Sideshow Terminology

Carny Lingo

I know, I know: Some of the jargon here is well-worn. Some of it, though, is deceptive in its familiarity. If you can sit there without reading this diminutive dictionary, feeling firm in your knowledge that bag pipe bands and glass blowers used to be regular performers in sideshows, you probably don’t need this chapter. Otherwise, welcome to the show.

One special note. “Lingo,” like the back end itself (you can look it up!), is a compendium of elements, only disparate at first glance. The primary element is the definitions taken from Circus Lingo, the seminal work on the subject by old-time trouper, circus and carnival historian and publisher Joe McKennon, “the man who was with it.” Without him and his work, this column would be rife with error and inaccuracy. The second, smaller element is my own. Definitions and additional notes I provide will be italicized. Step right up! –James Taylor

AB (Amusement Business) – The magazine of the trade. In the old days, before its name change, it was The Billboard. Many, if not the majority, of traveling showmen would have Billboard as their address; that is, they could be contacted while on the road care of the forwarding services offered to the showmen by the trade journal.


ALLIGATOR MAN/WOMAN/ETC. -Sideshow human oddity afflicted with skin condition, commonly ictheosis, that gives the skin a scaly, reptile-like appearance.

ANATOMICAL WONDER – A sideshow performer, usually perceived by the public as a human oddity, but more a working act. The performer would do stunts such as ‘the man without a stomach’ (pulling the gut in until the backbone shows), pulling themselves through a coat hanger or tennis racket, and other Indian Rubber Man stunts.

ANNEX – In the case of a sideshow, another name for the area where the blowoff is located.

ARMLESS WONDER – A performer without arms, usually doing his or her stage act using just the feet and mouth.

AUCTION STORE – A concession/game run as though it were an auction. See JAM AUCTION.

BABY SHOW – Also known as ‘unborn,’ ‘life,’ ‘bottle,’ ‘freak baby’ and ‘pickled punk show,’ though these last terms are strictly carnival insider lingo and were not used around the general public. (See McKennon’s definition for PICKLED PUNK.)

BACK END -Inside the big top at opposite end of tent from the front door or the ‘connection’ between the menagerie and the big top. The ‘back end’ of a carnival consists of the shows and riding devices. Concessions, no matter where located, are part of the ‘front end.’

BALLY, BALLYHOO – A free show given outside a side show to attract a crowd (a ‘tip’) of potential patrons. Word came into being at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fakirs, gun spinners and dancing girls from the Middle East spoke no English, only Arabic. The interpreters used the expression “Dehalla Hoon” to call performers outside to the show fronts. The Western ears of the talkers translated it as ‘ballyhoo’ and so used it when the interpreters were away for lunch.

BANNER – Side Show. Pictorials on canvas hung in front of circus side shows and carnival midway shows depicting the wonders to be found inside.

BARNSTORMING – Taking a show from spot to spot, with little pre-arranged plan for the next spot, generally in the off-season. The showmen would depend on their ability to generate a generous crowd with little on no pre-publicity. The shows and events put on would often occur in old theatres and grange halls.

BEARDED LADY – Woman with a beard appearing in a show. They were most often genuine, though there were the occasional gaffs.

BED OF NAILS (SPIKES) – Also “nail board.” A board the surface of which is covered by hundreds of nails, points up, on which the performer lies down to show he or she is immune to pain. Frequently, the performer (often called a “torture king,” “fakir,” “pain proof man,” etc.) will have audience members stand on him or have a concrete block broken on his chest with a sledge hammer while lying on the bed of spikes. See FAKIR.

BEEF – A complaint from a patron, a law officer or others concerning anything about the show.

BILL – (n) A piece of advertising paper. (v) The act of placing advertising paper on, or in selected locations in and around the town to be played by the show. The term can also be used in other ways, as in “drawing up a bill,” meaning to gather together the acts for a show, or in the question, “How was he billed?” meaning “How was his act advertised?” and “Was he on the bill?” meaning, “Was he on the show?” The term is more often applied theatrically than it would be in sideshows.


BLADE BOX – Act where performer (usually a woman) lies in box while steel blades are pushed through it, the impression given the crowd that the performer is contorting herself like she’s made of rubber or can twist like a snake.

BLANKAROO – A spot or date that made the show no money.


