For this local art collector, the classic banners promoting circus sideshow acts are the main attraction
Attorney Howard Marks says most people who know him well aren’t really surprised to learn that he’s an avid fan of an art form that’s on the unusual side. Over the past 25 years, Howard has amassed a sizable collection of vintage sideshow banners from circuses, carnivals, and fairs.
“I’m pretty strange; I collect odd things,” laughs the Lake Mary resident. “I’ve always been fascinated with the little subcultures of American society.”
The large, colorful signs in Howard’s collection once lured curious audiences to step right up and pay to see the sideshow performers, many of whom were labeled as “freaks” or “human wonders” because of their genetic conditions and abnormalities. Among the most popular sideshow performers were the infamous Bearded Lady and Lobster Boy, who was so named because his fingers and toes were fused together like claws.
Howard’s collection of 40 hand-painted banners, most of which are oil paintings on unframed canvas, includes some pieces that date all the way back to the 1930s. A few pieces are oil paintings on wood panels.
“I’m not sure how many people would have these banners in their house, but I’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction to them,” Howard says. “Most people see them and love them.”
When Howard bought his first two banners at a circus auction, he didn’t know much about the painters or the sideshow performers the banners depicted – typically in a highly exaggerated style to emphasize their oddities.
“Then I started researching it and got totally fascinated in that whole world,” says Howard, who also collects pop art and Southeast American folk art. “Nowadays, sideshows are too politically incorrect. You just can’t do this stuff anymore.”
During the sideshow’s heyday, the banners were merely a means to sell tickets to the side acts at a traveling fair, circus, or carnival. The commercial artists who painted the signs were usually employed by tent and awning companies, and many banners were painted over or destroyed after the shows.
“When the artists painted them, it was for the purpose of shocking people – to get the audience in and make some money,” Howard says. “It wasn’t until the 1980s that the banners were appreciated as an art form.”
Original sideshow banners in reasonably good condition can fetch between $5,000 and $20,000, Howard says, and are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Many of his banners were created by the top artists of the genre, including Johnny Meah, Snap Wyatt, Jack Sigler, and Fred Johnson.
Howard’s private collection has been exhibited at the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida, and the University of North Florida. And in February, Howard lent a few pieces to the organizers of the Love Your Shorts Film Festival in Sanford. They were used to adorn a circus-themed lounge for the filmmakers.
One intriguing aspect of the banner collection is its strong ties to The Sunshine State. Most sideshow performers and painters lived in Gibsonton, Florida, (just south of Tampa) during the summer months, and many wound up retiring there.
For Howard and his wife, fine artist Aurore Brunet Marks, the banner art is more than just an offbeat collection. The couple has formed a friendship with one of the artists whose work they collect – the aforementioned Johnny Meah, the last of the great banner painters. The Florida resident, who was also a sideshow performer, is nicknamed the Czar of Bizarre.
“He’s awesome,” says Howard. “This man knows everything about every banner that’s ever been painted. He’s very articulate and very educated, the last thing you would think of a traveling sideshow banner painter.”
Aurore and Howard each has a favorite piece in the collection. Aurore’s top pick is a striking painting of funhouse clowns, which is so large that it’s difficult to exhibit anywhere. The banner, which measures about 50 feet by 20 feet, was painted by the late Fred Johnson, who was known as the Picasso of Circus Art.”
“It’s just amazing – it’s so huge, and the clowns have different expressions,” Aurore says, adding that people tend to ooh and aah when they see some of these works of art. “The banners are strange and odd and very unconventional.”
Howard’s favorite piece is the iconic Bearded Lady, a painting of a smiling, dark-haired woman who is sporting a full beard.
“I fell in love with her when I saw her,” Howard chuckles. “She’s beautiful, and the eyes captivate.”
Howard and Aurore hope to publicly exhibit the banners again one day, to showcase this art form from a bygone era.
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“Some stuff they thought was weird back then is nothing today,” Howard says. “Nowadays, you can go to the internet and find anything. Nobody shocks anybody anymore.”