Joe Nickell Interview
(Author of Secrets of the Sideshows)
He’s a former professional stage magician, a resident magician to be exact at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, a carnival pitchman, including on the famous carnival midway at the Canadian National Exhibition, an advertising writer, armed guard, movie extra, forensic writer, blackjack dealer, riverboat manager, forklift driver, sign painter and university writing instructor.
He’s appeared on “Dateline NBC”, “20/20”, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, and “Larry King Live”.
His name is Joe Nickell and we’ll be talking to him about a book he’s written titled “Secrets of the Sideshows” (The University Press of Kentucky).
Q – Joe, let’s talk about my favorite subject, The James E. Strates Shows. They were at the New York State Fair for 60 some odd years and then a few years back they lost their contract with the fair. They also lost their contract with the North Carolina State Fair.
A – I did not know that. The Strates Shows are at the Erie County Fair currently. Do you know anything about the problem?
Q – It was reported they were outbid by the Wade Shows. Online E. James Strates was quoted somewhere as having said he could make more money sipping a martini on a beach than playing the North Carolina State Fair. Joe, what happened anyway? Do you know?
A – I don’t really. The economics has affected a lot of things. What my book was about was the sideshows. I know a lot about the sideshows but I don’t necessarily hold myself out as an expert on all the carnivals. When you’re talking about the Strates Shows you’re basically talking about the midway rides and so forth.
Q – Which did have sideshows?
A – They did, but here’s the thing. The sideshows have almost always been separate from the other shows.
Q – You’re right. They were put on by independent contractors.
A – They were independent shows and early on, what’s interesting about the history of the carnivals and the sideshows is you had early circuses in America that were basically just a Big Top, the big test with the trapeze artists and the clowns and animal acts. Then these other shows would come and travel with them. Maybe not officially. Maybe they weren’t even wanted. They would set up maybe in an adjacent lot. And, these outside shows come to be known as the sideshows. They later became more and more a part and expected parts. They were kind of set up with the circus so you had the Big Top and you had an entry gate in between the sideshows. That’s why that whole section with the sideshows and some of the rides became known as the midway because it was midway between the gate and the Big Top. If you would take away the midway away from the circus, the whole midway and put it on the road, you have a carnival. That’s the difference. The midway is part of the bigger, greater circus thing or a fair, but, if you take the midway away and put it on the road it becomes a carnival. Sideshows were very much part of the carnival but even then the carnival often had its own concessions and its own rides but maybe they would license some of that to independent operators who would rent space. I don’t know how much the Strates Shows themselves had any kind of sideshows, but people like Ward Hall who I got to know and Bobby Reynolds, these great sideshow showmen, these old sort of dinosaurs of yesteryear, they would rent space. They told me, Ward Hall particularly, I remember him telling me once in my trailer what was happening economically was that these giant rides, these big, big thrill seeking rides that you can hear people screaming on from across the midway; he said they were like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up the money. That made the sideshows very difficult to compete (with) because they had to draw a crowd and get the crowd to be interested on the outside bally platform to watch a little bit of a show. I knew Poobah, The Fire-eating Dwarf and he would go out on the bally platform and eat fire and draw a crowd. The talker would do his spiel and convince people to come inside. Meanwhile the rides were just doing constant business and sucking up money. I think there’s some economics that are going on with the carnivals and maybe I don’t know enough about that business and or that part of it, but sideshows consequently are dying out.
Q – 1986 was the last year Strates had a burlesque show.
