KQED Perspective aired January 26, 2001
by Michael Ellis
About 30 years ago through a series of coincidences I ended up working with Century 21 Shows, a traveling carnival operation. They did the so-called Corn Belt circuit – Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin. I had teamed up with a 75-year-old carnie named Rip. Old Rip taught me everything he had learned in a lifetime of hustling and I was a very quick learner. I got more real-life education in 6 months of carnie work than I had in the previous 2 years of college. For the first time in my life I met adults who could not read and children who had never been to school. The fat lady was actually a fat man with a very tiny boyfriend. The Wild Man of Borneo swallowed live chicks and frogs and later, off stage, regurgitated them alive and whole because the humane society had complained about cruelty to animals. He was actually from Puerto Rico. More than half the “grease monkeys”, the name for the guys who ran the rides, were AWOL or draft dodgers fleeing the Vietnam War. None of the beautiful girls in the girlie show were women. That astounded me and I am sure would have greatly shocked those randy farmers in Iowa who lined up nightly to see the show. Every night we paid our Patch money to the boss. This pot of money was used to smooth out any trouble with the local police in each town- that is – bribes.
I worked The Crazy Ball, to be sure an honest game, but one with just bad odds. You placed a quarter on one of 17 colors and then one person threw a wiffle ball onto an enclosed table. The wiffle ball rolled around until it landed on one of the colors. If you had a quarter on that color, then you won a stuffed animal. If you didn’t I kept your quarter. I lived, worked, ate, and slept in the tent. After all these years I can still say the rap.
“On your color take your choice, anything you see, anything you like, anything your little ole heart desires, cost you but a quarter, right here at the ole crazy ball. On your color, take your choice. You pick the color; the ball picks the winner. Watch that crazy, rolly, polly ball go, where it lands nobody knows. When that ball lands on your color you take any prize you see, any prize you like. Crazy ball the largest winner on the midway!”
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.