The Carny & Sideshow Lingo Dictionary – Page A-C
LINKS TO OTHER PAGES
This compendium makes no distinction between the way things were in the past and the way they are now. As you read about the behind-the-scenes culture of the carnival and sideshow, with language unsorted by era, don’t look on this as a comprehensive guide to life on the lot today.
10-in-1 — See “Ten-In-One”
24-Hour Man — Employee who travels the route to the next lot, posting “arrows” to guide the traveling vehicles.
86’ed — Banned from the lot. The term is in general use in many businesses meaning “we have no more [something]” or “to get rid of [something].” There are many ‘folk etymologies’ explaining the origin of the term, but all are dubious.
A&S Man — “Age and Scale” operator (“guess your age or weight” operator). Also commonly known as “Age and Weight” or “Fool the Guesser” or “Guess Your Weight,” the game is quite profitable operated as a hanky-pank (in which the charge to play more than covers the wholesale cost of the prize). Alternatively, a good guesser, aided by game rules that help him more than customers suppose (“your birth month within two months” gives the guesser a span of 5 of the 12 months) and if he fails, it’s still making him plenty. A common magician’s prop (which I won’t reveal) can let him secretly write down his “guess” after the mark has announced his age or weight. Or the operator may write his “prediction” as a glyph that can be interpreted as “Jan” or “June” thus giving the guesser leeway of 10 of the 12 months. Guessing age within 2 years, he might secretly guess and write “60”, and if the mark is 56 he’ll tell her (but not show the written guess) 53, letting her win and also feel that her young looks fooled the guesser. Or, in the same case, he might write “561” and cover either the 5 or the 0 when displaying the written guess, allowing him to win if she’s anywhere from 54 to 63. Again, if he fails, the guesser still makes money over the cost of the prize. Some A&S joints offer a wide range of premises: the guesser may be asked to guess how many in your family (within 2), the year of your car (within 2), your mother’s or father’s age (within 2), etc.
AB — Amusement Business — The trade magazine of the outdoor entertainment business, originally “The Billboard” (it would resume that title in the early years of rock-n-roll.) In its heyday it would cover vaudeville, night clubs, carnivals, minstrel shows, and even ads soliciting contestants for marathon dance contests (‘need endurance teams that can sprint, wardrobe important’), and much more. Carnival showmen would post ads for help, including types of sideshows needed and even specific performers who would be told to “come on”. The magazine began in the late 1800s as a publication for the bill-posting industry, which at the time was one of the very few advertising media. Many traveling showmen would use Amusement Business as their in-season address, and the magazine would forward mail to them along their route.
ABA — A commercial “traveler’s check,” often purchased under assumed names, useful for carrying and transferring large sums of cash without bank or I.R.S. scrutiny.
Add-Up Joint, or Add ‘Em Up — Game where each play (each dart thrown, ball rolled, balloon broken…) scores points that are totaled for the player. In its most direct form, it is a fair enough game (though it is illegal in some areas as a ‘game of chance’) but it is very similar to the larcenous “razzle dazzle’ game which adds a ‘build up’ feature (q.v.) and cannot be won.
Advance — Advance work is everything that needs to be done to prepare for the show’s arrival in a town.
Advance Man — Employee who handles details such as licenses and sponsors before a carnival arrives in town, and sometimes handles bribes to local officials for leaving the carnival alone.
After-Catch — Items sold to the “captive audience” of show patrons after they have paid their admission and seen the show.
After-Show — Blowoff (q.v.)
Afterpiece — A multi-gag comedy act closing a medicine show.
Agent — A jointee with proven skill and earning power, working a game (especially a rigged game) that requires some skill and finesse to sell to the marks. Skilled agents would be bored (and overpaid) working a no-skill joint like a dime pitch.
Ahead — Refers to someone or something done at the next stop on a show’s route, in preparation for the show’s arrival.
Al-A-Ga-Zam — Occasional, jocular greeting from one pitchman to another. This seemed unlikely to me, when I saw it, but after some research I now believe it. I liken its probable usage to the WWII Air Corps catchphrase “Keep ’em flying!”
Alibi Store — A game in which the agent gives you an explanation of why you didn’t win. Maybe “you threw the ball too fast,” or somehow you violated the rules (leaned over the foul line, etc.) He often offers you a “better” chance to win (for another fee, of course) but you’ll never win a thing, there’s always some reason that disqualifies you. There’s no gaff to hide when the authorities inspect, and there are big replay profits (until the mark catches on, of course, and starts a beef.)
Alligator Man — Sideshow human oddity afflicted with skin condition, commonly icthyosis, that gives the skin a scaly, reptilian appearance.
Amusement Business — The trade magazine of the outdoor entertainment business, originally “The Billboard” to which title it would resume in the early years of rock-n-roll. In its heyday it would cover vaudeville, night clubs, carnivals, minstrel shows, and even, in 1936, ads soliciting contestants for marathon dance contests, and much more. Carnival showmen would post ads for help, including types of sideshows needed and even specific performers who would be told to “come on”. The magazine began in the late 1800s as a publication for the bill-posting industry, which at the time was one of the very few advertising media. Many traveling showmen would use Billboard as their in-season address, and the magazine would forward mail to them along their route.
