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Step Right Up!

Inside Jim Secreto’s 8,500-square-foot photography studio in suburban Detroit, rare and unusual works of 20th-century folk art fly from the rafters and emblazon the walls. Six or seven pictorial banners that once ballyhooed the oddities and curiosities of the American midway are on exhibition at any one time. Though the spectacular size of these canvases---the standard dimensions are eight feet tall by ten feet wide---has daunted many a would-be collector, Secreto dismisses such squeamishness, saying, “If you’ve got to worry about the size don’t get in the game.”

As an automotive advertising photographer accustomed to producing billboard-size photos for Ford and General Motors and working in outsized studios, Secreto has a natural affinity for the larger-than-life scale and the vivid hues of sideshow banner art. “In this vastness of black and white," he says of his studio, "it’s only natural to hang a banner for color.” But Secreto has brought some banners into his home as well, where they provide the backdrop for a splendid assemblage of carousel objects and miniature circus carvings.

Next January, some of the true marvels of Secreto's collection --- what he calls "the old-time banners" ---will leave the privacy of his personal quarters and enter the public sphere in a show called "The Human Hammer Meets the Two-Headed Woman: Banner Paintings from the Great Midway," at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center.

A longtime collector of fairground art, Secreto jumped into the banner game with a passion in 1988, when the prices of carousel horses skyrocketed and he had $400 in his pocket. He had read the chapters on banners in the books America’s Forgotten Folk Arts and Fairground Art. “Subconsciously I’d been doing the research for years,” he says. “And then I don’t know what possessed me, but I went to Florida and I was going to come back with a banner.”

In Gibsonton, Florida, the Carny Capital of the U.S.A., Secreto found Jack Cripe’s visually arresting image of The Human Blockhead, a turbaned fakir with spikes hammered up his nostrils and pins piercing his tongue. He says, “People laughed at me. They said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’” When he tacked it to the living room wall, they told him, “What you need is a fat lady.” He found her at the next auction. And the banner wasn't the predictably grotesque character. Painted by Fred Johnson at the height of his 65-year career, the untitled banner is, rather, a flattering portrait of a beautiful woman who happens to be magnificently fat.

“Today people look at sideshow banners out of context. They look at the oddity,” Secreto says. “I was fascinated because they were advertising, which communicated to the masses. The painters of the midway were the artists of the common man.” He began his collection with works by Jack Cripe, Fred Johnson, and Snap Wyatt, whose banners are the most readily available because these artists were active and prolific relatively recently---from the 1950s to the 1970s. But only a small number of canvases from this or any other period have survived. “Once the performers left the show or the banner line was down, they’d cut them in half, use them for re-patching the tent, paint over them---or leave them behind in a field,” says Secreto.

Over the course of his collecting career, he has rejected about 30 banners for every one that he has bought. Secreto favors the strong graphic image and the central human figure. Any banner he buys has to be signed and in excellent condition. When he started, there wasn’t much competition among bidders, many of whom were interested only in a limited portion of the banner market. "It was a specialty within a specialty. I met the lady who collected freak animals, the guy who just wanted Fred Johnsons," he recalls. “I just wanted top-of-the-line banners by different artists in different styles.”

Secreto had to work hard to assemble a diverse collection of 35 banners in a genre in which sizable collections are few and far between. Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, and the Albuquerque Museum have a significant number of banner paintings in their permanent collections, but many of the works are catalogued “Artist Unknown” and only a handful are on display.

In 1995, Secreto teamed up with graphic designer Randy Johnson and banner dealer Teddy Varndell to produce Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway, a lavishly illustrated volume which brought this long-neglected popular art into the public eye once more. “Now it’s become a legitimized collectible for people on the edge,” Secreto says. Indeed, that first banner of his, The Human Blockhead, could serve these days as an advertisement for the body-piercing movement.

The oldest banner in Secreto's collection is a weatherbeaten canvas from the early 1900s touting snake oil as “The Medical Discovery of the Age.” A lion-tamer, glass blowers, and a 68-pound, 38-year-old tennis player come alive in banners rendered in the illustrative style of the 1920s by the old masters of midway art: Nieman Eisman of United States Tent & Awning Co. in Chicago; Cad Hill of Rhode Island; and G.M. Caldwell of Los Angeles, whose catchy slogan was stencilled on the back of his banners: “It’s the front of the show that gets the dough!”

The rarest and most unusual piece in the collection, Only 3-Legged Football Player in the World!---Alive, was acquired from veteran showman and banner connoisseur Kent Danner. “It has incredible provenance,” says Secreto, “because it was painted by Millard and Bulsterbaum, who were considered the best in the business, and because it depicts Frank Lentini,” a celebrated performer who began his career with Ringling Brothers

Secreto's cast of characters may seem complete, but one banner eludes him. At Sotheby's in New York in 1994, he saw a banner advertising a tattooed lady, painted in the early 20th century by August Wolfinger, and became consumed with a desire to make it “the crowning jewel” of his collection. “I took it down from the wall. I talked with the curator. I talked with the owner. It was yes, yes, yes!” Secreto recalls. As the sale got under way, however, the announcement was made that the lot had been removed. "When I asked, the auctioneer just kept saying ‘We reserve the right to remove any property from the sale.’"

When the auction was over, 37 lots of banners had sold for $690-$4,312, a price range that remains an accurate indicator of the market. As for the Wolfinger banner, another interested buyer confided to Secreto that he had been prepared to go as high as $5,000 . Secreto, who was first attracted to the field because of its affordability, claims that he was willing to go still higher than that --- after all, no sideshow is complete without a tattooed lady. And a good tattoo banner is hard to find. Secreto still longs for the one that got away ---he hasn't bought a single banner since that disappointment. Yet he hasn't given up hope. “I have a passion for the pursuit,” he says. “And I have a phenomenal ability to wait.”

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