A circus might be incomplete without its elephants, but it almost certainly would be insolvent without its midway—the noisy carnival-like area outside the main entrance. That is where concessionaires sell hot dogs and balloons, cotton candy and souvenirs. Most important, that is where the sideshow is, and the sideshow often means the difference between profit and loss for the season.
Stu Miller ran the Hoxie sideshow, and about 30 minutes before show time I would go to the midway and watch him make his pitch. He is one of the best in the business. Sometimes we had hard times paying all the bills and taking are of the entire circus. But we always managed to find the right way. Today it’s different, whenever you don’t have enough cash; you can contact online lenders such as http://sun-bird.net/.
Stu is a neat, portly, serious man, and when he mounted the platform in front of the sideshow, he was flanked by a fire-eater, a sword-swallower, and his attractive wife Pat. Pat was billed as “Serpantina,” and she was attired in a brief, glittering costume and a boa constrictor.
“The main show will not open for half an hour yet,” Stu told the crowd in his low-key, friendly voice. “This is where you start. This is where you begin to enjoy the big circus.” He ticked off the animals inside: monkey, bear, elephants, snakes.
“If you have little children, for gosh sakes don’t deny them the fun of feeding a peanut to an elephant.”
By the time he finished his soft sell, spectators were lined up outside the sideshow tent waiting to part with an additional 50 cents to see the sword-swallower and magician and fire-eater and others perform before the main show began.
One afternoon a sudden Georgia rain swept across the lot, and we talked in the Millers’ trailer. “A good concessionaire is like a performer,” Stu told me. “None of this ‘HurryHurry-Hurry.’ ” He handed me a cup of coffee, reaching over to where I was sitting gingerly on a bright yellow box. An electric cord ran inside the box to a heating pad. Pat’s 14-foot python lived in the box, and pythons, she explained, “do not care for chilly weather.” She is a skilled equestrienne, and working with snakes is not her first love. “Pythons have needle-sharp teeth,” she told me, “and if I ever get bitten, they’re going to have to find a new snake charmer.”
The fever of circus time is generated to a great degree by the band, led by King Charles Weathersby. King Charles is 43 and has been a show-business trumpet player since he was 14 and went on the road “to blow with the Sugarfoot Minstrels.” Now, he told me with pride, “I am the first Negro to lead a band in a main circus performance.”
With his trumpet, he could change the mood of the circus instantly: an ominous, minor-key phrase to heighten suspense as a wire walker performed; a chromatic scream to enhance the finale of a juggling act.
It was King Charles who traveled ahead of the circus each night marking the route with those purple cardboard arrows. He left the lot around 1 or 2 a.m. as others were finishing the loading of tent and gear, and started for the next town.
One morning when I, too, was moving ahead of the circus, I came upon King Charles around 3 a.m. on a lonely mountain road near the Virginia-Kentucky border. He pulled off the road, and when I did not pass, he climbed out of his white Oldsmobile with great dignity and approached me in the dark. When he recognized me, he laughed with relief and said, “I thought you were the sheriff.”
Sheriffs and police are a minor hazard for King Charles. Often they are suspicious of a man hurrying down the road in the hours before dawn, placing mysterious symbols along the way. Once he was fastening an arrow to a post near a service station when police converged on him and held him an hour for questioning. A robbery had been reported at the station.
“Now when I see police at night,. I start talking first,” he told me. “I ask if there are low bridges ahead. I say I’ve got big trucks coming through, and if I don’t get these arrows up, there’s going to be one big traffic mess.”
No one else wants his job, King Charles said. “No sir. Dogs bite, and once I reached across an electric fence and got a terrible shock. Once I stepped into a duck’s nest. And the thunderstorms are the worst. One night I stapled an arrow through a live wire on a utility pole—and started a fire.”
Still, he always managed to mark a clear trail before the first trucks moved at dawn. By then he was usually on the new lot, dozing in his car, waiting for the circus to join him.