Matthew Barr Interview
(James E Strates Documentary Filmmaker)
Matthew Barr has put together a fascinating look at what goes on behind the scenes at the only Carnival that still travels by rail-the James E Strates Shows.
He actually lived on the train and traveled the Strates itinerary interviewing not only the Strates family but the carneys themselves.
Q - How did you get interested in putting “Carnival Train” together?
A - Well basically, how I ended up doing this documentary about the Strates Shows was years ago, back in California where I grew up when I was finishing up my degree at San Francisco State Film School which was like the early 70s and I can’t explain exactly why, I had this fascination with carneys and the lore of them. So, when I graduated from college, it was like 1974, I also was very interested in still photography, documentary still photography. I thought I’m interested in photographing carneys. So, I started going to some County fairs around the San Francisco Bay area and started talking with carneys, photographing them and then I ended up getting a job as a carney myself. I thought this will be the way to sort of infiltrate my way in. So, I went up to the California state fair in Sacramento. I walked up there while they were putting up the midway and asked the first guy I ran into, a ride jock, I said, do you know where I can get a job? Not that I wanted a job on a ride, but, he suggested I speak to a guy named Greg. Long story short, I ended up getting us job as a jointy worker on the games. As it just happened I ended up getting a job with the son of the owner of what was then one of the biggest Carnival show in the United States Foley and Burk Fun Filled Shows which was based out of Redwood City California. And so I became a jointey . I traveled around. We played fairs in the central Valley California, Fresno, Bakersfield, places like that. I was a complete fish out of water, growing up middle-class kid in Berkeley. So, it was kind of a pretty rough group especially in those days. Basically, I took thousands of photographs of carnies which I then tried to get published in a book. I almost had that done. So basically I ended up spending five seasons working the Carnival show myself, from May to October, November, the whole season. I drove a big rig. We went all the way to Oklahoma and Utah State Fair. I wasn’t photographing but, in the meantime I started graduate school in film at UCLA Film School. The first film I did at film school was about a Carney. It was going to be my thesis documentary but other things happened and I basically ended up dropping out of film school for many years, about 13 years. I was a screenwriter for all that.. Then when I decided I really wanted to get back into documentary stuff I was fortunate to be readmitted to UCLA in 88 and I ended up finishing my MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) and getting a job teaching at the University of Miami. I went down to Miami. Of course you’re aware Florida is the big Carney state. I started going up to Gibsonton, Florida a little Carney town south of Tampa and just talking with carneys. My entrée was that I had been one for five seasons. I knew a lot about the life and basically long story short I met a freak show operator, pretty famous guy, Ward Hall who was kind of the last of the freak show operators. There wasn’t enough left of his show to make a film about, although there probably was. He was the one who suggested I contact the Strates Shows up in Orlando. So, I went up there. I met E James Strates who at that point was running the show. His father had started it back in the 20s and 30s as I went into in the film. I had to convince Mr. Strates to let me join the Carnival for that season. We’re talking about 1993. He didn’t agree immediately at all, but I do believe that my having been a Carney was critical to this happening because he’d been approached numerous times by people wanting to do something about the Carnival, and he’s very protective as you know of reputation of his show but really the fact that Carnival shows have really been; people go for the more exploitable elements when they want to do something about carneys because they have a very mixed reputation. I convinced him. I said I just wanted to show what it’s like to be a Carney and to explore this wonderful train here even though that’s all I know about it. But, I heard of the Strates Shows having read a fare amount of books on carnivals over the years. This is the last railroad show left. He finally agreed, Mr. Strates. So, in May of 1993 I was given a birth on the train. I brought a young guy who just graduated from film school and I was teaching him at the University of Miami Rob Cebana and we were given this birth I think in car 51 or 52. (Laughs). It’s a car dating back to the 30s or 40s and we started filming. That was May of 1993. I filmed all the way through that season until I had to go back to work in Miami for the fall semester. By which time I had accumulated the bulk of the footage, the principal footage that would go into the film. Then basically what happened is I ended up getting a teaching job the University of North Carolina, Greensboro where I’m still teaching. That actually worked out well with Strates because they had the state fair here in Raleigh for 50 years, the biggest spot. And they’d play the Dixie classic fair they played umpteen fairs in this state. My whole purpose was to film the whole season of the Carnival. Didn’t quite get them all. Back then they had the New York State fair in Syracuse and I never did get there.
Q - I was looking for the footage of the New York State fair in your film. Why didn’t you get to that fair?
A - Well, the school always starts at that time. Being the fall semester you can exactly not be there when you’re a professor. At a certain point you can’t cover everything they do. I felt like I had a very complete coverage. I had so much coverage I didn’t know what to do with it all. I think it was around 130 hours of footage I shot over four years. It took me three or four years to have enough to show complete season of the show. Then the editing process began. I finish the film in 99. That’s when it came out. That’s how that whole thing came about.
Q - I’d like to see what’s on the cutting room floor.
A - (Laughs). There’s huge amounts of great stuff in there. You can make 10 films out of all of this. That’s pretty typical for documentaries. You shot a pile of stuff especially with video because it’s relatively cheap to shoot. That’s one of the hard things I’m going through right now with the film time editing. There’s just a huge number of choices. You’re trying to make something that will hold people’s attention. There was an hour version of Carnival Train that was released. Cinema Guild, an educational distributor had that for years, going out to libraries in schools. But, I was really trying to do an ethnographic film where I showed the life of a particular sub-culture that is probably dying out on some levels. I was very fortunate to get Strates Shows when they had some real old carnies. It’s very different now. I felt very blessed to be able to portray the Carnival life with a fair amount of authenticity in that I was trying to show it’s like a big family. People don’t realize that carnies are not only capable of putting up all the big iron and girders and loading that huge train is just an amazing thing in itself, but, it’s kind of like its own society. You go to the cook shack for food and they protect each other. That was what I was really interested in showing. That was good with Mr. Strates too because that’s what he wanted to have shown. So, our interest coincided there in terms of what I showed. I wasn’t interested in showing all the scarier stuff because that’s been shown plenty of times. That wasn’t my interest. My interest was showing again the idea of carneys as their own group that was like a traveling village concept that I was really going for.
Q - When you say the scarier side what are you referring to?
A - If you go back to carnivals in the 40s and 50s they had more things like Freak Shows. Of course all that’s gone now.
Q - And the Burlesque Shows or Girly Shows.
A - That’s one of the things about a Carnival, it’s an old form of entertainment. Things like Girly Shows or Minstrel Shows, Freak Shows or Snake Shows. I have some of that stuff and it was golden but, my whole thing was I want to show this as a unique kind of institution, particularly in tandem with having that train that was really a throwback to an earlier period. That’s what I was trying to show in the film and I think that succeeded. The Carnival Train is in the folk life Center which is an Ethnographic Library at the Library of Congress. It’s probably one of the main films anybody has ever done on carneys. That to me is a huge achievement to have done this film that is there to show this aspect of life of carneys that I think many people never even thought about.
Q - How were your accommodations on board the train?
A - Oh, the accommodations were fine. It was a little rough-hewn but once we left the station in Charleston, South Carolina you’re like a freight train. The freight train have to have some cars at the front and. It’s kind of like camping. You have to just eat sandwiches. I happen to become good friends with Mike Watson who was kind of the assistant train master that kept the generators going. They had a complete kitchen in there. So we ate quite well. I’ll never forget those wonderful experiences.
Q - Where was this film of yours released?
A - To PBS stations. It’s been shown a lot to PBS stations around the country. It was shown at a Film Festival. So, that was its distribution between PBS and the Film Festival.
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