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24-hour Man Employee who travels the route 24 hours before the rest of the circus, putting up roadside arrows to direct travel and making sure the lot is ready.
Aba-daba Any dessert served in the cookhouse.
Advance Teams of employees traveled ahead of the circus route to put up posters and arrange for advertising, often visiting each town several times (four weeks, two weeks and one week before the show.) They often traveled on dedicated "advance cars" or "bill cars," rail cars carried on freight trains, and had just one day to carry out their assignments. Both the team and its ad campaign were simply called "the advance." "Bill Posters" pasted multi-sheet posters on the outsides of buildings and fences with buckets of flour-and-water paste, long-handled paste brushes, and ladders. "Lithographers" bartered with local merchants, trading passes for the right to place one-sheets, half-sheets, and panels in store windows. The purchased billing stand locations and boards were paid by the use of an outside bill poster check to be presented at the ticket wagon on the day of exhibition. The advance team might hire local youths to distribute heralds door-to-door. Beginning in the 1950s, there was a union for bill crews: the International Alliance of Billers, Billposters and Distributors. When a show played towns with a Billposters' local, union-member crews were required, and the paper would be rubber-stamped with a small "union bug" (union logo) indicating that the posters were put up by union members. This practice was often ignored in towns where there was no Billposters' local or where there was not a strong pro-union sentiment. (See "Agent" below)
Advise The official schedule, posted on the outside of the backdoor and elsewhere, listing the current revision of the time and sequence of the acts.
Aerialist Performer who performs suspended above the ground on a trapeze or similar equipment (wire walking is not an aerialist act).
Agent The advance team was divided into three phases: the 'contracting agent' would get all necessary contracts signed for a show's upcoming date, the 'general agent' would coordinate the show's annual route (on carnivals these two functions might be combined) and the 'special agent' would travel ahead with the advance team to oversee the placement of show advertising and also sell ads in the program to local merchants.
AGVA The American Guild of Variety Artists, a (currently) 5,000-member union representing performers in the variety entertainment field, including circuses, Las Vegas showrooms and cabarets, musical variety shows, comedy showcases, dance revues, magic shows and amusement park shows, arena and auditorium productions on tour. Referred to in the musical "A Chorus Line" as 'the nightclub union.' Organized by vaudevillian Sophie Tucker and others as The American Federation of Actors, absorbed into the AFL-CIO in 1939. Awards the "Georgie Award" (after George Jessel) for variety performer of the year. Opinions vary on the AGVA, generally concluding that it is not even remotely as useful to the performers as the unions covering actors and musicians in legit theater, film, television or concert performance. Did not, until recently, even maintain a minimal web page, but now does have one.
Alfalfa Paper money.
All Out and Over, All Out, All Over The entire performance is concluded, the audience has vacated the top and workers can begin re-setting or tearing down.
Annie Oakley A complimentary ticket or free pass, also 'ducat.' The hole customarily punched in such a free pass recalled the bullet holes that Oakley, a wild-west-show sharpshooter, fired into small cards in her performances.
Announcer The person who announces the acts to the audience during a performance. Im modern times, he is usually dressed in red tailcoat and top hat (thus is sometimes referred to as "the fancy pants") and commonly misnamed "ringmaster." The true and original ring master was the "equestrian director" who he stood in the center of the ring and paced the horses for the riding acts, his tailcoat and hat representative of British fox hunting garb.
Arch The front gate.
Arena The large cage in which big-cat acts are performed.
Arrow A paper sign, a large (usually red, on a white card) printed arrow, used to mark the route between towns. Taped to the posts of road signs by the 24-hour man the day before the show moves. Can be placed in any orientation: straight-up arrows every few miles to let you know you're on the right road, a single tilted arrow to warn of an upcoming turn, and two or three tilted arrows in a group to indicate where to turn.
Artist Preferred term for a circus performer.
Back Door Performers' entrance to the big top.
Back Yard The area behind the big top where props, animals, and performers are readied for a circus performance, and where housing trailers are parked away from public view. The privacy of this area is jealously guarded, for two reasons. First, it can be dangerous, especially for idiots who think it might be cool to sneak into the elephant tent and see them up close. Second, as Bruce Feiler wrote in Under the Big Top, "The only way to survive in the circus was to build a private world of one's own. Circus people are like tigers: they have a tendency to devour their own. Those who survive do so by living in a tiny cage and only coming out when they have to perform. [They mind] only their own business and nobody else's. It's like a day-care center all around this lot. That's why I just retire to my trailer after the show and pull my curtains down."
Backyard Name of a circus trade publication.
Baggage Stock Horses used for hauling, as opposed to performing horses called "ring stock."
Bale Ring There are two types of tents: push pole and bale ring. The holes that poles fit into are grommets, made of rope, covered with canvas. In a push pole tent (generally, the smaller tents) all poles are inserted, under the canvas, into grommets, then poles (and with them, the canvas) are pushed up by hand. In a bale ring tent the canvas is laid out and the center poles are positioned over the canvas (each through its large grommet) in shallow holes the ground, then raised and guyed off. Then the side poles are raised and guyed off, and the main body of the canvas is attached to a large ring (bale ring) encircling each center pole. These rings are raised up each center pole by block-and-tackle atop the pole, bringing the canvas along with them.
Bally In addition to its use in the sideshow sense, 'bally' might also refer to small prizes placed in boxes of candy as inducements to buy.
