I became eager to meet this great artist and since he worked and lived in Chicago, I made it my goal to visit him at his studio on my next visit home.
During the following summer I was hired to repaint the side show images on the side of a semi-truck for a small circus. When my car engine blew up near Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I was forced to end my season early, so I made my way to Chicago to visit Mr. Johnson at the O. Henry Tent and Awning Company.
From that initial meeting I became completely drawn into a desire to paint banners or at least surround myself with the world they advertised.
Except for a classified ad nervously placed in the trade journal Amusement Business in 1973 offering my services as a banner painter, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that I started painting banners for magician Andy Dallas and his death defying escapes. During the interim I continued my field of self employment in the outdoor entertainment business painting rides, fun houses and show fronts advertising an array of attractions from gorilla show illusions to “giant killer orangutan.”
Though I occasionally painted lettered banners for a billboard company and experimented with the banner format in my own art work, I avoided working with any formal clients desiring them for side show attractions. Until I became confident enough with the materials and techniques involved in banner painting I was wary of accepting offers.
[Banners are painted to order on canvas blanks which are hemmed and cornered with reinforced material and metal D-rings or grommets. Sizes vary and can be 3 X 4 ft. or smaller and 8 X 10 ft. or larger.]
Information gleaned from Fred G. Johnson gave me practical knowledge about materials, but only hands-on experience through trial and error would give me the confidence to proceed. Johnny Meah gave me encouragement in the early 1980s at Ward Hall’s winter quarters in Gibsonton, Florida.
I was show painter for Canada’s largest carnival, Conklin Shows, and was shopping around for freelance painting jobs at the Florida State Fair in Tampa. During the same season I paid a visit to another winter quarters site to spend time with my original mentor, Duke Ash. Duke had impressed me with his show painting prowess on the Century 21 Show lot in Des Moines, Iowa in 1970. With his handlebar mustache and crisp white jumpsuit, he struck the perfect pose, not to mention his then current task, painting the “Black Lace Review,” one of the last big, tent burlesque shows on the circuit. At 20 years old, I was easily impressed by his relaxed banter and familiarity with the dancers and show talkers.
During my 1982 visit to Florida, I showed him my book of show fronts and got a pretty enthusiastic response. I became determined to strike out and try my hand at banner painting.
Throughout the 1980s I did a series of banners promoting Andy Dallas’ escapes and illusions—including “The Spirit Chamber,” “Aqua Body Bag Escape,” “Triple Death Trap,” and “Water Torture Escape.”
Later in 1993 I was contacted by the Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago to design and paint eight 10 X 5 foot show banners for their newest exhibition, “Life Over Time.” Painted in the traditional banner style, these paintings were themed to reflect the nature of scientific mysteries and the origins of the modern museum.
During the years that followed, through advertisements and word of mouth, I have continued to paint banners for side show venues, circuses, magicians and collectors. Although there is not the volume of work that was once common, the occasional banner job does surface. Recent assignments include “Atomic Chickens from Chernobyl,” and “Lucky the 5-Legged Bull.”
The works represented here, include themes and images from banners past and present. Some were borrowed from previous commissions others simply pay tribute to the great side show genre. Together they reveal another world, where science meets the supernatural and feats of human daring and strength transcend everyday struggles of show life to become icons of the unusual. The Museum of Mystery is open. Come inside and enjoy…
Glen C. Davies