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Circus Lingo and Slang


Our goal is to preserve the history of the American Circus, it's people, stories and traditions.



Glossary of Circus Terms

A _ B _ C _ D _ E _ F _ G _ H _ I _ J _ K _ L _ M 

N _ O _ P _ Q _ R _ S _ T _ U _ V _ W _ X _ Y _ Z




Ace Note: A dollar bill.

Advance: Ahead of the show. Everything pertaining to a show on its route before men working out of the show's road office take over the details.

After Show: Concert or short extra pay performance in the big top after the regular performance is out and over. Early shows used singing and dancing concerts but in later years wild west exhibitions were usually the after show sometimes featuring some well known cowboy movie actor.

Announcer: The person who introduces the acts and numbers to the audience during a circus performance. On modern circuses this man was not a "ring master". The announcer on the really big shows of "the Golden Age of the Circus"was just that and nothing else. On these shows the performance was usually handled by the "Equestrian Director", sometimes called the performance director. Ringling Barnum at its biggest had both.



Back Yard: "Off Limits"to the general public. Dressing rooms, ring stock tents (padrooms), wardrobe and costume departments, doctor's wagon, tailor's wagon and performer's rest areas were all located in the back yard of the railroad transported circuses. On some shows, the performing animal cages and dens were all located in the back yard area. When lot layout required, the cook house, the blacksmith shop, the baggage horse tents and other departments were spotted in or near the back yard.

Baggage Wagons: Strongly built wagons on which all the circus equipment, properties, trunks, etc. were loaded. Most of the parade wagons (band and tableau) doubled as baggage wagons on the moves between towns.

Bale Ring: Large steel ring on which the tent is attached and puled to the top of the center poles.

Bally Broads, Bally Girls: Woman and girls who sang and danced in the circus spectacle. On the later day shows, these girls also worked in the Aerial Ballet, rode menage horses, appeared in the posting art creations number and were 'generally useful' throughout the entire performance. Use of this term probably came from the employment of real ballet girls and dancers in the great circus spectacle of 1880 to 1910. Later day bally broads remained with the show for many seasons working in a featured act, and often, married to a staff member of the show.

Bandwagon: A circus parade wagon carrying a circus band. - A bi-monthly magazine published by the Circus Historical Society.

Bannerline: The array of colorful banners on each side of a sideshow entrance, depicting enhanced and exaggerated images of the exhibits inside.

Barker: A term invented by Hollywood. There is no such word in the circus language.

Blow Off: (1) The end of a circus performance. The period when patrons are exiting the tent. You may see midway attractions and vendors getting ready to "catch the blow-off". (2) An extra attraction inside a sideshow, (usually behind a curtain or sidewall), shown for an additional fee, sometimes of adult nature.

Blues: The general admission grandstand, often consisting of wood boards painted blue, supported by stringers and jacks.

Broad Tosser: A three card monte dealer

Bull: An elephant, either male or female.

Bullman: An Elephant handler.

Butcher: Concessionaire, one who sells items in concession stands or in the seats during a performance. The story is that the first person to do this was the animal meat butcher on the Old John Robinson Show sometime before the Civil War. He was so successful, he was able to quit his job as meat butcher, but his fellow troupers continued to address his as butcher. When others started selling items on the seats they were called butchers also. When the new railroads allowed men to sell confections and newspapers on their trains they were also called butchers, 'news butchers'.



Calliope: Pronounces Kal-E-Ope with long E and O, not Ka-Ly-a-Pee. A keyboard musical instrument musical using either air or steam and a series of whistles to produce musical notes.

Candy Butchers: Concession salesman who sells concession items on the circus seats before and during a performance. The story is that the first person to do this was the animal meat butcher on the Old John Robinson Show sometime before the Civil War. He was so successful, he was able to quit his job as meat butcher, but his fellow troupers continued to address his as butcher. When others started selling items on the seats they were called butchers also. When the new railroads allowed men to sell confections and newspapers on their trains they were also called butchers, 'news butchers'.

Candy Pitch: A sales pitch for prize box candy. The pitchman announces that the candy will only be sold for the next few minutes and that some boxes contain coupons for expensive gifts.

Center Pole: The main poles (usually four), supporting a tent. The Largest tent poles.

Cherry Pie: Additional work a circus employee can do to receive extra pay. (see Chinese).

Chinese: Extra work a circus employee must do without additional usually stated in an employee contract. Example: Circus performers may act as ushers before a performance, butchers may have to hang sidewall around the big top or erect the marquee. (see Cherry Pie)

Circus Fan: A person devoted to following circuses and studying their history. Often a member of an organization;Circus such as, "Circus Historical Society", "Circus Fans of America", "Circus Model Builder &Owner's Association"or "Windjammers Unlimited".