Ballyhoo A spotlight cue meaning to sweep the light across the spectators in a figure-8 pattern (used in a different sense in carnivals and sideshows.)
Barn Winter quarters.
Basket Animal A costume made with a basket in the middle, looking as if the performer were riding a horse or other animal. Suspenders hold the costume around the performer's waist.
Benefit A contractual arrangement under which the entire profit from one or more entire performances would go to a star performer. The idea was that this part of the performer's pay would, in fairness, depend on the performer's drawing power as well as the chance factors that affect the business. Benefits went out of use early in the 20th century.
Bibles Souvenir programs. Also, boards placed under the reserved seat chairs, so-called because they fold closed like a bible. Amusement Business, the trade magazine, was sometimes also called "the Bible."
Big Bertha or The Big One Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Big Cats Performing lions and tigers.
Big Top The main tent used for the performance. (A tent is a top plus some walls, so "the big top" would be the largest tent on the lot.)
Bill An advertising poster.
Blowdown When the tents are blown down by a storm. A blowdown is a genuine disaster, resulting in severely damaged tents, lost business and even lost lives.
Blow Off The end of the show when the concessionaires come out. Also, the visual "punchline" of a clown gag.
Blues or Stringers The general admission seats, usually painted blue (in engineering, "stringers" are long supporting members)
Boiler Room, Phoneroom System of selling advance tickets using teams of telephone salesmen cold-calling people. These advance sales are indispensable to smaller shows, but the system is open to many abuses.
Bongo Board Same as a Rola Bola.
Boss Canvasman The man in charge of making sure the canvas goes up properly and doesn't come down short of a major blow down. Also decides on the placement of tents on the lot, and sometimes functions as lot manager for the sideshow as well. "Tentmaster" is a more common modern term.
Boss Elephant Man Supervisor of the pachyderms.
Boss Hostler The man who traveled ahead of the mud shows to mark the way for the caravan; sometimes used to denote the one in charge of all horses in a show.
Brodie An accidental fall (but one which has an element of stupidity or clumsiness, rather than disaster). From the name of Steve Brodie, who in 1886 claimed to have survived a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Bugs Chameleons or green anole lizards sold as novelties by butchers.
Bullhook or Ankus The dull hook on a stick used by elephant trainers to "get the elephant's attention" and guide the animals to their tasks. (No, it doesn't hurt them what kind of idiot would stand practically under a very expensive multi-ton animal and hurt it?)
Bullhand or Bull Handler Employee working with the elephants.
Bulls Elephants (whether male or female). Also (mostly with affection) "rubber cows."
Bull Tub Heavy round metal pedestal upon which an elephant sits or stands.
"Bump a Nose" Some people cite this as the "good luck" phrase clowns use to each other before a performance, rather like actors' "break a leg." In reality, it's cutesie-poo amateur clown club jargon. A circus clown would be much more likely to say something like "go @#$%& yourself."
Butcher Strolling vendor selling refreshments or souvenirs. Al Stencell said, on the Circus Historical Society forum in 2006, "The food items were sent into the big top in an order. That is dry first. Once people were ready to almost kill you for a drink - then the wet went in. Candy apples didn't go in until the last couple of acts. Reason - it takes too long to eat an apple."
Calliope A musical instrument consisting of a series of steam whistles played like an organ. (From 'Calliope,' the Greek muse of music.)
Cake Money made by short-changing customers at ticket boxes.
Caring Clown Not a traditional circus term. Used by amateurs (and Ringling publicity) to refer to clowns who specialize in hospital visits ("Awwwwww ").
Carpet Clown A clown who works either among the audience or on arena floor.
Catcher The member of a trapeze act who catches the flyer after he has released himself from the bar in a flying return act.
Cats Lions, tigers, leopards, panthers.
Cattle Guard A set of low seats placed in front of the general admission seats to accommodate overflow audiences.
Center Pole or King Pole The first pole of the tent to be raised. It is about 60 feet high and holds the peak of the tent.
Character Clown A clown who dresses in a character costume, often a tramp, but sometimes a policeman, fireman, etc.
Charivari A noisy whirlwind entrance of clowns; also called (probably through an uneducated attempt to read this unfamiliar word) 'shivaree.'
Charley (v.) To ditch a poster or group of posters or handbills instead of posting or distributing them as assigned.
Cherry Pie Extra jobs done by circus personnel for extra pay.
Chinese Extra jobs done by circus personnel without additional pay. Circus contracts often call for employees, in addition to the job they signed on for, to make themselves "generally useful," the meaning of which is often stretched to include all sorts of labor at all hours, until employees often feel that they are being abused by management as badly as Chinese laborers were while building the railroads.
Circus Candy Very cheap confections with deceptively impressive packaging. Often sold in a special intermission pitch, with prize premiums as an incentive to buy.
Circus Fans Association of America Fan organization established in 1926. Its local clubs are called "tents" and "tops." Publishes "The White Tops" members' magazine. The loyalty of the Fans is sincerely appreciated by circus performers and is seen as indispensable to the survival of small shows. Many a mud-show performer has gotten a ride to the laundromat from a Fan. However, they can at times (like fans in any field) be both obsessive and intrusive, feeling entitled to enter the performers' private areas uninvited or meddle with the animals entirely unappreciative of the danger. Their mottoes: "We fight anything that fights the circus" and "We pay as we go" (meaning, I believe, that they don't expect freebies for their helpful efforts). Circus owners understand both sides: a post to the Fans' website recently read, in part, "That smiling neighbor tearing tickets might be the contact for next years booking. That guest clown (who doesn't look like a Halloweener and will take directions) can add some visual beef to tired routines." Another member also wrote "I put my foot down and separated the fans from the freeloaders. The freeloaders show up with a car full of uncontrollable kids, sneak in the back door, sit in the best sits, let their kids run all over the place, then after the show head back to the car to have lunch they brought from home and complain about our soda prices." Here's their website.
