You Can’t Tell Your Funambulists from Your Kinkers without Knowing Your Circus Lingo
Behind the scenes and on the back lot of any circus is another world, complete with its own language or lingo. The “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” defines lingo as “strange or incomprehensible language or speech; a foreign language; the special vocabulary of a particular field of interest.” Knowing something about circus lingo will help collectors in their search for circus memorabilia. What follows is a partial list of words used in circus lingo:
This real photo postcard shows an Advertising Car for Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows. The year is prior to 1919 when Ringling Bros. was combined with Barnum & Bailey. There were 22 men assigned to this car.
Advance Department (also Advance Car or Advertising Car): Groups of men who traveled ahead of the circus to advertise the show and to make arrangements for the show’s arrival. Advance Cars were brightly painted and were usually brought to town by freight trains weeks before the show. Advance men on these cars contracted for advertising, pasted multi-sheet posters on buildings and traded tickets to merchants in exchange for hanging posters hung in their windows. The advance car crew also distributed heralds and couriers telling all the wonders of the show to come. For more about heralds and couriers see my articles: Heralds Promote Circuses Coming to Town, Tear Down ‘Inferior’ Competition and ‘The Circus Is Coming!’ Circus Couriers Whet Communities’ Appetites. Smaller shows would have only a single Advance Car but would often call it Car No. 2 to make the show appear larger. Larger shows might have as many as four Advance Cars.
Aerialist: A man or woman who performs on a trapeze, Roman rings or other such equipment. An aerialist in a flying trapeze act is called a flyer. The flyer swings from one trapeze bar to the hands of a catcher or sometimes to another bar. The flyer traveling from bar to bar is the way the act was originally performed. The catcher was not added until several years after the original flying trapeze act was invented.
Alfalfa: Paper money.
All Out and Over: After the performance has ended. It’s the time when the crew can begin tearing down or getting ready for the next performance.
Ankus: The dull hook on a stick used by elephant trainers to guide the elephant. Also called a bull hook.
Annie Oakley: A free ticket. Also called a ducat. Free tickets often had holes punched in them so they would not be mistaken for paid tickets. The hole was a reminder of Wild West show star Annie Oakley and her ability to shoot a hole in a playing card.
These are two postings of arrows for Carson & Barnes Circus at a recent (May 2010) appearance in Florida. The first group of arrows indicates the trucks are approaching the circus lot.
The second set tells the drivers to turn here to enter the circus lot.
Arrow: An arrow printed on a paper sign that was posted by the twenty-four hour man to mark the route between towns.
Artist: A circus performer.
Back Door: The performers’ entrance to the big top or arena.
Back Yard: The area behind the big top or arena where wagons, props, animals and performers get ready for the performance. It’s the home of the circus performers and workers, not open to the general public.
A spare bale ring still mounted on a circus truck.
A bale ring on a big top center pole. A worker is preparing a U.S. flag to mount on top of one of the big top poles. Both of these photos were taken in the 1970s on the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus.
Bale Ring: A large metal ring that encircles each of the center poles of a large tent. Canvas is spread out and laced to the Bale Rings and is pulled to the top of the center poles using blocks-and-tackle.
Ringling Barnum poster advertising the large number of horses traveling with the show.
Baggage Stock: Horses used for hauling wagons from the train to the circus lot or from town to town. Baggage stock horses were also used to pull parade wagons. In the 1920s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had a poster that advertised “740 horses – 350 of them performing in 5 Big Circus Rings and an Enormous Elliptical Equine Arena.” This would indicate the show had 390 Baggage Stock and 350 performing horses. Horses that perform are called ring stock.
Ballyhoo: A free show given outside the sideshow to attract attention.
Banner: Canvas paintings outside the sideshow with illustrations of the attractions inside.
Bibles: Programs or souvenir magazines.
Big Bertha: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Also called The Big One.
Big Top: The main tent used for the circus performance.
Bill: An advertising poster. Bill can also be used as a verb. To bill is to place posters around town.
Blow Off: The end of the show. This term is also used as the end of a clown gag.
Blow Down: When tents are blown down by a storm.
Blues: General admission seats.
Boiler Room: Method of selling advance tickets using groups of telephone salesmen. Also called a phone room.
Bugs: Chameleons or lizards sold as novelties.
Bull: An elephant regardless of sex. Most circus elephants are female but are still called Bulls.
Bull Tub: Pedestal on which an elephant sits or stands.
Butcher: Vendor who sell refreshments or souvenirs in the stands before and/or during the show.
Calliope: A musical instrument consisting of a series of whistles powered by steam or compressed air and played like an organ. Those in the circus pronounce it cally-ope not kuh-lahy-uh-pee. The word comes from the Greek goddess of music and dance, Calliope (Kalliope).
Catcher: The member of the flying trapeze act who catches the flyer after he has released himself from the bar in a flying return act. (See also Aerialist above.)
Cats: Any trained animals of the cat family such as lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, etc.
Cherry Pie: Extra jobs done by circus personnel for extra pay. Betty Hutton used the term in one of the final scenes in the movie “The Greatest Show On Earth.”
Clem: A fight, usually with “towners,” the people who lived in the town where the show was playing.
Clown Alley: The area where clowns store their props and where they put on their costume and makeup.
Come In: The time after the doors are open to the public and before the show begins.
Concert: Also called the Aftershow (one word). A performance after the main show ended. The public was charged an additional fee to remain in their seats and watch the performance. In most circuses, this was a Wild West performance, often featuring a famous cowboy.