Anatomical Wonder — A sideshow performer able to 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 India Rubber Man stunts.
Annex — The area of a sideshow joint where the blowoff is located.
Apple Joint, Cigarette Joint — Game joints in which you throw darts or pitch coins, the target being a sticker printed to resemble an apple or a cigarette pack (usually with the distinctive “Lucky Strike” red circle). At one time, the prize was a pack of cigarettes.
Arcade — A tent housing coin-operated amusement games — normally only on larger shows.
Arch — The front entrance to a carnival.
Arrow — A paper sign, a large (usually red) printed arrow on white card with the initials of the show, taped onto roadside light poles by the 24-hour-man to mark the route between towns. Posted in different orientations: the occasional straight-up arrow to tell you you’re on the right track, a single tilted arrow to warn of an upcoming turn, and two or three tilted arrows in a group to indicate where to turn.
At Show (also called “catch wrestling”) — ‘At’ is short for “athletic”, and indicates a wrestling show where locals are challenged to enter the ring and beat (or last a certain amount of time against) the carnival’s champion wrestler. The local boys might be persuaded to secretly cooperate, delivering an arranged win or loss as intended. Matches would usually last less than five minutes, followed by a return to the bally platform, where the loser (always the towner in the first match) would loudly demand a rematch, complaining that he’d been cheated. Many in the audience would pay to go back in to see the local hero try again, watching carefully to catch any cheating. This might be worth repeating several times until the locals tired of it or ran out of money. The traveling wrestlers had an effective repertoire of “concession holds”, or “hooks,” which would let them end the match in an assured victory at will. The hooks were so painful that the local boy would shout a loud “uncle” or “I give” or just “aaaaaargh!”, eliminating any suspicion that the referee had ruled unfairly.
Aunt Sally — “Aunt Sally,” originally a fairground game, is now a pub game played almost exclusively in a very small area of Britain. It featured a figure of an old woman’s head with a pipe in its mouth. The goal was to to break off the pipe by throwing a baton about 18″ long. The target has since been simplified into a small cylinder (still called “the dolly”) atop a stake, to be knocked off by the baton. The game was sufficiently widespread and popular that by 1898 “Aunt Sally” was a colloquialism in mainstream use meaning someone who was the object of easy but unfair attack.
B.C. — “Be cool,” a warning to stop whatever you are doing or saying. Perhaps the Chief of Police is watching you while you’re about to take all his daughter’s money, so STOP whatever you are doing immediately and find out why the person said B.C.
“Baby Needs Milk” — When you see a fellow carny flirting with a townie, you might wander by and say this just to mess up your buddy’s ‘score’, as a joke.
Baby Show — Also known as ‘unborn,’ ‘life,’ ‘bottle,’ ‘freak baby’ and ‘pickled punk show.’
Back End — The far end of the lot, where the large shows and rides are located. This placement of strong attractions draws customers from the gate through the entire length of the lot. It doesn’t help anyone if patrons linger at the front end and do not circulate, so a particularly strong back-end attraction can take home as much as 50% of its gross income, sometimes (when other back-end attractions are weak) even 100%. Concessions, wherever located, are considered part of the front end.
Back Yard — Sometimes also called “the living lot.” Here, away from public access, are private trailers for living and storage.
Back Yard Boy — A general gofer, sometimes a ‘roughie’ but more often an inexperienced helper.
Backtracking — When an independent attraction or a small carnival does not have its entire season arranged beforehand, it may find that the only good lot in its next location has been already taken by another outfit. The only choice then may be to backtrack and replay a town you have already visited this season, resulting in sparse business.
Baffle Blocks — Six-sided or eight-sided logs used as dice. They resemble the dice used in some ancient Chinese gambling games.
Bag Man or Fixer — The official in the locale where the carnival is set up to whom protection money is paid, either to overlook actual violations or not to find imaginary ones.
Bail the Counter — As in “bail out of an airplane.” Usually, the only way out of a joint is to “bail”, or jump over the counter.
