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The Greatest Show in History: Chicago and the Art of the Circus Sideshow

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Glen C. Davies

By David Witter

Tigers,  jugglers, clowns and beautiful ladies in feathered sequins stand on the backs of horses and elephants. The Flying Caceres troupe swings on their trapezes, one-hundred feet above the ground. Paulo dos Santos twirls, flips and dances on two thin bands of rubber, while Alex Petrov rides a motorcycle across a high wire five-eighths of an inch wide. Starting this week, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus will be rolling into the Chicago area at the Allstate Arena and United Center.

Word about the circus arriving will be blasted across your TV, radio and the internet via downloaded coupons and mass emailings. Billboards on the Kennedy Expressway will feature pictures of grimacing tigers while the electronic message boards at the arenas flash digitally enhanced images. Yet this was not always the case. Seventy-five years ago, somebody on the edge of town would see the wagons, trucks, railroad cars or even elephants marching on foot and cry out “The circus is in town!” Once the circus did make its way across the city limits, the indescribable mystery, adventure and exotic world was brought into the public’s attention by the circus sideshow banner.

Fred G. Johnson

While Paris had its lithograph posters and art nouveau created by artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Gallé, Chicago became the Paris of circus and carnival art. Outfits like O. Henry Tent and Awning at Clark and Wilson and the Driver Brothers’ United States Tent & Awning Co. sponsored artists like Neiman Eisman, H.D. Cummins and peg-legged Cad Hill. Cummins’ protégé, Fred G. Johnson, became known as “the Picasso of Sideshow Banners.”

Sideshow art features surreal images which explode from the canvas. In order to increase their impact, the headliners are often giant, larger-than-life figures looming in the foreground against the smaller-scale images in the background. Painted in bold orange, red and blue, with white captions like “ALIVE” and “SEE THIS,” these banners also heralded the arrival of sideshow acts and “circus freaks” like “Vicki Condor, 4 Legged Girl,” “The Crawfish Boy,” “Huey the Pretzel Man,” “The Alligator Girl” and “Sweet Marie, 643 lbs.” They also contained a healthy dose of sex, as attractions like “Zoma Depraved,” “The Snake Charmer,” “Strange Girls,” and “Sheila, Queen of the Jungle” (modeled by Bettie Page), featured voluptuous female forms, their intimate parts sometimes barely obscured by a snake, leaf or tiny bikini.

Glen C. Davies

“The sideshow banners go back to the days of medieval Europe and North Africa,” Glen C. Davies, a contemporary muralist and banner artist says. “The circus banners became more prominent in the mid 1800s in Europe, but it wasn’t until Barnum and Bailey and other American circuses began their practice of ‘the bigger the better,’ that the large, long banners appeared. At that time,” Davies continues, “you were attracting a highly illiterate public, so large images with bright colors and bold headlines became the standard format.”

Chicago’s golden era of sign painting began at the turn of the twentieth century. Eisman, whose father was a sign painter in Europe, began painting snake charmers and Siamese twins at the United States Tent and Awning Company at 22-28 North DesPlaines. Johnson, who lived next door to an employee at U.S. Tent, was hired by banner painter H.D. Cummins to run errands and mix paint. Although he had no artistic training, Johnson was a quick study, and he soon joined the “assembly line” as circuses around the country began ordering signs.

Fred G. Johnson

“The secret of the banner art is the color and never mind if you exaggerate the subject matter,” Johnson said during an exhibit of his work at Chicago’s Illinois Art Center Gallery. “The idea is to attract attention.”

Usually ten-feet wide by eight-feet high, banners also ran as big as fifty-by-fourteen feet. Like many of the lithographers of Paris, Chicago’s banner artists of the time did not see themselves as producing “art” but simply as talented workers who were part of an artistic trade. Paid by the piece, artists like Johnson would produce as many as four eight-by-ten banners a day.

“I remember visiting Johnson’s studio at O. Henry on Clark Street,” Davies, who attended the School of the Art Institute, says. “Downstairs they were stitching tents, but Johnson had a studio in an attic with a transom and skylights. It was kind of dingy but he was the master of his domain. Before he began painting he would break down blocks of white lead, mix it with linseed oil, benzene and Japan drier and make a paste. He would then dampen the canvas so the paint would not seep through, and while the canvas was still wet work in the colors, thus sizing the canvas and also painting in the details. Then he would fill in the lettering the next day.”