Circus Headache A real ailment, named because prolonged exposure to the ammonia fumes generated by animal waste can cause splitting headaches.
Circus Pole Very early mass-produced candy hawked by candy butchers inside the tent. Stick candy, with a hard, brown, brittle outer layer and a soft coconut center.
Circus Report Name of a weekly circus trade magazine.
Circus Tape Adhesive cloth tape used to wrap trapeze bars and other circus equipment.
Cirky Circus counterpart to the word "carny;" a circus employee.
Clem A fight.
Cloud Swing A bar-less swing, really just a "u" of rope, used in an aerial act. Most performers using the cloud swing never used safety features.
Clown Alley The clowns' dressing and prop area.
Clown Stop A short clown gag (as opposed to a lengthy routine).
Come In The period an hour before showtime when the public is entering the arena before the circus begins. Elephant and camel rides are offered for a fee during come in; butchers are selling their wares, and clowns are on the floor. Some clowns specialized and only performed during come in.
Concert or Aftershow An extra act, performed in the big top, for an additional admission fee, after the conclusion of the main performance. The concert was often produced by a separate company independently of the circus, paying a fee for the use of the big top and for ticket sales. Early shows offered musical concerts, but the concert came to be almost always a wild west show, often featuring a famous cowboy movie star.
Cookhouse, Cook Shack The place where personnel eat, not open to the public.
Cyr Wheel A device for performing wheel gymnastics (q.v.), the cyr wheel is a single hoop the artist can perform in, using his weight to throw the wheel into several types of spin. See also "German Wheel"
Day and Date When two circuses are in the same town simultaneously.
Dog and Pony Show A dismissive term for a very small circus. A large traveling circus might have 20 people working, a small "mud show" might be a family and a helper or two. They were often too small to support large animals, and their animal acts might amount to as little as a trained dog and pony. In common use, this is a metaphor for an event with big ballyhoo but little substance, a self-important but empty and insincere display: "Congressman Blowhard demanded a hearing on the dangers of carnival rides, so we had to testify in his dog and pony show."
Donkey Kick The bareback rider's flip from a standing position to the hands.
Donniker A rest room or toilet. Derived from 'dunnekin,' in common use among lower-class Britons in the 1700s meaning 'outhouse.' Probably derived from 'dung' and "-kin", a suffix referring to a small container or private room (many euphemisms for 'bathroom' refer to it as a 'closet' or 'the small room'). In Australian slang today, an outhouse is a "dunny".
Doors Call meaning the house is open to the public.
Downtown Wagon A circus wagon featuring a simple exhibit, parked prominently on a downtown street as advertising on circus day. Sometimes a ticket wagon would be located downtown to increase sales.
Dressage An act by horses trained in dancelike stylized movements; the animals' paces are guided by subtle movements of the rider's body.
Dressing the House To sell reserved-seat tickets in a pattern so that all sections appear at least moderately filled, with no obviously empty areas.
Ducat (somestimes 'ducket') Free ticket to the show, also knows as an 'Annie Oakley' (or 'comp,' a term shared with theater). Sometimes also used to refer to money.
Ducat Grabber Door tender or ticket collector.
Dukie (or Dukey) Bag Bag lunch provided for workers on the jump.
Dukie (or Dukey) Lunch The first circus cookhouse was jocularly nicknamed "The Hotel du Quai," after an elegant Parisian hotel across the street from the Louvre. When read by uneducated people it came out "Dukie" and the name stuck.
Dukie (or Dukey) Tickets Company scrip or vouchers distributed by management to staff and performers to use like money at the pie car and cook house. Giving these coupons instead of cash ensured that the workers ate and had personal things despite the temptation to blow it all on alcohol. You could buy food but not beer with the dukey tickets. Ringling still uses dukie tickets.
Dukie (or Dukey) Run Any circus run longer than an overnight haul.
(the) Educator Slang for Amusement Business, a weekly publication for the outdoor entertainment industry.
Equestrian Director The "stage manager" of the show, in formal riding wear (top hat, red jacket, etc.) who decided and signaled the pacing of the acts. His costume, functions and whistle were later adopted by the announcer.
Exotic Animal Act An animal act involving mixed species.
Fink Anything broken. Also 'larry.'
First of May A novice performer or worker in his first season. Shows usually play the season's opening spot on the first of May, so the term means someone "green" who is new to circus life.
Flag, or Flag's Up The cookhouse is open.
Flare A kerosene torch placed along the route from the railroad loading spur to the circus lot, to light the way during a night haul.
Flip-Flaps Backward handsprings done on the ground.
Flukum Refreshment butchers' term for no-brand grape or orange drink to be sold in the stands (usually from cheap powdered flavorings).
Fly Bar Aerialists' swing with a bar instead of a flat seat.
Flyers Aerialists in flying acts, which involve jumping through the air. The flyer's partner is the 'catcher.'