Bally or Ballyhoo — The “Bally” is the “outside talker’s” spiel drawing a crowd (called a “tip”) to see a sideshow. The bally is a sophisticated commercial, usually illustrated with quick appearances by the performers featured in the show. Its longer, original form, “Ballyhoo,” has come into general usage meaning “to attract the attention of customers/voters by raising a clamor.” The word originated at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in the “Streets of Cairo” pavilion. The performers from the Middle East spoke only Arabic. Exhibit manager W.O. Taylor would call the Beledi dancers (a term later corrupted, also by Taylor, to “belly dancers”) and musicians out during slack periods to attract a crowd. Since these calls were on no set schedule, the tired performers would mutter “D’Allah hun”, roughly meaning “Oh, for God’s sake!”, as they rose to the extra duty. Taylor began simply calling them to (as he heard it) “ballyhoo.” We do not know, though we can guess, what else the performers may have had to say in Arabic about the boss. The outside bally is also known as the “first opening,” while the inside talker would introduce the show with the “second opening.” Ward Hall advised that the “most sure thing to draw a tip: (Daytime) A beautiful girl in a revealing costume holding a big fat snake, (Night time) fire, eating, fire juggling. To top this: A strong freak, such as a pinhead. But drawing a tip is just the start. Then you need to freeze the tip while the talker makes the pitch, then to close the tip: a sword swallower or fire blast. It must be instantaneous to close the bally. If you have steady moving large crowd, the bally should only last five or six minutes, and do six to ten ballys per hour. To entertain is not the purpose of the bally. It is to stop people so you can sell the contents of the show. The entertainment is on the inside. The bally people except the talker should be called to the bally platform and then all but the talker should leave while the talker brings the bally to its climax and turns the tip. To operate a strong bally show you need three or four people who only work the bally. There is no time for them to go inside and entertain. It is best to use three talkers to rotate, one hour on bally and two hours off. This way they will have the energy needed to punch hard for the hour they are on, when the show is playing spots where you get crowds from the time you open at 9am till closing at midnight or after, which is what a show needs to do if the operator expects to become wealthy. The most expensive thing you can have on the bally is an inexperienced, poor, lazy talker, which could cost you a fortune. The best talkers work on a percentage of the gross ticket sales to create the incentive to work hard when they are tired and would rather step down late at night, instead of making one more bally to get more gross. And of course give the talker one or more feature freaks to bear down on when they make the openings.” Bally talkers often specialized, one talker making the opening and then handing the mike to another to make the pitch and turn the tip.
Bally Cloth – Canvas, often painted with text, that covers and backs the bally platform, visually distinguishing it from the surrounding banners and hiding any junk stashed under the platform. It often serves as a door for performers to enter the bally platform (hidden until the right moment in the bally).
Bally Stage — The platform outside any show, on which the outside talker may simply describe the acts inside, or on which performers may present free samples of their acts. Sometimes featured performers that only worked the bally stage.
Band Organ — A mechanical, air-pressure operated musical device, usually incorporating such instruments as a pipe organ or calliope, drums and various rhythm instruments, glockenspiel, etc. Operated, like a player piano, by a punched paper roll, which not only directs the music but also keys the operation of various internal baffles modulating the sound quality. The band organ is the essential and charming accompaniment to the carousel.
Banner, Banner Line — Canvas squares hung in front of sideshows depicting (usually in greatly exaggerated form) the wonders to be found inside. A single show would have a banner or two, a ten-in-one would have a “banner line” in “modular” twelve-foot sections. Standard banner sizes were 8’x10′ or 10’x12′, with larger sizes, perhaps 14 or 16 feet, on the ends of a bannerline.
Barker — “Barker” was never an authentic carnival term. Carnies call the person gathering a tip for a show a “talker”. The “outside talker” attracts the tip and the “inside talker” or “lecturer” conducts the crowd through a ten-in-one show, introducing the acts and building interest in the “blowoff”. Moreover, “hurry hurry hurry”, the phrase you often hear chanted by the “barker” in movies, is far less sophisticated than the real outside talker’s intricately contrived appeals. Some authentic samples can be heard elsewhere on this disk. The term “barking” was in use in mainstream culture in the early 20th Century to mean drawing customers by talking in a continual flow of repetitive lines and phrases. “Barking” was also called a “grind pitch” by some professional talkers. “Come on we got tomatoes today girls, a tisket a tasket, I sell them by the basket.” Used primarily by vendors at a stationary spot, such as a vegetable stand or the doorway to a show (perhaps most recently heard from the doorways of Times Square bars and sex shows.) It’s easy to see how the general public applied the term to the carnival talker. Both of these appeals are different from the “street cries” of vendors who traveled the street in wagons, cries that tended to be more musical and more piercing in tone to attract the attention of people inside their houses.
Barnstorming — Operating an attraction from spot to spot with little pre-planning or advance publicity, hoping to generate enough business on short notice. Barnstorming would generally be done in the off-season when carnivals had ceased business. Outside the carnival, ‘barnstorming’ referred to an aviator with his own light, land-it-in-someone’s-backyard airplane, going from town to town offering rides for money.
Bat Away — Orders (q.v.) giving the OK to take players’ money any way you want to. Only used when the ‘fix’ is in to the degree that even legitimate beefs won’t bring any heat from the cops.
Bearded Lady — A female “human oddity” with a beard, usually genuine, though there have been occasional gaffs.
Beano — Lotto-type group games go far back in history, and one called “Beano” became very popular as a carnival game in 1929. Players would buy cards printed with a matrix of numbers, the agent would draw numbered discs from a cigar box and players would mark those numbers which appeared on their cards with beans. The player who achieved an unbroken line of beans either across or vertically or diagonally was to yell “beano” to announce that he had won. In 1930, toy developer Edwin Lowe designed a version he could patent, hiring a mathematician to work out several thousand different game cards and titling his proprietary version “Bingo.”