BLIND OPENING – An opening that could be used for any attraction. Usually it advertised the strange and unusual nature of what the viewer would see after the admission had been paid. It allowed the showman to alter the show at will and not have to change the spiel. See OPENING.

BLOWOFF – Crowds leaving a big top after a performance. Extra pay, extra added attractions in back end of both circus and carnival side shows were also called blowoffs. Also blow off, blow-off or the blow.

BLOW DOWN – When one or more tents or riding devices is leveled to the ground by a wind storm.

BOSS CANVASMAN – Literally, what it says. He’s the man in charge of making sure the canvas goes up properly and doesn’t come down on the show short of a major blow down.

BOUNCER – A rubber or vinyl reproduction of a pickled punk. There were any number of reasons for using reproductions instead of genuine punks including local legal restrictions, loss of the genuine article, or easier accessibility to one than the other.

BROOM SUSPENSION – An illusion, derived from an old fakir trick, often employed on the sideshow bally to gather a crowd, where the performer reclines in mid-air, suspended at a right angle from an upright broom with only the tip of the broom handle touching him. In stage magic, the act has been performed any number of ways, including having the performer “suspended” from the point of a sword.

BUDDHA FLUKEM – A chemical solution used to “develop” (make visible) a picture on a specially treated piece of paper (“Buddha papers”). The inexpensive chemical magic trick was often pitched in sideshows.


BURNING ALIVE, BURNING A WOMAN ALIVE, ETC. – An illusion where the performer enters a cabinet or cage which is then set ablaze. The performer could then either appear to finish the act skeletonized (then appear – miraculously – unharmed) or step out completely unharmed from the fiery prision.

CABINETS OF WONDER – The English translation of kunstkammer and wunderkammer, the cabinets of curiosities and wonders that evolved into the dime museums of the 19th Century. The were private collections of odd, bizarre, unusual, exotic and – by today’s standards – relatively mundane objects, many of which might be found in any museum of natural history.
CARNIVAL – A cooperative business arrangement between independent showmen, ride owners and concessioners to present outdoor amusement for the public.

CARNY – Someone who works in a carnival. The term is also applied to the carnival itself. It’s a term used by some in the business and disliked by others.


CONCESSIONAIRE – The game and food stand personnel; the people who operate the “joints.” Because of that, they’re also called “jointees,” as opposed to the “showmen” who run the shows.

CRIME SHOW – A show whose theme was crime, criminals and “crime does not pay.” Such shows would often feature gangster’s cars, weapons employed in crime, other paraphernalia of the underworld and, often, lecturers who had once been crime fighters, criminals or the family or friends of criminals. They were called by any number of names (Gang Busters, for example).

CUTTING UP JACKPOTS (JACKIES) – A discussion of past events, often distorted in the telling, among showmen.
DEVIL BABY – A gaffed freak, usually constructed to appear mummified or otherwise preserved, often displayed in a tiny coffin. The name is pretty much self explanatory, and they often had horns, fangs, hoofed feet, claws, etc.

DIME MUSEUM – A collection of specimens, exotic objects and live acts and performances, usually set up in its own building though just as often set up in an old store front. They were most popular primarily in the 19th and early 20th Century. The present day road-side museums are their descendants.

DONIKER – A rest room or toilet wherever it is.

DO-GOODERS – Individuals who believe in the innate evil of the amusement business, focusing generally on the notion that it exploits or demeans those who work in it. The do-gooders are generally despised by the by same supposedly exploited individuals: the carnival and circus workers. The common terminology today is “PC” or “politically correct.”

DOG FACED BOY – A performer with extreme hirsutism/hypertrichosis or hairiness of the face. While certainly not a medical classification, the terminology allowed showmen and performers to turn a medically exotic condition into an even more exotic attraction.


DRESSING – As in “stage dressing,” that is, anything used to fill up the space on stage to give the appearance of a full and vibrant production.

DUCK VANISH – A stage magic illusion where a duck (or pigeon or other bird) is made to “disappear” by the magician, usually from a cage or pan.

DWARF – An achondroplastic dwarf, identifies visually by the foreshortened long bonds of the body (in legs, arms, fingers, etc); the other bones in the body (the skull, for example) grow to be “normal” size. Much more common than “midgets.” See MIDGET.
ELEPHANT SKIN GIRL/BOY/ETC. -Human oddity whose skin texture resembled an elephant’s and/or whose skin was baggy and loose.

