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Traveling carnivals
August 26, 2013, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

A carnival coming to town was a big deal at one time.

Kids sensed the excitement of a carnival coming to town weeks before the first poster was put on telephone poles to announce it.

It was probably the most exciting thing to hit town during the year. The rides, the food, the excitement of seeing all of the tent attractions and the “carnies” who ran the shows were exhilarating. In South San Francisco, the traveling carnival would set up their operations on the vacant lots along Grand Avenue, just east of the City Hall/Police Station and San Bruno used the vacant lots across from Newell’s Bar on San Mateo/Sylvan avenues. The weeds on the lots were not a bother because they would rapidly be trampled down when the shows were set up and the people arrived to stroll up and down the “midway.”

This was not a religious event as the grand carnivals were in many cities like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. Those events had roots going back thousands of years and lasted for weeks. The traveling carnivals had their roots in the World’s Columbian Exposition (The Chicago World’s Fair) that was put on in 1893. The Chicago World’s Fair as it became to be called was a celebration of the arrival of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. This world’s fair turned out to be the biggest event that had occurred in America (up to 1893). The number of people attending equaled about half of the U.S. population at that time during its six-month run that started in May 1, 1893 and closed in Oct. 30, 1893. Chicago Fair Day attracted more than 700,000 people, a record for outdoor fair attendance. During its run, the Exposition drew nearly 26,000,000 visitors. It was huge.

Using 600 acres along Lake Michigan’s South Shore, designers Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted attempted to make it a Beaux Arts extravaganza. Its grandeur exceeded all world fairs that had been put on up to this time. Alternating electricity pioneered by Nicola Tesla lit up the buildings and fair grounds for the very first time. The Ferris Wheel was introduced to the world at this fair as well as the hamburger, a moving walk and cracker jacks.

From this remarkable show of Chicago’s progress since the Great Fire that had destroyed the city in 1871, Otto Schmitt, a showman at the fair, put together a traveling carnival featuring 13 acts patterned after those at the fair. His show, although smaller, was welcomed in many cities until Schmitt’s business practices bankrupted the shows. Many of the acts were continued by members of the shows and they continued to perform and begin many others traveling companies. The number of traveling carnivals increased to 46 by 1905 and, by 1937, there were estimated to be more than 300 carnivals touring the country. In addition to Schmitt’s traveling show, San Francisco’s businessmen leaped on the idea of a show in Golden Gate Park in 1894 and purchased many of the buildings and acts to perform and be set up on the West Coast. It was a first for this Mid-Winter Fair that it became to be called. Ground was broken Aug. 24, 1893, with 60,000 people attending the ceremonies. Michael de Young was declared director-general of the exposition. The pace of construction was incredible. The reuse of some of Chicago’s exhibits saved both time and money. The target date for the opening of the fair was to be Jan. 1, 1894. After the 1894 San Francisco fair closed, many of the acts began touring the country in the same manner as Otto Schmidt had done and the traveling carnival became an American institution. Small towns and cities would now boast that they were a community that had modern entertainment that broke the monotony of living in a small town. The carnival became almost more important a form of entertainment as the occasional circus that hit the town.

Most of the traveling carnivals were patterned after Chicago’s Midway Plaisance (meaning pleasure) as the separate entertainment section was called at the fair. Later the term would be shortened to “Midway.” The midway that Chicago introduced is believed to have been the catalyst of all traveling carnivals in the United States. In addition to standard acts patterned after burlesque, games of chance, rides, freak shows, food booths, carnie games such as weight guessing booths, ping pong ball and fishbowl games of chance as well as shooting, balloon and dart games were added to the carnivals.

Small prizes were given with larger prizes given when the “mark” repeated the game. The term “mark” was derived when the operator spotted a person likely to get easy money from by prodding him to continue playing games that the police suspected were rigged. The operator put chalk on his hand, slapped the prospective easy player on the back thus “marking” him so other operators could identify him and try to con him into playing their “hard to win” games. The police in these small towns shuttered when they found out the carnival was hitting town because of the many complaints that surfaced. The carnivals developed bad reputations and were watched closely by law enforcement officials who usually demanded that all games of chance be tested by the police before they could operate.

Nevertheless, the complaints continued to plague the officials as the carnies were very smooth in their operations. I remember some advice that a businessman gave me when he found out the carnival was to arrive soon: “Count your money three times if you deal with these people, and keep them out of your store if possible. They are sharp people and are not to be trusted.” Still, I went to the carnival despite his warnings. These were exciting times for a young boy.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.



Tags: traveling, carnival, carnivals, games, people, shows,

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