Beans, or Beanies — Amphetamines (“stay awake for days” pills), often found in truck cabs during jumps, right next to the bulk package of condoms. Invaluable when you have to take down a ferris wheel late at night after closing and then drive all night and all the next day. Captain Don Leslie, interviewed for the Sideshow Central website in 2004, said that one-day stands with the circus were particularly taxing: “You were working 18 or 22 hours a day, you can’t keep that f’n pace up very long. At night, when you’d go to the office, they’d give you an envelope with gas money for the truck and there’d be speed in there. The show gave them to you, so you wouldn’t wreck their f’n trucks.”
Bed of Nails — A common carny show stunt, and as with most such stunts (sword swallowing, fire eating and the like) the secret is that there is no fakery, you just do it. The usual bed of nails has so many nails set less than 1″ apart that lying on them, though uncomfortable, does not puncture the skin. The average performer can safely allow an audience volunteer to stand on his chest while lying on the bed, and can allow a cinderblock to be broken on his chest with a sledgehammer without ill effect (inertia keeps the shock wave within the cinderblock, which isn’t too hard to break.)
Beef — A complaint from a patron concerning anything about the show. You have the patch and your fellow carnies to back you up if you create a beef you can’t handle, but to keep respect you should try to “never let a beef leave your awning”. “Always leave the mark with a dollar for gas”, say some carnies.
Bender — Contortionist.
Bendover Store — Cynical nickname for a game joint involving thrown balls, where the agent has to bend over hundreds of times a day to retrieve the balls.
Bibles — Items (often, but not always, miniature Bibles) sold for extra income by performers in a ten-in-one. The freaks would sell “pitch cards” printed with photos and biographical information, giants often sold souvenir rings, etc.
Big Eli — The ferris wheel, from the most successfulof the ride’s original manufacturers, the Eli Bridge Company.
Bill — An advertising poster (as also used in the circus). Also, a roster of acts or performers (as also used in theatre and wrestling).
Bit — Another term for a fee due from you.
Billboard — See Amusement Business.
Blade Box — An act in which the performer (usually a woman) lies in a box while steel blades are pushed through it, apparently a traditional “cutting a woman in half” illusion, until the “blowoff” is announced: “Sheila is going to step behind the curtain for a moment and remove her costume. We are not doing this to be lewd or crude, but this feat requires her to twist and contort her body so severely that she cannot perform it while hampered by even this small item of clothing (here, honey, just hand out that costume and I’ll fold it up nice for you) and now that she has prepared herself, she will recline in the cabinet and (opening the curtain as Sheila, lying in the cabinet, waves her arm to the crowd) I’m going to close the lid. Notice that the lid has openings for 13 steel blades (the crowd also notices even more openings they will get to peer through). Now I am not going to cut this beautiful young lady, because as I insert each blade she is bending, twisting and contorting her body in and around every one of these blades of steel, just like a snake, just like a rubber band, she can bend her body as these blades threaten to sever the most delicate parts of her body. (Pause for a look down into the box.) And now, I’m going to give the real men in the audience a chance to come up on stage and see for themselves! Sheila invites each and every one of you up here to see how she does it. You’re going to see how her amazing body can twist around these razor-sharp blades, you’re going to see the texture of her skin! But you should know that this lovely and talented little beauty receives no pay for displaying herself to your eyes in this fashion. Sheila feels that exposing her act and her body this way is worth one dollar, because she is paid only through your curiosity and your generosity. Now if I can get you all to line up at the foot of the stairs, just hand your dollar to the man at the foot of the steps and come up and see this beautiful little girl in the state she is in now, unashamed and waiting for you to view her.” Of course, when you paid your dollar and looked into the box, the girl (who had so conspicuously handed out her garments) was wearing a tight bathing suit, and that’s all that was promised: she’s not wearing the costume you first saw her in. The tip was moved through the area so fast they hardly had a moment to figure out that they hadn’t seen a nude girl, even though they had seen the “magic secret” of how she was contorted around the blades. A classic “blowoff” feature.
Blade Glommer — A sword swallower.
Blank — An engagement with poor attendance, or a player who looks like a good mark but who actually has few dollars to spend.
Blind Opening — A bally by the outside talker, or introduction by the inside talker, phrased in general terms that could apply to any (or a changing array of) attractions. It might describe the horror and thrill you’ll experience seeing nature’s strangest oddities, but it did not need to be specific about exactly which oddities.
Blockhead Act — An act in which a man seems to drives a spike or ice-pick or other long slim object into his nasal passage. Actually the spike inserts very easily, and the “hammering” is mimed. The act is usually credited to Melvin Burkhart, but Todd Robbins cites a 1906 manuscript by Walter Deland. The stunt was originally done as part of a human pincushion act. Burkhart added comedy patter and byplay and made it into a comedy act that stood on its own merits. He started performing it in 1929, but it was still too “strong” for many of the shows he worked back then. He did play it successfully in Ripley’s Odditorium in New York in the late 1930s, where Robert Ripley dubbed Burkhart “The Human Blockhead,” a nickname he carried proudly as he achieved great popularity with the act until his death in 2005. Many modern-day performers have copied Burkhart’s presentation in style, or even copied his entire act line-for-line.