ESCAPES (ESCAPE ARTIST) – Act where performer escapes from straight jacket, handcuffs, etc. Harry Houdini was the most famous of this breed.

FAKIR – From the Indian, as in “Indian Fakir,” a street performer who swallowed swords, ate fire, did the blockhead act, lay on a bed of nails, walked on fire, etc. Not surprisingly, the term also shows up in some texts used interchangeably with “con man.” See HUMAN BLOCKHEAD.


FIRE EATER – Generally, anyone who manipulates fire by “eating” it or otherwise performing with it. Although there are numerous fire tricks, many of which qualify as fire “breathing,” “eating” or “manipulating,” performers who concentrate on one type of act versus another are usually simply lumped together as “fire eaters.”
FLAT STORE – A gaming concession that really has no winning numbers, or combination of numbers. The “gentlemanly agents” sell “conversation” to their “marks.”

FRAME A SHOW – To build a new show.

FREAK – A human oddity on exhibition in a museum or in a circus or carnival side show. Early day circuses also displayed some featured freaks in their menageries.


FREAK SHOW – A show where human oddities and freakish working acts performed. The term applies to both circus and carnival. In practice, these shows were often ten-in-one shows and usually had a high percentage of working acts like sword swallowers and fire eaters or ‘made freaks’ like tattooed people.

FROG MAN/GIRL/ETC. – Human oddity whose legs and arms could be contorted so they could squat in a frog-like position. This ability was often the result of the Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an affliction which can result in hyper-extensible joints, skin laxity (such as that of Rubber Skin people), and other anomalies. Otis Jordan, on the other hand, often billed as Frog Boy, was so called as his locomotion was by hopping, necessitated by his shriveled limbs.

FRONT – (show front, 200′ front, talking the front, ‘I got your money on the front,’ etc.) Generally, the front of a show, though its meaning can change depending on usage. A 200′ front pretty clearly means the show takes up 200′ of the midway and ‘I got your money on the front’ obviously means the patron paid to get into the show. On the other hand, the front end consists of only the concessions in a carnival but, on a circus, consists of the midway including concessions and the sideshows. The term ‘front’ can also apply to how someone looks, as in ‘putting up a front.’

GADGET SHOW, MECHANICAL SHOW – Apparently, gadget show was an infrequently used term for mechanical shows. Mechanical shows were always uncommon as they were so hard to maintain in working order. They featured working miniatures, such as tiny villages, where the figures and structures operated and moved, much like in an Xmas train garden. Usually, they were transported in trailers and didn’t operate under canvas.

GAFF – In the broadest sense, anything controlled or ‘faked’. A gaffed game, for example, would be one where it would be nearly impossible for the patron to win unless the operator let him. In the case of freak animals (and human oddities as well on occasion), for example, a gaff wouldn’t be a genuine freak of nature, regardless how convincing it looked, but a specimen manufactured to look freakish.



GAZOONY (GAZOONIE, GAZUNY) – A young immature or working man.

GIBTOWN – Gibsonton, Florida aka Showtown, USA, where carnival and circus people used to winterquarter in great numbers. Many still do. See also SHOWTOWN USA.

GEEK – A person working, mostly sitting, in a den of snakes.

GIRL IN THE FISH BOWL – Also called the mermaid illusion, the viewer looks into the “fish bowl” (actually a lens) which shows – apparently – a living, miniature girl, often dressed as a mermaid. Because of the nature of the illusion, in its earliest days it was difficult for the “mermaid” to know what the audience was doing, so her act usually consisted of looking pretty and waving as opposed to actually interacting with the crowd.
GIRL-TO-GORILLA/GORILLA GIRL/APE GIRL SHOW – An elaborate illusion show that gives the patrons the impression that a beautiful girl is being changed into a gorilla. These shows have also appeared as variations on the transformation theme; for example, skeletal corpse to a living vampire. The girl-to-gorilla show is still the all-time money maker though.

GIRL SHOW – In its generic sense, a show in which dancing women are the primary attraction. These could range from the reviews (the Broadway reviews with dancing girls or the more exotic ‘foreign’ reviews such as the Hawaiian reviews) to the racier hootchie kootchie (also houchie kouchie, hoochie koochie, hootchy kootchy, etc.) shows.

