Big Top Circus & Circus
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Glossary of Circus Terms
All circus terms used for this glossary were taken from the book "Circus Lingo" by Joe McKennon.
Ace Note: A dollar bill
Advance: Ahead of the show. Everything pertaining to a show on its route before men working out of the show's road office take over the details.
After Show: Concert or short extra pay performance in the big top after the regular performance is out and over. Early shows used singing and dancing concerts but in later years wild west exhibitions were usually the after show sometimes featuring some well known cowboy movie actor.
Announcer: The person who introduces the acts and numbers to the audience during a circus performance. On modern circuses this man was not a "ring master". The announcer on the really big shows of "the Golden Age of the Circus" was just that and nothing else. On these shows the performance was usually handled by the "Equestrian Director", sometimes called the performance director. Ringling Barnum at its biggest had both.
Back Yard: "Off Limits" to the general public. Dressing rooms, ring stock tents (padrooms), wardrobe and costume departments, doctor's wagon, tailor's wagon and performer's rest areas were all located in the back yard of the railroad transported circuses. On some shows, the performing animal cages and dens were all located in the back yard area. When lot layout required, the cook house, the blacksmith shop, the baggage horse tents and other departments were spotted in or near the back yard.
Baggage Wagons: Strongly built wagons on which all the circus equipment, properties, trunks, etc. were loaded. Most of the parade wagons (band and tableau) doubled as baggage wagons on the moves between towns.
Bally Broads, Bally Girls: Woman and girls who sang and danced in the circus spectacles. On the later day shows, these girls also worked in the Aerial Ballet, rode menage horses, appeared in the posting art creations number and were 'generally useful' throughout the entire performance. Use of this term probably came from the employment of real ballet girls and dancers in the great circus spectacles of 1880 to 1910. Later day bally broads remained with the show for many seasons working in a featured act, and often, married to a staff member of the show.
Boss Hostler: Perhaps the most picturesque figure on the circus grounds was this man who had charge of all the baggage (work) horses on the show. Working closely with the superintendent and the department heads, he and his horses with their drivers 'spotted' all the heavy wagons onto their locations on the show grounds. In early railroad show days, these same horses had to move all wagons to and from the railroad crossing, or 'runs'. In still earlier days on the 'Mud Shows', the boss hostler, his teamsters and stock had to pull the entire show on often muddy roads between towns. The boss hostler was active and on duty until the last piece of equipment was on or off the lot. Many days he was in the saddle sixteen or more hours of the day. Until 'Gas' took over completely in 1938 and 1940, this man was really the 'king of the circus lot'.
Calliope: A discordant musical consisting of a series of whistles activated by either air or steam. Remember it is pronounces Kal-E-Ope with long E and O.
Candy Butchers: Concession salesman who sells concession items on the circus seats before and during a performance. The story is that the first person to do this was the animal meat butcher on the Old John Robinson Show sometime before the Civil War. He was so successful, he was able to quit his job as meat butcher, but his fellow troupers continued to address his as butcher. When others started selling items on the seats they were called butchers also. When the new railroads allowed men to sell confections and newspapers on their trains they were also called butchers, 'news butchers'.
Clown Alley: The area just outside the 'back door' of the big top reserved for the heavier clown properties. After putting on their makeup in the regular dressing room, the clowns for the most part stayed in this area until they got their cues to enter the big top.
Crier: A later term (1870-1880s) for the side show talkers. With the advent of the big daily free street parades, the talkers walked the parade route ahead of the 'March' warning the towners to "hold your hosses the elephants are coming". Others followed the parade exhorting the onlookers to "Follow the parade to the show grounds. Big free exhibitions on the show grounds immediately after the parade."
Date: A show's engagement in a town.
Dike (Klondike): Brass or copper sold as scrap. When this term was used the metal had usually been stole, or 'promoted'.
Downtown Wagon: A wagon housing an exhibit moved on the circus train but 'spotted' on a downtown street as a paid exhibition on circus day. At times, one of the show's ticket wagons would be located downtown for the downtown sale location.
Dukey Run:This term became common usage for any unusually long distance. For instance, if the cook house was located just a few blocks away from the crowded regular show grounds, the show hands called it, 'A dukey run to the cookhouse'.
