This year (1972) more than seventy-five million people in the United States will visit a carnival of some sort. Tens of thousands will buy a ticket to see a side show. All of the larger carnivals carry a major side show and most carnivals carry one or more “grind shows.”
The outdoor show business field is a multi-million dollar enterprise. In this series of articles we will discuss magic in the large side shows, and the small illusion grind show. We’ve had experience in both of these areas and would like to share some of the knowledge we have acquired. Whether you ever work in a carnival or not we hope that you find the articles informative and that you will appreciate this branch of show business even more the next time you visit a carnival side show.
All of the major carnival side shows, also known as a Ten-In-One because they present a variety of acts, use magicians. Most magicians working in these shows are unknown in “magic circles.” But they are hard working and are usually good performers. One thing is certain; they have stamina. Working a side show during large fair engagements may require the magician to perform as many as twenty shows a day! Of course each show is short, usually lasting no longer than eight minutes and the act consists of only three or four tricks.
The idea is to keep the crowd moving and on a busy day there may be as many as two hundred people in the tent at one time. The magic performed must be fast, colorful and humorous. People at a fair are in a happy state of mind and don’t want to think seriously about what they see so a short presentation of tricks goes over the best. Sucker tricks are good provided they are not stretched out too long.
Sleights are out. The angles are impossible on a side show platform and the people are only a few feet away from the performer. The tricks used must be ones that can be set up in a few minutes time and ones that don’t require refills. The magician could go broke doing cut and restored rope tricks or paper hats and pants. Can you imagine how many carrots one would use in a week while performing Disecto? Feather flowers and silks get very soiled and worn out after a short time on a dusty carnival lot.
We carried only ten effects and all of these took up only a corner of a suitcase. Included were such standards as the Egg Bag, Linking Rings, Chinese Sticks, Die Box, Spikes Through Balloon and Professor’s Nightmare. These ropes had to be replaced about four times during the season because they got so dirty. Only three or four of the tricks were performed each show. None involved audience participation because it would not have been feasible to have
In a side show performance time is the essence. If the tent is full the spectators are kept moving; if it’s not the act is stretched.
In addition to a magician most large side shows present one or more illusions. These serve as part of the ten acts so that there need not be ten different people involved in the show. The Girl In The Electric Chair or some variation of this illusion is almost as standard as the Coffin Blade Box. The blade box also serves as an additional money maker. The girl is placed in the box and the blades are pushed through in every possible direction so that there appears to be no room for the girl. Then the spectators are invited up to look into the blade box and see the “unusual position” the girl is in. For this expose there is an additional charge of twenty-five cents. This additional charge can amount to a sizable amount of money by the end of the day.
Walter Wandos, Ward Hall, Slim Kelly, and Pete Kortes all operate outstanding side shows with the best acts and all use an illusion or two. In fact, Ward Hall had the Headless Lady Illusion as an annex attraction last season. An annex attraction is not part of the regular show; it is exhibited at one end of the tent that has been partitioned off and there is an extra fee charged to see it.
Another form of the ten-in-one show is the all illusion magic show. This is housed in a large tent usually sixty feet by thirty feet and has a huge banner line outside. Each banner depicts, in an extremely exaggerated form, one of the illusions to be seen.
Inside the tent on several small platforms or stages are the various illusions. The spectators move from one stage to the next until they see them all , and the show begins over again. A magician only needs three or four large illusions and the rest can be of the illusionette type such as Sword Through Neck, Dagger Chest, and Abbott’s Arrowhead.
The Great Lester had a large illusion show on the Strates carnival for many seasons. He featured the Burning Alive, Aga Levitation, and Buzz Saw illusions. His show was called Lester’s Magic Museum. At one time the late Dante had a carnival show. George Goebel, who was a feature attraction on last year’s (1971) Get-Together, also had a large carnival tent show a few season’s ago.
One magician we met while we were traveling with a side show had a ten-in-one illusion show built around a horror-torture theme. He called his show “Torture Chamber of Horrors” and all of the illusions had an element of danger in them. He used two girls and a boy to assist him as he presented Abbott’s Shredder, Chinese Chopper, Burned Alive, Coffin Blade Box, and the Iron Maiden illusions. He only did six illusions but they were beautifully staged and his show was real competition for our side show. He must have had an eighty foot banner line, beautifully depicting sexy girls in all manner of being tortured. “Torture Chamber” really pulled in the crowds!
One additional source of income for the side show magician can be obtained from the “pitch.” This is when the magician demonstrates a few pocket tricks and sells them in a package for fifty cents. They can be bought at a wholesale house for a few cents and made up into magic packages. Usually the owner of the show wants 25% of the sales profit to permit the pitch but even with this charge much extra cash can be earned.
In making a realistic evaluation of the side show performer’s opportunity to earn money the following should be kept in mind. It is a good summer job for a young man who is in high school or college who likes to travel and does not mind hard work. There is not a great deal of money in it, but it does pay well for a summer job. In checking several large side shows last season, the average salary was $90 per week plus the pitch after 25% to the show owner. It is quite obvious a married man could not meet all his living expenses on this kind of money but for a young single guy looking for experience where else could he perform twenty shows a day? It can be exciting, but it is not easy!
The only one who really earns much money in the large side show business is the owner. And let’s face it; he takes all the risks and has a tremendous amount of money tied up in equipment.
This is a big business and a major side show on a leading carnival can gross $5000 a day! But it can also lose money if it is rained out.
Trying to start a large illusion side show today is not easy and it takes a considerable investment for the tent, sound, lights, banners, trucks and other equipment. It also takes experience and know-how. A person just entering the business, he’s called “Johnny come lately,” could have a financial disaster.
However, there is one aspect of outdoor show business that one can enter with a small investment and a minimum risk; this is the “illusion grind show.” Grind shows are in demand by all carnivals, large and small. And there is much money to be earned.
We will examine the illusion grind show in our next column and tell you about the ones we have owned and operated.