Flying Squadron The first trucks to reach the lot. (After the title of a novel about the War of 1812.)
Forty Milers Newcomers to circus or carnival life, who (metaphorically speaking) have never been farther than 40 miles away from their home, and might very well quit before they get any farther away than that.
Funambulist Rope walker, from the Latin: "funis" (rope) and "ambulare" (to walk.)
Funny Ropes Extra guy ropes added to regular ones, usually at angles, to give extra stability and spread to canvas tent.
G-Top A private club, generally under a tent, where staff drink or gamble.
Gaffer Circus manager.
Gag A short clown trick, too brief to be an act.
Gallery General seating area (the cheap seats), consisting of backless bleachers in the old days.
Gandy Dancers Originally referred to a railroad crew pounding spikes in a coordinated pattern of motions, each of several men striking the stake head with sledgehammers in sequence. The raising of the circus big top also requires the driving of many spikes, and (until the invention of mechanical stake drivers) the job was pretty much the same, so the term followed the work.
Garbage Joint The souvenir or novelty stand.
Gaucho Someone working in the circus who was not born into circus life. Probably a corruption of the gypsy word "gadjo" (sometimes "gadje"), meaning a non-Gypsy.
German Wheel Invented in Germany in 1925 as a gymnastic prop, the "german wheel" is a pair of 8-foot aluminum hoops joined by 8 struts. The gymnast can grip the struts in various ways, using his weight to throw the wheel into several types of spin. Also called the "gym wheel." The lesser-known "cyr wheel" is a single hoop used the same way.
Geronimo A "death dive" act, jumping from a great height onto a big air bag (as movie stunt men do today) or a "sponge plunge" into an impossibly small amount of water.
Gilly Anyone not connected with the circus, an outsider or towner.
Gilly Outfit, Gilly Show Small circus, usually on the rural circuit,transported by two cars on a commercial train. A show booking as little as 25 passenger tickets could get a free baggage car from the railroad line. These shows could sometimes rent a lot near the railyard from the rail line. They would hire local help to transport the show from railyard to lot, or use their own skeletal "gilly wagon" which could be adapted to carry their cargo to the lot.
Gilly Wagon Small utility wagon or cart.
Giraffe A unicycle with seat and pedals atop a long pole, putting the rider high above the ground.
Graft A piece of work, whether easy or hard.
Grafters Gamblers who often trail a show.
Grand Entry Old term for the opening parade around the inside of the big top, more often called the "spec" (for "spectacle") or "the Production Number".
Grandstand The seating area facing the center ring of a three-ring circus, flanked by the less favorable viewing area called the "stalls."
Grease Joint The hot-dog or grill concession trailer.
Grouch Bag A small bag or purse worn under the clothing, carrying the performer's valuables (which are likely to be stolen from an unattended dressing room).
(to) Guy Out To check and tension the guy wires.
Guy Wires Stabilizing ropes that give horizontal support to rigging. Most things in the air use guy wires: flying acts, cloud swing, high wire, single traps, double traps, cradle, pretty much anything with a crane bar uses them.
Hair Hang An aerial act in which the performer was suspended by her hair. More of an act was possible by this method than by the "iron jaw" method, because you can hang longer by your hair than by your teeth.
Hammock Act Act in which an aerialist is suspended by being entwined in one or two long cloths, alternately sliding down them, swinging from them, and wrapping them around the body suspended by friction. Applies particularly when there is no rope or loop hidden in the length of the cloths. Similar to the "strap act."
Harmonica Considered a bad-luck instrument.
Haul Route Directions from the rail yard to the lot or arena.
Heat Merchant An unscrupulous advance-sale phoneroom ticket sale agent.
Herald Advertisement printed in immense quantities on newsprint(usually 9"x20"), intended to be handed to individuals or left on car windshields, left at the front doors of houses, etc.
Hey Rube! Traditional battle cry of circus people in fights with townspeople. These days, more likely to be 'It's a clem!' or just 'fight!'.
High School Horse A horse who has been taught fancy steps ("high school" refers not to American academia, but to the style of dressage involving leaps and other elevated movements).
High Wire A tightly-stretched wire far above the floor, on which a wire walker performs.
Hippodrome Track The oval area between the rings and audience.
Hits Good places to paste posters, like the walls of grain elevators, barns, buildings, or fences.
Home Run The trip from Home Sweet Home back to winter quarters.
Home Sweet Home The last stand of the season, when bill posters sometimes pasted one pack of posters upside down.
Horse Feed Poor returns from poor business.
Horse Opry Any circus (jokingly).
House Theatre term for the audience seating area. As in 'a full house.'
Howdah From the Indian term, a seat on the back of an elephant or camel. Elephant and camel rides would be sold for an extra fee during "come in."
Icarian Act See 'Risley Act'.
Iron-Jaw Trick An aerial stunt using a metal bit and apparatus which fits into the performer's mouth, and from which he hangs suspended. Most of the time used as an opening number someone dressed as a butterfly was raised to the top of the arena, waved a round a bit then was lowered.
Jackpots Tall tales about one's exploits on the circus ('war stories'.)
Joey A clown (derived from Joseph Grimaldi, a famous clown in 18th-century England.) An amateur term not actually used on the lot.
