. They add dreams. They add the dizzying heights of rainbows and unbridled imaginations.

  4. Thanks a lot because of this educational write-up, can you create any follow-up piece perhaps? I know men and women just like me personally would likely enjoy it!

  5. I grew up fascinated with carnivals. Our local county fair was the biggest event of the Summer in our small Western NY community, and My Dad was in charge of the front gate every year in my childhood. I was able to spend every day, all day long, on the grounds. Rides were alright, but soon became boring. For me, the big attraction was the back end, with its ten-in-one and the “Broadway to Hollywood Revue”. My friends and I couldn’t get into the girl show, but we’d listen and memorize the ballyhoo. The ten-in-one became my favorite attraction, year after year. My personal favorite performers were Melvin Burkhardt, who always performed at least three or four of the advertised acts (The greatest one being his great creation, the “Human Blockhead”), and “William Durkes, the Man with Three Eyes and Two Noses.”
    Now at 61, with my “straight” career moldering in its grave, and some rudimentary fire-eating, nose-nailing and comedy magic skills, I’m reviving the dream of my childhood, and hoping that this year might be the year when I run away with the circus…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.