Circus Report: The biweekly trade magazine of the circus industry:

Clown Alley: The area just outside the 'back door' of the big top reserved for the heavier clown properties. After putting on their makeup in the regular dressing room, the clowns for the most part stayed in this area until they got their cues to enter the big top.

Cook House: Where circus employees eat.



Date: A show's engagement in a town.

Day and Date: Two shows in the same town on the same day in competition with each other. "We're going to day and date the King Bros. Circus next week"

Doniker (or donniker): refers to a toilet or bathroom.

Duke: A handout - I duked him a fin.

Dukey: A snack, taken along on long trips.



Equestrian Director: The man in charge of the circus performance. The Ringmaster is often also the equestrian director.



Fin: A five dollar bill.

Flag's Up: A flag is raised at the "cook house"when a meal is ready to be served . You may hear someone shouting "flags up"on a circus lot to let people it's time to eat. (see "cook house).

Flea Bag: A disreputable, ragged and dirty show. Not necessarily a crooked operation, as the best Sunday School outfits had bad runs of business or weather and had to let the appearance of the show run down.

Floss: Cotton candy

Floss Joint: Cotton candy stand

Fold or Folded: The closing of a show before the end of its regular season.

Freak: A human oddity on exhibition in a museum or in a circus or carnival side show.

Front Yard: The parking area for the circus staff and concessionaires. (See Back Yard)



Garbage: Novelty items - dolls, whips, whistling birds, canes, pennants and others souvenirs sold on a circus.

Garbage Joint: A concession stands that sells novelty items.

Gilley Wagon: A general purpose circus truck used to carry non-specified items.

Grandstand: Optionally purchased reserved seating.

Grease Joint: A concession stand that sells Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Etc.

Grind Show: See - Pit Show



Haul: The move between the circus train and the show lot.

Herald: Type of advertising for individual reading. Many sizes and shapes printed on colored newsprint in one, two or four pages. These heralds were handed out to people on the streets, or put into the front doors of homes. Some were printed on white paper stock to make them look a little more high class. Restrictive ordinances have made heralds almost obsolete today.

Hi!; Stop,Halt. A command for elephants or to stop show vehicles.

High Seat: Asking patrons in general admission seating (blues) to move closer together to squeeze in more people.

Horse Opera: A wild west exhibition. Word show was not used for wild west attractions and organizations.

House: The crowd inside a circus tent for a performance.



Iron Jaw: An aerial act in which the performers work suspended by a mouth piece clinched behind their teeth.

Itchy Feet: An off the road trouper's urge to get back with it on the road.



Jackpot: Circus people talking among themselves, telling stories, (usually tall tales).

Joey: A clown. From the famous European clown, Joe Grimaldi.

John Robinson: A shortened circus performance. Example: There's a bad storm coming, give them a John Robinson.

Joint: A concession stand or booth on a circus.

Jump: The move between towns.



King Pole: The first pole raised on a sideshow bannerline. The only bannerline pole with three guy lines, all others have only two.

Kinker: A circus performer. Performers usually stretch and warm-up before their act to get the "kinks"out.



Lecturer: Talker inside a show. An Emcee or Lecturer for circus side shows or carnival attractions.

Liberty Horses: An act of from one to twenty four horses working in a ring with no reins being used by the trainer. These horses are trained to do drills, hind leg walks, Etc. Acts of either eight or twelve horses have been standard for many years. Much larger acts were used as features at various times though.

Lot Lice: People on the show grounds long before the show's performance, sometimes early in the morning to watch the tent go up.



March: The old time grand free street parade, horse drawn.

Mechanic: A belt or safety device worn by a performer as he does a 'trick'. One or more safety (lunge) ropes are attached to the belt. During the act, the persons holding the lunge ropes regulate the slack in them so that the performer has freedom of movement but cannot fall to the ground or floor on a 'missed trick'. Most all performers, both aerial and ground, are trained by aid of mechanics.

Menage: The performance of 'high school' type riding in a circus arena by one or more persons and their horses. Thirty or more riders in one display was not uncommon on the larger circuses of fifty years ago.

Mud Show: A show that traveled by horse drawn wagons between the towns on its route. There is no record that any established carnival used this mode of travel. All circuses were 'mud shows' until the early Twenties when they began moving on trucks. No truck show has ever been a mud show. The term applies to the show's mode of transportation and all the muddy roads they moved over, not the muddy lots ALL shows have to work on.



Natives: Local people.

Novelties:Whips, whistling birds, canes, pennants and others souvenirs sold on a circus. (See Garbage).

