“Left alone with big fat fanny She was such a naughty nanny Heap big woman you made a bad boy out of me” – Brian May
The sticky, sweet smell of cotton candy combined with the stench coming from the animals, and mixed with the iron taste of diesel fuel. It was an odor particular to the carnival that she would never forget.
The word carnival has two meanings. First, according to Webster:
A period of public revelry each year that takes place before Lent; and second, A traveling amusement show.
Circus folks, whom I have interviewed extensively, are quick to point out the differences between them and carnival folk or more derogatory “carneys.” The circus, burlesque, and other forms of early American pop culture have been the target of my work over the past decade. After meeting someone who essentially grew up on the carnival grounds I thought I should take a look at the life of the showgirls in the carnival. Many of my burlesque ladies had certainly worked the carnival circuit including stars Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee, making gobs of money with their Royal American Girlie Shows. According to Sally Rand’s son Sean, it was Gypsy who encouraged his mother to join the grueling schedule of upwards of 30 shows a day for thousands across America.
But before we get into that let’s examine carnival.
The carnivals were ― and are ― loaded with games of chance, heavily favored on the side of the concessionaires who run, and lure and can cheat the carnival rubes out of hard earned quarters (at least back when a quarter meant something). There was of course the side show with real and bogus “Freaks” and death-defying rides. With its geneses in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 the carnival would become known as a raucous, popcorn smelling afternoon where one tried to hang on to their wallets walking the midway. Staring in the mid-1920s most carnivals set up in a field or wherever they could for several days and took in thousands in attendance. Folks were bug-eyed over scandalously skimpy-dressed beauties and freaks of nature. Staged shows under the tens included many of the biggest vaudeville acts of the early 20th century. The freak show, which included animals as well, employed many with abnormal physicality, such as Daisy and Violet Hilton, the subject of my documentary “Bound By Flesh.” The Siamese bound sisters were stars on both the vaudeville stage and carnival and circus circuits.
Like in the circus, many who felt they didn’t belong in the “real world” ran away and joined a carnival, sometimes for the first time in their lives finding a home and communion with like people. Oddities, outcasts, disenfranchised. There was every sort from the obvious runaways, drug addicts, perverts, women who had escaped abusive relationships. There were families, perverts. “A lot of temporary and seedy characters.” Everyone was escaping life back home, whether it was too ordinary for them or too troubled. All found a place where they belonged even if just for a season under the canvas amongst others who asked no questions. They were birds of a feather.
When she was about 12 years-old, brown-haired Christy escaped a “mean, drunk little guy” whom her mother had married. “He was beating on my mother,” she recalled, “so I kicked the shit out of him.” Standing 5’8” and weighing between 160 and 170 lbs, her stepfather who stood 5’2” was no match.
Life had been anything but idyllic for Christy in a tiny navy town outside of Seattle, Washington, in the 1950s.
With a beautiful mother who worked various small jobs while raising four kids and an alcoholic stepfather she hated, Christy and her brother Chuckie tried staying out of the way of this pint-sized wife and child beater. Tragedy struck during the summer of Christy’s 8th year of hell on earth. Nine-year-old Chuckie and his best friend Jeff had been goofing around and got hold of a gun which went off in Chuckie’s hand, killing Jeff. It was particularly memorable for Christy, as Jeff had been her first sexual encounter. Yes, at age 8.
Ralph, a family friend, owned a carnival. With the promise that she could work there someday, Christy took to hanging around Ralph and his carney friends. Hanging around the sawdust lots and learning to “buy” a 25-cent soda from a machine for three pennies after shaving the edges to make them the size of dimes she found “sanctuary” from her home life.
Meanwhile, the abuse from her stepfather continued. When he wasn’t drunk, he was regularly beating on his wife and terrorizing the kids.
Running into a travel carnival that pulled into town, Christy begged her mother to let her join. She worked there the entire week the carnival was in town. Soon things went bad at home. “My mom and I decided I shouldn’t be around during the summer.” She turned to Ralph who let her join his operation at age 11 or 12.
She joined the tradition of the roaming life, traveling from town to town, pulling into large lots and anywhere the midway rides could be set. This was in the 1960s when someone her size was not only an oddity but worthy of making a living in the sideshow. By this time in history, the “born freaks” were fewer and far between in the Freak Shows. Still, for a quarter or two one could see two-headed cows, or two-headed chickens. One fake act was the “man eating chicken” who sat and ate a piece of chicken out of the KFC bucket on his lap. Jokes too.