GRAB JOINT – An eating concession (with circuses a hamburger stand). The customer is served directly over the counter from the griddle, juice bowl, etc. Circus grab joints had no seating of any kind for the townspeople. Only seating for them was in the big top. Some carnival grab joints do have seating all around stand.

GRIFT – The crooked games, short change artist, cloths line robbers, merchandise boosters, pickpockets and all other types of skullduggery carried by some of the “fireball shows.” The term was used collectively to cover any and all such activities.

GRIND – In the spiel from a show front, the rhythmic verbal conclusion that’s meant to move the patrons into the show. It differs from the opening bally, which is meant to get the attention of midway strollers and sell them on the show they’ll see.

GRIND SHOW – A show or attraction that never has a “bally.” Front men and ticket sellers just “grind away” all day. Most of the shows on carnival midways today are grind shows, the grind blaring over the midway from an audiotape loop and sound system.

GRIP – A wad of money.

GUILLOTINE – A stage magic illusion based on the execution device invented by Dr. Guillotine. In the act, the magician first “proves” the guillotine’s danger by chopping, usually, a vegetable such as a head of cabbage. Placing someone’s arm or neck in the device, however, results in no damage to the person in spite of the blade “cutting through” the victim.

HAGY BAGY – Most often a term applied to the games, it is a malleable expression for a thing that’s not quite together, disorganized or nonsensical, thrown together without concern for appearances. Pronounced “haji baji.”

HALF AND HALF – Side show attractions who claimed to be hermaphrodites. Some of them were.

HALF GIRL/BOY – A human oddity born without lower limbs.

HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS – An all-black basketball team whose games were played for laughs against an all white team which always lost. Much of the game was given over to broad comedic shenanigans on the court.
HEADLESS/HEADLESS ILLUSION – Illusion show where a ‘headless’ person is displayed. They’re usually pitched as ‘medical miracles’ following tragic accidents.

HEAT – Problems, arguments or battles between the show, or its people, and town’s people. Most heat was caused by illegal activities of a show, but not always by the show involved. A “burn em up” outfit in ahead of a real “Sunday Schooler” could and did leave a lot of heat for the latter.

HOT SNAKE – A snake show term for a poisonous snake.

HUMAN BLOCKHEAD – The name given by the anatomical wonder Melvin Burkhart to the independent act he created where the performer pushes, hammers, drills, etc. objects ‘into the middle of my head,’ that is, up the nose. Performers use nails-called spikes-screwdrivers, icepicks, etc. The act originated in the much older fakir stunt of pushing a spike up the nose as part of a larger show of “torture” acts. Also BLOCKHEAD. See FAKIR.

HUMAN OSTRICH – An act where the performer swallows objects usually considered dangerous or outrageous to swallow. Often, the act also included bringing the objects back up at will, in which case it became a regurgitation act.

HUMAN PINCUSHION – An act where the performer pushes needles, hat pins, meat skewers, etc. through the flesh. Such performers were billed as “fakirs,” “pain-proof men,” etc. See FAKIR.
HUMAN TORSO – Human oddity born without arms or legs.

HYPERTRICHOSIS – Extreme hairiness brought on genetically. Hirsutism. Any number of wolf boys, lion-faced men and dog faced boys were born with the condition.

ILLUSION SHOW – Show consisting of illusions, for example, headless, Spidora, Snake Girl, etc.

INDEPENDENT MIDWAY – The midway concessions booked in separate from those with the carnival. In a fair, for example, the independent midway could consist of booths for local businesses, food stands raising money for fraternal organizations, even shows such as might appear on the carnival midway such as reptile shows, motordromes, etc.

INSIDE – (money, lecturer, etc.) “Inside the show.”

JACKPOTS – Trouper’s stories of their former escapades, often exaggerated. ‘Cuttin’ up jackpots’ is the expression given to swapping these stories.

JAM JOINT (STORE) – A direct sales concession, usually worked as an auction, where the buyer’s confidence is built up by free gifts of much “slum” (cheap) merchandise.


JOINT – A concession stand or booth on a circus or carnival. Troupers also referred to rowdy places of business and whore houses as joints.

KICK BACK – Monies that have to be taken from a showman’s gross to pay off someone else, usually the show or carnival owners themselves, for the right to conduct business.

LAND OFFICE BUSINESS – Doing so much business you almost have to turn people away.