Educator: The Billboard Weekly
Equestrian Director: The man in charge of the circus performance on the medium sized thirty car shows. He carried and blew the whistle for the acts. His job was an outgrowth from the old time ring master of the one ring and smaller three ring shows with their talking clowns and ring master's patter. On the larger shows the equestrian director did not need to be a horseman or horse trainer. In 1935, all time great flyer, Alfredo Codona, was a good equestrian director on the Hagenback Wallace and Forepaugh Sells Bros. Combined. (With that title the show was somewhat smaller than the 1934 edition of Hagenback Wallace). Only other person to blow a whistle was the menage horse trainer during the big menage acts. His whistle signaled change of paces for the scores of horses and girls in this act. In those days, the announcer never blew a whistle, and he was never considered a ring master.
Excursion Car: An advance railroad car with the larger circuses (1880s until World War I). Men on this car made all arrangements for special railroad excursion trains from various points to 'today's town' bringing patrons to the circus. Dozens of these trains were run to otherwise unprofitable towns bringing in hundreds of show goers making the 'nut' for the show that day.
Excursion Train: See above. Circuses were not the only events that these special trains were run for. Fairs, sports events, celebrations and holidays were all events the railroads would put on excursion trains for.
Fireball, a Fireball Outfit: A show with a poor performance which allowed so many dishonest practices on its grounds that the towns played by it were literally "burned up" for any show that tried to follow it. Because of the risk of being torn down or burned by mobs of angry towners, this type of operation seldom used first class equipment.
Flea Bag: A disreputable, ragged and dirty show. Not necessarily a crooked operation, as the best Sunday School outfits had bad runs of business or weather and had to let the appearance of the show run down.
Fold or Folded: The closing of a show before the end of its regular season.
Freak: A human oddity on exhibition in a museum or in a circus or carnival side show. Early circuses also displayed some featured freaks in their menageries. A practice followed by Ringling Barnum (with all side show attractions) in Madison Square Garden until the move to the Penn Station Garden.
Gas: Trucks and tractors used by the railroad transported circuses of the Twenties and Thirties was called the 'Gas' by the working men and bosses. At first, this was a term of contempt, but by the late Twenties the gas was getting much more respect from the old timers.
Gimick: A trick used to win. The mechanical device used to control crooked games.
Grandstand: Seats nearest the rings on each side of the big top and sold for an extra price. Some were merely wider seat boards than the ones used for the 'blues' at each end of the tent. Others were wider boards having individual cutout seat backs hinged to them. These were called 'star bucks' because of the star stenciled on the front side of each seat back. Later circuses used sixteen inch wide slatted bottom folding chairs for their grandstands.
Grinder: A person who has a certain set speil, or sequence of words that he delivers on the front of a show or a midway attraction as long as the doors are open. If an attraction has a regular ballys, the spiel given between ballyhoos is the grind. Any good ticket seller 'grinds' as he passes out the tickets.
Haul: The move between the circus train and the show lot.
Herald: Type of advertising for individual reading. Many sizes and shapes printed on colored newsprint in one, two or four pages. These heralds were handed out to people on the streets, or put into the front doors of homes. Some were printed on white paper stock to make them look a little more high class. Restrictive ordinances have made heralds almost obsolete today.
Horse Opera: A wild west exhibition. Word show was not used for wild west attractions and organizations.
House: The crowd inside a circus tent for a performance.
Iron Jaw: An aerial act in which the performers work suspended by a mouth piece clinched behind their teeth.
Itchy Feet: An off the road trouper's urge to get back with it on the road.
I.W.W.: International Workers of the World. This far left labor union issued red cards to its members. It's stronghold was in the lumber camps from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest.
Joey: A clown. From the famous European clown, Joe Grimaldi. It may have been used by someone on an American Circus to designate clowns, but I personally have never heard it used by a circus trouper on any show grounds.
John Robinson: A much shortened circus performance. Orders to give a 'John Robinson' were rarely given, but storm warnings or an extra long jump to 'Tomorrow's town' did warrant a cut in running time of the performance.
Joint: A concession stand or booth on a circus or carnival.
Jump: The move between towns.
Kid Show: The side show with a circus
Kid Worker: Men in each department who hired young boys to work for passes to the circus. Each department was allowed a certain number of passes each day. The boys did every conceivable task around the show except water the elephants. The fable of boys carrying water for the 'bulls' was just that, a myth. A press agent's dream. The big beasts were always carried to the water.
Kip: A sleeping place, a bed.
Lecturer: Talker inside a show. An Emcee or Lecturer for circus side shows or carnival attractions.
