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The Tent-show Summers
Tony 'Doc' Shiels
'Ladies and gentlemen ... the most amazing, astounding, and absolutely unbelievable exhibit you have ever seen ... it lives ... it breathes ... it watches you ... the disembodied head of Princess Ramen Ra ...!
So said the fellow in the tall beaver hat with the turkey feather trimmings, who stood outside the marquee, barking his head off and promising wonders. Inside his tent was a professor of the occult arcana, who pointed with a strangely carved stick to an ancient Egyptian throne with a sword laid across its gilded arms. On the blade, a severed head was balanced ... the head of Princess Ramen Ra ... it was alive!
To see that lot would have cost you a tanner, 'all classes ;' but this was a few years ago, when I was the barker, the 'Wizard of the West; the professor' was my good friend, Vernon Rose; and the princess' was Chris, my wife. It was our very first adventure in 'tenting,' although we all had some previous experience in entertaining the public, both musically and magically, at one time or another. This was very different from anything else we had ever tried . . . an old-fashioned, thaumaturgical tent-show, complete with gaudily painted facerboard and a mysterious air of eastern promise.
Each summer since them, we have, with varying degrees of success, put a show on the road. We have made things appear and disappear, read minds, escaped from locked boxes, and sawn ladies in half. We have been applauded and insulted, loved and hated, rewarded and robbed by the great Cornish public ... as unpredictable a body as I've ever met. We worked ourselves silly in the mad-dog summer sun, bolstered by warm beer and a jingling money-bag. And we enjoyed every minute of it... almost.
In 1970, on the way to St. Ives, with the complete show lashed to the roof of Vernon's old van, the professor happened to say, 'Let's get this show on the road.' It must have been mindover-matter, the best trick he'd ever done, because every damn rope seemed to snap in unison and our show hit the road with a bang! Vernon slammed on the brakes, and we leaped out of the van, just in time to see our beautiful temple of mystery being crushed under the wheels of a ten-ton truck. It was like something out of a cartoon film. We simply stood there, with our mouths hanging open, gaping at the broken remains. Then I started to whistle, There's No Business Like Show Business'... and we laughed . . . what else ?
St. Ives never did get to see Ramen Ra!
Later, in the same year, the apparatus was repaired and we hired a pitch at Camborne Show. Chris played the bodyless princess for a seven-hour stretch with hardly a break, swearing never again,as if she really meant it. In a tent hung with mock Egyptian trappings, decorated with undecipherable hieroglyphics, and redolent with the fumes of smouldering Kyphi incense, Professor Rose enacted the ritual of Ramen Ra. From a black metal box he removed a bundle, wrapped in silk, on which he poured a mixture of rare magical oils and powders as he murmured a weird incantation. The silk wrapping was unwound to reveal a human head, three thousand years old, resting on the sword-blade which lay upon the throne.
'It's not real, dear ... it's a model, made of plaster,' a lady reassures the little boy who grips her hand. 'It's not real', thinks the audience as they stare at the head ... then it opens its eyes and stares back! Shocked silence for the space of a dozen heartbeats, then a nervous giggle to break the tension. 'She lives ... she breathes ...' A few brave lads move closer, the head fixes them with a stony glare, and they move back, all except one, the boldest, who sticks out his tongue then dodges back, grinning, to rejoin his mates. The head gazes coldly at the crowd, ... 'She watches YOU!'
After a few minutes, Ramen Ra is returned to her resting place in the black box, and the tent is cleared for her next audience.
Outside, with wildly coloured patter, I exhort a mass of people to step up and be astounded. To gather the 'tip,' I perform an age-old conjuring classic, the'Cups and Balls,' a sleight-of-hand test piece for countless generations of prestidigitators. It goes down well with everybody, apart from a member of the Sally-Ann who thinks I'm a thimble-rigger with a gambling pitch. To allay his fears, I twist and tear green and yellow paper, making a tall tree for a little girl. She accepts it, smiling shyly, but an old countrywoman snatches it away and throws it on the ground. 'Huda maker!...' the old woman is afraid of me, she thinks I will put a spell on her grand-daughter.
My own kids began to learn the trade on that July day, barking and distributing handbills, decked out in top-hats and tails. Later, they got into the show itself, after a three year wait.
In the spring of '72, I told Vernon that I fancied sawing a lady in half, but not in the usual way... she must not be hidden inside a box, and she had to be bisected with an electric circular saw. I imagined something of the style of those buzz-saw benches, in the old movie serials, to which the villain tied the heroine ...'Give me the deeds, or you die, me proud beauty!... this was the death that those fates were worse than!' We put our heads together and scribbled some plans for the most spectacular sawing-in-half ever seen since 'The Perils of Pauline.'
Vernon,clever illusion-builder that he is, set to work, and our infernal machine began to take shape. One evening, he was returning from the blacksmith's shop where a lethal looking thirty-inch-diameter blade had been manufactured. It was in the back seat of his car, when he stopped to give a lift to a hitchhiker. That's a big 'un,' said the innocent traveller, eyeing the blade, 'what's it used for? Vernon answered, truthfully, and his passenger said not another word until he asked to be let out, about a mile down the road.