LEARNED DOGS, TURKEYS, HORSES, PIGS, ETC. – Any animal taught to perform as though “educated,” for example, answering the showman’s or the crowd’s questions in “code” (pawing the ground in a specific fashion to indicate “yes” or “no”) or performing arithmetic computations.

LECTURER – Individual who talks inside the show, lecturing on the various acts. Often, acts lecture on themselves, especially the human oddities.

LEOPARD SKIN GIRL/BOY – A performer, often black, whose skin has lost pigmentation, making them appear piebald. In the history of the business, there were also white performers with an over-pigmentation, giving them a reverse appearance of the black performers.

LEVITATION – A stage magic illusion where the magician’s assistant is made to rise in the air, the “proof” of the legitimacy of the “magic” usually being a hoop passed over and around the “floating” assistant.

LOT – The show grounds.

MARK – A carnival term for townspeople. Particularly, the ones who ‘go up against the games.’

MEDICINE SHOW – Usually a small show the primary purpose of which was to sell patent medicine, medicine that was often touted to cure virtually every ailment known to man. The shows would usually consist of some amount of performance (small plays, stand up comedians, minstrels, etc.) in addition to the medicine pitch.

MENTALIST – Performer, usually working with an assistant, whose act consists of ‘reading the minds’ of the patrons.

MIDGET – A hypopituitary dwarf, identifiable visually by their small size but “normal adult” proportions. [Note that “midget” and “dwarf” are terms that are imprecise medically, since any number of causes can lie behind being smaller than average. See DWARF.

MIDWAY – In its broadest sense, the location where all the concessions, rides and shows are located in a circus, fair or carnival. Of course, a carnival is basically nothing but midway; in a circus, the midway is just that: the midway between the ‘front door’ to the circus lot itself and the ‘big top’ where the circus performers do their acts; and in a fair, the midway will probably be a combination of the carnival and the ‘independent midway,’ amusements booked in separate from the carnival by the fair committee itself.

MINSTREL – A show that’s primarily musical and done in black face. There were also sketches, jokes, etc. that played satirically, and sarcastically, on life in the black community.

MITT CAMP – A fortune telling booth on a carnival.

MONKEY GIRL/BOY/ETC. – Human oddity afflicted with hirsutism. Such individuals might also be called Wolf Boys, Dog Boys, etc. Their hairiness is more extreme than, say, a bearded lady’s.

MOSS-HAIRED GIRL – A gaffed human oddity, generally caucasian, who would bush her hair, much in the style of the 1960s – 1970s ‘Afro’ worn by African-Americans. The pitch which usually accompanied the act involved kidnaping by ‘Arabs’ and being forced into harem life, followed by a harrowing escape culminating in refuge there in the show.

MOTORDROME – A daredevil show involving motorcycles and sometimes four-wheeled vehicles, such as go-carts, which race around inside small, circular wooden enclosures (‘wall of death’) or spherical wire mesh steel enclosures (‘globe of death’).

MULE FACE BOY – Not a medical condition but any facial circumstance which created the appearance – to the showman, anyway – of the performer being a mule. Grace McDaniels, perhaps the most famous mule-faced performer, purportedly owed her appearance to facial tumors.

MUSEUM SHOW – Virtually any show the exhibits for which are not alive. The show might contain specimens that are preserved, such as taxidermied or mummified freak animals, or other exotic items of interest, such as the weapons used by famous murderers. Also called a still show.


NUT – The operating expenses of a show (daily, weekly or yearly). The story is that the word came into usage after a creditor came onto a circus grounds and took the nuts off the wagon wheels. “I will keep them until I get my money,” he announced. He was paid. The nuts went back on the wheels and the show moved that night. “So a show always sought to ‘make the nut’ and start making money above its expenses. A show that hadn’t yet ‘made the nut’ was said to be ‘on the nut’ and one that had was said to be ‘off the nut’.”


OFFICE – The carnival office wagon or trailer.

OPENING – The spiel or speech given by the talker in front of a show. On circus side shows, the first opening given with many people on the bally platform, was the “first opening”.

OSSIFIED GIRL/BOY/ETC. – Human oddity afflicted with a condition which effectively freezes them in position, withering their limbs, etc.

