Style Spotlight: Showman

The title of showman is not one easily thrown around in the sideshow business, though there are plenty who would like to believe they deserve the title.  If you ask the right person, they will abhor the notion of being a Carny, mainly due to the extreme stereotyping society associates with the word and the desire to stay far from it as possible.  Which is an understandable opinion, yet consistency dictates that the word is easily applied when it comes to selling merchandise since bullshit rules and the public eats it up so long as you tell them it is the best thing they ever had.  The art is one that I feel is unteachable – you either have it and hone it until everyone is neatly tucked into the palm of your hand while the other one takes their money, or you pull a character and base it on lies because the audience doesn’t know the difference nor does it seem to care.  It might be slightly arrogant of me to say so, but I get rather bored with seeing performers fall into the latter category because it smacks of laziness and getting the most reward out of the least amount of effort.  Not that the hailed Aristocracy of sideshow’s past really had to do more than take advantage of their physical attributes that set them apart from others, but at least they did in a manner that fed into the natural curiosity that drew the public to them, rather than depending on shock value, lowbrow humor and scantily clad bodies running amok on stage.

A showman is not to be confused with a talker, though they share some common themes among their fashion, in that the desired result is to attract attention.  One of the most notable historical showmen is P. T. Barnum, and while he is credited with an illustrious circus career, he did not enter the business until 1871, at which time he was already in his 60’s.  Despite created hoaxes and being described as a scam artist and con man, Barnum loved the public and simply gave them what they wanted to see – extraordinary things from magical lands that were real, living, and could be examined for a small fee.  If people felt cheated, perhaps it is because they were fooled by simple tricks, and really, that is hardly the worst thing a businessman has ever done.  Barnum was also at the forefront of promotion and was known as the ‘Shakespeare of Advertising’, and was one of the first circus owners to utilize trains to move from one place to the next.  While he did not seem to mind entertainers using hype as means to promote, as long as the public got their money’s worth that is, he had contempt for those who made profit from fraudulent deceptions.  Today, Barnum is hailed as an icon of American spirit and ingenuity, and at his death was perhaps the most famous American in the world.

Of course it might seem as though the proverbial shoes left behind might be difficult to fill, especially in an age where one can easily see an endless menagerie of all things strange, odd, unusual, bizarre, grotesque, deformed, and otherwise deemed offensive or unworthy of being accepted by society, for free with a simple click or two.  However, there is a man who  carries an appearance that certainly is a testament to the dedication he has.  It is reminiscent of the image one might generate when thinking of an old timey showman, right down to the wardrobe and expertly manicured facial hair.  James Taylor, most notably known for authoring the Shocked and Amazed books as well as contributing items from his personal collection to the D.C. based Red Palace [formerly Palace of Wonders], which hosts a bevy of sideshow, burlesque and music acts.  He is also recognized as the foremost authority when it comes to sideshow, having interviewed numerous performers from the past and present, publishing them along with personal stories, stunning photos and a lexicon of Carny lingo in a series of nine volumes that have sold all across the world.

The books spawned a documentary, and Mr. Taylor has appeared on quite a few television programs, so it is more than appropriate to say that he has worked very hard to preserve sideshow history while actively promoting merchandise that would hopefully pass the knowledge onto the consumer.  Surely these actions would be supported by Barnum, seeing as how he conducted business in the same manner.  Having the privilege of not only meeting but speaking with Mr. Taylor on more than one occasion, I can say without doubt his presence is amazing and yet his humbleness is amazingly refreshing.  There is no stench of pretentiousness, arrogance of other unwarranted elitism, as he is man pursuing his passion and serves as source of great inspiration.  He deserves not only the honored title of showman for all of his efforts and contributions to sideshow, but also has truly achieved the prestigious ranking among the Carny Trash Aristocracy, despite not actually being a performer.

Technically speaking, the term showman is a title preferred by lifelong entrepeneurs, and there is a fairly firm social division between them and jointiess, who are agents that work carnival games.  Ward Hall is another notable figure in the sideshow industry, having one of the few authentic 10-in-1 traveling shows that exist today, and is perhaps the oldest living showman of modern times.  John Robinson, otherwise known as Utah Showman, has put together Sideshow World, a comprehensive site that is dedicated to preserving the past and promoting the future of sideshow.  The goal is to offer information to the public through reading materials, photographs, videos and so forth.  In a sense, it is a virtual dime museum where one has control over their experience and can stimulate more than imagination though a hefty list of links to personal stories from some of sideshow’s most memorable performers.  It is this dedication that gives hope that this strange art can be archived for future generations, and once again the proprietor is one that gives credit where it is due.

The attire of a showman is certainly determined by personal choice, though it tends to be saturated with notes of aesthetics befitting the upper class, displayed with sleek fabrics of the finest quality that are color coordinated and tailored for the perfect fit.  One wants to enter a room with effortless class and be admired for it and not let the clothes do all of the talking.  Tempting as it might be to utilize inspiration, there must be a respect show because the difference between playing dress up and actually being a showman is like the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad.  There is enough evidence that I have presented within these articles which can argue that being a Carny is subjective and everyone is entitled to their opinion of what it means.  However, I feel that adopting the term because the rest of the buzz words that are generally associated with other scenes and subcultures certainly falls into the ream of high grade chicken shit and is definitely not suggested.

Resources & Reading: P.T. Barnum, Shocked and Amazed, Sideshow World

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One comment on “Style Spotlight: Showman

  1. Top — Tent (technically refers only to the overhead canopy, the sidewalls being a separate item.) For example, dressing tops are where the performers dress for show.

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