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.
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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.

The Birthplace of Rock & Roll & Abby Amaro: Cleveland in the 1950s

Starting this week, we will begin our look deeper into the world of Sideshow with explorations of the setting, plot, characters, and the research that it took to get them right. Enjoy!

Looking east down Superior Avenue from monument sector of Public Square, July 1950.
Public Square -1950 [Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery]
Sideshow begins in Cleveland, Ohio. This seemed a natural choice to me. I honestly never even considered setting Abby’s beginning anywhere else. Continuing the world of “The Fire-Eater’s Daughter” meant continuing a story set in the 1950s. That was not a problem. As far as the writing of historical fiction goes, the 1950s have a ton of interesting themes to mine and I’ve only begun to crack that surface. Using Cleveland as a backdrop for the opening scenes just seemed to slip right into those themes seamlessly.

In the 1950s, Cleveland, like the rest of the world (and the Amaro family – I’m sure the reason for the gap between Abby and Leon is painfully obvious) was trying its best to move on from WWII. The world was still in turmoil, but Cleveland was trying to forget.

The post-WWII manufacturing boom definitely helped. Cleveland was, after all, a manufacturing city, for better or worse.

Abby’s father, like many other Cleveland fathers of this decade and decades prior, worked in a steelyard. It was hard work but would have provided well for the growing Amaro family  and allowed them to live in a house between the neighborhoods of Little Italy and Coventry Village (a one time “planned” community for Cleveland’s wealthy Protestant elites which began growing in ethnic diversity around this time). Natale and Abby both work and are concerned with money, but they would, unlike their parents, have been able to finish out their high school years in relative peaceful enjoyment. They would have likely attended a local Catholic School such as St. Marion’s (which would close in the 1960s, so the younger Amaro children would have to be sent elsewhere).

Cedar Lee Theatre
Cedar-Lee Theatre [Courtesy of the Cleveland Heights Historical Society & Cleveland Historical]

A critical intersection, both to Abby and Sideshow is that of Cedar and Lee roads. Abby spends her evenings after her music classes working at the fictional (though loosely based on a one time burger joint known as Mawby’s) Cedar Lee Diner, the existence of which was inspired by local Cleveland landmark, the Cedar-Lee Theatre.

The Cedar-Lee opened in 1925 and anchored the ever changing commercial center around it. It’s still there today, albeit a little different than Abby would have known it.  Though Abby and Marjorie likely preferred the East Side Drive In (especially during the summer), Cedar-Lee would definitely have held a special place in her social life.

Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS.
Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS. [Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Cleveland History by CWRU and the Western Reserve Historical Society]
Speaking of social life, Abby would likely have also frequented dances held by Italian-American social clubs and teen organizations. As a music lover, Abby’s adoration of everything from opera to folk to, of course, rock and roll would mean seeking out places where she could hear the music she loved. In Sideshow she mentions to Suprema that she listened to Moondog every night. This is a reference to Cleveland disc jockey Alan “Moondog” Freed often credited with coining the term “rock and roll” leading to Cleveland’s beloved moniker. [I will discuss this particular aspect of Abby’s life in further detail in a later post.]

The carnival the Amaro family attends on that fateful day in late July would likely have been held in Gordon Park on the lakeshore or somewhere similar to it. These areas were casualties of that manufacturing boom mentioned earlier as the lake struggled through environmental degradation. That would have allowed McClure’s Amusements the ability to rent their time on the land cheaply, however. As seen in Sideshow, they do not always get the choicest locations, but they make the best of it. (Gordon Park’s Beach is also where I envisioned Abby’s breakup with Frank.)

The 1950s in Cleveland truly do provide an incredibly rich backdrop in which to paint the story of Abby Amaro’s early life and launch her into her later adventures with McClure’s amusements. This real and vibrant city that is more than it appears on the surface was, in my mind, the only place to begin.