The Play-Side of the Fair

Mary Bronson Hartt

The prodigal modern Midway is fairly using up the earth. A few more Expositions and we shall have left nothing that is wonderfully wonderful, nothing superlatively strange; and the delicious word “foreign " will have dropped out of the language. Where shall we go to get us a new sensation? Not to the heart of the Dark Continent; Darkest Africa is at the Pan-American. Not to the frozen North; we have met the merry little fur-swathed, slant-eyed Eskimos behind their papier mache glacier in Buffalo. Not to the far islands of the Pacific; Hawaiians, and little brown Filipinos are old friends on the new Midway. Not to Japan; tea-garden geisha girls, and trotting, mushroom-capped jinriksha men have rubbed the bloom off that experience. Not Mexico, not Hindoostan, not Ceylon, not the Arabian Desert, can afford us a thrill of thorough-going surprise. Step into the gay streets of the Pan-American cosmorama - the Midway. The first sound which greets your ears is the long-drawn wail of a fog horn and the shout of "All aboard! The airship Luna leaves in three minutes for the Trip to the Moon." There! you see, not satisfied with exhausting the earth, they have already begun upon the universe. Behold, the world is a sucked orange.

Exposition crowds, however, are serenely unconcerned over the prospect of a future without novelty. The present is full of fresh sensations and that is quite enough for them. They plunge into the riot of nonsense with unthinking glee. They slip shrieking down the fearful dips of the Scenic Railway in company with Navajo Indians with yellow sun-rays painted round their eyes, and dark, sombreroed Mexicans, and low-browed, straight-haired Eskimos. They lunch in Spanish, dine in German, and take their evening coffee in select " Toorkish." They give free lessons in “American " to splendid turbaned Moors. Each hour of the day they try a new form of locomotion - dislocating jaunt on a loping camel, a slow ambulation on a stump-footed elephant, a rotary see-saw on the Aerio-cycle, or a circuit ride after the smallest engine in the world. Serious-minded clergymen cheer on the bloodless bull-fight; portly ex-senators run races on oriental donkeys several sizes too small for them, and timorous maiden ladies explore the awful mysteries of the Darkness and Dawn Under-World. Verily, is this the land of the Puritans?

America is growing younger as she gets older. At first we were ashamed of our second childhood. Chicago, when her Folly Lane was mentioned, blushed, and looked down, and talked confusedly of " Ethnology exhibits." But we have got bravely over that. Nowadays we frankly admit that the Midway is the strongest magnet of a big fair. And, barring the unfortunate tendency to exhaust the universe, it is well that this is so. The tendency toward purely amusing Midway shows is all of a piece with that toward highclass vaudeville. The American is learning to recreate himself without strenuousness, that is all.

But it is not only public sentiment which has changed; the Midway itself has undergone, and is undergoing, progressive evolution. When the people want toys and will pay for them, there is sure to develop a body of men committed to the business of toymaking on a gigantic scale. Such a body is the group of Midway concessionaires, whose business it is to study the whims of the public and to give it what it wants. The day has passed when freaks and crude trickery will hold any crowd but a crowd from the country. Therefore the old contemptible side-show is a thing of the past. We want novelty, as we always did; but we have grown more exacting. We want novelty with a point to it. It must be beautiful novelty, or scientific novelty, or ingenious novelty, or we will have none of it. All that sort of thing costs money; and so the man who proposes to amuse the millions today must be prepared to put his thousands, and even his hundreds of thousands, into the investment. As a matter of fact the Buffalo Midway stands for immense capital, for conspicuous ingenuity, and for (does it sound absurd ?) not a little art.

