The Minnesota State Fair is in full swing. It’s huge. Some say the biggest in the country. It lasts for 10 days and attracts a crowd equal to the entire population of the state. As a youngster, I faithfully attended with my family. The animal barns and livestock exhibits, the church-sponsored eateries, the tom-thumb doughnut joint, the women’s building (because my mother insisted) where the it-slices-it-dices guy made it look sooo easy. The Grandstand show. And the best - the Midway, run by Royal American Shows. Rides to make you puke, carnie barkers to fleece you and, my favorite, the 10-in 1 tent - the sideshow. ”She walks she talks she crawls on her belly like a reptile. Step right up – one thin dime, one tenth of a dollar. One thin dime won’t make you – one thin dime won’t break you.” The freak show, now gone forever. And one of the attractions at the freak show was Johan The Viking Giant. He would come over to my uncle’s house of an afternoon when the fair was in town, jabber in Icelandic with my uncles, my mother and the sisters-in-law. And eat. Eat Icelandic fare prepared by my aunt Gulla. Pictures were taken; my father (6’4”) standing under his outstretched arm, my brothers and our cousins, scattered around his shins, grinning. He was sweet and gentle and bright. And very lonely – so my mother said. It was a living. Below is Johan, standing in front of a classic 10-in-1, somewhere in America. One thin dime, one tenth of a dollar…
As a high school sophomore I got a job (thanks to my Uncle Val, the State Treasurer) working at the State Fair. Me, and about twenty others swept out the grandstand, once in the afternoon after the auto races (Offenhouser and Allison Racing Conversions) 800 HP open topped single seat race cars, rolling on a dirt track. Buzz Barton was the man to beat. They made a lot of noise – and kicked up a lot of dirt. Which I helped sweep up. A process repeated again at 10:00 PM after the Grandstand show. Between the afternoon races and the evening show, we were free to roam the fair. And when you’re 16, where do you go but to the Midway. Action and more action. Royal American Shows was the attraction provider and they rolled in on their own rail cars, parked in a siding specially built for the fair. Car after car. Pullmans where they lived during the run, huge animal transport cars with bars on the open windows for the animals they carried.
The Midway was a carny’s dream. Rubes as far as the eye could see. And they made a fortune. “Ring a cane, the cane’s ya win’s that’s cane ya carry away…” “Penny toss, hit the plate and the prize is yours…” The penny had to stay on the glass plate. The barker made it stay with each toss. Easy. Try it sometime. Veritable fortunes were spent trying to make that penny stay on the plate. My personal favorite, as mentioned, was the 10 in 1 – ten attractions under one roof. The freak show, as it was referred to. There was Johan the Giant, The Snake Girl (some kind of skin condition), the sword swallower, the world’s smallest man, the girl contortionist, who was put in box where swords were then passed through. Top and side. But before the swords were inserted, she removed her bra (out of sight in her box, handed up to the pitchman). “We do this for safety reasons…” After the sword stuff, customers were charged fifty cents each to “come up and see how she survived.” Farm boys mobbed the steps. I went up once. Her right arm, modestly draped across her bare breasts, her body contorted around the blades. She looked bored to death.
Next to the 10 in 1 was, depending on the year, either the Club Lido or Leon Clarkson’s Harlem In Havana. The girlie show. The announcer stood out front, mic held tight to his lips, dyed black hair slicked back, dressed in a soiled red velvet jacket with ruffled shirt. He promised the crowd that what they would see on the inside would astound them. It was suggested that ‘gentlemen only’ attend and there was an inference that deals had been made to expose more than what was legal, or maybe it was just for this show and this show only. So, step right up. Every 15 minutes, the barker would bring out one of the girls. “Folks say hello to Carmen, be nice, she’s come all the way from Havana…” Carmen would twirl a couple of times, and then, facing the throng, legs set far apart, she’s touch her palms to the stage floor. The barker, standing behind her, assured the crowd that the view he was enjoying was available only on the inside. I used stand and watch as long as my coworkers would tolerate. The pitch and cadence of the delivery, the absolute transparent hustle, the smarm. I loved every second (no wonder I became an agent…). Dusk would settle, and it was time to back to the brooms.
After the grandstand show, the real work began. We’d start at either end of the top rows, two crews, and sweep to the center - and then send the accumulation tumbling down the center aisle. Repeat. And repeat. The crew, most of whom had been doing this for many Fairs past, was a mixed bag. I was about the youngest and was enjoying a real stretch from my cocooned existence as a middleclass white boy. There was Whitey the Pollock. Big, mean and silent. One of the old timers cautioned me early on to leave Whitey alone. “He don’t talk much and he sure don’t like to be talked to…steer clear if you value your teeth.” Okay. There was Sparky, toothless, who lived in what was left of Minneapolis’ skidrow (at that time undergoing a merciless destruction in the name of urban renewal). Watching him with a broom in his hands was almost ballet. “You workin’ too hard, boy! It’s in the wrists…see?” There were fathers and sons, who would take their vacations to work the fair for $9.25 an hour. The comfort of the south Minneapolis that I enjoyed was not theirs to be had. Sixteen years old and rubbing shoulders with life – looking back, I should have been embarrassed. At the time, I was just fascinated.