Traveling with the Caravan: Getting Around With McClure’s Amusements

Sheboygan Press June 12 1914
Sheboygan Press June 12 1914

Stories of the traveling carnival are imbued with a certain mythological essence, and much as it does with road trip tales, travel memoirs, wagon train westerns, and memoirs of adventurous feats like climbing Everest, the secret of this essence lies in the word “traveling.” The concept speaks to people on a deep level. I doubt there are many people who could honestly say that they haven’t thought, at least once in their life, “maybe I should just pack up and hit the road.”

Once in a fit of whining about how “there is nothing new under the sun,” I read something that comforted me. “There are only two plots: someone leaves or someone arrives.” (a paraphrase of a quote often attributed to John Gardner) Travel stories like Sideshow fit an interesting space between these two “plots.” Abby is leaving her home and “going on a journey,” but she also has “arrived” at the carnival and is a stranger in their world.

Image Credit: ReflectedSerendipity
Image Credit: ReflectedSerendipity

Because travel is so central to the narrative and it’s themes, it was important to me that I portray it in the right way.  While earlier circuses and bigger carnivals mostly traveled by rail in the United States, by the 1950s smaller carnivals such as McClure’s Amusements mainly traversed the country in trailers. This meant I got to choose some fun locations without regard to rail lines (Hence the decision to take the caravan through places like Kokomo, Indiana).

The tricky part, however, of mapping out the route McClure Amusements would take across the Midwest was the fact that in 1957, the interstate highway system had only just begun construction.

When today, you could use highways to make the trip

Sideshow travels today

When Abby was adventuring, they would be using, at best, state routes. My mother used to tell me tales of her childhood Cleveland trips, which were huge undertakings akin to cross country road-trips. You packed a lunch. Today, her family could have made that trip in an hour.

Sideshow travels sans highway

The maps themselves don’t look terribly different and maybe 13 vs. 17 hours doesn’t seem like much of a trial, but keep in mind that while today you might be driving 80 miles per hour on the highways, these routes would have speed limits that topped out at 55 (most would be quite lower). Not to mention that hauling or driving a trailer, ride, or truck full of carnival supplies would slow you down and destroy your gas mileage. (And to be honest, some of those state routes were in different locations at the time. I double checked old road atlases because I am a research nerd. They just don’t scan well on the blog)

Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists
Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists

Also important were the campers themselves. The concept of the “Recreational Vehicle” or RV is so ubiquitous nowadays, that it might surprise you to learn that term wasn’t used until the 1970s. Still, people were roaming the country in campers, trailers, and “housecars” practically since the invention of the automobile. These vehicles were especially important to more nomadic people such as those who were employed by McClure’s Amusements. Being able to keep your home with you as you traveled could be a real source of comfort during their grueling travel schedule.

There were many examples of trailers available to to the performers and crew from the brand new Volkswagon Westphalia to small Empire trailers like Suprema’s. Choosing what sort of trailer I would base each character’s home-base on was a lot of fun for me. I wanted it to reflect the character’s personality, means, and needs just as well as any other aspect of the character did.

1955 Empire Trailer. I based Suprema's on this model. [Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists]
1955 Empire Trailer. I based Suprema’s on this model. [Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists]
Travel is essential to Sideshow and the lives of the characters in the novel.  Even though that work isn’t one of the most obvious aspects of the narrative (less so than, say, researching slang or fashion), I knew it was something that I had to consider and focus on carefully. Travel is part of us and it’s history, in many ways, is ours too.

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.

Meet Abby Amaro: The Bally Girl

We’ve talked a bit about the setting of Sideshow. Let’s take a look at the characters.

Abby AmaroSideshow‘s protagonist, Abby Giovanna Amaro starts off the novel as a reserved diner waitress with operatic ambitions. Her grandmother introduced her to famous Cleveland harpist and opera singer, Caramela Cafarelli when she was 5 years old and hooked her for life. Anxiety and stage fright, however, don’t exactly help a girl achieve the title of primadonna.

Still, Abby is determined. She gets admitted to the Cleveland Institute of Music and works hard to put herself through school. She spends so much time working that all of her best friends in Cleveland work at the Cedar Lee Diner with her: Sal, Roman, and Marjorie.

The Toasted Pecan: 950's style American Diner in Valencia, Spain
Image credit: The American Palate

Abby loves all three of them dearly and they look upon her as a sister, someone to take care of. Abby doesn’t mind this because…

Being the oldest girl in a family of six children, Abby has often chafed against the caretaker role expected of her, especially because she knows her brother, Natale, is more suited to it. Since her mother’s death five years ago, she has especially longed to be out on her own, though she isn’t truly aware of this yet.

Abby doesn’t mean to run away with McClure’s Amusements, but she did know she had to get away (from the roles that were chafing her, and especially from her frustratingly annoying ex-boyfriend, Frank Butler), and fate intervened.

Photo Credit: Mark J. Sebastian
Photo Credit: Mark J. Sebastian

Working on the bally and making new friends is tough for reserved and anxious Abby, who doesn’t have the highest of self esteem, but at least she has her music (and an unexpected crush ❤ ).

 

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.

You’ve Gotta Know the Lingo: A Carnival Speak Primer

Vintage Carnival - Scanned from Slide Negative by Jim Pennucci
Vintage Carnival – Scanned from Slide Negative by Jim Pennucci

 

When Abby joins up with McClure’s Amusement’s caravan, there is a lot she has to learn and fast. It’s all very overwhelming, and one of the most overwhelming aspects of the experience is the lingo. On her first day, she’s ready to believe that the people around her are speaking a completely different language. Ruth does her best to help, teaching her some of the more important jargon.

Now you can understand them too! I’ve compiled a short list of vocabulary that might come in handy should you join a 1950s traveling carnival:

  • Blowdown: A show is knocked over by a storm. This doesn’t come up in Sideshow but it probably should. I’ve quipped more than once that the most unrealistic thing about the book is that they never have to deal with a severe thunderstorm.
  • Blowing the route: A driver gets lost between towns delaying their arrival.
  • Building a tip: Draw a crowd. This is what Abby is supposed to be doing at the bally.
  • Candy butchers: Concession vendors, in general. The term originally referred to specific vendors who sold candy
  • Date: When a show is taking place in a certain town. IE: “Our Chicago date has been bumped up”
  • First of May: Someone who is new to the carnival, like Abby. The term is thought to have originated because that is when people started showing up at the carnival looking for work.
  • Joint: A Game. A couple of game specific terms are
    • 4 way joint: Open on all 4 sides. These are the games that sit in the middle of the midway.
    • Flat games: A game in which the player cannot win.
    • Sunday schools show: A carnival that prohibits rigged games. McClure’s Amusements technically falls into this category, but they’re not great about enforcement.
    • Gaff: To rigg. This is often used with games, but also with sideshows when a performer or exhibit is made to look like something that it isn’t.
  • Jump: The move between dates
  • Lot: Show grounds (run by lot managers)
  • Lot lice: people who spend time (but not much money) on show grounds
  • Possum belly queen/princess: This somewhat derogatory term refers to the love interests of carnival performers, who would be hidden in the “possum belly” of their trailers (often so that angry family members could not find them).
  • Ride jockeys: Mechanics and ride operators
  • Rougies: Temporary help
  • Slough: Tear down of a show
  • Troupers: Workers who have been with the carnival at least a year.
  • Turn a tip: To convince crowd to buy tickets. This is another thing Abby is supposed to be doing, but isn’t very good at.

During her time at the carnival, Abby manages to grow more and more comfortable. A significant part of that is a growing fluency with these and other terminology.

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.