“An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling lie.”
Elizabeth is a precocious third-grader on her dad’s lap at the Liar’s Table at Showtown USA, Gibsonton, Fl.
“Original Tommy” Arnold is in his 80s and a living legend in the traveling carnival world. O.T. is a carnival storyteller.
“Elvis won more than we let most people win, he kept throwing the prizes to the crowd,” he said.
In 1957, Elvis scored a hit with “Jailhouse Rock” but hadn’t yet been drafted into the Army.
At a Memphis carnival, he stopped to throw softballs at Original Tommy’s milk bottles game.
If Elvis wasn’t yet the king, he was the crown prince of the midway.
“The girls went crazy,” said the veteran carnival owner. “He drew a big crowd.”
What’s interesting about Original Tommy’s story is he remembers few details other than the line that makes his Elvis story a classic carny story.
“He spent maybe $200 on my game and that was a lot of money in those days.”
He took Elvis for a $200 and drew a crowd to boot.
Elvis may have been the crown prince of the midway but Original Tommy got him to lay out two C-notes.
There’s some irony in their table name because they also talk about the old “flat joints,” games where suckers cannot win. Alibi stores are games carnies must make excuses, “you crossed the line,” to foil a winner.
I didn’t ask how he “gaffed” the game but you can be sure Original Tommy let Elvis win just enough to keep playing and keep throwing toys to the excited fans.
In Original Tommy’s story, crown prince Elvis was just a mark.
The Liar’s Table at Showtown bar/restaurant is the liveliest breakfast table. During this month’s Super Trade Show Extravaganza in Gibsonton, old pros sat around the table like a secret hall of fame.
The carnival world is a subculture and the stars of its realm are found in hidden places like the faded Showtown USA.
Showtown is the creation of Bill Browning who painted elaborate stories on the walls of the restaurant, at countless carnivals and at the International Independent Showmen’s Association headquarters in town.
He used to yearly repaint and reframe the story on Showtown’s front facade.
All his art tells stories and often brings nature to the indoors with boardwalk and carnival scenes.
The carnival business inspires many artists, possibly because there is so much painting required.
Browning’s paintings at the IISA headquarters building cover the walls and easily make him the most famous carnival artist.
However, Browning isn’t actively painting these days and many of his Showtown stories are fading on the walls.
A food critic might suggest even the menu is old school. This morning it is chipped beef over toast, two eggs, $5.99.
I hear Showtown is still a vibrant place but the cigarette-smoke walls tell stories of bygone golden eras.
The Liar’s Table is its living time warp.
Dash of Flash
Flash said to me once, “If a carny doesn’t have a nickname, he isn’t interesting.”
Nick the Prick. Luke the Puke. Even Flash’s nickname has a back story.
“That’s what this business is based on, everything the sucker sees out there is flash,” he said.
Flash is cash, is the phrase I heard as a jointee, a game worker.
One morning the ballys started flying and I started taping as guys from different sides of the table urged the marks to buy.
The Mayor of the Liar’s Table is Freddy Vonderheim, 76, former circus and carnival owner (a special breed he calls showman transvestites).
Flash and the Mayor are retired from the business, but they can still bark them out.
When the Mayor pipes up, you know thousands have heard it on thousands of midways.
“I’m Donniker Dan (donniker is a carny toilet),
the candy man,
with circus straaawbery candy,
all you kids who want candy,
please hold up your hand!!!”
Flash came back with his own, ending in a carnival limerick, more than a bally.
“They were brewing up coffee seconds and thirds,
Those happy go lucky carnival birds.”
Born under a ride
Original Tommy bounced Elizabeth on his knee and told me how she wants to be an artist someday too.
Maybe face painting, he said.
Elizabeth is in third grade, just like Grace so I show her my daughter’s picture.
She loves hugging and playing games with the old men and a few younger ones around the table. Some get big hugs around the necks.
“I like it,” she says of her life in carnivals. “I get to go on all the rides for free.”
During the season she lives with Original Tommy and plays with other kids her age, also traveling with the carnival.
Asked about the highlights of his carnival life, Tommy says she’s the highlight of his life.
She loves teasing her old single father.
“My dad burns eggs, burns muffins, he burns everything you want to eat except cake and cereal,” she said.
Later that evening I was editing tape in a room near the main bar at the IISA headquarters.
My favorite bartender came over, Anna May, she’s in her 50s or 60s. She’s proud she raised her kids in carnivals without ever being homeless.
They were raised in the trailer during the season and she’s proud of the job she did, while running games, rides and working the ticket booth.
Then she noticed a picture of Original Tommy and Elizabeth on my computer.
I thought she might say something about their age difference but she had something to say about her age difference.
“That’s my granddaughter and Tommy’s my son-in-law,” she said. “A lot of people in this business are related.”
Kids born in the carnival business are said to be “born under a ride.”
Elizabeth comes from a long line of carnival people and she wants to be an artist, maybe a carnival artist.
“Elizabeth the artist” would make people here at Showtown USA very proud and that’s what passes for the thrilling truth at the Liar’s Table.
My year working and living in traveling carnivals ends this week. My last carnival job was at a freak show owned by King of the Sideshows Ward Hall. I have numerous stories from the last two weeks and unreported stories during the year. So there’ll be more stories to come on hitchhiking and working American carnivals from Alaska to Florida, from California to New York.