Jul 28, 2022

Carnival Barkers

Two of our esteemed MPHS alumni and one spouse have served as carnival brokers. Taffy Cannon, our author friend, tell us about your experience. And you and I now have in common our birthdays and our carnival barker experience. I don't suppose you have a carnival barker photo you would like to share.

Taffy Cannon MPHS 66 Wrote:

Craig asked about my experiences as a carnival barker, and requested photos.

I have no pictures of myself from that particular experience, so I am substituting a photo of my souvenirs of the job, from our Half-Eaten Food Collection. Each of them set me back about an hour's pay.


I was a carnival jewelry salesgirl on the Midway of the State Fair of Texas for two weeks in the early 70s. We were newly married, Bill was starting law school at SMU, and I was discovering that writers were not anointed at birth, but were simply people who wanted to write and then did so.

I was fascinated by the culture we had landed in. After five years at Duke in North Carolina, we were comfortable enough in the South, but Texas was an entity all its ownself.

I had never been to a local, state, or county fair and the State Fair of Texas sounded like a very big deal, so I moseyed on out to the fairgrounds a day or two before it opened to check things out. Big, permanent Art Deco fairgrounds dated to the Texas Centennial of 1936, with the Cotton Bowl on one side. Quite impressive. Plus there was Big Tex, a fifty foot tall statue who welcomed fair goers all day long with a deep Texan "Howwwdy, foooooolksss!!!"

I met a kid walking around who asked if I'd like a job selling carnival jewelry. I was footloose and 24, so I said, Why not? He took me to meet the woman who managed the booth where I'd be working, in the heart of the Midway, on an island between Big Bertha the Fat Lady and the Freak Show.

The booth manager asked if I could make change and I responded, with all of the arrogance of 24, that I had a master's degree. "Yes," she said, "but can you make change?" I don't remember if I had to prove that on the spot but I was hired at $2 an hour, a princely wage in the carny world and one I insisted upon. (See master's degree, above.) I always insisted they pay me at the end of the day, which they don't like to do because carnies with coins in their jeans sometimes don't show up again. But they did pay me and I always came back.

Our specialty was "Your Name Engraved for Free" and let me tell you, everything you ever heard about getting what you pay for applied here. I was not entrusted with the engraving equipment, which I remember as akin to the thing you'd use to write your dog's name on a metal collar tag back in the fifties. I am pretty sure I could have handled the task, but I was always busy making change.

The noise was constant, mostly from the recorded spiels that ran nonstop for Big Bertha, the Freak Show, and other Midway performers. There were about ten acts in the Freak Show, and they each had their own spiel.

Different days, different times of day, different crowds. The blow-off from the Texas-Oklahoma game was quite different from Saturday night, for instance. Overall it was fun.

Your name engraved for free!


Taffy Cannon


Craig Hullinger wrote:
Taffy, I see on your website that you once worked as a carnival barker. Who knew?

So did I.  I was 19 and stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. The 1st Sgt came into the barracks and asked if any of us wanted to work at the carnival for the weekend?

Sure, we said, and off we went. We worked on a little stand where people would pitch coins at small plates perched on a stick. If their coin stayed on the plate they won a stuffed animal.  We called out and encouraged people to give it a try. "Step right up, hurry, hurry, win a beautiful stuffed animal for your sweetheart!"

It was pretty hard to do and most people lost their money and won nothing.

One guy, though, won a stuffed animal on his first try. He was estatic and gave the toy to his girl friend. First time he ever won anything, he said.  So he came out on top. 

But he could not stay away. He kept coming back hoping to win again. He never did win again and lost several times the money that the toy cost.

So an enjoyable short job.  We made a few bucks and had some fun. And since we were earning the munificent pay of about a $100 a month, the extra money came in handy.

      Craig Hullinger MPHS Jan 66 


My wife, Gina, was a carney in 1969 and ran several concessions with her husband, including the Break the Dish and Cork Gun booths. They spent the entire season on the road from "still dates' in the Spring, which I think were small local places that they used as an early tune up, before going on the circuit of State Fairs. They drove a powder blue '59 Cadillac convertible and kept a trunk full of pot which her husband used for legitimate health reasons (even if the pot was not legal) and a big bag of cash that was skimmed from the operation. As she tells it everyone skimmed back then, from the top to the bottom. It was expected. The trick was not to get too greedy. 

She tells lots of stories about how the carneys would all stick up for each other when the townies got rowdy or threatened one of the group. As a sweet young thing with legs all the way up to her butt, she attracted too much attention more than once. Most of the carneys referred to them as Joe and Mrs. Joe.

They did not go back for another season, although they talked about it. Joe was in a skydiving accident a few years before and had lived, but without a good piece of intestine that had burst as well as back issues. As a result he had serious dietary problems and pain that the pot helped. Being on the road was just too hard on him, and Gina was widowed at 24. Joe was 33.

To this day, Gina has the most astounding radar for people on the make. When we were taking the subway in Barcelona a few years ago we were standing face to face holding onto the stripper pole, when I felt someone brush up against my backside. I looked up as it dawned on me that we were in pickpocket territory and this might be what it felt like, but Gina was already staring the guy down over my shoulder and shaking her head "no". Before he had even gotten to me she had seen him working through the crowd studying people looking for a mark. And here I was thinking that a nice man thought I had an attractive butt. I was devastated to learn the truth about what happened to my butt that day, but at least I still had my wallet.

Joe and Gina lived in Old Town and had lots of stories about life there. Including building an outrigger canoe in the second floor hallway of an old apartment building they lived in. They had to remove the window at the end of the hallway and hire a cherry picker to get the canoe out. The picture made the Trib. My friend Tom Corbett (Brother Rice '65), who grew up across the street from me on Damen, lived in Old Town then and remembered the story when we recounted it to him. Small world.

Will Hepburn MPHS 66


For every generation I guess there are different and unique life experiences. Heck we even have one that went on to do bronco busting, now carnival barking from those least likely in my limited knowledge of them. I was reflecting back on those days and realized I missed much of those experiences, however I realized I did some barking of my own.

Unfortunately, I spent to many years of my youth working/owning the news stand at 111th and Western Ave. I do remember that from time to time I would grab some of Daily News and Chicago American and walk Western Ave when the light turned red and yelling “Get your news” or some such bright comment. However, I do remember two days in particular that I did that because of the breaking news and wanted to be part of it in my own way.

The first was after the devastating fire at Our Lady’s of Angles school. 90+ kids perished that take and the pictures were so vivid on the front page. And of course the shooting of JFK and later Lee Harvey Oswald made me get out there in the street and hawk my newspapers, big news.

I think a lot of people thought I belonged in a carnival at the time!!!!

Ron Veenstra MPHS


Ron, I had forgotten that you did that l. I had a Sunday morning gig selling papers for the northbound lane of Western at 95th.  No stand.  Just me and a pile of papers dropped off by the news agency.   Every stoplight cycle I would walk up between the lanes of cars selling a few papers each time, dollars folded just so between my fingers to make change quickly.

I reflect back on those days when I see current day panhandlers just standing by the stoplight and never moving.  I think, "don't they realize they would do a lot more business if they walked up to each car as it was stopped?"  I guess that is why they are panhandlers and we aren't.

Cousin Will Hepburn


This dialogue and some of the content of this blog come from a chat page of 1960's MPHS Alumni. If you would like to join to connect email craighullinger@gmail.com

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