Nut: The daily operating expense of a circus. On a day with poor attendance a showman might say "we won't get off the nut in this town".



Opening: The spiel or speech given by the talker in front of a show. On circus side shows, the first opening given with many people on the bally platform, was the 'First Opening'.

Opera: A showman's term for a travelling show. This term was used extensively when talking about Wild West Exhibitions. They were called 'Horse Operas'.



Pass: A free ticket on a show.

Peanut Pitch: A sales pitch for bags of peanuts The pitchman announces that the peanuts will only be sold for the next few minutes and that some bags contain coupons for expensive gifts (see candy pitch).

Pickled Punk: A wax reproduction of a human human fetus, exhibited in sideshows in a jar filled with liquid.

Pie Car: A place for circus employees to purchase food and drink after-hours.

Pit Show: A small show or exhibit on the circus midway.

Pitch: An announcement made during a performance to sell a product. A commercial.

Pitchman: A person who sells merchandise with lectures and demonstrations.

Paper: Circus posters

Prop: An object used by a performer in an act. Short for property, as in "a performers property".

Prop Man: A person responsible for setting up or moving a performer's props or rigging. Also responsible for the safety of performers. A Stagehand.



Quarter Poles: The intermediate poles between the side poles and the center poles of a tent. Usually, tents between sixty and one hundred feet wide (diameter of the round ends) use only one row of quarter poles. Tents over one hundred ten feet wide have to have two rows of intermediate poles to support the weight of the canvas when wet and to prevent the forming of 'Water bags'.



Red Light: To throw away or dispose of.

Ring Curbs: The massive wooden rings now used by circuses. When the making of ring banks was discontinued by most shows, rings were made of rope, or canvas sections. These evolved into the sectional wooden circuses used today.

Ringmaster: The man in charge of a circus performance and announces the acts.

Risley: A juggling act, in which a performer lies on his back and juggles objects or people with his feet.



Saw Buck: A ten dollar bill.

Sell Out: A sponsor or promoter paying a circus a flat-fee to perform then selling their own tickets.

Sideshow: An extra, secondary production in a separate tent with a circus, where close-up acts and human oddities are exhibited.

Sidewall: To perform outdoors without a tent. The canvas sides that enclose a tent.

Slall, Slalled: To tear down. Closed down by authorities.

Spanish Web: A long soft rope on which circus performers climb and perform an "aerial ballet".

Speck: Short for spectacle. The grand entrance or parade of performers usually at the beginning of the show. Many circuses had several themed specks during a performance, (example - a Mother Goose speck).

Star-Backs: Optionally purchased bleacher seating with back rest.

Straw House: A filled to capacity performance. When seats are full, hey or straw is spread on the ground for people to sit on.

Sunday School Show: A clean show



Take: The cash taken in from a performance, a concession, a series of performances or a string of concessions.

Tax Box:A ticket box where an arbitrary amount of money is charged on "free" passes.

Teaser Curtain: A curtain place across the entrance of a sideshow in such a manner that people on the outside can see people in the tent but not the performers.

Ten in One: a sideshow.

Towners: Local people.

Trailer: A person who followed a show, sometimes riding the show trains, who was not on the payroll of that show. Some peddled balloons, others stole merchandise and sold that at bargain prices. Some of them just liked to travel with circuses. During depression days, many good show hands 'trailed the show' waiting for an opening for a job. If business was good, show's cook house fed these men in order to keep them around.

Trouper: A person who has spent at least one full season on some type of traveling amusement organization. By then, they are usually hooked.



Under the Stars: To show outside without a tent. Seats and properties set up without a tent over them.





Wagon: Circus trucks are still referred to as wagons, (pole wagon, office wagon, seat wagon Etc).

Wardrobe: All costumes furnished and carried by a circus.

Web: (See Spanish Web)

The White Tops: A bi-monthly magazine published by the Circus Fans Association of America.

Wild Cat: Book and play into new territory on very short notice due to problems on the old route. Droughts, strikes, layoffs, epidemics, etc, etc. could force a route change. The latter was usual cause of sudden changes that resulted in 'wildcatting'. For instance, in mid Twenties, Ringling Barnum was caught by a Hoof and Mouth Outbreak in Texas. Show had to 'blow' its route and 'wildcat' into new smaller towns all over the state for several weeks. Had the epidemic hit before show got into the state, Texas dates would have been canceled and show would have 'wildcatted' into other Southern towns in place of them.

Winter Trouping: Staying out with a show in winter months when all decent under canvas shows and showmen should be in a warm winter quarters somewhere.

Worker: A larger or better balloon a concessionaire shows in order to sell an item.



The X: Exclusive rights to sell a product. A concession owner buys the 'X' on some item or concession for the entire show.






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