John Robinson A signal to cut or shorten an act, or to give a very short show altogether. If you were headed out to the ring, someone would say "John Robinson" to call for an abbreviated performance, or in the middle of an act if the ringmaster made the announcement "Would John Robinson please come to the rear entrance," the performer should go right into his last trick. Rarely used, but valuable in case of emergency, storm warning, or sometimes just a very long haul to the next lot.
Jumbo The popular use of the word "jumbo" to mean anything large comes from the name of a famous large elephant first exhibited in London, then sold to P.T. Barnum in 1882. London zookeepers named the elephant, probably drawing on "jambo," the traditional Swahili word of greeting. The elephant's popularity drove the word "jumbo" into general use. After Jumbo's death, Barnum stuffed him and continued to exhibit him, then donated him to Tufts University. Although the remains of Jumbo were destroyed in a fire, Jumbo is still the official Tufts mascot.
Jump The distance between performances in different towns.
Jump Stand An additional ticket booth near the front door used to sell extra tickets during a rush by spectators.
Keister Sometimes used to refer to a circus wardrobe trunk, or any luggage.
Kick Out A date or ticket-selling campaign that falls through.
Kicking Sawdust Following the circus or being a part of it. Also 'on the sawdust trail.'
Kid Pusher Employee, usually on a mud show, assigned to the job of recruiting and directing local youths in setting up the tops in return for free passes.
Kid Show A sideshow.
Kiester A wardrobe trunk, or a pitchman's display case. Or anyone's rear end, or jail. Such as "he had a beef with the fuzz and landed in the kiester.".
King Pole The main support pole or mast for the tent, sometimes one, two or four in number. A king pole sticks out through a hole in the canvas and the canvas is pulled up around it with ropes. Very old canvas tents were rather fragile and had one king pole in the center with four or even eight queen poles around it. Queen poles also passed through holes and had pull up ropes, but were around the edges of the tent. Quarter poles were between the walls at the same distance from the king pole as the queen poles.
Kinker Any circus performer (originally specific to acrobats).
Knockabout Act Comedy act involving physical humor and exaggerated mock violence.
L.Q. Living Quarters whether it is a show-owned bunk house, a railroad sleeping car, a crude rack in an 18-wheeler, or a private trailer.
Lacing The system of eyelets and rope loops that holds together the panels of a tent's walls.
Larry "Something's wrong with it." Might describe damaged merchandise, or something worn out beyond any usefulness, or even a person who's a loser (however affable) - "He's just a larry."
Layout Man, Lot Man The lot superintendent who decides the location of the various tents.
Lead Stock Any trained haltered animal (other than horses) in the circus.
Liberty Act Liberty horses are trained horses performing without riders or tethers, controlled only by commands from the trainer.
Lift The natural bounce with which a bareback rider jumps from the ground to the back of a running horse.
Little People Midgets or dwarfs.
Long Haul Town A spot where the lot was a long way from the railroad loading spur.
Long Mount When several elephants stand in line, each on hind legs, placing his front legs on the back of the elephant in front of him.
Lot The show grounds.
Lot Lice Local townspeople who arrive early to watch the unloading of the circus and stay late. Maybe they leave money behind, but they sure get in the way.
Lunge Line A long tether allowing horses to run and do stunts around the periphery of the ring while the trainer stands in the center holding the line.
Main Guy Guy rope to hold up the center pole in the Big Top.
The March The street parade.
Marquee The small entrance tent on most tented circuses.
Mechanic Safety harness used in practice sessions by flyers, trampoline, bareback riders, high wire, perch acts, and tumblers. The practicing performer wears a harness attached to a rope that hangs above the middle of the ring. Called a 'lunge' when the rope is fixed to the center of the ring and keeps the performer from falling outward.
Midway In its broadest sense, the area where all the concessions, rides and shows are located in a circus. Of course, a carnival is basically nothing but a midway without a circus, but in a circus the midway is situated "midway" between the 'front door' to the circus lot and the 'big top' where the circus performers do their acts. At a fair, the midway will probably be a combination of the carnival and the 'independent midway,' amusements booked in separately by the fair committee itself.
Mud Shoe Metal fitting that helps slide center poles up when raising the big top.
Mud Show A smaller tent circus playing rural areas.
Mule A rubber-tired tractor used to move wagons.
Night Riders Bill posters for competing circuses, who posted paper for their employers in a gentlemanly fashion by day, and tore down or covered up the bills for their competition by night.
Novelties Toys, canes, balloons and other wares sold on the lot or by butchers in the stands.
On the Show Describes performers and all others connected to the circus. The term "with it" is specific to the carnival world, not the circus.
Opposition Paper Advertising posters put up by competing circuses.
Pad Room Room near the animals for pads, harness and tack for elephants and horses. Not really a dressing room, though most of the animal people hang there and might put their spec wardrobe there.
Paid Off in the Dark When salary is paid in cash, "off the books."
Paper Posters, handbills or advertisements for a carnival. Paper used to be mostly in the form of posters of various sizes pasted on walls, or handbills distributed door-to-door. Now, with laws against posting on the public right-of-way, and with flier distribution often considered "littering," paper mostly consists of coupons distributed in stores. Since local charities often 'sponsor' the circus or carnival, posters put up by the charity are often officially overlooked by law enforcement. Beginning in the 1950s, there was a union for bill crews: the International Alliance of Billers, Billposters and Distributors. When a show played towns with a Billposters' local, union-member crews were required, and the paper would be rubber-stamped with a small "union bug" (union logo) indicating that the posters were put up by union members. This practice was often ignored in towns where there was no Billposters' local or where there was not a strong pro-union sentiment.
