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Sideshow Art

June 2023
1min read

Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway


by Randy Johnson, Jim Secreto, and Teddy Varndell, Hardy Marks Publications, 169 pages .

A burly and wholly American folk art draws a passionate tribute in this extraordinarily handsome book of the painted banners that throughout this century have drawn the prurient to see MAJOR DEBERT TINIEST MAN, SWEET MARIE 643 LBS, ALLIGATOR GIRL, TURKEY BOY, EEKA AND THE GIANT SNAKES, DICKIE THE PENGUIN BOY , and 5 LEGGED COW . The earliest examples here date from around 1910, and this highly succinct art form, which learned to do its job efficiently at about the time of the First World War, has evidently not felt the need of evolution.

The banners are coarse, vigorous, sometimes disquieting, sometimes funny, sometimes strangely beautiful. Vintage photographs show them at work from the 1920s ( WORLD’S SMALLEST CHARLESTON DANCERS ) through the 1970s ( IS IT ROSEMARY’S BABY ?), and the veteran banner painter Johnny Meah talks about his calling: “I’ve pictorialized numerous alligator skinned people. In rendering them one must constantly bear in mind that the banner will be viewed from many feet away, therefore very bold lines and exaggerated light and dark contrast must be used in depicting the unusual skin. As is the case with most banner art, you constantly repress the urge to use softer, more subtle effects as they are lost when viewed from a distance.”

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