Eating Lollies And Walking Down Sideshow Alley

One of the tourist must-do things in Florida is to hang out in the keys; that string of coral islands south of Miami that stretch for 120 odd miles between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. I knew about Key West and Key Largo; Key West because of Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed cats, and Key Largo because of the Bogart and Bacall classic film Key Largo. I started a little late the day I ventured into the keys so knew that I didn’t have the extra hours needed to sample every wilderness and seascape that unfolds along the one hundred plus miles of roadway, and the forty-two arches of concrete and steel, that make up the Overseas Highway. I stopped at Shell World in Key Largo; the quintessential tourist souvenir shop stranded in a time warp. There is something for everyone at Shell World.

john-unicorn-head

image source:johnmcadam

Some may find it unusual to find a latex unicorn head nestled among the snow globes, alligator hats, marine-inspired resort wear and shell lamps, but I saw it as representing the hippocampus; the fish-tailed horse of the sea from Phoenician and Greek mythology. I slipped on the latex unicorn head. There was a strange but satisfying scent in the mask and within a few minutes, I could only hear my deep, slow, relaxed breathing. I opened my eyes and I was just one of the many people staring up at a platform. Behind the platform was a tarpaulin wall serving as a canvas for the most incredible artwork; a panorama of workmanship depicting the elephant boy, snake girl, lobster boy, the mermaid lady, and dog-faced man. This majestic painted canvas wall teased all of us about the collection of excitements, sensations, and bizarre fantasies that were just inside the tent.

sideshow-alley

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The Royal Melbourne Show is organized by The Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and for more than 150 years has been bringing a small slice of Victorian country life to Melbourne. The Show happens for eleven days every September at the Melbourne Show Grounds and attracts up to half a million people each year. Mum and dad took us to the Show a couple of times and later I remember dad driving me to the showgrounds; dad would drop me off at a side entrance gate and we would agree, and promise, on a time to be picked up. I spent the whole day alone at the show. Then I rode the red bus to the showgrounds. The red bus wandered from Williamstown Beach through Footscray and past the showgrounds. The bus stop, at the corner of Melbourne Road and Wilkens Street, was only a short walk from our house. And there was a green bus. The green bus went from Newport railway station, down North Road to Douglas Parade, Ferguson Street, Nelson Place, and then to Williamstown Beach. When I was a youngster, mum’s special treat was to take me on the green bus to the Williamstown shops. I was allowed to kneel on the seat; I’d press my forehead and nose to the window so I could watch the bustle of Douglas Parade pass by.

grand-parade

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The Royal Melbourne Show was about celebrating champion livestock, the country’s best horse riders, the toughest wood chopping axe men and women, and life on the farm. The agricultural pavilion showcased perfectly arranged eggs, ham, vegetables and bottled fruit, and the art, craft, and cookery competitions produced amazing cake decorations, and eye-catching embroidery and smocking. And Victoria’s excellence in livestock was advertised each day by the swirling mass of hundreds of animals choreographed to become the Grand Parade. Back then I didn’t care about any of that. My Royal Melbourne show existed for three reasons; sideshow alley, show bags, and the Victoria Police exhibit.

I don’t remember a Melbourne Show without sideshow alley; made up of merry go rounds, Ferris wheels, other mechanical rides, test your skills stalls, and the tents housing the freaks, illusion and magic shows, death-defying acts, and boxing performances. I was young, naive, and innocent and I was seduced by the promises of sword swallowers, mermaids, bearded ladies, five-legged cows, two-headed calves and much more; all just inside the tent and just for a couple of shillings. The showground air carried the hypnotizing, funereal tempo beat of the bass drum from the Sharman Boxing Troupe tent.

sharnin-tent

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Until 1971 the Sharman Boxing Troupe had spent sixty years being part of the Australian Show landscapes.

Boom, Boom, Boom.
Who’ll Take A Glove?
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.
Come on, come on, come on. Give it a go. Survive three rounds and we will give you five pounds.
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.
And the tent boxers were introduced one by one to the crowd.
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.
But I never did have the courage to go inside the tents of sideshow alley.
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.