Papering the House Giving away free tickets to fill up the audience, to give the impression that the public is anxious to see your show. Often done when the press is in attendance. (Also used in the theater.)
Pedestal The platform that fliers perch on while waiting to catch the swing (the "fly bar").
Perch Act A balancing act involving use of apparatus upon which one person performs while being balanced by another.
Performance Director The person in charge of the overall look of the show and all artists, very much like a theatrical director.
Performer's Trick Something the performer does with great pride but which only other performers would appreciate, like a magician who learns sleights so skillful they awe other magicians but seem to the public no different than what their Uncle Bill can do.
Picture Gallery A tattooed man.
Pie-Car The railroad dining car. After the shows stopped traveling by rail, someone opened a pie car on every show; it opened after the cookhouse closed. It was probably the first convenience store you could buy beer, cigarettes, sodas, chips, sandwiches but not full meals, and stuff like socks, razors, cards. If it was a little show you would get soda, coffee, tube steak (a hot dog) and that's about it.
Pie Car Jr. On the modern Ringling show, a trailer or wagon that provides meals on the back lot of the arena. What movie companies call "craft services" and rock concerts call "catering."
Pitchmen Generally, a person making a pitch (sales talk) to sell something, often on the city streets, or in a carnival show or on the midway, but likely over the loudspeaker during a break in the show. Balloons, peanuts, souvenirs, toys, and more might be pitched. "While we are setting up for the next act, for the next two minutes Bob our balloon man will be selling balloons right down here in center ring for only a dollar. This will be the only time that this offer will be good! On the bottom of some of the balloons you will find a gold dot. When you find that gold dot, make sure you take that right out to our toy store and get your free prize. So hurry down and see Bob; you have only one minute left!" The people who sold the stuff would tip the pitch man, because the better the pitch the more you sold.
Pole Direction The direction the wagons face on the railroad cars. For efficient unloading, they all need to be positioned uniformly.
Possum Belly Storage box built into the underside of a work wagon to carry cable, stakes, rigging, etc. At times a place for a quick nap by a worker, or the temporary home of an unauthorized "traveling girlfriend" (a "possum belly queen"). Why do these girls leave the crowd of locals in their hometowns? For the most part, the key word is "leave." A few nights of sex with a carny (who's probably no worse than the local high-school dropouts who've been trying to get her) might be her ticket out of wherever she grew up.
Privilege The fee paid to the circus for the right to place a concession on the midway. Early day circus owners sold privileges for almost everything on the lot except the performance itself. (And, they did sell the concert or aftershow as a privilege). Side shows, concert, concessions, pie car (both food and games), games, ticket sales, or any other project that could extract more money from the pockets of the townspeople was sold by owners to the individuals who worked that racket. When early shows quit putting up their employees at local hotels, they sold the 'hotel' privilege to individuals to operate. Show owners allowed them a flat amount per person per day for feeding the help. Some old timers used to claim that they ate better under this system than they did after shows took over operation of their cook houses.
Prop Hand Crew member responsible for setting and placing props for the next act.
Quarter Poles Poles which help support the weight of the canvas and take up the slack between center and side poles. A quarter pole does not pass through the canvas but usually has a mushroom shaped cap with two small holes. Ropes are sewn to the canvas each side of a leather pad and they pass throgh the holes to pull up the pole and secure it.
(the) Rag The immense spread of canvas that is the big top.
(to) Rag Out To tighten the tent ropes.
Rag Tag, Rag Bag, Stick & Rag Show A small circus, never elegant to begin with, ill-kept and barely presentable from day to day.
Rat Sheets Advance posters or handbills with negative claims about the opposition.
Razorbacks The men who load and unload railroad cars.
Red Lighted A method of getting rid of you: the owner departs without paying while you're not looking (all you see when trying to pick up your check is red lights disappearing down the road); or tells you to meet the circus somewhere, but the circus goes somewhere else; some sources even use this word to mean that an unpopular person is thrown from the back of a moving vehicle. Also "Oil Spotted," the moment when there's just you and the oily stains where the bus used to be.
Red Wagon The main office wagon.
Reserved Seat Squeeze Many circuses sold "reserved seats" from booths past which the entering crowd would have to squeeze. The implication was that for an extra fee, you would be able to sit in the seats closest to the ring, while everyone else would have seats much farther away from the action. A few minutes into the show, any remaining reserved seats would be offered again to the crowd in case general-admission ticketholders developed an urge to sit closer.
Rigger Worker specializing in assembling and managing the rigging.
Rigging The apparatus used in high wire or aerial acts.
Ring The circle in which circus acts are presented. Center ring was about 42 feet, it was also bigger and heavier made because that is where most of the animal acts worked. It was made strong enough that the horses could walk on it. The side or end rings were about 36 feet and not made as heavy.
Ring Banks or Curbs The wooden curbing around the ring.
Ring Barn A permanent, roofed regulation-sized circus ring for rehearsal at winter quarters.
Ring Doors The canvas panels artists push aside as they enter the performance area of the big top. Behind the ring doors is a small vestibule artists can stand in inside the "back door" but out of sight of the audience.
Ring Horse A horse which performs in the center ring, trained to maintain timing despite distractions.
Ring Stock Animals which perform in the show, like horses, llamas and camels.
