Carnivals and Circuses―I’ve spent more time than the usual gaining a better understand of them this last year. More than a ride on the carousel…
…or a trip through the fun house.
I studied how they operate the games and rides when the carnival came to town (and watched the money in my wallet quickly evaporate). I also walked the midway for the first time since learning the official terminology. Yes, I hadn’t grown up with the term so I was unfamiliar. Not a topic that came up often in my household.
The carnival midway term was adopted from the amusement area of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But here’s the exciting part: When sideshows and games are attached to a circus (like you may see in an upcoming book of mine), they are places between the ticket booth and the circus tent. Honest to goodness, midway between the two. I got you learning—how cool is that?
But I didn’t just rush out the door for every carnival that came near me. I jumped into motion for the circus too. We sat in the front row when the circus set up locally, and paid close attention to every detail.
The fans created insufficient ventilation inside the large arena tent (for the time of year), and if I was uncomfortable I can only imagine how the performers felt in their costumes. Ugh! Hot and sweaty. At least they didn’t have the kid’s neon cotton candy getting stuck to their outfit.
It’s not all fun and games. There is still a lot to learn.
So I drag my notebook with me everywhere, jotting down notes every time I come across something new or significant. Just the right amount of facts makes a story tight and I aim to get it right.
Speaking of right: I’ve been guilty of referring to the hard-working men and women of the carnival as carnies. An artist choice made by myself and my fellow writers. But a carnival worker who takes the time to perfect his or her craft is a true showman, and should be referred as such. To call them a carnie (or carny – if you prefer) can be taken as an insult.
The lives of circus performers and carnival workers are two very different commitments, and yet they share a lot of commonalities in lifestyles, driven by their motivation to entertain, desire to make a living, and their basic work ethics and morals, to name a few. It’s a constant setup, tear-down, on-the-move kind of life. It’s not for everyone one. But for those whom it fits, they are family.
Fun carnie terms and facts I’ve learned, some you can look forward to finding peppered throughout my upcoming stories:
I tried to place these in the order they appear in The Moorigad Dragon, but don’t hold me to it. I may have missed one or two.
- The Talker – This is a skilled tongue individual who delivers the spiel for an attraction in order to build the tip. He/she may work outside the attraction tent. If inside the tent, then they may be called the “inside talker” or “lecturer”.
- Cut – The individual’s portion/percentage of the money.
- Cattle Rustling – The act of stealing customers from another show or joint. Stealing away their attention and paying consumerism.
- The Back yard – Also referred to as “the living lot.” This is the area where private trailers are gathered for living and storage.
- Prat Boy – Often runaways and kids too young to hold a legitimate job, prat boy is an ugly term referring to a paid hand that does the odd jobs no one else wants to do.
- Midway – Covered above, the midway is a path through the carnival bordered on either side by games and venders
- Big Eli – (I saved this one for last because it’s so fun). Big Eli refers to a Ferris Wheel by one of the ride’s most successful original manufacturers, the Eli Bridge Company. Not all carnivals had an Eli Bridge Ferris Wheel and so there were other nicknames to be found. The most common one among them: Wheel, short for Ferris Wheel.
It has been said that carnival folks are not the most romantic bunch to be found. Of course, there are always exceptions. When two find they are ready to try on a monogamous relationship they don’t call a preacher or jump a broom. Nah, they work it out carnie style. One ride together on the carousel or Ferris wheel and their relationship is cemented—until one of them decides otherwise, or they go for a spin together on a ride backwards. That’s all it takes to break the bond. If only all things were that simple in other situations, or not.
Do you enjoy a trip to the carnival with the family? How about taking in a circus show?
The last circus show we attended was Circus Vargas. No animal acts and no Bozo-scary-type clowns. It fit our bill perfectly – aside from being a bit on the hot side. But then it was the middle of summer.
And as my daughter pointed out to me (not that I noticed *coughs*) there was some rather nice eye candy among the talent. Always nice to bring a smile to a young girls lips—or an older ones.
In my research I found a kiss at the top of the Ferris wheel to be on a lot of bucket lists. Would you fancy a kiss at the top of the Ferris Wheel? A scene right out of a movie. Or is the carousel more your style?
Love and kisses carnival style. Can’t wait to hear your answers.
All images © Debra Kristi
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19 thoughts on “A Carnival, A Circus, and A Notebook”
Great information to know! My daughter actually rode on a ‘windmill’ Ferris Wheel in a cute little Dutch village in Holland (Michigan) this past weekend. I am too much of a coward to get on one. 😀
A windmill Ferris wheel sounds cute! Did you know that the Ferris in Ferris wheel is always capitalized because it is named after the man who designed it? There’s another fun fact.
I stay away from the Wheels that do anything beyond a basic turn. If it’s sliding back and forth within a given space while spinning the wheel, forget it. The rocking of the chair is hard enough for me to handle. Not a lover or heights, I guess.
Thanks for chiming in.
I love a good carnival, but the circus freaks me out. I’ll go see Cirque du Soleil, or that kind of show, but not the one with animals or clowns. I’m not sure why, but since I was a kid, the circus has slightly terrified me.
Learning the terms was cool! I never knew that a spin on the carousel would cement a relationship, that’s what’s so fascinating about research. You learn the niftiest things!
We are the same way – no animals (because we don’t want to support the treatment involved in curving their behavior) and NO freaky clowns!