When the great buzz-saw was ready, Vernon brought it, and a large wooden packing-case, to the'Dog and Dragon,' near Porthtowan, where I was working. The packing-case, fitted with heavy padlocks, was to be used for a Houdini-like escape routine which the professor planned to perform, with the assistance of Chris and our other glamorous showgirl, Maureen. It seemed like a good idea to take on an extra lady assistant ... just in case the sawing-in-half didn't work properly first time round. Every day, for two or three weeks, we rehearsed in the garden of the Dog and Dragon ;' suffering just a few minor cuts and bruises in the early stages of creating our brand new, twenty-minute show.
July came around again, and we took to the road, with the first 'live' try-out of our new baby at Camborne Show. It went pretty well, and I even got my picture in the West Briton. At this rate we would, surely, soon be famous.
In August we appeared at our favourite date,'the great West of England Steam Engine Rally' at Sinns Barton, near Redruth. This is always an enormously popular event, which grows bigger and better each year. With an excellent pitch and a beautiful centre-pole tent, we were all set to knock 'em dead. And we did too, all weekend, with up to fifteen separate performances a day. On the Saturday night, after doing my stuff on the showground, I had to rush back to the 'Dog and Dragon' and work there from seven till midnight, before returning to the field and kipping down beside the buzz-saw.
I remember waking up in the early hours of the Sunday morning, when the others were still sleeping, just before dawn, and hearing a strange 'chomping' sound coming from somewhere behind the back wall of the tent. I lifted the flap and peered out at the weird spectacle of an army of rabbits cropping the grass ... noisily.
There is something very special, something unique, about the experience of waking up under the canvas roof of a show tent. The light, the smell, the whole atmosphere is special. When you get up and step outside into the misty summer morning, the marquees and side-stalls, the fairground rides and traction engines, form a surrealist landscape. The whole thing comes alive gradually, as the steam-engine men, the market men and the showmen ... and women ... greet one another, fetch water, cook breakfast and set up shop. That first mug of tea and a plate of sizzling bacon and eggs tastes perfect ... just perfect ... puts a smile on your face. This is the life,' you decide, and the feeling lasts for quite a while... at least until you've done three or four performances that day.
The early afternoon, on a blazing August day, is the busiest time, when the crowds are thickest and the tent is like a bakehouse inside. The girls, in their spangled tights, take turns at being sawn in half, or being locked inside the box. It's thirsty work. Between 'sawings' and 'escapes,' they nip over to the beer-tent and bring back pints for the professor and me. The show must go on, but I honestly don't see how it could survive without ale. The pace becomes quite hectic as the afternoon wears on, with hardly a rest between performances. We have to pack in as many people as possible in order to make the thing pay, and some of those people could be trouble-makers ....
So, there I am, behind the backcloth, getting my bits and pieces ready for another show, when Chris whispers,'Watch it ... angels in the audience.' She doesn't mean theatrical moneylenders, they are 'Hell's Angels,' complete with winged-skull patches and cowboy boots. One of them tosses his cap over the rope, stretched between the public and us, just as I'm about to start. He steps over the rope, smiling wickedly, as I go into my opening patter, and asks for his head-gear. I tell him that I think I'll keep it for a while, if he doesn't mind, there may be something inside it... you never know. He looks slightly puzzled as I say how pleased I am that he was good enough to step forward and volunteer to assist me with a few little experiments in legerdemain. Three tricks later, the lad is feeling a wee bit foolish, but his cronies are enjoying it immensely. I offer him a flower that I find in his cap and let him go at that. A good-natured fellow at heart, with a sense of humour, he takes it with a bow, and the crowd cheers. The 'angels' decided they liked us after that. I liked them too. We met them later, at one of the Helston fairs, and they made us a gift of a jar of cider. Nice lads.
The last 'date' of the 1972 summer season was at Liskeard in September, another traction-engine rally, where we met a lot of old friends, including members of Redruth's ‘Gladiator Club' with their magnificent showman's engine and fair organ. After that, we packed up and stowed the gear away for the winter.
From October, through into the new year of 1973, I did my mind-reading act at the 'Dog and Dragon'. By springtime, I was planning yet another new tent-show and, this time, the kids wanted a go.
The show of '73 was almost completely in the children's hands. Gareth, my eldest son, not quite fifteen years old at the time, appeared as 'Kalvini ... the World's Youngest Escapologist;' and Kate, eleven, demonstrated her telepathic powers. Outside the tent, Ewan, thirteen, did magic and barked, while Lucy, aged nine, dressed up as a clown, gave out handbills. The only one who chose to retain her normal character and appearance was Meg, Kate's twin, who toted the ticket roll and money bag. We also added a Punch and Judy show, worked by Gareth, in between escapes, which was a terrific crowd-puller. A friendly visit from members of Cottle and Austen's Circus, which was appearing in Redruth that week, boosted our collective ego enormously, helping everyone to work really well. The show was a great success and, by the end of their first full-time day, the kids were veteran showmen ... real professionals. This year they'll probably give me the boot ... that's showbiz!
Tony 'Doc' Shiels is an artist now based in Ireland. He lived in Cornwall for many years and was a member of the Penwith and Newlyn Art Societies. This article was first published in The Cornish Review in c1974.