ephemera: When did your passion for sideshow ephemera begin?
Mundie: In 1998, I began working on a series of portrait drawings of sideshow performers called the Prodigies. It was in the process of researching my subjects that I discovered there were many objects relating to the lives of these folks on the open market, such as pitch books, carte de visites, cabinet cards, broadsides, etc.
Although I didn't have much money to spend--so I was never going to own a Snap Wyatt banner--I was able to pick up some fantastic items which then became source material for the drawings.
ephemera: This is really an interesting subject. What challenges or obstacles do you encounter in finding new items for your collection?
Mundie: In recent years, the market seems to have heated up, so the bargains are fewer. The general collectibles and photography enthusiasts have started to pay attention to these circus and carnival objects, so there are more speculators willing to drop more cash. And every time the Discovery Channel puts out a new documentary or somebody puts out a book about freaks, a whole new crop of collectors pops up overnight. I admit I have a low price threshold. Because I'm not the sort of completest who needs to have one of everything, I'll let things go when I'm not willing to spend three times what they're worth...which also keeps my wife happy. But this is all cyclical, and if you wait it out the people who aren't really serious, they will move onto the next hot thing and the bargains will begin to appear again.
I'm friends with several other serious collectors--competitors, sometimes. It's a pretty small community of enthusiasts, so if I recognize another bidder as a buddy of mine, I'll usually back off and let them have it, and they'll do the same, but that usually means some third-party sniper gets it instead of either of us.
I'm also seeking some intangible aesthetic attraction in the items I collect--maybe something that will inspire a new drawing or something that just appeals to my'neat-o factor, so I'm rather picky about what I do acquire. Consequently, I don't have the largest collection, but I think that what I do have is of a fairly high caliber.
ephemera: The sideshow is such a great slice of Americana. What are your favorite items?
Mundie: Oh, so many...one of my favorites is a pitch card photograph of Stanley Berent, also known as, Sealo the Sealboy, from 1951, when he was working for Ringling Brothers. In the photograph he's got this big smile, chomping on a cigar, wearing a snappy satin shirt, and sawing up a fruit crate. There's just something so strange and jolly about the photograph, and I love that he has signed the back of the card "Wishing you the best in your coming years." What a showman!
I also have a postcard pamphlet from Ray R. Myers, The Armless Musician, who was a popular country radio personality in the 1930s and 1940s. The booklet has photos of Myers performing ordinary tasks, such as pouring a glass of Coca Cola with his feet, and he has signed it, "Yours, Ray R. Myers," in a very attractive flowing script.
Another item I enjoy, for its local connection and the mystery surrounding it, is a souvenir photograph of the conjoined Gibb Sisters, stars of the Italian operetta I Due Gemelli, which was performed at Philadelphia's Academy of Music on February 5, 1937. Completely bizarre.
ephemera: Your objects bring to mind Tom Waits' Circus, in which he introduces Horse-Face Ethel and her Marvelous Pigs in Satin; One-Eyed Myra, queen of the galley; and, Yodeling Elaine, queen of the air. It seems clear he real-life sideshow performers in mind when he wrote the story. What’s your advice to achieving success as a sideshow ephemera collector?
Mundie: To keep this an enjoyable vocation rather than an unhealthy obsession, buy items that you like instead of the things you think will have a high resale value. Why fill your life with stuff you hate? Display the items in your home, enjoy them, and share your enthusiasm with others. Rotate the display occasionally to remind yourself of what you have.
In building your collection have a goal; map out a strategy; and stick to it. Don't get suckered into paying too much for something just so the other guy can't have it. Remember that it--or something better--will come around again eventually, and, in the meantime, you can use that extra cash to get something else.
Whatever your area of interest, take the time to research it. The more knowledgeable you are, the more likely you are to get items you want and not pay too much for them.
ephemera: Wonderful advice, James. Thanks for making sideshow ephemera the main attraction in today's post.