Jan. 7th, 2011

beboots: (Elizabeth portrait)
 A little while ago, I saw on the Twitter feed someone commenting on the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and I gleed at the reference. :)

For those of you who don't know, these past two years I've worked at Fort Edmonton Park. This past summer I worked as a costumed historical interpreter at the 1846 Fur Trade Era Hudson's Bay Company Fort. But my first job on site was a Game & Ride Attendant at the 1920s Midway. Now, even though our focus was on, well, attending the games and rides, we all did a lot of extra research so we could get some historical interpreting in as well. 

I could natter on for like half an hour about the hand-carved carousel, and I made several blog posts a while back on the subject: Part One (Romance Sides & Money Sides, the Lead Horse, etc.), Part Two (The RCMP horse, Draws-Much-Blood, etc.), and Part Three (Low-Down-Trick, Gus, and others). 

Anyway, when I read the brief tweet about the Chicago World's Fair, I suddenly started tweeting a whole bunch of stuff about the fair and midways in general. Also, freak shows. I thought I'd do a quick recap and linkspam here. :3 

The Ferris Wheel at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 was epic. I don't use that term lightly. The tiny little Ferris Wheel we have at Fort Ed is, well, minuscule in comparison. See this post for a photograph. I found an article with an excellent account of the Ferris Wheel of 1893 here. In short... it was made with the intention of one-upping Paris' Eiffel Tower, which they had created for their Exposition of 1889. The World's Fair in Chicago was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of the Americas, and was really meant to show the world how awesome the New World was. The axle of the Ferris Wheel was the single largest piece of forged steel at the time. The chairs were more like gondolas, and were the size of streetcars. They were late completing it, and so opened the ride up halfway through the fair... and they didn't test it ahead of time. It could have ended in disaster, but there were no accidents! It was a huge success! Unfortunately, the Wheel itself no longer exists. It cost too much to keep running, and was torn to pieces and sold for scrap later on after the fair was over. 

On a related note, almost everyone on the Midway in my year watched the 1932 movie "Freaks", which employed actual members of a freak show as actors and actresses. You don't really get that today, what with all of the political correctness. (Although, as many have argued, including the so-called freaks, shutting down these freak shows in the 1960s and 1970s didn't help the freak show members at all. What was the Human Torso or the Lobster Boy or whomever going to do, sell newspapers on the street? They made good money this way, for all that they were putting themselves up on display.)

Anyway, as I tweeted, Johnny Eck the Half Boy was my midway hero. Here is a short bio (plus photographs, including one of him doing his famous one armed handstand). He was an amazing guy. He was born without legs, but never let that get him down. (When asked in an interview once about whether or not he regretted having legs, he expressed relief at not having to iron trousers all of the time.) He actually had a "normal" twin brother, and together they were brilliant at doing that classic "man sawed in half" magician's trick. The "normal" twin would go into the box and be switched with Johnny Eck and a midget, to be sawed in half. Through creative use of clothing, Johnny Eck would then get up, sitting on top of the midget's shoulders, and they would begin to walk down towards the audience as if nothing was wrong and that they had been put back together... only for Eck to slide off the midget's shoulders and be chased around the stage by his supposed lower half. Women in the audience fainted, I'm told. ;) 

Here is a clip from "Freaks" in which you can see him climb a stairway. He is totally suave and charming. :) Here are a bunch of clips of him doing awesome things, like working out. Note his gloved hands: he had hard leather gloves made, which he used like shoes to protect his hands from getting too calloused. 

As for another guy who didn't let life's troubles get him down... See Prince Randian Lighting a Cigarette in this clip from "Freaks". 

If you're interested in the subject of historical midways, definitely check out this book, "American Sideshow". 

Also, this brilliant online archive, The Human Marvels

On a slightly different note, one of the other important life skills that I learned while pretending to be a 1920s Carnie was the ability to gaff (AKA "fix") midway games. I can name at least six different ways off the top of my head to rig that milk bottle toss game in such a way as to make it impossible for you to win, all without magnets. It keeps me from enjoying going to actual, RL midways anymore, because when I did I totally noticed the carnies gaffing their games there too, despite its illegality. Well, some of the stuff isn't so much illegal as... not nice. But then again, if every single person walked away with a giant stuffed animal, then they wouldn't make much money, would they? 

Anyway, if anybody wants to know more on the subject of Ferris Wheels, freak shows, carousels, and especially gaffed games, don't be afraid to ask! ;) 


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