PANORAMA SHOW – A show where a large painting is rolled from one huge roller to another, allowing the viewer to watch the figures, scenery, etc. of the panoramic painting move past. Such paintings were often scenic or historic in nature. Though usually a stage show performed in theatres or halls, with props such as shrubbery placed strategically in front of the moving painting to add to the illusion of “being there,” such shows also traveled with carnivals.

PARADE – The procession which used to announce the arrival of the circus to town. Traditionally, circuses would make them as glorious and spectacular as possible and they’d wind through the middle of town all the way to the lot where the big show was to occur.

PARASITIC TWIN – Layman’s terminology for an conjoined (Siamese) twin that lacks consciousness and “feeds” off its sibling. Typically, the twins exhibited had the parasitic twin’s body protruding from the abdomen of the other twin (the rudimentary head of the parasitic twin was inside the body of its sibling). Famous examples have been Betty Lou Williams and Laloo.

PENGUIN BOY/GIRL/ETC. – Human oddity afflicted with foreshortened limbs, usually with hands and feet attached directly to the torso without arms or legs. See Seal Boy/Girl.

PERCENTAGE – That part of a showman’s gross receipts that must be paid (usually in addition to other costs too) to the carnival owner for the right to play the spot.

PICKLED PUNK – A carnival term for human fetuses. Two-headed human babies, joined together twins, etc., etc. (Also normal specimens from one to eight months). Not India rubber as many believed, these specimens were repulsive to some, but highly educational for millions of others. See BABY SHOW as well.

PINHEAD – Human oddity afflicted with microcephally, the head coming to a point, a fact which was often further emphasized by leaving a top knot of hair to emphasize the head shape.

PIT – A small (8’x8′ or 10’x10′, sometimes bigger) canvas enclosure in which side show acts were performed; or in which animals, snakes, reptiles or human oddities were exhibited. The spectators stood around the four sides and looked down into the pit.

PITCH – Selling merchandise by lecturing and demonstrating.

PLATFORM – The raised staging where acts perform. It can refer to those inside the show or the bally platform on the front of the show.

POPEYE – Though there were any number of “Popeye the Sailor Man” impersonators on the midways, the most famous “popeyes” where performers who could, literally, pop out their eyes. The medical condition which allows them to perform the ghastly feat isn’t lethal and the act cause them no pain whatsoever, though it does demand an amount of physical control to add to the drama of the act.

POSING SHOW – A show where the female ‘models’ pose as they might for artists or in imitation of poses from famous artworks.

PROFESSOR – Title often taken by any showman considered ‘expert’ in their chosen field. It was seldom a true indicator of academic pedigree, though it could well represent a wealth of knowledge about the public at large.

PROPERTIES/PROPS – Anything and everything needed by a show and it’s performers to present a performance. Elephant tubs and steel arenas, clown fire engines and hire houses, and anything else used on the ground and in the rings are props. Equipment pulled into the air for aerial acts is “rigging” though.

PROSCENIUM – The theatrical arch over the stage which provides a “frame” for the performance. Also “proscenium arch.”

PUNCH & JUDY – A centuries-old children’s puppet show, the primary characters being a shrill and quarrelsome (and violent) Punch and his wife Judy. The show often appeared in old-time sideshows as entertainment for the children while their parents looked at the rest of the attractions. Punch whistles, used by the character to make his distinctive sounds, were also sold as pitch items to kids who attended the show.

PUNK – A young person or animal. A child or an unusually immature young person. Also a type of sexual pervert.

RAILROAD SHOW – A show which travels by railroad on it’s own train of special built railroad cars.

RANGY – Worked up, often in a vulgar way. Typically, a show could be rangy (say, a kootch show; usually, though, this would be termed a ‘strong’ show) or a lot of rangy patrons (drunken, disorderly, disruptive) could be in a show. Pronounced like what you did to the bell.

RIPLEY, ROBERT – The “Modern Marco Polo” and, arguably, the 20th Century’s P. T. Barnum. Starting as a cartoonist of “Believe It or Not!” fame, he parlayed the strip into a chain of museums following his initial venture into world’s fair exhibitions of sideshow and other unusual acts.

ROUSTABOUTS – Circus working men on the lot, particularly the big top crew. Some uninformed writers just love to use “razor back” for these hands. Razor backs were always train crewmen not canvasmen, which really is the proper term to use for big top men. Men in each department had designations from the job they performed. Dog boys, pony punks, property men, skinners, bull men, cage hands, front door men, lead bar detective, honey bucket man, coffee boy, pastry cook, etc., etc.

