Articles

QUEEN OF THE MIDWAY

Step right up! Showing on the inside! See the secrets of Gay Paree! See the daredevils riding the Wall of Death! See the monsters of the Pit! And meet colorful Jean Nanson who runs the whole show

MCKENZIE PORTER October 1 1949
Articles

QUEEN OF THE MIDWAY

Step right up! Showing on the inside! See the secrets of Gay Paree! See the daredevils riding the Wall of Death! See the monsters of the Pit! And meet colorful Jean Nanson who runs the whole show

MCKENZIE PORTER October 1 1949

QUEEN OF THE MIDWAY

Step right up! Showing on the inside! See the secrets of Gay Paree! See the daredevils riding the Wall of Death! See the monsters of the Pit! And meet colorful Jean Nanson who runs the whole show

MCKENZIE PORTER

LADIES and Gentlemen,” bawled the black-eyed barker in shimmering white dress and silverfox cape outside the Gay Paree girlie show on the Three Rivers fairground. ‘‘Here is Salome. Rajahs have offered her thousands to enter their harems. I don’t know whether you boys have ever l>een in a harem . . . Let Salome show you what goes on.”

In the glare of the showlights the bobbing faces, sheepish, owlish, goggle-eyed, pressed closer to the tent.

“And here is Nina. Nina does the rumba. You can all see she has plenty to rumba with . . . “Now, Torchy Duval, the star of our show!”

As redhaired Torchy stepped forward on the outdoor platform a hired French relief barker roared into the mike, “Ooooh la-laaaah!” “Torchy’s fan dance will burn you up. Men have gone mad ...”

About 50 people filed in paying 50 cents each.

The performers disappeared, suggesting the show was about to begin. But the audience was not big enough. Out came the troupe again. This time a guitar trio hired locally twanged away encouragingly. The spiel was repeated in French.

Another 50 filed in and the corny 20-minute show began. From noon to midnight in the sharp fall weather, the same routine.

The black-eyed barker (looking at her you thought immediately of Dorothy Lamour) was 32-year-old Jean Nanson, owner of Gay Paree, Pit of Death, Motordrome and Monkeyland—a traveling sideshow outfit on the North American outdoor amusement trail. She rates as Canada’s top showwoman.

Born near Namur, Belgium, Jean was brought to Canada in the early 20’s by her father, a circus horse trainer. They settled in Edmonton.

In 1932 a carnival hit the western city. Nanson, senior, warned: “Don’t you go near that show.

We’ve had enough of that life in our family.” An hour later Jean was bantering with a lion tamer. He bet her a lion cub she daren’t enter his cage

full of big cats and polar bears during a performance. She won the cub and ran away with the show.

A few weeks later she won a $100 bet that she daren’t take the cub up in the open cockpit of a stunting airplane. “It was easy,” she said.

While training her cub she took a whirl at every job down the midway including the nautch dance, wrestling the python, motorbiking round the Wall of Death, peddling frozen custard, driving the Ferris Wheel, calling Bingo and barking for a strong man.

Once she hit the bell on the High Striker 10 times running to prove to a buck navvy that it was skill that counted, not. strength.

She started to breed German sheep dogs in the hope of getting a pure-white litter. Two white pups, the progeny of 15 years selective mating, were being unloaded the morning I met Jean Nanson in the railyards of Quebec’s Trois Rivières. She has refused $2,000 for those pups, plans to use them with a black stallion in a musical act next year.

After 17 years on the road Jean can claim to have hit the top of her trade. The Conklin brothers, Patty and Frank, who have built one of the biggest outdoor amusement businesses on the continent, gave Jean her first break. Now they say, “There is nobody else quite like her” and she sticks loyally with them. Prince Denny, the elegant midget, says, “She’s queen of the midway.”

In 17 years she climbed by sweat, finesse and abracadabra from her own single act of child lion tamer to queen bee of four major concessions and a group of gaming stalls.

Three years ago she was married to a chunky, mild-mannered man in his middle 40’s, John T. Brannon who, in 1923, held the American 100-milei motorcycle speed record (1 hr. 11 sec.), who graduated to trick riding on the Wall of Death; and who occasionally hopped off to the Far East to buy elephants, tigers and crocodiles for resale to other circus and carnival men. Brannon considers a 60% profit “average” for his animal expeditions.