A – Well, the burlesque shows were always a little bit of a problem as far as a family show, but the human oddities and the so-called ‘Ten In One Show’, this was a classic carnival sideshow, a big long tent and would have approximately ten acts. There might be a fire-eater, a sword swallower, a fat lady, an alligator boy. You get the idea, maybe a magician, a guy doing a couple of tricks. You’d move down the platform and these entertainers would hold forth. They’re pretty much gone for a number of reasons. One is, the overhead was kind of a problem, as Ward was alluding to and part of that was you had to pay all those entertainers. These oddities and working acts like the Human Block Head or the Fire-eater were kind of prima donnas. They were special talents that could go to a different carnival and be billed big. So, they wanted a good cut and that drove the costs up. There was a time when political correctness kind of reared its head with the so called ‘freaks’ or as I prefer to call them human oddities. I remember one of the oddities once said, ‘Freak? I’m a freak out there. In here I’m a star’. And that’s a big, big difference and a very realistic difference. There were some incidents where people would come on the midway and be offended by the display of the oddities. But, the oddities were often not able to do much in an everyday world if they were armless or Siamese Twins. They maybe would have had a great deal of trouble and they were doing quite well, thank-you where they were. But, that was never as much of a problem as has been imagined, that political correctness did them in. Mostly they transformed a little bit and went right on, but there were things that helped put the death nail to the sideshows including the economics, the sort of high real estate but also if you think about it, the reason these shows flourished way back before the Civil War, you had these shows that had oddities, human oddities. They were unusual acts where somebody could do something quite unusual like say eat fire or swallow swords or there were exotic animals. You’d see a kangaroo or a camel. A whole show would be built around this exotic animal. That has continued if you think about it in yours and mine own time. That was still the case you’d go to the sideshow and you’d see these strange and wonderful things. But now, television and other forms of entertainment have encroached upon that and so you don’t need to go to the sideshow to see a little person or a big person or somebody who’s different. There are whole t.v. reality shows now based on oddities.
Q – Towards the end of the Burlesque show’s stand on the Strates Midway, they were recruiting local dancers. But, wait a minute weren’t we always told that dancers were hired from all over the world?!
A – (Laughs). Well, welcome to the carnival where nothing is what it seems. Everything was given a big billing and exaggerated and hyped. The giant was fitted in a shirt that was deliberately a little small. He was put in high heal boots with a top hat or a cowboy hat or some big head gear. He was of course a very tall fellow but his height would be exaggerated. He would be called ‘The World’s Tallest Man’. To a rural audience somewhere in the Midwest or somewhere nobody knew any better. They thought, well of course he’s the tallest man in the world. No. There was another guy in Texas and another guy over there and they were all ‘The World’s Tallest Man’ and in fact their height was exaggerated and they posed for pictures with short people so they would look even taller. That’s the world of the carnival.
Q – How did they get away with that? Did they break any Truth In Advertising laws?
A – (Laughs). Sure. Sure, there were problems but they never amounted to very much. What most of the old carnies did is they made these outrageous claims. It was all part of what they would say is theatrical license. They would laugh about it. If you complained they’d just give you your money back. Most people would take it. They would go in. Maybe they’d erupt a little bit but I don’t know if that was real or fake. Well, whatever. The authorities had kind of the attitude of well, what do you expect? They’re traveling carnies. As long as they don’t do anything really dastardly o.k. so you have a question about the twenty-five cents you paid. Get over it! We have better things to do.
Q – Speaking of traveling. Strates has always been known for their train. Now I hear more of their carnival travels by truck. But, there’s always been something almost magical about seeing that Strates train come into a city.
A – Right. The Strates Show is one that travels by rail.
Q – So, why are they using more trucks now and why didn’t other carnivals use the train to get around in?
A – Well, Strates was a pretty big show. They weren’t going to do the little venues, the boondocks, the little fairs, the little counties. They were going to do the big counties.
Q – They’re doing the little fairs now!
A – Well see, you’re making my case. As long as you’re doing the big shows, you’re doing the big Erie County Fair, big one. You’re doing the New York State Fair in Syracuse. Big one. There are rail lines so you could travel. Your show is big so, it’s economical to actually load everything up on a train and just move it down the tracks to what the ‘carnies’ call the next jump, to make the jump, the next place. If you’re a small show you can’t do that. You’re going to have a lot of little vehicles. A lot of shows are going to be sort of self-contained. A little concession stand on a trailer hitch or you going to have a small ferris wheel that will fold up. I actually show in my book the transformation of a small ferris wheel. You watch it being taken apart and it just folds up. It’s really kind of magical to watch. I’ve gone to these shows and watched as they did the so called tear down. The last night they begin to take everything down. Dismantle it. I got to know some of the shows and they would let me go up on the ferris wheel and stay up there making notes and taking pictures until they were ready to take down the ferris wheel. Then I would ride in the truck to the next stop and then hitch a ride back. Sometimes they would shuttle back and forth. The jump might only be 40 miles. So, you’d make a trip and drop stuff off but you’d go back and get another load. So, you’re ferrying stuff. You can’t do that with a train. So there was kind of a whole different world of handling the smaller shows with the trucks which gave you a lot of freedom but also had some other problems. My guess is that’s what you’re talking about with the Strates Shows. They’ve moved down a notch from just having the big venues where they could move everything straight down the track to places that are maybe nowhere near tracks, out on country roads.
