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General History of the Midway

Derby Racerat PlaylandThe midway is an exciting, colourful, and sometimes controversial phenomenon with a rich history to be told. To look at the culture of midways is to see a reflection of popular culture and the preoccupations and desires it represents. Its transitory and elusive nature has stemmed from constant changes as definitions of novelty, morality, and entertainment were constructed, revelled in, and deconstructed, only to emerge once again as new shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, and sights to be absorbed.

An occasion for all the senses, midways involve a jumbled assortment of attractions and are loosely defined as the sideshow component of an exhibition. An originating purpose of this being to draw audiences and lead them towards a main show (hence the name midway, literally meaning 'halfway'). Two physical characteristics differentiate it from other events, one of them pertaining to layout and the other to audiences.

Calgary Stampede midwayUnlike a circus, which in its true form is set up as a ring with entertainers performing on the inside and circus-goers on the outside watching in, midways are often set up as a strip or as a U-shape that functions to create movement. This resulting design leads to the second midway characteristic, an ambulatory crowd. Circuses require audiences to remain stationary while viewing live entertainment. On the contrary, midway audiences walk back and forth through its route, choosing to stop and take in whatever catches their fancy for as long as they please.

A transitory audience means fierce competition for attention. Antics quickly developed to garner observation. Individuals referred to as callers would 'Ballyhoo,' or fast talk loudly and amusingly, to pull in small crowds around their particular showpiece.

M.J. Lapp ShowsAs an event, midways are preceded by activities as old as church-organized fairs during the 12th century. Medieval fairs occurred in such places as Britain and served to entertain, but also provided a regulated venue for buying and selling goods from far away. The Bartholomew Fair of 1708 offered roundabouts, big wheels, stalls selling foods for indulgence, and music. As fairs evolved and entertainment gained prominence, later incarnations were imbued with more mischief and playfulness.

In 1893, an event occurred that would shape the evolution of midways. The World Columbian Exposition (WCE) took place and raised the bar for all carnival events to follow. The first documented profitable fair, the WCE debuted attractions that would become mainstays, such as the Ferris wheel and three currently prominent favourites: ice cream cones, carbonated soda, and hamburgers. With the goal to unite the populace in celebration of technology and commerce, this historical event marked a particularly consumerist direction in entertainment seeking.

Conklin & Garrett show

Attractions at the midway were derivative forms of 19th century spectacles such as dime museums, medicine shows, peep shows, minstrel shows, amusement rides, and Wild West shows. As exemplified by minstrel shows and the display of nature's so called 'freaks', deep seated social anxieties, judgments, and myths were realized in grotesque and caricature forms of expression. As targets of ridicule or fear changed, so too did the show. At a time when North American society was beginning to shrug off Victorian mores, the debut of dancing girl shows produced scandal, and as those who had often suffered ridicule became more accepted in the mainstream, they ceased to be treated as otherworldly wonders.

Contending with worries of the time, midways also provided an opportunity for finding social cohesion and escape. A brief and representative list of fantastic midway entertainment could include bearded ladies, puppet shows, games of chance, slights of hand or other magic tricks, acrobats, jugglers, and a wild array of animals, some of them performers. For midway visitors, these various attractions provided a shared entry into areas of the unknown.

Ten-in-one show being advertisedAs midways grew in popularity they became more attractive to venturing entrepreneurs. In 1895, Otto Schmidt and his Chicago Midway Plaisance Amusement Company was the first to adventurously take a midway on the road. He encountered many challenges that served to refine the efficiency of midways, effectively creating new systems for them. Companies began to book whole seasons and great care was put into planning well-synchronized arrivals, set-ups, executions, strike-downs, and finally, travels to the next city. With the growth of mechanical rides, the establishment of this process became even more important for managing a sustainable business.

By 1901, seven big midways were operating in the United States with plenty of business throughout the year. A representative organization called the Carnival Managers Association of America was formed in 1912, and eventually became known as the Showman’s League of America.

In the 20th century, midways were often contracted by circuses, and eventually collaborated with agricultural societies across North America. With time, some of them directed their travels north, where they entertained visitors of the Edmonton Exhibition Association and eventually, Northlands Park.

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