One of the old delights of summertime was the return of the carnival. In America's western states on the Great Plains, where homes were scattered across a vast grid of farms and ranch lands, and communities were isolated from the urban centers back east, the appearance of a carnival show became a major event. But one that was not always desired.
Ten bandsmen of the J. T. Wortham Show Band of 1923 take a moment between sets to pose for a publicity photo. They stand in front of a show tent for a traveling carnival run by John T. Wortham of Texas. Not quite a circus and not just a vaudeville revue, the carnival show provided rural America with a unique entertainment complete with wild animals, strange curiosities, deceptive games, dizzying rides, novelty food, and of course - loud band music.
What makes this large format photo a remarkable bit of cultural trivia is the ethnic heritage of some of the bandsmen. At least three and maybe more are notably dark skinned men. The snare drummer (back L), one clarinetist (front L), and the cornet player (3rd from R) are not typical musicians to see in a photo of 1923 America. This is the era of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws. Discrimination was the rule in the USA and the opportunities for musicians of color were slim to non-existent. The one exception was the world of the circus and the carnival.
My theory on their background is that they are not African-American, but Native American. In both the West and Northeast, there were several state schools for Indians that promoted their bands of woodwind and brass players. And given the Texas origins for the Wortham Shows, these schools seem a likely source for musicians, especially since the main specialty of carnivals was exhibiting the unusual.
Many circus bands were quite large with 30 to 50 players, so this one is small. It is interesting that there are two trumpets but only one cornet, as this is the time when the the cornet, the dominant lead brass instrument for the last century, begins to be overtaken in popularity by the trumpet. Note also the special hat badge on one trumpet player (4th from R) denoting him as the bandmaster.
The Wortham Carnival Shows were started in 1910 by Clarence Wortham, and eventually had 7 touring productions. In 1922, John T. Wortham took over the business after the untimely death of his older brother. The shows traveled along the rail lines, advertising their size by the number of cars. One carnival carried over 500 people on a special train of 25 cars.
The 1930 Census for Stockton, California had 4 pages devoted to the J. T. Wortham Show. John T. Wortham, age 44, is listed as Proprietor, Traveling Show with his wife Leah, 41, a cashier. This show had a work force of 153 people and included 12 people identified as negro who were musicians and dancers. Another musician, Duke Kamakua, was born in Hawaii and was probably part of the hula girl attraction.
On March 22, 1922, The Mexia Evening News (TX), carried the following short report:
In his "Dixieland" with the John T. Wortham shows, R.H. Cobb has gathered together a number of the most talented negro performers in America. This minstrel company is headed by Mme. Rainey, the great 'blues" singer, who has played all the bigtime vaudeville circuits, and Ezekill Hill, "Little Zeke," the negro comedian and dancer extraordinary. A notable feature of "Dixieland" is the jazz orchestra directed by Prof. Snapp, the noted colored pianist.
Nellie the cow with six legs and two tails; Johan Aason - the Norwegian Boy Giant, 8 feet 9 ¼ inches tall; and Madam Rainey, Texas' leading colored singer of the Mississippi blues. (Who may or may not have been Ma Rainey, 1886-1939, the so-called Mother of the Blues.)
More so than the circus, the carnival show acquired a very poor reputation in many towns, as they were associated with every kind of vice, and were notorious for con men and cheats. Many shows found their bookings cancelled after review by a town council. In an effort to attack the opposition straight on, the show owners organized a lobbying group in 1923 and announced special reforms. The list of things they were fixing tells more about why carnivals deserved such a scandalous regard.
Cleanest Every (sic)
The old day of the petty thieving carnival game is gone. The people of America are demanding clean shows with a clean, high moral tone to the entertainments. The show and carnival people themselves are taking the lead in this work of cleaning up the shows. An idea of how they are doing this may be had from the following letter written by John T. Wortham to the Fair Association:
Realizing that there were certain abuses in the manner in which carnivals and circuses were conducted, a number of the owners met in Chicago this spring and organized "The Showmen's Legislative Committee." Eighty-five per cent of the legitimate carnival owners belong to this organization. We secured Mr. Thomas J. Johnson, a well known attorney of Chicago, as Commissioner, and Mr. Johnson now has the authority and occupies the same position in the outdoor show world that Judge Landis and Mr. Will Hays hold in baseball and moving picture interests.
Mr Johnson has made rules for the conduct of carnivals, prohibiting the following:
All '49 camps; all hoochie-coochie shows; all Hawaiian village shows with dancers; all fairy-in-the-well shows; all immodest, immoral or suggestive shows; all shows exclusively for men; all shows with a final blow-off; all snake-eating shows; all glomming shows which are those where they eat live fowl, rats, mice, or raw meat to give the impression that they are wild men; Gypsies are prohibited from being around, associated or connected with outdoor amusements; all persons under the age of 16 years are prohibited from playing any games unless accompanied by a parent or guardian; all games where money is given as prizes are prohibited; all games where prizes may be exchanged for money are prohibited; all games where the operator or attendant may. by mechanical trick, brake, or by pinching, squeezing, or otherwise control its speed or determine the outcome are prohibited.
The swing ball, the creeper, the set spindle, the pickout, the cloth and pin, the drop case, the bee-hive, the six-arrow, base-ball or tivoli, the roll down and the hand striker or hinger are prohibited. The carrying, selling, giving away, disposing or exhibiting of dope, narcotics, liquor, or any indecent card, picture, poster, or literature are prohibited. All unsafe or improperly conducted rides are condemned.
All restaurants, eating places, refreshments stands must be kept in a clean and sanitary condition. I am a member of the Showmen's Legislative Committee and am honestly trying to run my show in accordance with the rules made by Mr. Johnson. I feel sure that you will find something of interest in each of my shows and will find that all my concessions are run fairly. I bespeak the patronage at both my shows and concessions of all those who believe in clean outdoor amusements.
Respectfully, JOHN T. WORTHAM
My contribution to Sepia Saturday
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