ROUTE – List of towns and events played each week, month or year.

RUBE – Hey Rube or a battle with the towners. Also, a not very affectionate term for the towner himself.

SEAL BOY/GIRL/ETC. – Human oddity afflicted with phocomelia, or foreshortened ‘seal,’ limbs, usually with hands and feet attached directly to the torso without arms or legs. See Penguin Boy/Girl.

SHILL/SHILLABER – One who pretends to play a game, or to buy a ticket to an attraction, in order to entice others to join or follow him. Without a good “shill,” and entire “tip” may stay perfectly still after an “opening.” All with the cash in their hands, and not one of them will “break” for the ticket boxes, unless some brave soul leads the way. “Shills” fill the need for brave souls.


SIAMESE TWINS – The medical and more politically correct term is conjoined twins, that is, any twins who were joined at birth. The configurations are many and varied, from joining at the breast, the hips, top of the head, etc. The term originated with the “original” twins, Chang and Eng, who were from Siam.
SIDESHOW – Essentially, any show that plays the midway, though the now more common application is to the freak shows or ten-inone shows. Technically, however, even a menagerie on the midway of a circus is a sideshow. Also ‘side show’.

SIDEWALL – The canvas wall that hangs below a canvas ‘top,’ as in ‘big top.’ What most outside the business would call a ‘tent’ is, in reality, the canvas top with its sidewalls attached.

SILHOUETTE CUTTER – An old-time demonstration where the craftsman cuts – free hand – a silhouette of the person paying to have it done.

SINGLE O – A show consisting of a single attraction.

SLACK WIRE – A wire act, usually performed low as opposed to high wire, in which the wire is slack and bows under the wire artist, allowing for a periodically more comic (though just as difficult) act than usually seen on the high wire.

SLAPSTICK – Broad, knockabout comedy that originated in the late 19th Century but traces its ancestry into ancient times, through all bawdy, physical comedy. So named for the invention of the 1800s – the slapstick – a bat-like paddle the flap of which detonates an explosive charge when the slapstick is struck against another comedian (usually on the head or rear), making a great smoke and noise on stage.

SNAKE CHARMER – A performer, often a woman, who “charms” snakes. The act could be little more that a girl dressed in harem pants who would do little more than walk around the platform with a large snake wrapped around her, or it could include handling poisonous snakes such as making cobras “dance” to flute music.
SPIDORA – Illusion show in which the head of a woman appears to grow from the body of a huge spider. The illusion is a reversal of the headless illusion.

SPIEL – The speech made on a show front by the talker to the gathering crowd. See BALLY or TALKER.

SPOT – Where the show plays; its location. For example, “We played that spot.” Also applies to placement of the show itself as in “When we got to the lot, our show was already spotted for us.”
SQUARE – To settle a dispute without use of the Law or the fists. Also used by the legal adjusters for the “fixing of a town” at City Hall, and the lavish use of passes on the lot to keep the Law happy.

STAKELINES – The row of stakes around a tent.

STICK – A shill. See the definition above.

STORE SHOW – A sideshow set up in a store; a temporary dime museum. They would often be set up by showmen during the off-season to keep their performers around and generate additional income. See DIME MUSEUM.

SWAY POLE – An act where the performer climbs a tall pole and proceeds to rock to and fro until the pole – the performer perched atop – is swaying wildly from side to side like an inverted pendulum. The act is very often played for laughs, though it is, in fact, extremely dangerous to perform.

SWORD LADDER – A sideshow fakir prop with swords for stairs up which the performers walks barefoot. Not actually a ladder, the prop was usually more of a staircase of swords.

SWORD SWALLOWER – Performer who swallows swords but also various other objects including coat hangers, fly swatters, neon tubes, rifle barrels, etc.
TABLEAU – A grouping of figures, the term most commonly used in wax museums and their midway counterparts, the wax shows. They were usually of historical scenes, but could be literary, mythical, horrific, etc.

TAKEN IN ON THE FRONT – As in “How much [money] did we take in on the front?” as opposed to the money taken in on the assorted pitches inside the show.

TALKER – Never “barker.” The man who makes the “outside openings” and “talks” in front of an attraction. If he talks inside the attraction, he is a “lecturer.”

TAKE YOUR BEST HOLT – Do anything to get the money. Also “work strong.”