Brannon contributed the Motordrome and four daredevils to their pooled resources. But Jean remained the boss. “I just kind of steady and guide her,” Brannon says.

After their marriage the couple set themselves up with a hunting lodge near Dawson Creek, B.C., and an estate on the Colorado River in Arizona which they are developing into a luxury trailer park.

The very morning the show opened in Three Rivers, Brannon went to Montreal to pay $12,000 cash for a new racehorse game which was booth and trailer combined and could be opened or closed in two minutes. Small-timers don’t have that sort of money to splash on a whim.

When I met her Jean was wearing a thonged Indian jacket, maroon slacks and high-heel cowboy boots. Her hair was uncombed, she was without make-up and a splash of last night’s gravy was on her blouse.

Underneath the tassles was a provocative showgirl figure. There was magnetism in the clean, strong bone-lines of her tawny face.

Her mouth, thin, wide, subtle and occasionally

PHOTOS BY DAVID BIER

drawn hard over magnificent teeth, hinted at the financial sorcery which had made her one of the richest women in carnival.

Lesser showfolk had fled the grubby Conklin Show Train to the French beds, decor and cuisine of Three Rivers’ celebrated Chateau de Blois. But Jean and her husband, who were paying $20 a week for their compartment on the train, were «ontent to remain in the freight yards and live on the club car’s hamburgers. “Why fling money around?” she said.

Toward the end of this month, when the northern winds begin to nip the fun out of the last fall fairs in Ontario, Jean will boss a crew of husky gangers as they load monkeys, dogs, alligators, motorbikes, hula skirts, ostrich fans, curtains, footlights, placards, and banners into four trucks, four trailers, and the trunk of a 1949 scarlet sedan. Then she will label the whole outfit “Manila.”

Like many other showfolk she has discovered that her carnival receipts for 1949 will be 20% down on 1948 figures. So she has decided to work all winter in the Philippines instead of resting in Arizona.

This will be the first time she has ever taken her tents outside Canada. But after 10 years of

boom she senses a threat in the public’s tightening purse strings. “The honeymoon is over,” she says. “We must grab our money while we can.”

She had been thinking it over on the monotonous five-day drag from Prince Albert, Sask. Others among the several hundred aboard the train are planning to make the same trip.

Next spring Jean will return to Canada to play the long chain of three, four and seven-day stands she has covered every year since she was a kid.

This tour leads from Edmonton, Alta., to Renfrew, Ont., via a looping movement round Three Rivers, Sherbrooke and Quebec City. It is notorious among wandering performers for its endless succession of loading and unloading and for days and nights traveling to the sound of sleepless humans groaning and the eerie cries of jungle animals.

“It was tough for a teen-ager,” said Jean of her early life with the show. “Sometimes men tried to get me drunk. One guy was always pinching me. I hit him and he slipped and smashed his head through a cupboard. He was crazy with humiliation and said he would kill me. He jumped at me one night on a ferry. In the struggle we both fell overboard and had to be fished out. That cooled him off. If a girl shows determination she soon gets respect.”

During the hungry 30’s she came out of hospital alone and broke in Montreal after a bout of pneumonia. All she owned was a pet lion, now a lusty adolescent. Her next chance of earning money was three weeks off when the carnival was due from the West. How to live until it arrived?

She rented a large basement apartment in a middle-class suburb. During the night she collected her lion from the kennels where she had been boarding it and smuggled it into her new home. For three days Leo was quiet. Then, as she expected, he vented a tremendous roar of boredom.

Jean remembers the landlord’s ashwhite face pressed against the basement window. She remembers Leo backing up then 600 lbs. of flesh thudded against the window frame an inch from the landlord’s nose. There was a tinkle of glass, then silence.

It took the landlord a full minute to rise from his swoon. He ran down the garden shouting: “Lions! Lions!”

Leo curled up on the floor and went to sleep. Jean relaxed and waited for the police—and the reporters. In three hours she was on the front page of the Montreal Star. Two hundred people milled in the street outside. From all over the city people drove to look at “the lion in the basement.” “You get that lion outta here!” yelled the landlord. “Yes,” called the police, “get it out.” Jean yawned. Then, laconically, “You get it out.” The deadlock lasted a week. Jean charged the sight-seers 10 cents a peep at Leo. She got enough cash to pay the landlord rent plus pacification money, get herself into a hotel, and later buy Leo a wife.