The Buffalo Midway is practically twins. Originally confined to a crooked thoroughfare on the north side of the main street of the fair, it grew and grew to such proportions that it stretched out to an equal length on the other side the mall. Enter either of these hilarious streets and you will find them lined with picturesque buildings no less carefully designed, or delicately executed than the formal structures for industrial exhibits. Deep arched doorways, enriched with concentric ripples of fine flower-molding, airy towers, Moorish domes, and groups of slender minarets, sunny tinted walls, or wide shading eaves, mark the more conventional of the concessions; while the ice peaks of the Eskimo Village, the bark barricade of Darkest Africa, and the pretty nipa-covered roofs of the Filipino settlement give the street the fantastic air it could so ill afford to spare. No former exposition has had a Midway approaching this for architectural elaborateness and excellence. It is easy to say that the architecture has been too freely treated; that for instance, towers in Mexico appear only upon cathedrals, and that the minaret is the mark of a Mohammedan mosque, not the decoration of every street corner. Quite true. But the Midway designer is working for effect, not for accuracy. By using foreign motifs even out of place he gets the general look of a characteristic foreign town. Without the more imposing features, the foreign village would be flatly inconspicuous.

Inside, the Midway show is as much improved as it is without. In the first place it is on a larger scale than its prototypes at previous fairs. The Cairo Street of Chicago has expanded into eight converging thoroughfares, with a population of six hundred Orientals, not counting camels and donkeys. What was an entire twenty-five cent concession at Omaha, (an illusion of a girl walking in midair), appears as a trifling incident of the Pan-American Trip to the Moon. The evolution of the concession called “Darkness and Dawn" is typical of the history of many another attraction. Suggested by the " Cabaret de la Mort " in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the show made its American debut at Nashville under Mr. Roltaire, as a cafe of the dead, (where people ate and drank out of skull dishes from off coffin tables), coupled with two illusions - Day and Night. At Omaha the illusions materialized into actual regions, and for the first time since Dante's day the public was led through the secret places of the Inferno and the Paradiso. In Buffalo the spectacular effects of the grim journey have so outgrown the original idea that the Cabaret de la Mort, once the whole concession, has subsided into a mere waiting room, providing a few preliminary thrills before the trip to the underworld is begun. Again, Mr. Roltaire's House Upside Down is a copy of a Paris concession with this important development, that whereas the French show was a mere topsy-turvy house, with real furniture stuck to the ceiling, the Pan-American oddity is upset by means of an elaborate arrangement of mirrors, and you go walking about head downward on the ceiling yourself.

Quite as interesting as the development of the show is the evolution of the showman. But that is a story which cannot well be told without discussing the wider and more serious development of which it is but a part. The technical school of the future will probably add to its curriculum a new department - the department of practical exposition - culture. For since we Americans have taken seriously to celebrating a centennial of some sort every other year, the business of exposition making has risen to the rank of a true profession, a profession too with a fixed and definite personnel. A great army of industrial nomads goes trailing about the map, from Atlanta to Nashville, from Nashville to Omaha, from Omaha to Buffalo, from Buffalo to Charleston, and St. Louis, and New York. Included in the camp and camp following are boarding-house keepers, ex-prize-fighters, small showmen, Midway magnates, electricians, landscape gardeners, architects, sculptors, mural decorators, department superintendents, and even director-generals. For each fresh exposition city, having scattered a fair share of professional plums among its own inhabitants, instead of creating for itself a fresh corps of executive officers, is glad to fall back upon the wisdom and experience of the men who made the last exposition a success. Nothing could be more rational. For when a man has mastered the infinite detail of a big fair he is much too valuable to be dropped back into private life like a cast-off President. And so, once launched upon an exposition career, a man finds himself committed to the exposition business for life.

In no profession is it truer that there is always room at the top. The bigger sort of man cannot be captured by the smaller sort of exposition. All the better for the smaller sort of man, or for the big man in the making. At Chicago he may be merely in charge of a State exhibit. Omaha will probably make him superintendent of a department or two, and Buffalo will promote him to a directorship. That is the true story of one of the most energetic of the Pan-American directors, and it is typical of the experience of many another. Director-General Buchanan himself served his apprenticeship at Chicago as National Commissioner from Iowa, and Chief of the departments of Agriculture, Forestry, and Live Stock. When the fair was over, Mr. Buchanan, doubtless without a thought of dabbling further in the exposition business, accepted the post of United States Minister to Argentine Republic. But he was a marked man. When the Pan-American claimed him, he succumbed to importunity and came duly to Buffalo.

