I was reminded of a sordid bit of my past when someone recently posted a picture of me at the Illinois State Fair. I was in high school and since the Democrats were in power I got a patronage job from the local committeeman from Chambersburg. I showed up on the day before the fair started to get my nametag and sign the social security forms, then they sent me down to the carnival in Happy Hollow where I was to spend the next ten days.
The carnival workers looked at this farm kid and said, “Get on the coaster. We’ve got to test it out.” They’d just erected the roller coaster and wanted to make sure it wouldn’t fall apart, so five carnies and I climbed aboard this ride of death to see if anyone would actually die. These tattooed old roughnecks sat there blithely smoking their cigarettes as the cars whirls ‘round and ‘round while I clung desperately to the hand bars, hoping that when the carnival got to Springfield they had assembled the ride correctly.
I was a ticket taker, the lowest rung in the carnival caste system, and on the second day I was assigned to Las Vegas A-Go-Go, the burlesque show, located in the crotch of Happy Hollow. The carnies told me that Illinois was the only state that provided ticket takers, wanting to keep the patronage system well-oiled. I’d stand there tearing stubs as the patrons entered after buying their tickets from sellers who made most of their income by short-changing people. They even showed me how they did it. I’d give them a ten dollar bill for a three dollar ticket, I’d carefully watch them count out my change and I came up short every time. It was amazing.
These guys wore expensive suits and drove their Cadillacs to the fairground each morning. They were good. I imagine that several went on to serve in the Illinois Legislature.
One cool idea: the money takers had a variety of price signs tucked inside their booth and they’d change the price of the show according to the amount of traffic in Happy Hollow at that particular moment. An interesting note if you’re into strip shows: hot afternoons are the cheapest, evenings the most expensive.
Las Vegas A-Go-Go billed itself as “fun-filled entertainment” but it was a strip show pure and simple. No one came for the comedians or the juggler; they were there for the G-strings. You would think this would be a cause for much excitement for a boy from Perry, but these strippers had long passed their prime if indeed they ever had one. Some of them had their faces and chests lifted to many times that when they raised their eyebrows their toes curled up. It was just awful. After stepping inside the tent to view a couple of shows I opted for the sunshine and chatting with the carnies.
They did give me one very important job. It was technically illegal to go naked at the State Fair unless you were an Angus steer. This unfortunately didn’t stop the wrinkled ladies from doing so, so whenever a badge-wearing State Fair official would buy admission it was my job to quickly run backstage and give the word to the strippers. If the audience would have known this they’d have saved themselves the misery by always attending when an official was in attendance. My code word was “Heat’s here!” The old gals would put down their whiskey, take a drag off their Chesterfields and say, “Thanks, kid.” I’ll admit that I felt a bit like a cornfield version of James Bond, and more than once I was tempted to lie about an official being in the audience just to get the sagging sisters to keep it on.
I felt for these gals and their fellow entertainers. Most came from careers in legitimate show business and with no other salable skills they roamed around the country dropping their juggled bowling pins and pasting pasties on their petunias. It seemed a sad life but ironically I found them to be good people. One old gal sat there in here spangled bra and panties while she showed me pictures of her grandchildren in Indiana. I’m sure that her grandchildren’s version of visiting grannies was a bit different than mine.
I’ve not visited Happy Hollow since. Strip shows are no longer featured, but the place still seems to be overhung with a cloud of sadness that I can’t quite erase from my memory. If today’s young ticket taker would suddenly run backstage and shout, “Heat’s here!” they’d probably just turn on an air conditioner.