Left Hand Side: Most Americans move to the right. Right hand ticket boxes handle more tickets, right hand gates handle more traffic, etc, etc. The horse shoe shaped lay out of a carnival midway takes advantage of this habit. If possible, a show that caters to children and early patrons is spotted on the right hand side. By the same token an attraction appealing to the late coming 'sporting element' are put on the back end or on the left hand side. Attractions with plenty of noise, like the motor drome, are laid out for the left side. The noise will pull people over there.
Liberty Horses: An act of from one to twenty four horses working in a ring with no reins being used by the trainer. These horses are trained to do drills, hind leg walks, ect, ect. Acts of either eight or twelve horses have been standard for many years. Much larger acts were used as features at various times though.
Lunge Rope: The rope held by a person outside the ring which is threaded through a pulley above the ring and attached to the safety device of the performer who is working in or above the ring.
March: The old time grand free street parade, horse drawn.
Mechanic: A belt or safety device worn by a performer as he does a 'trick'. One or more safety (lunge) ropes are attached to the belt. During the act, the persons holding the lunge ropes regulate the slack in them so that the performer has freedom of movement but cannot fall to the ground or floor on a 'missed trick'. Most all performers, both aerial and ground, are trained by aid of mechanics.
Menage: The performance of 'high school' type riding in a circus arena by one or more persons and their horses. Thirty or more riders in one display was not uncommon on the larger circuses of fifty years ago.
Mud Show: A show that traveled by horse drawn wagons between the towns on its route. There is no record that any established carnival used this mode of travel. All circuses were 'mud shows' until the early Twenties when they began moving on trucks. No truck show has ever been a mud show. The term applies to the show's mode of transportation and all the muddy roads they moved over, not the muddy lots ALL shows have to work on.
Natives: Local people. (The poor benighted townspeople who go home to warm dry houses every night, and sleep in clean vermin free beds in those houses.
Night Riders: Bill posters on 'opposition crews' who went out at night and tore down or covered up the advertising paper of another show playing their show's route.
Novelties: Whips, whistling birds, canes, pennants and others souvenirs sold on the parade route, on the show grounds and on teh circus seats by circus concession men.
Office: The carnival office wagon or trailer. (The circus office wagon was always referred to as the 'Reg Wagon' or 'The Wagon', regardless of the color the wagon was actually painted).
One Day Stand: Most circus dates were of day's duration.
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'.
Opera: A showman's term for a travelling show. This term was used extensively when talking about Wild West Exhibitions. They were called 'Horse Operas'.
Pass: A free ticket on a show. Also used by railroads for the free transportation tickets given to employees back in the days when they all ran passenger trains.
Pickled Punks: 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.
Pitchman: A person who sells merchandise with lectures and demonstrations. The 'Doctor' with the 'Medicine Show' made a 'medicine pitch', etc, etc. The salesman who works on the ground on a level with his 'Tip' of potential customers is known as a 'low pitchman'. One who works on a platform is a 'high pitchman'. The 'high pitchman' grosses much more than his fellow salesmen on the ground, but his expenses are much higher. The 'Jam Store' is usually a 'high pitch' as were the old time medicine shows. Some of these 'pitches' with good capable lecturers took hundreds of dollars from a single lecture or 'pitch'. (These 'pitches' ran from thirty minutes to over an hour, though).
Priviledge: The consideration paid for the right to place a concession on a carnival midway. Early day circus owners sold privileges for almost everything on the lot except the performance itself. (And, they did sell the concert or aftershow as a privilege). Side shows, concert, concessions, pie car (both food and games), games, ticket sales, pick pocket or any other project that could extract more money from the pockets of the townspeople was sold by unscrupulous circus owners to the individuals who worked that racket. When early shows quit putting up their employees at local hotels, they sold the 'Hotel' privilege to individuals to operate. Show owners allowed them a flat amount per person per day for feeding the help. Some old timers used to claim that they ate better under this system than they did after shows took over operation of their cook houses.
Quarter Poles: The intermediate poles between the side poles and the center poles of a tent. Usually, tents between sixty and one hundred feet wide (diameter of the round ends) use only one row of quarter poles. Tents over one hundred ten feet wide have to have two rows of intermediate poles to support the weight of the canvas when wet and to prevent the forming of 'Water bags'.