Q – I seem to remember reading that Strates took $1.3 million dollars out of Syracuse for a 10 day or 12 day run. You can’t do that in one of those smaller places.
A – No. Again, there’s just some special things that happen. For example, I’ve seen the smaller carnivals bit of those there are really the smaller ones that have a small ferris wheel and maybe a merry go ‘round for the little kids and maybe one or two other things. A very small carnival, not any of the big humongous rides. That’s one type. Others are larger. Let’s think of them as medium size and they’re more versatile. They can actually run two or three carnivals simultaneously. They’ll run one in one town and syphon off an extra ferris wheel over some stuff and pick up another venue, because they’ve got enough stuff to do that with. If they had a big venue they could fill it. If not, they could fill two smaller ones.
Q – Wade Shows incorporate that idea. After the New York State Fair, part of the show heads south, part of the show heads to the mid-west.
A – That’s not uncommon. That’s the kind of thing that’s been happening for a long time. It’s hard to say what the future of that world is but I think the sideshows are having a rough, rough time of it. The living ‘Ten In Ones’ are just gone. They’re just all gone. What you’re seeing now are some museum type sideshows where you go in and see exhibits that are just kind of there, maybe a paper mache replica of a giant or a stuffed two-headed calf, that sort of thing. And, you’re not having to pay salaries to those items, that’s about it. You’ll see still at the Erie County Fair, you’ll see Little Gloria, The World’s Smallest Woman of which there are several that are being sent around the country. (Laughs). All real little people or what the carnies call a single-o, just one act. Not the ten acts under one big tent, just the single-o, maybe a giant horse, a huge horse or something. You still see those. Those are independent operators, who are renting a place. All they’ve got to worry about is their own little trailer, their own little world. They know what they’re doing. If they go broke they just go broke like a restaurant would go out of business, but, there would still be restaurants. But, these sideshows are pretty much a thing of the past I think because people can see exotic things elsewhere now and have access to them through the internet and television and movies. They’re not strange to them anymore. So that’s happening. The big rides? You can’t get the same effect by looking at a big ride on t.v. can you? As you have to actually go on the ride.
Q – What also has to be entered into the equation is theme parks. So, the big ride operators are competing with theme parks.
A – That’s another part of the mix, yes. I think of ‘em like Coney Isand and others historically. They’re (theme parks) are more common now. They’re starting to be more of these theme parks. I think of them as permanent carnivals. They’re a carnival but the very essence of the carnival remember is that it left the circus and went off on its own. It was a traveling midway and that was the essence of the carnival; that it traveled. It moved around. And yet there has always been a century back something called the Dime Museums. They were little storefront places that were almost like a permanent Ten In One sideshow venue. Everything is changing just like the history of restaurants is changing. We now have fast food restaurants, there’s competition. In comes McDonald’s and a couple of Mom and Pops go under. The economy is in flux. Some of that is happening with the world, the related world of sideshows and theme parks and traveling carnivals, travelling circuses and so forth. Circuses have changed somewhat in that we used to think of the circus as always being in a big tent, but of course Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey have appeared in many arenas. So, people adapt and things change. It’s hard to say exactly what the future of all this is, except I’m pretty sure the sideshows, the great sideshows are going to be pretty much a thing of the past.
Q – How much research went into “Secrets Of the Sideshows”? Ten Years? Twenty Years?