(to) Blow a Tip — When working a tip (crowd of prospective customers) as an “outside talker”, to lose the group’s interest with a mishandled appeal. It takes skill to be able to”build a tip” (q.v.) and “hold a tip”.
Blow Your Pipes — To become hoarse from screaming at ‘marks’ all day long.
Blower — A game in which numbered ping-pong balls or paper money, blowing around in an air stream inside a glass booth, must be grabbed out of the air.
Blowoff (sometimes shortened to “the blow”) — This is where the real money is. You often don’t have to split your “inside money” with the front office! At the end of a ten-in-one show, the crowd (sometimes just the men) is often offered an extra added attraction for an extra fee, something you can either pay to see (if you have a strong enough stomach or perhaps a strong enough desire to see a lady you think might be naked, as implied with the “blade box”) or you could “blow off” and leave without seeing the extra feature. Since the “inside talker” was also usually the magician, he would do his brief magic act for the ladies and children while the gents paid a little extra to go behind the curtain to see the blowoff. Always implied was the idea that the “good stuff” is in the attraction you haven’t paid for yet. It might be simple to the point of crudity: “OK boys, this is how it works. Now that there’s just us men in here, the tattooed lady is gonna go behind the curtain and any of you that wanna go with her can give me a dollar and follow along. She’s gonna sit in a chair, she’s gonna lift up her dress and she’s gonna show you what you’ve all been waiting to see. Now who’s man enough to go back there and see for himself?” More often it was a bit more subtle: “Boys, we all know what you came here to see, and you’ve seen a good show already. I know there isn’t a single one of you out there who doesn’t think he already got his money’s worth. But you came in here to see more than a set of knockers. And you’re going to see A LOT MORE, I promise you. We couldn’t tell you everything on the outside because you know there’s women and kids on the midway. But back here we can talk right out. It’s going to cost you another half a buck, but if it’s the last fifty cents you have in the world, it’ll be well spent. Lulu’s going to put on a show you’ll remember the rest of your days. And there ain’t no fooling, neither. She’s going to come out just the way you want her to, and you’re gonna see it ALL!” It might even be possible to do a second ding after they’ve seen the lady naked: “Boys, us dancers, we don’t get paid, only what we get in tips. Now I’m going to show you fellows something you may have heard about but I bet you ain’t never seen it. And if you want to stay for it, why your tips will be the only pay I get. But it’s worth it, believe me. You’ll thank your lucky stars you did, and with what you’ll learn tonight, when you go home you’re going to make your own little ladies VERY happy they let you come in here! Let me give you a little hint. When I start this little private show just for you, there ain’t going to be but two things on this stage, me and this soda bottle.”
Blue One (or sometimes Black One) — A date that does poor business. Opposite: “Red One”, probably from the usual colors of the winning numbers on a game layout.
Booth — A game run by community group or sponsors, not by professional carnies.
Boston Version — Cleaned-up version of a strong show routine.
Bouncer — A rubber reproduction of a pickled punk (q.v.). There were any number of reasons for using reproductions instead of genuine specimens including legal restrictions and easier availability.
Bozo — Character who insults customers to induce them to try to throw balls to spill him in a dunk tank. The joint is usually named “Dunk Bozo,” in less sensitive days it was known as the “African Dip” or (in even older days) “Nigger Dip”. Bozo’s “calls” over a loudspeaker are very effective at drawing customers. Bozo is often made up as a sort of “nightmare clown,” and (as in the great depiction in the Jodie Foster/Gary Busey movie “Carny”) he’s definitely not a sweet guy – his taunts grow more embarrassing, barbed at the start and increasing to real nastiness, trying to make the current mark so angry he’ll continue throwing balls until he hits the switch and dunks his tormentor.
BR — A fat-looking bankroll flashed by an agent to dazzle the mark, who comes to believe he actually has a chance of winning it. It might just be a “carny roll,” a high-value bill or two wrapped around a lot of $1 bills.
‘Brass and White Money’ — In the early 20th century, it was common to pay workers a dollar in brass tokens (which could only be spent on the show) and “a dollar in white” which was usually a silver dollar.
Briefcase Show — A carnival made up entirely of individual independently-owned attractions, so each ride or show would have its own ticket booth.
Broad Tosser — Operator of a three card monte game, rarely seen in carnivals today because it is so widely known to authorities and public alike as an unwinnable swindle. Interesting historical point: the term was originally a term in outlaw cant, referring to the cards as “broads” because the cards were much wider in the 17th century – now the meaning has been subsumed by the game operator’s throwing of the cards directing the victim to follow the queen.