Cookhouse: The tents where meals are cooked and circus personnel eat.
Day and Date: A battle where two different circuses play the same town on the same day.
Dog and Pony Show: A term used for a very small circus, usually making fun of that show. However there were small shows that were proud of the term and named their circus using the expression. Norris Bros. Peerless Dog and Pony Show and Gentry’s Famous Dog and Pony Show are two examples. The phrase has even entered the American lexicon sometimes being used to refer to a congressional hearing.
Doors: A call which indicates the public is being let into the tent or arena.
Dressage: An act by horses trained in dancelike, stylized movements where the animals’ paces are guided by subtle movements of the rider’s body.
Ducat: Free ticket. (See Annie Oakley above)
Equestrian Director: He manages the pacing of the show to make sure the acts appear when they are scheduled.
First of May: A name given those who are in their first season with a circus.
Flyers: The aerialist who leaps from one trapeze to another or to the hands of a catcher. (See Aerialist above).
Flying Squadron: The first train to arrive at a new town. This refers to those large railroad shows that had more than one train. In its heyday, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had four trains.
Funambulist: Rope walker.
Gaffer: A circus manager.
Gag: A short clown trick.
Gallery: General admission seating.
Grease Joint: A concession trailer selling hot dogs and other fast food items.
Heralds: Circus advertisements measuring 9 x 20 inches and usually printed on both sides.
Hippodrome Track: The oval area between the audience and the performance area.
Home Run: Traveling from the last date of the season to winter quarters.
Home Sweet Home: The last date of the season.
Howdah: A seat on the back of an elephant or camel.
Human Oddities: Abnormal attractions in the Sideshow such as the giant or the midget family.
This photo of Charlotte Shive performing the Iron-Jaw act appeared in an article about the circus in the May 23, 1931 issue of “Colliers” magazine. The famous aerialist Lillian Leitzel called this a “tooth act.”
Iron-Jaw: An aerial act where the performer is suspended using the power of her jaw while biting down on an apparatus in the mouth. It is usually a strip of leather with a mouthpiece attached to it. To read more about the life of Charlotte Shive see my story entitled Fascinating Story behind Antique Sunburst Circus Wagon Wheel.
Jackpots: Telling stories about life in the circus. When circus people get together to talk about their time with the circus it is said they are cutting up jack pots or they are jackpotting.
Joey: A clown. The name comes from Joseph “Joey” Grimaldi an English clown from the 18th century.
John Robinson: To cut short an act or performance.
Jump: The distance between to two towns where the show is appearing.
Kid Show: The sideshow.
Kinker: A circus performer.
Liberty Act: Horses that perform without riders.
Little People: Midgets or dwarfs.
Long Mount: A line of elephants with each elephant placing the front legs on the back of the elephant in front.
Lot: The show grounds where the tents are erected.
Lot Lice: People from the local town who come to the circus lot to watch the activity of preparing for the show.
Mechanic: Safety harness used when practicing difficult or dangerous acts such as the flying trapeze, high wire, bareback riding, teeterboard, etc. Today, many acts use the mechanic during the actual performance.
Midway: The Midway is the area as you approach the main entrance to the show. It is lined with concessions, side shows.
Mud Show: A small circus that doesn’t travel on trains.
Opposition Paper: Advertising posters put up by competing circuses. The circus coming at a later date would often put up posters that say “Wait” or “Wait for the Big Show.”
Paper: Circus posters.
Pie-Car: The dining car of a railroad circus train.
Pie Car Jr.: Today’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey circus has a trailer called Pie Car Jr. located behind the area where circus performers and workers can grab a quick meal.
Quarter Poles: Poles placed between the center poles and the side poles to take up the slack in the canvas.
A large circus tent would have two sets of quarter poles-a smaller tent only one set.
Rat Sheets: Advance advertising, usually a handbill or herald with negative claims about opposition shows.
Rosinback: A horse used in a bareback riding act.
Roustabout: A workingman in a circus.
Route Book: Printed at the end of a season with a recap of major events, list of all those with the show, a list of all the towns where the show appeared and other pertinent information.
Route Card: A list showing the route the show would travel for a period of time. These were often printed on the back of a postcard so performers and workers could mail them to friends and relatives to let them know where they would be. At the end of the season many shows also printed a Route Sheet showing all the towns where the show appeared during the year.
Sixteen Wagon: The show office.
Spec: The term is short for spectacle: a production number featuring lots of animals, props and performers in colorful costumes. It usually has a theme. Today it is usually performed just before intermission but in earlier years it opened the show.
Stand: The town where the circus performs.
Star Backs: Reserved seats.
Straw House: A sell out. Because there are no empty seats, straw is put on the ground in front of the general admission section.
Stringers: General admission seats. Also called Blues.
Tail Up: Command to an elephant to follow the elephant ahead.
Talkers: The man who talks in front of the Side Show to attract attention. (Never called a “barker.”) The man who talks inside the Side Show to describe or introduce the attractions is called the Lecturer.
Towners: People from town. Outsiders.
Twenty-Four-Hour Man: The person who travels a day ahead (24 hours) of the circus to mark the route and make final arrangements.
Wildcat: Change the scheduled route of the show on short notice. This might be done because of competition from other circuses or floods or economic problems in the area where the show had planned to appear.
Windjammer: A member of the circus band.
Winter Quarters: Location where a show goes during its off season to prepare for a new year.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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