Below the executive officers is an army of specialists in exposition construction. For the building of a temporary city implies peculiar problems in architecture, in roofing, in electric lighting, in hydraulics, in road-making, and in landscape gardening, each to be met by expert knowledge. Even the sculpture of an exposition belongs to a school of its own. Designed to be set in great open courts, or to look down from the high domes of mammoth buildings, it gets its effects by vigor and dash rather than by finished delicacy. The same men, barring one or two great names, have designed the sculpture for the Pan-American who did it for Chicago. And in all probability the same men are already plotting the plastic decorations of Charleston. There is probably no more certain short cut to artistic fame than the exposition route. Consider Mr. Karl Bitter. Before the World's Fair he was known only to the knowing. Now his name is a household word in the uttermost parts of the land.

It may seem scarcely strange that careers should develop beneath the dome of an Administration Building. But that not fortunes only, but reputations, should spring up on the riotous Midway, is matter for some surprise. Many people fancy that when a new show appears it implies a new man behind it. Not so. Midways may change and change, but the concessionaire goes on forever. Run over the record of the more noted of the PanAmerican fun-makers. Bostock, the Animal King, has been everywhere since the World's Fair; Gaston Akoun of Beautiful Orient, has had a concession at every big fair since the Paris Exposition of 1889; Roltaire of the House Upside Down, has designed or operated illusions for every exposition since he can remember. And so they go. Scarcely a single concessionaire on the Buffalo Midway but comes trailing clouds of exposition glory. It is not for lack of fresh contestants that the old-timers continue to hold the concessions at every fresh exposition. The old-timer knows his business. He has developed financial audacity. He has capital and "properties," and he makes the finest offers. And so the timid newcomer gets no show at all.

Ask a Midway magnate how he came to go into the profession, and he will answer laconically, "Chance." Some of them are showmen of old, who have simply found in the Midway a broader field for operations. With some the instinct runs in the blood; Mr. Bostock's family have been exhibiting animals since 1805. A few stumble into the business through their ordinary callings. From contractor to show builder, to show owner, is, for instance, a natural sequence. But however they get into the profession they never get out. The Midway fever is as much a disease as gambling. The stakes are high, the game exciting. And when it is over every man has his glittering pile to tempt him to play for higher stakes next time.

But the concessionaire must be more than a daring capitalist. He must be a social philosopher. Nothing short of a close study of the people at play will teach him what will "take." Bugaboo shows, a layman would say, should be made as gruesome as possible. The concessionaire knows better. The public wants a little horror, just enough to tease the nerves deliciously. More it will flee from. Again, one would fancy that the newest show would prove the most irresistible attraction. But up to a certain point the old show, remodeled and enlarged, is better than one which may be regarded as an experiment. For the old show is liberally advertised by its loving friends. Beautiful Orient, for example, is not new. It is a magnified, and one might almost say glorified, Cairo Street. And it is probably safe to prophesy that every man, woman, and child who did not go to Chicago, and who has heard of the charms of the humpbacked camel and the rest, will buy a ticket for Beautiful Orient. Yet again, one would suppose that it would be scarcely possible to make the exterior of a concession too imposing. Yet so experienced an artist in Midway effects as Mr. Roltaire, says that there can be no greater mistake. The public can study the outside of the show free of charge. When it pays to go in it wants to see something finer than the free outside. What the concessionaire undergoes in the collection and management of a great body of assorted foreigners, it is difficult to realize. Some of the most desirable Orientals are extremely unwilling to leave home, and must be practically coerced through their sheiks, who see a money advantage in the trip. When they are captured, they speak a Babel of varying dialects, and represent a number of most unmixable religions. Gaston Akoun was obliged to build a Mohammedan temple for his Moslems  - a temple into which neither the curious public nor the concessionaire himself dare venture. An electrician who got into the temple by mistake not long since came very near losing his life at the hands of the faithful.

