Rick West Interview
(Author of " Pickled Punks and Girlie Shows: A Life Spent on the Midway’s of America)
(Author of " Pickled Punks and Girlie Shows: A Life Spent on the Midway’s of America - Schiffer Books)
Rick West knows a thing or two about midways. You see, he spent his whole life traveling the carnival circuit.
And now he’s written a book detailing that adventure.
It’s called “Pickled Punks and Girlie Shows: A Life Spent on the Midway’s of America”.
By the way, pickled punks is carnival lingo for bottled babies. Just thought you’d like to know that. It all makes sense when you read the book.
Q - Rick as far as midway’s go, Human Oddity Shows or Freak Shows as they were once called along with Burlesque Shows are pretty much a thing of the past aren’t they? And, as you see it, will they ever return?
A - It will never be like it once was when there were hundreds of grind shows, sideshows and girl shows playing at fairs throughout the country. There is still a lot of interest in sideshow type entertainment by the general public much of the new sideshow style entertainment has moved into venues other than the fair, clubs, colleges, cruise ships. However, there are still a handful of big tented sideshows and several grind shows working the midways. The problem for midway showman today is not making money, but keeping some. Ever increasing expenses including rent, insurance, gas, repair bills, the multitude of new laws, and new city, state and federal regulations keep chipping away at the outdoor showman’s bottom line. It’s not how much you gross. It’s how much you keep.
Q - So, the shows for the most part stop because of money?
A - Right. money, a ride could fill the same space. It could be run by one or two people. A sideshow may have 10 or more people on the payroll and the ride could just be parked when not working. The carnival could keep more of the money they handled. The problem as I see it is fairs have far less variety today than they did in the past.
Q - Has the appeal of the midway lessened over the years? Do you believe it is as exciting to kids today as it was when say you were a kid? Or, has cable TV, the Internet, multiplex theaters and shopping malls taken away some of the mystique?
A - Two of the largest fairs in the country, the New York State fair and the Minnesota State fair set all-time attendance records this summer (2014). Well there are a multitude of things competing for every kid’s attention; the fair still seems to draw a large crowd of fun seekers. I don’t believe it has the mystique it had in earlier times. I heard the New York State Fair didn’t have any sideshows or grind shows this year. I’m sure it was a huge disappointment for many fairgoers not everyone comes to ride the rides.
Q - Were you ever at the New York State Fair?
A - I played the fair with my Giant Horse Big Jim but that was many years ago.
Q - Do you still work the fairs these days?
A - We have only been doing a few shows lately, but, let me tell you about a show we did last November (2013) that was a little different from what we usually do. The NASCAR track in Fort Worth did a big sideshow themed party, Wild Asphalt Circus for the race fans. We brought up our Giant Rat Show and The Smallest Horse. There was also other sideshow related entertainment. It was a three hour party before the race and was held on the infield. The lines to our shows were 75 to 80 feet long for over 3 ½ hours. Just goes to prove people still hunger for the strange, weird and unusual and are willing to pay to see it.
Q - How long did it take you to put “Pickled Punks and Girly Shows” together?
A - It took some time as the project changed as I was working on it. Originally, I planned to hire a printer and publish it myself. I planned to pitch it at the fairs where I had my shows booked. I soon discovered there was much I needed to learn regarding publishing, color photo scanning and page layout. After working on all these details for a while I came to the conclusion it would be easier to find a publisher. They could help with the layout; cover the upfront expenses and move the project along. Schiffer publishing said they were interested in the project.
Q - What did you do to promote the book?
A - I rounded up the book blurbs the publisher would use to advertise my book. The Internet site Sideshow World did a book review for me. And, I got the PP and GS buzz going on some other sideshow related websites. I also peddled books at the fairs. It didn’t take long to figure out I wasn’t going to get rich selling books. I am thankful the project was completed and I’m proud of the finished product. It turned out close to the vision I had for it. It gives folks a peek into the life of someone who has spent over 50 years in the outdoor entertainment business.
Q - You have a photo of Hitler’s Bullet Proof Car in your book. Where is that car being displayed today?
A - The Hitler Car was bought by a private collector. I do not know where it is today.
Q - It seems like that’s something the public would like to see.
A - The overwhelming public correctness in today’s world would make booking the car most difficult. One complaint today can get a show shut down. The World’s Smallest Woman was shut down had the Boulder County Fair this summer (2014) because one person thought it was “icky”. During the last few years that the Hitler Car was on public display it took a lot of heat and was closed down at a few venues due to complaints and threats. Some do-gooders mistakenly thought the display was Pro-Nazi.
Q - Has the original Bonnie and Clyde car that they were ambushed in ever toured the country?
A - The original car did travel the fairs at one time but, has not been displayed on the midway for many, many years. Last I knew, it was on display at Whiskey Pete’s Casino in Primm Nevada. There were at one time, several cars that were displayed as the Bonnie and Clyde car including the one from the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie that I believe is now displayed in Washington DC.
Q - What do you make of James E. Strates Shows losing their contract with the New York State Fair after 63 years. What went wrong? Do you believe as some people would suggest that this marks the end of the Strates Shows?
A - I’m sure it’s about the money. Wade Shows probably gave them a better proposition. It didn’t matter that Strates had played the spot for all those years. There is little loyalty in this business. It is difficult for any carnival to replace a huge fair but; carnivals have to overcome hardships and handicaps every day. I admit this is a huge hurdle but, this isn’t the first time Strates have lost a fair. I believe they will work it out and continue on down the road.
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