That’s why I recommended Circus Vargas. They had only one clown that looked like Pee-wee Herman and no animals what so ever. They show was super cool and, although not exactly a Cirque du Soleil, event, it was comparable with the magic and the suspended twirling. I think you would like it. Plus – hot dudes. 🙂
What a fun post, Debra. While I’m not a lover of carnivals or circuses, I have been know to attend a time or two. I like circus acts better than carnivals because those performers have to have talent.
I always thought a “talker” was called a barker. Learn something new every day.
And I would love a kiss at the top of a ferris wheel. Can you set that up for me and Thor? The real one?
I’m looking forward to hearing more from your research.
w/a Jansen Schmidt
Patricia recently posted…Did I Do That?
Circus acts can be something of a wonder, I’ll give you that.
I think a lot of people confuse ‘talker’ with ‘barker’, but truth be told ‘barker was never an authentic term used for the individual gathering the tip. The misconception may have come from the movies. The term ‘barking’ was sometimes used to describe a grand pitch made by vendors at stationary locations, like hot dog stands or at the doorway to an adult show. You can see how it would be easy for people to confuse and apply the term to ‘the talker.’
As for a kiss with Thor at the top of the Ferris wheel – that’s a tall order. I’ll see what I can do. 😉
Thanks for stopping in!
Debra… I’m very excited to hear about your book. I love all about the Circus and Midways. I’ve studied world’s fairs and the 1893 Chicago Exposition and 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in S.F. in particular.
There is a book you might like to read… Cathy Day’s ‘The Circus in Winter’.
Thank you, Ted! I will check out the book recommendation. Very cool. What a fun new fact to learn about you. It’s been fun learning about the circus and carnival life in an attempt to create a fun and believable world. Of course, mine is magical and supernatural so I can bend the rules. 😉
I always loved the county fair, circuses, and carnivals when I was younger. Now, not as much due to the crowds. But definitely get that kiss on the Ferris wheel – just sayin’. 😉 And if you can, make the drive to experience a county fair in a rural county – worthwhile and so nostalgic!
I get where you’re coming from. I am not a crowd lover either. But somethings must be endured for the end reward, right? For the kids, or the research. 🙂
A drive through rural country sounds lovely. And I think you should make plans for that kiss. Tell the hubs you would like to arrange one.
Such pretty pictures! I don’t why but I’m liking the term “cattle rustling”.
Glad you liked the pictures, Emma. Some of them came out really nice. “Cattle rustling” has a fun ring to it! So many of their terms are terribly enjoyable.
Enjoyed the post and loved the learning you managed to sneak in. 🙂
We live in Virginia, so most counties have a fair that come through every year. They’re getting so expensive: each ride is 3 tickets and 20 tickets is like $25 and I have three children. But I go for one reason: FUNNEL CAKE! LOL Sure, I could make it myself, but it doesn’t taste as good. 🙂
The last time we took the kids to the circus (about 5 years ago) we left early. I just couldn’t take watching the animals. It was so sad. I didn’t get any pleasure watching these grand, majestic animals climb up on stools or raise a paw.
But the kids did enjoy the tightrope and the performers on the high swings.
I was sneaky, wasn’t I? Glad I was able to make it fun for you.
I hear you on the expense. We have one come through every year, too. Ouch to the pocketbook! I am telling you. It’d be so much better to go to a straight out amusement park, but not the same experience.
The Funnel cake. So yummy. That was something I have discussed with my fellow authors – since there is a funnel cake stand at the entrance of our carnival. 🙂 Good eats.
We don’t like to see the animals in the acts either. That’s why we went to see Circus Vargas. No animals in their circus AT ALL. That’s the way we like it. The age of curving animal behavior for the benefit of entertainment is no longer acceptable in our eyes. It’s ALL about the tightrope, high swings, magic, etc. for us.
Thanks for stopping and sharing!
I have always loved the circus and the carnival. I just revisited the scary side by watching 2 seasons of “Carnivale”. It isn’t a true representation, but it was a great show and it made me remember my early thoughts (just thoughts) of running off and joining the circus. I had no skills for it and would have been a doer of all things, but I could still see that life. Sometimes, I almost wish I had.
I remember that show. I was rather sad when it was cancelled. What a curious life it would be to run off with the circus – and such a sad thing it is to live with a bunch of ‘what-if’s’ or regrets. It’s is possible that in another fold of time – another universe, you did run off and you did live that life. Imagine that! There is an interesting story worth writing. 🙂
Thanks for stopping by, Scott. I love hearing from you!
Hi, Debra! I realize this is an older post but I found you through a search on circus lingo and I’d like to read your book. Can you give me the info? I worked for a small carnival for about eight months as a young man in the mid-eighties. There was definitely a dark side. Most of the guys were escaping legal troubles and in each town there was usually a girl or two who hung around after closing for some group entertainment. Have you researched any of this aspect of carny life? Thanks!
Hi Tim! My book is about a supernatural carnival and the novel is a paranormal romance about a dragon-shifter who works as the fire-eater. I didn’t do much research on the aspect “fan-girls” since it doesn’t play much into my story but I can definitely see where that would be a situation. I’m not sure if my book is exactly what you were thinking it would be but if you’re still interested, the details can be found here: https://www.debrakristi.com/books/moorigad-the-complete-age-of-the-hybrid-series/
Since you actually worked at a traveling carnival, I know of a book that might be of interest to you. It’s a compilation of true carny stories to which you may or may not relate. The book is called ‘Step Right Up’ and you can check it out here: http://amzn.to/2A9LvDI