And the games of sideshow alley challenged your skills and you were rewarded with a prize without taking a glove. Most of the games involved throwing something at something. A popular game was throwing tennis balls at a group of stacked tin cans. Throwers stood at a line at the front of the tent and tossed the balls the length of the tent; and there was always a tin can left standing.

clown-game

image source:brisbanetimes.com.au

Another popular game was pushing ping pong balls down a clowns mouth when the head was moving from side to side. The first ping pong ball was always a test ball. After putting it down the mouth you would pay attention to the numbered slot it ended up in. And then you figured out when to put the ball in the clown’s mouth to get the score needed to win one of the prizes on the top shelf. All you needed to win at the game was a knowledge of mathematical and physics concepts, courage, perfect timing, and concentration. I watched people play the clowns for a long time but never saw anybody win a prize from the top shelf. Maybe they just needed a little bit of luck. I never played any of the games in sideshow alley.

The Show was also about showbags and the Victoria police exhibit. I remember the paper showbags; they were used by companies to promote their products. There were only a couple of halls where you could buy showbags and there were a couple of kiosks scattered around the showgrounds that also sold the bags. The halls were lined with show bag stalls and once inside you navigated carefully past the prams and pushers, laden down with show bags, to arrive at your chosen showbag stall. The contents of the bags were displayed on the stall’s back wall or spilled out onto the front counter. My favourite bags were the Cherry Ripe, Lifesavers, Violet Crumble, and the Giant Licorice bag.

showbags

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Each year I just looked at the Rosella and Coles bags but never bought them; there were never enough lollies in them. There were over fifty show bags to tempt a young boy, and they were just a couple of shillings each. But time marches on; there are now three hundred plus plastic bags filled with assorted treats and the cost is upwards of twenty-five dollars. Licensed bags fill the showgrounds; Barbie, Disney’s Frozen, Looney Tunes, Breaking Bad, and Captain America show bags now persuade today’s show goes; and the Australian Food Awards Deli bag contains cheese, olives, and baked pita. Where are the lollies?

The Victoria Police Exhibition was the magnet that pulled you away from the sideshow alley. The small exhibit shed was crammed with police memorabilia, archives, and collectibles. I would squint at the faded sepia-coloured police mug shots and become the police photographer at the scene; examine the forensic evidence collected by the specialist crime squads and mature into a D24 detective; stare at large grainy black and white photos of Melbourne’s notorious crime scenes and be the fearless photographer capturing the images of the blood-stained carpet and crumbled bodies. And I stared wide-eyed and in awe at the newest technologies for fingerprinting, photographing, and communication. For a short time, I was Plain Clothes, Constable Smith.

fairyfloss

image source:funfoodhire.com.au

The air at the show was an exotic blend of animals, fairy floss, meat pies and tomato sauce. I never heeded mum’s guidance to go and find the country ladies food hall to get something to eat. The ladies food hall was the Country Women’s Association hall and the ladies sold home-cooked meals. The dinners were meat with roast pumpkin, scalloped potatoes and peas, rissoles, or silverside with mashed potato. Ham, egg, and salad sandwiches were also popular And dessert was a slice of pavlova or fruit jelly. I happily snacked on meat pies, cups of hot chips, jam doughnuts, and fairy floss.

Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.
As the years passed I lost interest in the show bags and the intrigue and mysteries of the Police Exhibition were replaced by staying home and watching the Australian television police dramas Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police.
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.
And each year the sideshow alley tents became fewer and fewer.
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.
Years later as a young adult I visited the Royal Melbourne Show and I went to the country ladies food hall for scones with jam and cream, and a cup of tea.
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.

The Royal Melbourne Show was a September tradition along with the School Holidays; there was even a Show Day public holiday. And it’s still a tradition for some Show visitors to stop at the country ladies food hall for scones with jam & cream, and a cup of tea.

The 2017 Royal Melbourne Show will run from Saturday 23 September through Tuesday 3 October.

 

Royal Melbourne Show

The Country Women’s Association of Victoria

Five Minutes of History: Jimmy Sharman