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Circus Banners No Longer a Sideshow

Drawings, Once Designed to Lure Patrons to the Lurid, Are Now Seen as Art

July 11, 1997|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CALABASAS — Be amazed! Step this way! Meet twins bound by a pound of flesh! Watch as Priscilla, the monkey girl, hangs by her feet! See Neandro, the missing link! Crane your neck at Queen Kong the 400-foot gorilla!

No, the circus is not in town--only the "World's Strangest Oddities" as depicted by circus artist Johnny Meah. His sideshow banners, housed at the Smithsonian Institution and other galleries, have become a novelty even as old-fashioned circuses have turned into white elephants.

Meah, who lives in Tampa, Fla., is visiting Los Angeles to open a permanent display of his work at a Calabasas restaurant called the Sagebrush Cantina.

The banners were designed to lure circus patrons to often lurid sideshow attractions that charged separate admission.

Meah said his mother wanted him to be a Catholic priest. But his father, an editorial cartoonist for several newspapers, including the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, had different plans. His father sparked his interest in the circus as a youngster by taking him to fairs and amusement parks to help draw posters, Meah said.

When he was 14, Meah spent his summer vacation with a circus, studying to be a clown and sketching under the tutelage of Hugo Zachinni, an artist and the patriarch of the family's human cannonball act.

Meah worked as a clown for several circuses while in high school, in addition to taking drawing classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. He also learned sword swallowing, fire eating and acrobatics.

"I was like a kid in a candy store. I was living my dream," he said.

*

Throughout his circus career, Meah moonlighted as a sign-maker, but in 1957 a sideshow manager and female impersonator named Leo/Leola changed his life for good.

Leola had sent some of Meah's banners to David "Snap" Wyatt, a well-known circus banner artist. Wyatt lauded Meah's work, and Leola decided to hire Meah as the sideshow "show painter."

Show-painting was basically outdoor advertising. Before each circus, organizers would "hold the door," preventing crowds from entering the main tent on time, Meah said. While the crowd waited, an announcer would urge everyone to visit the sideshow.

Meah's banners showed the way.

"I measured my banners at 110 feet, so the average person has to take 33 steps to walk by them," Meah said. "You are trying to make a banner that is going to stop them, intrigue them and motivate them to want to buy a ticket and see the things portrayed on the banner."

Meah worked as an artist throughout the 1960s and '70s, traveling the world with Ringling Bros., the Mills Bros., the Royal American Circus and Circus USA. But circuses faltered during the 1980s, as costs increased and revenues dried up.

"You couldn't paint for circuses anymore, because there were none," he said.

*

As circuses withered away, however, Meah discovered lucrative new clients: art collectors.

After a magazine featured his work, Meah began fielding calls from museums and galleries that wanted a sideshow of their own. In addition to showings at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., Meah's work is being shown in the Roger Brown Gallery in Chicago.

But Meah remembers when his banners were not in such high demand. "I used to sell them for 50 cents each. There was one time when I stopped an oil leak on a truck with one of them."

Now Meah sells his banners for $1,500 to $10,000 a piece.

"This is history," he said.

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