The most amazing illusion grind show playing the large carnivals today is the Girl to Gorilla Show. The effect is awe inspiring. A girl enters a cabinet and closes the door consisting of a series of bars about ten inches apart. The interior of the cabinet-cage is fully lighted. As she stands there facing the audience her body begins to grow hair and to gain bulk and she visibly turns into a huge gorilla!
The gorilla then lunges forward, throws open the cage door and jumps into the audience. The effect happens so quickly and is so startling that the audience reaction is almost as amazing as the illusion. For a brief moment they believe the gorilla is real and most of the audience run pell mell out of the tent. Needless to say this has an effect on those on the outside, who rush to buy tickets to see what it is all about. Never once have we heard a complaint from a patron. In fact, they often return two and three times to see the show.
The illusion, and it is an expensive one to build, is based upon an old one known as Pepper’s Ghost which was introduced in this country in the early part of the century by Harry Keller. He called it the Blue Room Illusion. It was later adapted for grind show use and appeared about twenty years ago on the Royal American Shows under the title of Galatea. In this version a statue turned into a living girl. It was soon forgotten and then revised in a new form about 1966 by magician Chuck Windley. He was turning a beautiful girl into a werewolf on the Reithoffer carnival.
A year later George Dugan and Henry Renn built the illusion known as the Girl to Gorilla for the Royal American Shows and it was an instant smash hit both artistically and financially. On many dates it outgrossed the large girl show review. Soon after, all the major carnivals wanted the attraction. Several excellent ones were framed. Benito Garcia had one with Cetlin and Wilson shows; Joe Luna called his show “Tatanka” and it was beautifully framed with a sixty foot panel front for the Gooding Million Dollar Midway Shows. Eric Rasmussen and Jimmy Dixon have a sensational version now playing at Circus Circus in Las Vegas.
At this writing (1972) the larger carnivals are still advertising for the illusion so the novelty has not worn off. When it does some smart showman will use the same principle and come up with something just as sensational.
It is interesting to note that most of the illusion grind shows are NOT run by magicians. Many of the men who present these shows have no knowledge of magic other than how their illusion works. But what they do have is a knowledge of the art of showmanship. They know how to sell the public on their attraction. It seems ironic that the majority of illusion shows that are making money today being exhibited in carnivals are presented by non-magicians.
In evaluating the several illusion grind shows mentioned in our column last month and the Girl to Gorilla discussed in this, there are several advantages to be cited.
In all of the examples mentioned, with the exception of the Girl to Gorilla illusion, the shows can be operated by two or three people. They are easy to set up and relatively inexpensive to build and operate. The showing time is short and the performer does not need to knock himself out with the presentation. Rarely would the performance run more than five minutes. Since the show is brief there is a large turnover in spectators. Illusion grind shows, if properly framed, are different enough from the standard large side show that there is little competition from these shows. After the initial investment there is little expense involved so the admission can be kept rather low and this is a drawing factor for the spectators.
However, there are some expenditures. It is not all profit. The carnival charges a percentage to book the show. This is usually 40% of the gross after taxes. If the operator of the show does not travel with a large carnival he must book the attraction himself and this can be time consuming, running around finding places to play. If he books on an independent midway, and these are becoming rare these days, he usually pays rent for the space his show uses, according to the size of the show’s frontage. This could be $50 per foot or even higher. There is often an additional charge for the electrician who must hook up the show into the electrical system on the carnival lot.
Booking a show is not difficult. The outdoor showbusiness weekly newspaper, AMUSEMENT BUSINESS, carries ads for grind shows every week. The important thing is for the show operator to have something the public wants to see. If it is an attractive show that entertains it will make money and succeed.
The purpose of this series was not to encourage every magician to run out and become a side show magician or a grind show operator. It was merely to give the reader some insight into the place that magic can and does play in the fascinating world of outdoor showbusiness.