Ringmaster The show's Master of Ceremonies and main announcer. Originally, he stood in the center of the ring and paced the horses for the riding acts, keeping the horses running smoothly while performers did their tricks on the horses' backs.
Risley Act Acrobatic act in which one or more performers support another performer on their feet. Called "Icarian Games" by European circuses. When the manipulators support props instead of people, the act is called "foot juggling."
Rola Bola A board placed flat on top of a cylindrical roller. A performer stands on the board and balances while performing various feats.
Roll-Ups Tame American aerial planges.
Roman Riding A rider standing with one foot on the back of each of two horses.
Roper A cowboy.
Rosin Powdered dried plant gum used to prevent slipping.
Rosinback Horse used for bareback riding. Horses' backs were sprinkled with rosin to prevent the rider from slipping.
Roustabout A circus workman, laborer.
Route The annual itinerary, the schedule of towns to be played.
Route Book Like the "captain's log" of a ship, the route book contains notes about each stand: where, when, conditions, attendance, anything noteworthy about the performance or anything else that happened.
Route Card A bare-bones schedule published for wide distribution, listing the season's stands by date. Circus route cards are valuable information for performers and valuable souvenirs for collectors.
Rubbermen Strolling balloon vendors. Balloons were blown up with air and attached to sticks, since helium-filled balloons are expensive and unsold ones don't last long.
Runs Ramps to load and unload wagons at the railroad cars.
Safety Loop The loop part of a web rope into which a performer places her wrist in aerial ballet numbers.
School Show A show promoted for classroom field trips to the circus. Certainly qualifies as a valid educational experience because of the iconic place the circus holds in American culture.
Screamers Standard circus march tunes, so called because they are usually played with great vigor.
(to) See the Elephant The circus origin of this phrase is obvious. It passed into general popular usage about 1835 meaning "to have seen everything there is to see in the world," and shortly thereafter it took on the added meaning "to lose your innocence and learn a humbling or embarrassing lesson." Among the military it has come to mean "to experience combat for the first time." Even Tolkien's Lord of the Rings makes a sly reference to it, as Sam Gamgee, out in the wide world among amazing things, remarks on finally having "seen an oliphaunt."
Seventeen Wagon The wagon where paychecks are distributed.
Shanty or Chandelier The man who works the lights.
Showman's Rest Several sites share this name. A section of Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Oklahoma, is the final resting place of many circus and carnival veterans. There is a similar section of the Woodlawn Cemetery in Chicago, overseen by the Showmen's League of America, created when 86 performers and workers of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were killed in a 1918 train wreck. 56 of the victims are buried there. Many of them remained unidentified because they were known only by their "handles."
Showmen's League of America Founded in 1913 by a group of outdoor showmen meeting at the Saratoga Hotel in Chicago, the League promotes the image of the circus and carnival and performs charitable work. Buffalo Bill Cody was the club's first president. Here's a link to their website.
Side Poles Short poles at the outer edge of the top canvas.
Sidewall The canvas wall that hangs below a canvas 'top,' as in 'big top.' What most outside the business would call a 'tent' is the canvas top with its sidewalls attached. Compare British term 'lacings.' Used as a verb, to sidewall is to sneak in without paying by crawling under the sidewall.
Sixteen Wagon The show office wagon.
Sky Boards The decorative boards, sometimes detachable, around the tops of wagons used in parades.
Slack Wire A wirewalker's wire that is set up slightly slack, creating a much less firm footing than a tight wire.
Slanger Trainer of cats. Compare British usage.
Sledge Gang Crew of men who pounded in tent stakes.
Slide For Life Usually performed by a woman, who would climb to the top of the building, hook a hand loop or a foot loop to a cable connected to the top beam and the floor, and slide down the cable. An acrobat named Herbie Webber would do such a slide standing on the cable, even sliding down backwards, adding a fake fall during his wire act; later, taking a fake fall became known as "Taking a Herbie."
Slop Shoes Wooden clogs with leather uppers, easy to slip on and off hands-free. Worn by performers over their performing footwear, to keep costumes clean while walking to and from the big top.
Snubber A pulley and cable on the side of a railroad flatcar, used to slow a wagon coming down the runs (ramps) to the ground.
Soft Lot A wet or muddy lot.
Spanish Web A long fabric-covered rope suspended vertically from far above, which may be used to climb to an aerialist's apparatus, or on which an aerialist might perform.
Spec Short for "spectacle", also called the "grand entry" or "production number". A flashy parade around the inside of the big top. It is generally presented first, or just before intermission. Appearing in the spec would be all the artists in full regalia, plus fancy wagons and displays and even giant character costumes.
Spec Girls Showgirls who appear in the spec.
Splash Boards Decorated boards, sometimes detachable, around the bottom edge of wagons used in parades.
Spool Truck, Spool Wagon Truck which carries the tent canvas.
Spreading the Rag Laying out the canvas of the big top preparatory to raising it.
Stake Bites The ankle wounds inflicted by the heads of metal stakes that you walk into while crossing the lot in the dark. The worst ones are inflicted by stakes with the heads split and cracked and flattened to razor-sharpness by mallets.
Stalls The medium cost seats in the auditorium. A less-favorable viewing position to the left and the right of the grandstand.
Stand Any town where the circus plays, as in 'one-night stand.' Didn't know you were using show talk whilst discussing last night's date, did you?