Build-Up — A game offering the player an assured prize with continued play, PLUS all his money back, but each play costs twice the amount of the previous play. Since most people don’t really grasp the amazing speed of exponential progression (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64…) the cost grows huge. Most players give up and abandon their money, because even Bill Gates doesn’t have the bankroll it would take to win. “Here buddy let me help you get even, we can play a little double-up-catch-up. Whatcha got ta lose? Remember, when you beat me you get all your money back and this beautiful Rolflex watch. The only way you can lose at this game is to run out of money or drop dead, and you look healthy to me.” [By the way, the watch would be a knockoff marked ‘Rolflex,’ not a genuine Rolex.] As a verb, “to build up.” It also refers to the type of agent you are: flattie, alibi, buildup. Sometimes this term is applied to games that let you trade several small prizes (won for a single play) for bigger prizes.
Building a Tip — What the “outside talker” does, gathering a crowd of potential customers (a “tip”). He then “turns” the tip, sending them to the ticket booth.
Bull — A promoter of wrestling matches.
Bullet — A round painted panel within a banner giving descriptive or promotional information about the banner’s subject. A banner, for instance, might depict a “Frog Boy” as a green frog-shaped animal with a human head. Anyone with any sense knows that such a creature could not exist. Inside is a man with flipper-like arms and legs. But the bullets on the banner are the convincers: “Alive!” says one. Okay, he’s alive. “You won’t believe it!” says another. And, indeed, as promised, the people coming out of the show can be heard to say “I didn’t really believe he was going to look like that banner.”
Bumper Car Game — “Bumper Cars” are a well-known ride, but the Bumper Car Game was popular at one time both as a hanky-pank or a gambling game. H.C. Evans (see their catalog in our “On the Midway” e-book) made a lovely chrome bumper car. About the size of a roller skate and quite heavy (18 pounds), the car was pushed with considerable force to bounce back and forth along a short straight track with bumpers at each end. When the car stopped, a pointer on the side of the car indicated one of a series of numbers painted along the track, thus choosing your prize or advancing game play.
Bunkhouse — An 18-wheeler converted to provide extremely spare housing. The owner rents space to workers who don’t own personal trailers and who don’t make enough to afford a motel. The trailer is split down the middle, on each side are closet-sized cubicles with outside doors, big enough for a mattress plus about 18″ to move around. Some “rooms” have one bed, some have bunks and others in the “fifth wheel” section have an elevated bunk with a little more elbow room.
Burn the Lot — To allow agents to cheat brazenly and leave the locals so outraged that they won’t allow yours or any other carnival in their town for a long time.
Burr — Operating expenses.
Butcher — Strolling refreshment merchant, peddler of lemonade, candy, pretzels, and other edibles.
Cake Eaters — Locals, rubes.
Cake Cutting — Short-changing.
Canvas Joint — A game housed in a portable canvas-on-wooden-frame shack.
Capper — Confederate or shill.
Cake — Money made by short-changing customers at ticket boxes.
Call — The time you need to be on the lot and ready to work. Also, your repertoire of lines to “call ’em over,” attract marks to your joint: “Hey, buddy, win the little lady a great big bear, just three in the basket, here, you can try it free!” Dealing with innumerable passersby and needing to attract them with the ‘joint’ equivalent of a bally, certain phrases become second nature when they are successful. Once the call has worked, the agent “closes the sale” using his tried-and-true assortment of “cracks.” But he shouldn’t “overcall” anyone who is in the legitimate range of a call from another joint.
“Calling Card” — A high ride, visible from long distances,displaying a large sign with the show’s name.
Carnival— An outdoor entertainment usually consisting of an overall management thatcarries some of its own rides and concessions, plus additional offerings byindependent showmen, ride owners and concessionaires. The benefits of being witha large carnival include a pre-arranged route with no need to plan one yourself, and many of the costsare included with the rent, like advertising and insurance. The downside is that you have to paydearlyfor it. The basic nut is high — rent will vary but most county fairs will runbetween $25 to $80 per foot (1999 prices). If your concession is a 10 footcenter concession you will pay for a side and a half and it will come to between$375 to $1200 for 7 to 10 days rent. Innumerable additional dings (electricity,tip to the lot man, mandatory show t-shirts, clean-up, even parking) may add up tohundreds of dollars. Also, the large shows always suffer a certainnumber of still dates or blanks on which you will still have to pay full rent;you can lose a lot of money and have to play a couple of spots to catch up.
Carny — Someone who works in a carnival. The term is also applied to the carnival itself. As showman Chris Christ put it, “Ward [Hall] and I are showmen. Don’t call us carnies. Carnies are junky ride jockeys that are here today and gone tomorrow. The difference between a carny and a showman is the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad!”
Carny Marriage — Carnies are an unromantic lot, as a rule. According to others, as a sign that a couple intends to be monogamous (or relatively so) for a while, thus keeping the individuals (more or less) from straying and from unwanted romantic advances, they may engage in a carny marriage. The sign that they are “married” in the eyes of their fellows is a ride once around on the carousel or ferris wheel; a divorce is less formal, sometimes with a ride turning in the other direction, but more often at the end of the season or when both parties just say “to hell with it.”
Carny Roll — A bankroll consisting of a high-value bill or two wrapped around a lot of $1 bills, flashed by the agent to give the impression that a mark could make a lot of money playing this agent’s game.
