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freak show: sideshow banner art

by carl hammer and gideon bosker
reviewed by Victor M. Cassidy

Snap Wyatt
Sweet Marie c.1940s

Johnny Meah

Johnny Meah
Lady Loretta....

Al Renton
Eeka As She Is Today,

Jack Sigler
Penguin Boy
   Carl Hammer, a Chicago art dealer who champions naive and outsider artists, got interested in sideshow banners in 1983 after reading a Life Magazine article about a sword swallower. Hammer journeyed to Gibsonton, Fla.--"Showtown USA," where circus people winter--and met a retired master banner-painter who "brought all of the sideshow world to life" for him. Over the next dozen years, Hammer acquired and sold numerous banners and talked to many of the artists who made them. Freak Show tells us everything we will ever want to know about sideshow banners. Eighty are reproduced in full color, including one depicting "Eeka the Cannibal Girl," Penguin Boy ("21 inches small"), a four-legged duck, the Cyclops Pig with Elephant's Trunk and all 643 pounds of Sweet Marie. Traveling freak shows originated in England and the U.S. during the 19th century, peaked after World War I, and were all but wiped out during the `50s by television and changes in taste. These entertainments, which accompanied circuses and carnivals, were advertised with canvas banners which had to be durable since they were out in all sorts of weather. A typical banner lasted from three to four years. "As an artistic tradition," says Hammer, "the sideshow banner combined the sizzle, sex and voyeuristic aspects of vernacular art with the more sublime features of high art." He quotes an art historian who (preposterously) discerns "numerous influences" on the banners -- "the Flemish techniques of 17th-century Dutch painting... the French and Spanish Barbizon school...Japanese wood-block prints...[and] baroque portraiture." David C. ("Snap") Wyatt was one of the most prolific banner painters. He attended art classes at Cooper Union and started his career by creating three-dimensional displays for department stores and traveling shows. At one point, the Barnum & Bailey shows commissioned Wyatt to paint 90 banners. The artist worked by stretching the canvas on a frame and drawing with charcoal that was affixed to the end of a long bamboo pole. He used oil-based paint mixed with water and casein, wore out a set of brushes on each job, and took about seven hours to complete a banner. Wyatt was paid an hourly wage plus his materials. He worked from imagination and rarely saw his subject. This explains why sideshow banners were typically more exciting than the reality inside the tent. Human freaks often had a birth defect or an unusual affliction like ichthyosis-- extremely dry, scaly skin -- which they exploited to become "Alligator Man." Promoters purchased animals with odd defects (e.g., a two-headed calf), from farmers, showed them for years, and stuffed them after they died. Despite being gaped at all day, the human freaks maintained their dignity. Offstage they acted just like the rest of us. Emmitt Bejano, the "Alligator Man," fell in love with Priscilla Lauther, the "Monkey Girl," who had a hormonal imbalance that caused a coat of silken hair to grow all over her body. Priscilla's foster father disapproved of Emmitt, so the two smuggled letters to each other until 1938 when they eloped. The local newspaper headlined its account of their romance: "Monkey Girl Kidnapped by Alligator Man."

Victor M. Cassidy is an art journalist based in Chicago.