TEAR DOWN – The tearing down of a show at the end of an engagement.

TEASER, TEASER CURTAIN – A low curtain that obscures the otherwise open view to the midway of the activities in a show. Only a few feet high, it’s hung to allow the midway crowd to see the feet and heads of the audience and sometimes the performers in the show, the better to “tease” them to pay the admission to see what everyone is looking at.
TEN IN ONE – A carnival midway show with ten attractions inside. It is usually an “illusion” show or some other “string show.” Can be either a “pit” or a “platform” show. Most of them worked on ground level though. “Also ’10-in-1,’ etc.”

TIP – The crowd gathered in front of an attraction by the “ballyhoo.” They listen to the talker, watch the free exhibition on the bally platform, and if the talker is convincing enough, they buy tickets and go in to see the promised show. When entire tip has been “turned” by a talker’s “opening,” it is said that he has “cleaned the midway.”

TOP – See definition for SIDEWALL above.

TORTURE SHOW – A horrific museum show displaying implements of torture, often shown in use on mannequins.

TROUPER – A person who has spent at least one full season on some type traveling amusement organization. By then, they are usually hooked.

TRUCK SHOW – A show which travels by truck, the situation of most carnivals today.

TURN THE TIP – The would be patrons in front of a bally platform who have been convinced that the “talker” is truthful and his attraction must be seen are “turned” when they crowd up to the ticket boxes and purchase tickets.

TURTLE GIRL – As with many of the descriptive titles of performers, not a medical condition but an exotic description of any number of possible conditions leading the showman to promote the performer in such a fashion.


WALK UP – An attraction designed to “walk up to” and to take money from you in the process to pay for the privilege of seeing things close up.
WAX SHOW – A show featuring wax figures of famous people, in this case outlaws and such. These early “Law” and “Outlaw” shows later evolved into “Crime Does Not Pay” shows. Scott Younger, of the Younger Family, operated a great wax show for many years.

WHALE SHOW – A show displaying dead or facsimile whales. These shows often operated out of railroad flatcars in the old days of the business, as they were the only vehicles sturdy enough to handle the dead specimens.

WHEELS – Game wheels on a show.
WIDE OPEN – A show or carnival where anything goes, where the shows can play as “strong” as they want, meaning raunchy in this case, and the games can take the marks for anything they can by any means possible. Such conditions never existed without the approval of the local authorities, usually after big pay offs from the carnival people.

WILD MAN/WOMAN – Usually a grind show where the performer is touted as being a drug abuse victim or some other exotic character. May now involve some mild “geek” action where the performer plays with a snake and for an extra charge to the patron will put the snake’s head in his mouth. See GRIND, GRIND SHOW and GEEK SHOW.

WINTERQUARTERS – Location where a show stays during its off season, that is, the quarters in the winter. A show’s (or circus’ or carnival’s) winterquarters need not be in a temperate climate zone, though a number of them are in the South.

WITH IT – (as in, “with it and for it”) An expression by which one trouper may know another even though they have never met before. Warning: Do not attempt to use this word unless you have been properly instructed in the manner by which to deliver it.

WORLD’S FAIR – Hugely popular exhibitions throughout the later part of the 19th Century into the first half of the 20th Century. Ostensibly intended to showcase each attending nation’s pavilion as well as halls to such high-minded endeavors as industry, electricity, agriculture and the arts, those exhibitions became the mere window dressing for where all the money was truly made: the midway. Midways on the world’s fairs made many showman vast sums of money; one, in fact, is considered the mother of all carnival: the Columbia Exposition of 1893.

X-RAY SHOW – A potentially lethal show that played at least one world’s fair (St. Louis Exposition in 1904.) Apparently, one could go into the show and look through objects, including yourself and others, by use of x-rays. Needless to say, at the turn of the century, no one was aware of the dangers inherent in such a show.

So, now you’ve got some terminology. In future volumes of SHOCKED AND AMAZED, you’ll see these and other terms defined, whichever apply to that particular volume. And write for Joe McKennon’s CIRCUS LINGO. It’s available from Carnival Publishers of Sarasota Florida P.O. Box 295, Sarasota, FL 33578. At this writing, it’s available for the amazingly inexpensive price of $5. Throw in a couple of bucks for postage. You’ll get a catalog with some of best show books around.