Carousel — A perennial favorite ride. A turning platform with seats, some made up on poles as animals, especially horses, and some of which move gently up and down in a slow “galloping” motion. Music (traditionally a mechanical band organ) provides atmosphere.
Carry the Banner — Said of a carny or pitchman who is penniless, and has nothing to do but “make-work” jobs with the show.
Catch Wrestling — A style of wrestling using tricky submission holds (see “At Show”). The name refers to a colloquial phrase “catch as catch can”, to use any means you can get away with to get a job done.
Cattle Rustling — To actively attract customers whose attention legitimately belongs to another joint (see “Overcall”). The lines of demarcation generally extend from the edges of your joint straight out into the midway.
Center Joint — Concession that can handle players from all four sides (also “Four Way Joint”). Usually pays at least 1½ times the rent a similar-sized line-up joint would pay.
Chart — A table of values used to convert the numbers you scored in game play to a final score. Never a legitimate way to play a game, the chart enables so many possible ways of confusing a mark that an agent can easily “build him up” again and again, letting him believe that he is very close to a big win, but really never letting him get a winning score. A “Chart Store” is a joint featuring this type of game. NEVER play a chart game!
Chaser — From mainstream slang “skirt chaser”, an employee who would rather “come on” to pretty women than do his job.
Check Up — When an accumulation of money is taken out of the agent’s apron to a safer place. The money is counted in front of the agent, and the agent gets his cut later.
Cheese Wheel (Mouse Wheel) — A game (now rare) with a round cake-shaped play area, with holes in each of several segments around the circumference. Customers bet on which hole a mouse will choose to enter. The mouse will always enter the hole secretly wiped by the agent with a drop of ammonia.
Chester — A child molester. A carny might be more likely to notice someone’s undue interest in and behavior toward children because he is always observing the behavior of individuals in the crowd, and because venues like a carnival, where there are a lot of children and more than the usual chaos, tend to attract such predators.
Chill — To get the mark to leave (“He was getting rangy, so I chilled him.”) Or to isolate the mark from his friends using your sticks (secret assistants).
Chopped Grass — Dried herbs used in medicines being pitched.
Chump — Sucker. Naive, gullible player (as in W.C. Fields’ line “Never give a sucker an even break or wisen up a chump.”)
Chump-twister — A carousel.
Ciazarn — Carny talk, a sort of “pig-latin.” A guide is on this page.
Circassian Girl or Moss-Haired Girl — A “made” human oddity from the 19th century (the Circassians are a people living in the Caucasus). A white woman would use beer to
stiffen and bush her hair in an ‘Afro’ hairdo. The bally involved kidnapping by ‘Arabs’ and being forced into harem life, followed by a harrowing escape culminating in refuge there in the show.
Circus Candy — Cheap candy in an impressive looking box.
Circus Jump — A difficult move between lots, usually calling for tearing down, driving, setting up and opening for business on the new lot without time to sleep.
(to) Clean the Midway — To be so skillful an outside talker that you can gather a very large tip and turn almost all of them. If you’re good, and you’re really “on,” the midway looks mighty empty after your bally.
Clem — Another term for “mark,” particularly a gullible rural local. Also, a fight between a townie and carnies.
Clerk — A concession employee, usually a less-skilled or less-motivated person operating hanky-panks and other un-rigged games, whose chief function is to collect players’ money and make change. Paid much less than agents.
Clutching — “Riding” the clutch on a ride (same function as the clutch on a car), ostensibly to provide a few thrilling speed variations or outright jerks to please the riders, but really to generate “thrown change.” Search under the seats after a few rides and you’ll find all sorts of dropped coins.
Coconut Shy — A British fairground game, probably a variant of “Aunt Sally” (q.v.), in which players throw balls to knock a coconut off a post. Players may win the coconut, or other prizes. In British colloquial use, “to shy” means “to throw with a sideways snapping motion.”
Collection — A build-up method of working a joint. You get the mark going at x amount a shot. You let him continue shooting and pay after he owes you several fees. When he gets so high you “collect”: point out his prize (so far), collect the money you’re owed, and try to keep him going for at a higher price for a bigger prize. The object is to keep him confused, still shooting, and owing you more.
Color — Blood, especially when drawn intentionally by “blading” with a small hidden piece of razor, in carnival wrestling matches.
Comic Book — A “comic book idiot” is a lazy and stupid employee who would rather read comic books than serve patrons or do his job.
Committee — Representatives of the local sponsor, usually a local charity with whom proceeds are shared. A sponsorship arrangement goes a long way toward cooling police scrutiny of the games, and often includes the sponsor’s advertising and ticket-selling efforts as a part of the arrangement. Sponsorship makes it easier for the show to locate on public land. Members of the committee may count tickets at the end of the day to make sure the charity gets its agreed share. Occasionally (or often, depending on who you ask) the committee members may be on the take.