Christy’s size had never bothered her. Everyone in her family was pretty heavy, but Christy was the most eye-catching. She knew people made fun of her. But on the carnival her size brought her a different kind of attention. It was positive and accepting. She would make a successful career both on the midway and on the burlesque stage because of her generous frame and her zest for entertaining.
Christy kept up with her schooling, but started a month late and left a month early until she graduated. By then so in love with her “other life,” she skipped the graduation parties and flew straight to Portland, Oregon, to work a festival and “traveled the rest of [her] life.”
She worked various jobs on the midway; selling tickets, serving food, cooking and counting quarters and rolling them in sleeves. “I loved making money!”
During breaks she rode all the rides, especially thrilling at the Sky Wheel where she could soar above her troubles below. The fun houses with their distorted mirrors was a particular favorite. She learned how the games were rigged. “I was around,” she said, “during the days of big money... and games you could never win.” Though some shows were “Sunday school shows” (meaning honest run) other shows took the rubes for everything which was done by paying off cops and never returning to the town once they pulled up stakes.“Everyone made money.”
Like in the circus, her coworkers were transients. Christy recalled one group of Gypsies from Turkey pickpocketing “marks” on the midway by reading their mannerisms, their clothing, their walk, and even their particular body odors. When not on the midway the Gypsies could be found in the town’s department stores shoplifting (with the help of Christy being the distraction. She would pretend to faint, pulling down a large display case with expensive goods on the way to hitting the ground). So crafty were the Gypsies, sewing inner pockets and such Christy was witness to one girl who carried a television set between her thighs as she coolly walked out the store. It would take a few more heists before Christy’s conscious got the better of her and she quit the extra gig (and the $100 that came with it).
However, her training among the Gypsies educated her in how to read the marks on the midway and she was hired to be what was called an “agent.” An agent leads a customer to a particular game he or she seemed best suited too. They then encourage the mark to spend, spend, spend.
Jamming the midway were kiosks or individual booths. They were plentiful and varied. There were psychic readings of palm and crystal balls, “knife sharpening, religious displays, impromptu artistry, beaded costume jewelry, dancing, magic and of course in the back there was prostitution, drugs and alcohol.”
Ralph essentially mentored Christy. His carnival traveled by truck. Sometimes his smaller carnival (only 12 midway rides) would merge with other carnivals for larger towns and crowds.
Christy met legendary fan dancer Sally Rand who was touring with the prestigious Royal American Shows. The Royal American claimed to be the world’s largest touring midway. Nearly a hundred train cars pulled performers, rides, and the president of RAS and his family. Part of the benefit of train travel ― besides rest for the performers and crew ― was that rides and amusement arrived wholly put together. Their record of unloading from the trains to set up an operation was a fast and furious five hours. Besides Sally Rand, Lois De Fee and Gypsy, Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker began his show business career working for Royal American.
Christy’s job was to patrol the parameter of Rand’s tent to prevent anyone from trying to bypass the front and take a free peek. Christy didn’t consider it work. She thought of it more like fun.
It was at the carnival where Christy got her first look at a girlie show. Run by a dark-haired gal with big boobs who spoke in a little girly voice, she went by the name of Delilah Dante. Delilah ran her own girlie show.
It was a grueling life for the burly girls. When I interviewed Dixie Evans (a.k.a the “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque”) she talked about loving the carnival and circus route working 30 shows a day and being so tired at the end that all she wanted as she passed out on the ride home was to eat Chinese and count her big, fat bankroll.
Delilah’s show was in a large tent with “plank seating” to accommodate 80 likely horny men. Sometimes more could be squeezed in. It was a 10-minute show that ran 25 times a night. To make the men buy tickets and convince them of the dozens of beauties they would see inside the tent, Delilah would have Christy and anyone else on the midway dress up in elaborate headdresses and stand in half shadows on the stage, where the men could peek through the front flaps and see shadowy figures moving about. After the men paid their quarter, the only eyeful they got was Delilah. But it was with Delilah’s feather boas and running across the sage that Christy felt sexy. She decided she would become a dancer.
Among the various types of misfits running around the midway, Christy noted that the diversity of character created strong bonds. Even with occasionally deep psychological ― sometimes physical ― challenges, they found refuge. Birds of a feather. And, Christy noted after hours, “bed hopping was rampant.” No matter whether it was men with men, women with women or some mix of group sex, it was family. A very close family.
Not only was sex among the carneys a regular occurrence, but they were also targets for the local “lizards.” Lizards could be any man, woman, or teenager who hung around the lot looking for an easy target. A quick, no-hassle one night stand would ensue. There would be no drama as there was always another town calling the carnival away. No bonds, no attachments.