Concessionaires are by no means the only professional men on the Midway. There is, for example, the inventor and designer of Midway shows. This is at present a one-man profession, occupied by Mr. F. W. Thompson of the Trip to the Moon; but for all that it is a genuine profession with unique requirements. The designing of grottoes, for instance, is exacting business. You cannot say, let it be of this style, or of that. Every stalactite, every blow hole, every dip in the tunnel, every cleft in the rock must be worked out by the architect himself. A little like designing stage scenery, one would think. And so it is, but with this important difference. Your audience instead of looking at the performance through a proscenium, occupies the stage itself. There are no wings to work through; and you cannot make half an object look like a whole one. Mr. Thompson has studied with Kenyon Cox and Robert Blum, and is something of an artist himself. Yet he declares that he never dares to make a spectacle as beautiful as he can. The crowd won't appreciate it if the color is subdued enough to make it really artistic. They want the tinsel of the circus, and are not happy unless they get it. Here Mr. Thompson differs from Mr. Roltaire, who designs his own illusions. Mr. Roltaire thinks that the public grows more exactingly artistic every year and that the best you can give them is none too good.

Then there is the Midway press agent, an artist too in his way. He is a romancer of a very subtle sort, a weaver of delicate fictions which have a grain of truth at the bottom, but which catch the public eye as cold facts never would. A skillful press agent knows just how far he can go. But he is a rara avis. Indeed, Mr. Bostock says that he would rather train six jungle lions than one press agent. A little fiction is a telling thing. You may advertise for horse-flesh for the lions provided you really use it on state occasions. The public may get the impression that lions subsist on horses, but what harm if they do? If, however, you follow that coup with an advertisement for rags to feed to the elephants, the public, its credulity overstrained, will bolt on the horse story as well, and put you down for a conscienceless fraud.

Last of the professions on the Midway are those of the " barker," " ballyhooer " and “spieler." Step into the Midway on any warm night from out the silent glow of the great illuminated courts, and you will hear this profession at work. The air is thick with promiscuous sounds; the wild yap-yapping of the barker, the moan of the fog-horn, the bellow of the megaphone; the clash of brass and the boom and wheeze of reed-bands; the clang of dinner bells; the sharp rap of canes and clappers; and the deep roar of an army of trumpet-throated lecturers, mingled in one vast inextricable din. These conspirators against your hearing are of three orders. First there is the ballyhoo - any sort of a performance outside the show, from the coon songs of the pickaninnies in front of the Old Plantation, to the tinkling tamborines of the dancers on the stage of “Around the World." Next comes the barker. Technically speaking, he is a man who makes a noise (any sort of noise so it is louder than his neighbor can achieve) before a show to attract attention. His duty is to catch the crowd and draw it within hearing of the professional “spieler " - the genius of the Midway. The spieler has in his make-up something of the romancer and something of the hypnotist. He talks to the reluctant public till the money is fairly charmed from their pockets, and they cannot choose but go into the show. The spieling artist knows his crowd. If it is what is technically known as the “Reub element " from the country, it is impossible to put the color on too thick. A more intelligent audience takes delicate handling. A little too much bombast, and away they go to fall prey to more scientific maneuvering. Two principles the spieler keeps in mind. One is that if you can keep a crowd thinking about a show long enough, psychological suggestion will do its perfect work. They will go in. The other principle is that grown people are only big children. They have a strong tendency to do as they are told. The assumption of authority, the energetic wave of the arm toward the box office will " turn a crowd " as the saying is, when it has quite resolved to go away.

Now if it seems that  “spieling " is scarcely dignified enough to be classed among the professions, reflect upon this. Within a few days the noise-makers of the Pan-American Midway have formed themselves into an association with the express object of claiming for themselves the more euphonious name of Talkers and Lecturers, and of advancing the dignity and increasing the efficiency of their calling. It is odds if they ever succeed in shaking off the old name. But the profession is marching on to victory. That technical school of the future will probably offer special courses in gymnastics, elocution and psychology to students preparing to join the ranks of the Talkers and Lecturers' Association of America.

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