The Greatest Shows on Earth (in Wheeling)

In the old days entertainment was a whole different thing. Sister Kate asked me to write about the amazing shows of the good old days. The most amazing show ever was the monkey fighting at the Jack Town fair.  The New York Times writer who was with me on a sailboat wanted to work the story into his article, but could not figure a way.

There were other venues of show biz in out little town: the Fulton Carnival, the Jamboree, the strawberry festival, the school fair, the big circus that came to Wheeling Island, and always there were strip clubs for the education of young adults.

The Fulton Carnival was a wonderful place to get your pockets cleaned and your mind dirtied. Fulton was a little neighborhood down by Wheeling Creek. It was close to the Blaw Knox factory that turned out the tanks for World War II. You could get your pockets cleaned by playing any variety of rigged games that gave the illusion you could win. Another technique was a ride that would turn you upside down until the change fell out of your pockets. My favorite was the alligator woman. The barker would stand on the stage and yell “ She walks, She talks, She slithers on her belly. Come see the alligator woman”. It turned out to be a poor quality strip show, but to a junior high kid it was the big time. Then there was the hermaphrodite; this poor person made a living by showing people this was actually possible. It seemed in the old days there were certain instances where all forms of decency could be temporarily suspended. Wheeling had more churches per capita than any city in the country. At the same time it had probably more of every type of sin per capita.

The Jamboree was the mother of all shows. The Jamboree was a country western show that started when radio started. WWVA was the second radio station in the United States, next to KDKA in Pittsburgh. The Jamboree was the model for Garrison Keilor’s Prairie Home Companion. As a child I remember going to the Capitol Theater that had the Jamboree. The theater was amazing, It had five or six balconies. The same theater hosted the minstrel show. A minstrel show is something also that took place once a year. Bill Smoot used to sing classical music at the minstrel show, and of course there was the normal, at that time, black-face comedy. At the minstrel show things were constantly raffled off. Since Wheeling was the garbage can capital of the world, you could buy a garbage can at the minstrel. My grandfather always bought a garbage can. After you had your garbage can, you filled it with salt water taffy, rat traps, and clothespins, which were all staples of the show. You ended up going home with half a garbage can full of this crap.

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The Shrine Circus took place once a year on Wheeling Island. The elephants had to walk out of sync as they crossed the suspension bridge during the circus parade.

Elephants walking the Suspension Bridge. Photo courtesy of historic-wheeling.wikispaces.

The circus was held at the stadium on the island where all the Quinn boys were football hero’s. The stadium was impressive for a small town. The Stadium made the national news on several occasions. Eisenhower spoke there, and the most spectacular show the circus ever put on was when the Flying Wallendas did their pyramid act on the high wire. For the grand finale one of them touched a live electrical wire on the edge of the stadium and fell to his death over the back of the bleachers.

One great feat I remember seeing once was a person dive from the Fort Henry Bridge. It may have been to celebrate the opening of the bridge. The bridge is quite high, and the man wore a superman cape. The old famous Wheeling Suspension Bridge is next to the Fort Henry Bridge. Family history claims my grandfather used to dive from that bridge. The suspension bridge is lower, and it may have been done. I would guess it was a pretty good drop because steamboats had to be able to pass under that bridge, and they did not lower their stacks.


Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Mike’s blog, Kadizzled. He has generously agreed to look the other way while we pilfer his material that pertains to Wheeling.