Star Backs More expensive seats (usually indicated by painted stars on the seat backs).
"Stars and Stripes Forever" Also known as "the disaster march", the band reserved this Sousa march as a signal that an emergency had come up, calling for the clowns to come running out, directing public attention away from the emergency, or for the audience to be evacuated.
St. Louis Doubles or seconds of food, named because the St. Louis engagement was played in two sections.
Strap Act A variation of the "Spanish Web" popularized in Cirque du Soleil, the strap act features acrobatics performed with the use of "aerial straps," long straps hanging from the top of the tent, reaching almost to the floor. The act often includes dance moves on the floor away from the straps, as well as having the straps pulled partway up and let down during the act.
Straw House A sold-out house. Straw was spread on ground for spectators to sit on in front of the general admission seats.
Stringers or Blues The general-admission seats.
Style To strike a pose that invites applause. At the end of a circus act, the artist may very well be in a position (like standing on a tiny platform grasping a wire) that does not lend itself to bowing, and when surrounded by the audience if you bow you'll be showing your rear end to a large part of the crowd. So you "style and smile".
Sucker Netting Rough fencing, akin to the cheap, light orange plastic fencing used today on construction sites. The fencing kept the crowd inside the midway and out of the backyard.
Suitcase Act A performer who has no costumes or equipment of his own (and so shows up with just a suitcase).
Swag Midway game prizes, or souvenirs and toys bought from vendors.
Sway Pole An act in which the performer perches atop an extremely tall pole, then sways and rocks the pole giddily from side to side. Often played for laughs, it is very dangerous to perform.
Synopsis Sheets The advance men supplied the office with a summary of each town's important data: the names of their contacts (officials, feed suppliers, sponsors), any special requirements or potential problems.
Tableau Wagons Ornamental parade wagons on which colorfully-dressed performers ride.
Tack Spitter Banner man or bill poster.
Tail Up Command to an elephant to follow in line.
Tanbark Shredded tree bark, more durable and manageable than sawdust, used to cover the greater circus arena ground.
Taps List of the businesses that have bought groups of tickets previously (perhaps you can 'tap' them again this year.)
Teeterboard A board like a playground teeter-totter, usually about six feet long, used in an acrobatic act. The performer stands on the lowered end of the board and his partners jump onto the upper end, vaulting him into the air.
Tentmaster Modern term for the "Boss Canvasman".
Title The name under which a circus presents itself, regardless of the name of the actual owner of the show. For instance, there are no more Ringlings, Barnums or Baileys in Kenneth Feld's operation.
Toby News Circus-lot gossip, from the european/gypsy "tober" (campsite).
Top Tent (technically refers only to the overhead canopy, the sidewalls being a separate item.) For example, dressing tops are where the performers dress for show.
Train Master Employee responsible for every aspect of the train, whether moving or at rest.
Trouper A person who has spent at least one full season with the circus, and whose response to the demands of life and work on the road are those of a seasoned veteran. Also used in vaudeville (and in theatre in general) to mean a veteran performer.
Trunk Up Command to an elephant to raise his trunk in a salute.
Turn Any act in the show; you "do your turn."
Turnaway A sold-out show.
Twenty-four-hour Man See "24-Hour Man"
Wait Brothers Show Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey Show. So called because the posters read, "Wait for the Big Show."
Walls or Sidewalls Canvas side walls of a tent, as distinguished from the roof or 'top.'
Walkaround A clown feature in which clowns stroll through the crowd and perform comic bits interacting with audience members.
Water Wagon The water wagon circulated around the lot dispensing water for numerous uses: filling water buckets for performers to wash in, watering the animals, spraying the ground to keep the dust down, filling the drinking-water barrels placed around the lot (they had blocks of ice in them and a tin cup on a chain), and hosing down the elephants.
Web Dangling canvas-covered rope suspended from swivels from the top of the tent.
Web Girl Female who performs on the "Spanish Web."
Web Sitter Ground man who holds or controls the web for aerialists.
Western Arts Performing skills suitable for wild-west shows: trick rope spinning, knife throwing, whip tricks, tomahawk/hatchet throwing, sharp shooting, pistol quick draw and spinning, etc.
Wheel Gymnastics Performances using either the double-rimmed German Wheel or the single Cyr Wheel, in which the gymnast grips the struts in various ways, using his weight to throw the wheel into several types of spin.
(to) Wildcat To change the announced route on short notice due to problems on the planned route, abandoning the benefit of already-placed advance advertising and possibly conflicting with the usual territories played by competing shows. Major droughts or layoffs might mean that nobody would have the price of a ticket, or a veterinary epidemic might make it inadvisable to take valuable livestock into an area.
Windjammer A member of a circus band.
Windy Van Hooten's Name of the mythical "perfect circus" imagined by performers and crew, where everything is wonderful and everyone gets the pay, respect and working conditions they deserve, plus some.
Winter Quarters Location where a show stays during its off season.
Wood Phony ticket sales slips submitted by boiler-room agents to inflate their commissions just before they leave.
Worker: The big rubber balloon, animal or airship the concession man holds high in the air as he sells the item. Already packaged in an envelope, the uninflated balloon is always sold as the patron leaves the circus or fair grounds. Some say that the balloon will break before it can be inflated to more than half the size of the 'worker', but as a former balloon entertainer I know that inflating large balloons without breaking them requires skill and careful handling.
or Zanni Clowns.
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