Concessions — The food stands, games and shops on a midway, given the right to be there by virtue of a hefty payment to the carnival owner (usually on a dollars-per-front-foot basis), plus a percentage of their gross, plus electrical charges, bribes and more. If you understand that the food stands, also called ‘concessions,’ at your local sports stadium are working under exactly the same arrangement, you’ll understand why a hot dog can cost $5 or more.
Concession Manager — Second in authority only to the carnival owner, the concession manager supervises the location of the concessions, arranges for security personnel, and handles beefs arising from concession operation. Generally takes home about half of the 10% collected from the games.
Cook House — A sit-down eating establishment on the lot, open to the public and carnies alike. An ‘Indiana-style’ cookhouse was a large tented area, offering table service or counter service. Often their kitchens were in a separate wagon or truck. Today, cookhouses are smaller, housed in a trailer, and are exclusively for employees (the public can eat at food joints on the midway).
Cool Out — Convincing a mark that he has not been taken. The term comes from the big con games.
Cootch Show — A raunchy girl show.
Cop — To cheat or manipulate a sucker at some point in a game, or to take anything (especially if you take it by subterfuge.) An agent might arrange his counter at just the right height and invite pretty marks to lean over for an extra-close throw so that he can cop a feel (of breast.) Also, when a rigged game malfunctions, carnies say that it copped. The H.C. Evans Company catalog sold pegs for a Pitch-Till-You-Win game with the claim that they could be set to “cop or blow as desired,” meaning they could be set to easily accept a ring thrown by a customer or be impossible to ring.
Corn Game — Bingo game (with dry corn kernels used as counters).
Corn Punk or Corn Slum — A pitchman’s remedy for corns.
Count Store (or Add-em-up) — A game in which the final score is counted up by the agent, certain numbers winning prizes. The agent miscounts or sets very unusual combinations of numbers as winning numbers, thereby reducing the payout. At one time, count stores were not open in the daytime because women and children were not allowed to play. One former carny said, “The nice part of a ‘count store’ was that you never gave anything away. My game could not be beat. I only gave it away if I wanted to. I could always keep the same flash. If you packed it nicely you could use it year after year. [And why did] they give me dollars if I didn’t give them prizes? Entertainment, my friends! Many more people will pay for entertainment than will pay for teddy bears.”
Country Store — A concession selling a variety of small items of merchandise, often including jewelry engraved with your name, etc.
Country Store Wheel —
This “wheel of fortune” distributes as prizes blankets, dolls, novelties, groceries or any kind of merchandise. As a game, a ‘center joint’ (played from all four sides) with one playing station per side, a multi-player game offering a prize every time to just one of the players. Often it attracted so many players that it took three agents to make change and hand out prizes, and wise owners soon re-conformed their joints to six sides. Players could place one or more coins (to win bigger prizes). Small prizes were often cheap but flashy (but not TOO flashy) glasses or cookie jars, medium prizes might be flashier glass pieces, household utensils or small ceramic pieces, and the best prizes were serving bowls, dolls, blankets and nicer decorative items. Also called “Merchandise Wheel”. Sometimes, numbered tickets were passed out at the carnival gate, random numbers “winning” a prize, redeemable at this joint. That arrangement was often considered a lottery, and thus illegal.
Coupon Store — (Provisional definition) This joint distributes merchandise as prizes, upon presentation of a numbered coupon. These coupons would be given along with a paid admission, often advertised in advance as ‘first (however many) patrons get a chance ticket to win one of many valuable prizes.’ Such schemes walked a thin legal line between advertising and a lottery.
Cowboy — Hooligan who comes on the lot looking for ways to cause trouble.
Crack — A phrase an individual carny polishes and tweaks until it is super-effective at getting the attention of passing marks to stop and play. Cracks are developed and learned by instinct and by observation, and different ones may be employed to influence different types of marks. All of these comments are “when he says / then you say” phrases, as in, when he says “I’ve already spent too much,” you say, “I know, with so much invested you’re bound to win!”
Crank, Cradle, or Strom — A pedal or handle that secretly controls a rigged game. Usual tipoffs: Flattie sits at the counter (to be able to work the pedal without being noticed), joint is framed with drapes going all the way to the ground and secured at the bottom so no one can see the pedal, extra drape hanging to the ground on operator’s side of the counter hiding his feet. Dead giveaway: a double row of horizontal stitching, four inches apart, around the sidewall at counter height, hiding the cable transmitting the pedal’s movements to the game. With this arrangement, a flattie can secretly control the stop of a wheel, engage or release the gaff on a cat rack, or (by miming the pull of a string as he works the pedal) demonstrate how easy it is to pull up a flashy prize in a string game.
Crescent — When there is not enough room to rig all your banners, you may crescent (curve) your banner line to avoid “drop offs” (q.v.)
Crime Show — A midway attraction featuring memorabilia from famous criminals (“Bonnie and Clyde’s Death Car” was a famous feature).
Cut — Your (the agent’s) share of the money, your percentage.
Cut-In — The fee for getting electricity hooked up to your joint by the electrician (juice man), who will “cut in” a connection to the main power lines.
This is Page A-C
Carny Lingo A-C D-I J-P Q-Z
Circus Slang Vaudeville Slang