Ring Banks: Early circuses carried skilled ring makers, who leveled the ground and banked up dirt to form a forty two foot diameter circular circus ring. An old superstition against sleeping inside a circus big top arose from these massive embankments. It seems that they wre used as quick burial places for victims of hey rubes, feuds and such.
Ring Curbs: The massive wooden rings now used by circuses. When the making of ring banks was discontinued by most shows, rings were made of rope, or canvas sections. These evolved into the sectional wooden circuses used today.
Ringer: A substitute person or animal passed off on the unwary as the person or animal they expect to see. All the big name circus stars had understudies ready to go on in their place.
Ring Master: The man in charge of a one ring circus performance. Smaller shows continued using them as long as good talking clowns were available. Repartee between ring master and clown was often really funny. Each ring of a Dog and Pony Show, if in three rings, had its own ring master-trainer. An untrained alley dog, a leash and a talking ring master did present satisfying acts. Singing announcers and performance directors are not ring masters. The real old time ring master could make a poor show into an entertaining performance.
Sell Out: Every available seat in the big top has been sold. This doesn't mean that every space anywhere in the big top is sold, or is occupied. If there are unoccupied spaces, it is not a turn away, it is a 'straw house'. Number of people that could be crammed and jammed in a straw house turn away varied according to the skill and enthusiasm of the ushers involved.
Shill: 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', an 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.
Spectacle: In late 1880s and through the early 1900s the big circuses produced lavish spectacles using up to twelve hundred persons, many of whom were employed for the purpose. Some of the spectacles were so huge that all the back side seating had to be left out. Scenic displays were erected in their place. The whole thing cut way down on profits, but each circus owner tried to out do his competitors. In later days, these displays evolved into opening spectacles which started off with a grand entry of everything the show had and concluded with a singing and dancing extravaganza in the rings and on the track.
Sunday School Show: A clean show. No crooked games, no dirty 'gal shows', no other illicit activity tolerated by the show owner. Charles Sparks probably ran the best Sunday School Show of all of them.
Take: The cash taken in from a performance, a concession, a series of performances or a string of concessions.
Territory: Each big show had territory it considered its own. They fought to protect that territory from any encroachment from other shows. Barnum title has never been beaten, even today, for drawing people along the East Coast above Richmond. John Robinson topped all of them in the deep South, and Sells Floto was hard to beat in eighteen Western States.
Trailer: A person who followed a show, sometimes riding the show trains, who was not on the payroll of that show. Some peddled balloons, others stole merchandise and sold that at bargain prices. Some of them just liked to travel with circuses. During depression days, many good show hands 'trailed the show' waiting for an opening for a job. If business was good, show's cook house fed these men in order to keep them around.
Trouper: A person who has spent at least one full season on some type of traveling amusement organization. By then, they are usually hooked.
Under the Stars: To show outside without a tent. Seats and properties set up without a tent over them.
Up: Outdoor showmen are prone to overuse the word 'Up'. They add the word to other words without changing the meaning of the word added to. Example: An eight horse team was an 'eight-up.'
Wardrobe: All costumes furnished and carried by a circus.
Wild Cat: Book and play into new territory on very short notice due to problems on the old route. Droughts, strikes, layoffs, epidemics, etc, etc. could force a route change. The latter was usual cause of sudden changes that resulted in 'wildcatting'. For instance, in mid Twenties, Ringling Barnum was caught by a Hoof and Mouth Outbreak in Texas. Show had to 'blow' its route and 'wildcat' into new smaller towns all over the state for several weeks. Had the epidemic hit before show got into the state, Texas dates would have been canceled and show would have 'wildcatted' ino other Southern towns in place of them.
Winter Trouping: Staying out with a show in winter months when all decent under canvas shows and showmen should be in a warm winterquarters somewhere.
Worker: The big rubber balloon, animal or airship the concession man holds high in the air as he sells the item. Already packaged in an envelope, the supposed facsimile is always sold as the patron leaves the circus of fair grounds. Do not expect to inflate the purchase to more than half the size of the 'worker'. don't know who is hurt the most, the little child who wants the 'big rubber' or the happy mother who buys it for him. The 'rip off' has been carried and still is, by most all the big "Sunday School Shows."
The X: A carnival and Fair Ground exclusive. A concession owner buys the 'X' on some item or concession for the entire midway. At most of the larger fairs, this 'X' does not include the entire fair grounds. The carnival sells 'X' for their midway only. Fair management sells all space not on the midway proper.
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