At the beginning of the war she had five lions, a puma, a bear and two dogs working in the same act.

“I broke ’em all in myself,” she says. “You get them young and start on a simple routine, just like you teach a puppy to beg. You keep doing the same thing, hour after hour, day after day. Gradually you elaborate the tricks. The secret is never let them get hurt during a trick. They must have absolute confidence in you. If

they get a shock they won’t work.” To teach a lion to ride in a sidecar round the Motordrome she placed it when a cub in the bottom of the pit to get used to the noise. Then she rode it slowly around for weeks. Each week she increased the speed of the machine. Finally the lion thought nothing of it.

She Breaks the Girls In

Jean used a chair to fend lions off. If they got too tough she fired a blank cartridge in their face. “Actually they like to play with humans like a cat plays with a mouse,” she adds. “The thing to know is how far to let the play go. Every lion is different. If things get too hot you just call the training off for the day.”

In 1940 Jean Nanson sold her lions and went into burlesque. Frank Conklin said: “Getting smart, eh?” Jean

said: “Well I must admit there’s just as much money in it and a little less risk.”

Over coffee in the club car she told me: “I broke the girls in myself.

They’re more unpredictable than lions,

but at least they don’t try to savage you.” She changed her girls often. “Never show the same girls in the same place twice.” Most of her performers were the young wives of carnival men working with different outfits. Only one was single. One of the prettiest had two young children.

Jean teaches them the strip, the hula, and the Hawaiian. She doesn’t set a very high standard. “The men don’t come to see the dance," she said.

That morning in Three Rivers she was busy cooling down her program. Out West and in Ontario she could pose girls in a G-string and put a couple of risqué songs into the show. In Quebec they have to wear one-piece bathing suits under their costumes.

While the Conklin show fitted up the giant Meccano sets into gaudy booths and thrilling rides impatient children swarmed all over the Three Rivers Exhibition Park on a hill above the town.

Jean Nanson strolled over to the skeleton of Gay Paree. A couple of girls were arranging costumes in a dressing-room trailer that gave onto the back of the stage.

As Jean moved through the embryo Midway unshaven oil-soaked men with eyes red from lack of sleep came up to «Hk where she wanted a ticket booth placed, what about the bust tire on the Harley Davidson, had she got the live rabbits for the snakes’ monthly dinner, please would she come and listen to a local guitar trio?

She gave quick answers, rapped out terse instructions, bawled out a show girl for fetching a wrong type of elect rie fitting from town. She noticed a bunch of casual laborers on her payroll idling about so she bellowed at them. When they gaped foolishly she yelled at them in French. Thai set them skipping.

Never Speak of Rain

“Men don’t like working for the average woman,” she said. “1 get their loyalty by knowing more about the job than they do, paying them fair wages and firing them for one word of insolence.”

At that moment she could look on 10 full-time keyrnen who traveled with her show at wages ranging from $50 to $75 a week and 30 casuals hired locally at 75 cents an hour. She employed six showgirls at around $40 a week each and three motorcycle trick riders at. $100 plus bonus.

On a good day, Jean said, the girl show might take $1,000, the motorbike show around $750, and the snake show and monkey show considerably less.

“It’s a tricky business,” said Jean. “In a wet week we lose literally thousands through unavoidable overheads like wages and traveling expenses. Wo never s|>enk of rain.”

In the Fit of Death she pointed to two pythons, |Mrhaps 20 feet. long. “They’re uninsurable," she said. “If one of those dies of cold because the power heating goes off, bang goes a thousand bucks."

A big black alligator with one eye shot out lay comatose in three inches

of dirty water at the bottom ofà f-cffinlike tank. A soaked empty cigarette packet lay under his tail. Jean agreed that the alligator, Roscoe, looked a bit dopey. “Hut heck,” she said, “they’re always dopey and a darned good job too. Every winter we send Roscoe to an alligator farm in Florida. That does him a world of good.”

She didn’t think it was cruel to let little Javanese monkeys whirl round and round a saucer track in miniature cars at Monkeyland. “They’re just like kids,” she says. “They love it. Why they even take the motors to bits if you don’t watch them. Loose screws seem to fascinate them.”