Glen C. Davies with his creation

Johnson painted banners for circuses around the country, including the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, and Hagenbeck-Wallace Circuses. Locally, he produced works for the World’s Fair of 1933, the White City Amusement Park, and the freak shows at Chicago’s famous Riverview Park. This is where Davies first became interested in sideshow art.

“I first saw a sideshow at Riverview in 1968,” Davies says. “At that time they had attractions like ‘The Alligator Skinned Woman,’ ‘The Crawfish Boy,’ ‘The Human Pincushion,’ and a man with no legs who would do somersaults. Later I went to work for many circuses where I got to know them. These are people who had no other options—at home they were objects of shame left in windowless attics. But in the circus they were part of the circus and carnival family. They were treated with respect and dignity by the other performers, traveled and made good money. They were not exploited but, like actors or musicians, were very much in charge of their own performances.”

One of the most famous sideshow performers was Horace Ridler. A decorated hero during World War I, he decided that his place was not in the real world, but the circus. With no acrobatic or equestrian skills, he decided to have his entire body painfully tattooed with black-and-white stripes like a zebra. He also had his teeth filed down to sharp points, inserted an ivory tusk in his nose, and stretched his ear lobes several inches. Happily married, “The Great Omi” toured with Ringling Brothers Circus where he was one of the highest-paid circus performers in the world.

Fred G. Johnson

In the 1960s, an outcry against sideshow performers began, and one by one they began to vanish. Television also became a mainstream of American entertainment, and with the decline of the carnival and circus, sideshow banner art began to disappear as well. After Chicago’s Riverview closed in 1968, sideshows were confined to the smaller circuses and carnivals which traveled mostly in the South. Nevertheless, artists like Davies continued the tradition.

“During the 1970s I was traveling with the Carson and Barnes Circus, as well as working  as the carnival show painter for Link Carnival, Conklin Shows, Dell & Travers Carnival, Cumberland Valley Shows, and others,” Davies says. “I was mostly painting things like the sides of trucks, as because of the criticism, fewer circuses had sideshows. If they did it was places like the Rawls Circus, which had fewer ‘freaks’ but performers like magicians, sword swallowers and clowns.”

Artist Johnny Meah, who was a technical advisor on the HBO series “Carnivale,” continued to paint carnival banners, mostly in states like Georgia and Louisiana. In Chicago, Johnson also continued to paint banners well into his eighties.

“I remember I went to see him for one of the last times,” Davies says. “Although he had retired from O. Henry in 1974, he still worked at his studio on the North Side, on School Street, a few blocks east of the old Riverview near Damen Avenue.”

Glen C. Davies

Not seen as works of art, the majority of circus banners were lost or destroyed. In 1989, however, Johnson, then ninety-seven, had a show of his banners at Chicago’s Illinois Art Center Gallery. In 1996, Davies, Meah, Johnson’s grandson Randy, and a host of others (including stills from Chicago filmmaker Tom Palazzolo) contributed to the book, “Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls.” A dazzling visual record of the “Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway;” its pages are a kaleidoscope of colors, images, and invaluable information on the subject. Other banners hang at locations like the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, The Illinois State Museum in Springfield, and in the private collections of Chicago’s Phyllis Kind Gallery and local artist Tony Fitzpatrick.

A muralist by trade, Davies also works to continue the tradition. His artwork has appeared in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center. In recent years he has used the Johnson/banner motif for a dinosaur exhibit at The Field Museum, the 2012 Midwest FolkLife Festival, and he recently completed a mural for Dallas & Co., a costume and magic shop in Champaign, Illinois.

So next time you see a poster for Ringling Brothers Circus zipping by on the side of a CTA bus, don’t think of clowns or elephants, but envision the days of  “The Amazon Snake Charmer,” “Girl to Gorilla” and “The Two-Headed Baby,” in vivid orange and blue—ALIVE!

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