A – Not twenty I guess. Part of me has always done a lot of this. I was a magic pitchman at the Canadian National Exhibition one season. I was a professional magician at the Houdini Hall of Fame. I worked as a magician and a mentalist. You pick up a lot of the skills that would be used in a magic act in a sideshow. So, I always knew and loved carnivals. I didn’t think of it at the time as research but of course if you keep going to the carnivals you have all these memories of things you’ve seen. You were doing research and didn’t know it. I would say I did at least 5 years pretty much once I was sure I was doing the book, a serious concerted effort to start looking, what do I need? What do I need pictures of? And then setting out to get them. I went to one midway and the guy had a big ‘freak’ show but, it was animal freaks, a five legged cow. Some of ‘em were pickled in jars but they didn’t tell you that on the outside but some were living. They were obviously going to be a lot of trouble to move around and maintain. I wanted to go in and have pictures. There were signs up everywhere ‘no photographs’. So, I went in and talked to the lady and she summoned her husband and he came out. I did a smart thing, I said, ‘I’ve just been down the midway talking to Ward Hall. He’s helping me with my book’. What that said to the guy was oh, if he’s o.k. with Ward Hall …It was almost like saying you personally knew P.T. Barnum. It was like, ‘Oh, o.k. He’s alright’. They guy let me in and I could take any pictures I wanted. He even got a fork full of hay so that the five-legged cow would stand up. So, I got to pet the five-legged cow and take pictures. It was just great. A lot of it was great fun. You’re trying to get them to tell you the real scoop and sooner or later they would. They’d tell you what they used to do or make some joke and threw their head back and laugh at how they pulled off some miner deception and made an extra buck.
Q – Did you like your days working as a pitchman?
A – I did. It’s an extraordinarily tiring thing to do for just a short season at the Exhibition. I was no trouble. I later did very much the same thing at the Houdini Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. I was resident magician there for 3 years and most of what I did was to demonstrate magic tricks that were for sale individually or in the Houdini Magic kit which I personally designed and had available there. I wore a neck mic and was doing a pitchman straight out of a carnival. If you’ve ever watched anybody pitched anything, it dices, it slices, whatever. Only you’re doing a magic trick and you’re amazing people and getting them to get in closer and take a card. It’s much faster paced. It’s a little different approach cause you’re attempting to sell this item, you too can do it, which is not what the magician is doing. There’s a crass commercial aspect to it, but, I did that for three summers at Houdini’s. The place has since burned but, I left after the third summer because eventually you almost get to the point where you think if I have to hear myself do this one more time I’ll scream. It’s so repetitious day in and day out. Long days, constant, day after day. It’s pretty grueling stuff although I’m sure it looks like great fun and there are times that it was if you did it occasionally or did it for a season or so. It would be that way. It just got to be a bit too much for me and I wanted to do other things.
Q – You did quite a bit of traveling in 1970, 1971. You went to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. How’d you afford that?
A – Well, it’s very simple. I had just worked my first year at Houdini’s and I made a bundle. I got a 10% commission on everything I sold and after I think $10,000 I got double my commission. I was just good at it and selling stuff like hotcakes. My boss loved me because I was good. I was selling stuff like we hadn’t believed. I came up with the Houdini Magic kit. Sure, you know. (Laughs). I know you can sell these. We’ll make even more money. When you’re doing a job like that you have nowhere to spend any money on anything. You’re just making money. You’re not going and wasting money on anything. And, so I had some money saved. My girlfriend and I decided to take off for a few months and head off for the Grand Tour. We did it as cheaply as you could do, sort of Europe on $5.00 a day books back then. You’d go to the cheapest hotels and watch your money and you could make it last. For ‘Secrets Of the Sideshows’ I walked on hot coals, eat fire. I hired Pete the Fire Goddess to teach me to eat fire. (Laughs). Now, I wasn’t really going to do much of it and I wasn’t planning to get good at it. None of that really mattered so much. What I wanted to do; if you’ve never put a torch in your mouth and never done that act, you can describe it and your head kind of knows the physics of it. All that you can understand, but, it’s quite different when you actually do it. Now, you’re vital organs are involved in this thing. You feel it in your gut. Your heart tells you other than your cold brain are involved. I felt that the things I described I did a better job probably in explaining them because I did them. My shtick as a writer is to do as much as I can. You can’t go everywhere or get access to everything, but, to the extent that I can do an experiment or try something or go on site or inspect something, I try to do that. I hope it’s rewarding for the reader. It’s sure rewarding for me. It makes it far more adventurous and a learning experience than the armchair method.
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