The monkeys appeared to be very fond of her. “Most people,” she said, underestimate the intelligence of animals. When you live with them for years, as I’ve done, you realize some amazing things go on in their heads.”

At lunch time Jean changed into an expensive green suit, a cute little hat, and pinned a good cut of her capital onto her corsage in diamond clasps. Then she joined a little party given by Mrs. Marie Cortez in the French restaurant of the Chateau de Blois.

Mrs. Cortez had a splendid silver coiffure, many jewels and the soft voice and sure manners of a Kentucky dowager. For many years she and her husband Pete had run a freak show. They pay their nine freaks a total of $1,200 a week.

Fortune From a Wheel

Also at lunch were Prince Denny and his wife, Lady Ethel, (wo perfectly proportioned midgets who were married at the World’s Fair at Chicago before 10,000 spectators in 1933. Another guest was The Great Milan, a blond, languid Englishman who emigrated from Leeds early this year and now does a mind-reading act in Canadian carnival.

Then there was Tom Murphy, a burly Irish-American who makes enough money out of a wheel of fortune to

winter in Florida and buy a new Buick annually.

They were joined by an intelligent Californian woman in her middle 30’s who was a registered nurse and whose job now is looking after the Mexican Monkey Girl, a 60-year-old pinhead dwarf with the intellect of an infant.

Mrs. Cortez smiled sweetly and did the ordering. Prince Denny and his wife did plenty of talking. He was born on the Riviera, trained as a watchmaker, and took to show business for obvious reasons. Lady Ethel was born in Chicago where the couple still own a permanent home with midget furniture supplied gratis by Marshall Field.

“I loathe my midget chairs,” said Lady Ethel, swinging her tiny legs. Prince Denny commented that he lost $16,000 in a bank failure. “But we got by okay. Ethel and I have done very well.” Lady Ethel said the Prince was as good a husband as he was a businessman. “Last night he raised Cain with the management because we hadn’t enough blankets.”

The Great Milan put in gravely, “I also find these sudden changes of temperature here quite trying.” Jean Nanson clapped her hands and said what “a lovely English accent.” Actually the man spoke in the flat adenoidal tones of England’s northern cities.

Then The Great Milan won $5 from a total stranger in the dining room by guessing his mother’s two Christian names.

Mrs. Cortez picked up the luncheon bill for $28.

In the afternoon Jean returned to the carnival and met her husband who had arrived from Montreal with the new race game. “Boy, that’s good,” she exulted. “Think of the time saving. No packing up. All you have to do is close the doors and drive away.”

Her husband talked of his motorcycling days and showed a big scar on his leg. “Some people say riding round a vertical wall is easy because centrifugal force keeps you there. Well, I’ll

admit it’s just a tiny bit easier than it looks. But if the engine cuts out when you have your hands in the air and your feet over the bars— whammy!”

Jean was two hours late opening that night because the lights in Gay Paree wouldn’t work. When finally they got going there was not a soul outside the big top.

She stepped onto the outside dais in her white frock. She started talking into the mike. It took precisely 60 seconds to gather a crowd of 100.

Horrors, Hulas, Hocus-Pocus

Quietly Jean said, “Ballet, please.” On this signal the dancing girls and the guitar trio stepped from behind the curtain. It was chilly and most of the girls wore day coats over their costumes. Sparked by the age-old spiel the come-on started.

Down the glittering, raucous midway Prince Denny and Lady Ethel were smiling from their tiny stage at gawping crowds; Neilson, the tattooed man, was getting gasps of horror by lifting an anvil on two iron rings driven through his breast muscles; The Great Milan was solemnly beckoning the faithful to communion with the stars; a hula girl ran down to double as a pillion rider in the Motordrome; Roscoe the alligator stirred uneasily in the blinding light; the monkeys, chained to their cars, drove round and round in the deafening din of single-cylinder engines; couples soared aloft, for a furtive cuddle on the Ferris Wheel; a drunk lay half smothered in wood shavings under the lee of a tent; and the nickels, dimes and quarters rattled into the silver stream which annually becomes a $3 million pool for Canada’s showmen.

“You know,” said Jean, “my dad tried to keep me out of this business. He wanted me to be a stenographer. But I always say to him: ‘Did you ever hitch one of your circus mares to a plow?’ ”