At the end of the season, Christy would take her money and fill coffee cans with the cash, hiding it in her room. When her mother discovered one of the cans, she worried over what type of work Christy was doing to rake in such dough. Over the years, Christy worked the carnival her siblings (she had two half-sisters) and mother also worked, though none of them loved it like she did. Christy was happy as a clam and wanted to soak up everything she could learn about working at the carnival.
Back home, she waded through school and roamed the seedier streets of Seattle, where at 16, she learned to master a sexy street swagger from a prostitute named Tanya. She became friends with Tanya. Tanya thought Christy had what it took to be a hooker and suggested the market would be profitable for a fat girl. Tanya was right. She was a hit and had no competition. She was “so big I was like a billboard on heels.” Her size didn’t make her lack confidence. She knew she was alluring.
Venturing to Hollywood, she had a memorable encounter with Hollywood’s Stanley Kowalski. A man asking for her particular services showed up wearing a floppy hat (obviously to disguise himself) clutching a brown paper bag in his hands. “Nice to meet ya,” he said. Reaching into his bag he pulled out women’s lingerie and a stack of cash. Fannie disappeared to make espresso and when she returned, the world’s greatest actor was nude. As he pulled on a pair of stockings, she told him, “honey you are so sexy.” Turning on a Marvin Gaye tune, she gave him a wig and makeup which she helped apply to his gorgeous face. Thinking he wanted to see himself she held out a hand mirror, but he brushed it aside. Silence followed as he sashayed around her room in heels and lingerie drinking espresso in a “feminine” sort of way. They had no conversation and when he was satisfied with whatever he was exploring he pulled his clothes over the bra and panties kissed Fannie’s hand and left. His latest film “Last Tango in Paris” had been playing and Fannie “figured he was just going through a phase.”
By the time she was 18, she stood 6’2” and weighed 240 pounds. She decided to change her name to Fannie Annie. She got a job working a girlie show. She loved it, especially the pretty clothes. To her, it was ironic that offstage she deflected looks of “disgust,” but onstage the little fat girl ― all grown up ― was adored and accepted. With the help of the Mob and a breast enhancement she became known as “the world’s fattest stripper.”
As Fannie she commanded the stage, she’d hurl insults at customers in the clubs who were “overjoyed” with her “fatness.” She pushed men’s faces into her heaving bosoms. “My size overwhelmed.” It was as if none of them had seen a fat boob before, so she pulled them out of her costume. “The crowd went nuts as they threw money” on the stage. As a finale, Christy would push the man on the floor, lift her skirt, and lower herself onto his face.
The work was nonstop and so was her ballooning size. Soon, she was 400 pounds with an 88-inch waist line. She broke chairs and “fell on [her] ass more times” than she cared to recall. She continued to tour clubs and returned to her first love, carnivals. “It was where I really wanted to be.” One of her signature tricks was to invite a bachelor to the stage where not only did she smother his head between her breasts and “tit slap him,” but also pull his pants and underwear down for a parade around the stage.
By the 1980s, a 600-pound Fannie would own her own kiddy carnival with ponies and a petting zoo. She was still getting little respect in the real world because of her size. I asked her if she ever wanted to change her weight and she told me no. “I just accepted it and lived my life and took advantage of being super sized and made a living out of it.”
And though she enjoyed a long career in the clubs, it was the carnivals she loved for the travel and the money and the camaraderie. (She didn’t as much care for the hot tents and trailers or the lack of restrooms). Little fat Christy had grown into a star. “I really loved all the life lessons. All the carnival and circus people really made me feel like family! How could you not love it!” And though unideal and filled with challenges and grifters with few heart-warming stories, it was a place of belonging for many runaways like Christy and Annie were.
In 1996, Fannie Annie retire from the roaming, performing life. She spends her days making a cruelty-free boa Star Boa for today’s current crop of burlesque dancers.
Leslie Zemeckis is an award-winning documentarian whose film “Behind the Burly Q” chronicles the history of burlesque. Her film “Bound by Flesh” is a Netflix hit about Daisy and Violet Hilton of “Sideshow” fame. Zemeckis authored “Behind the Burly Q, the book based on her film and “Goddess of Love Incarnate” about burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr. Zemecki. Her current documentary Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, on the world’s first female trainer Mabel Stark premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival going on to win numerous awards.
She has created the only comprehensive burlesque site bringing together the burlesque community under one roof (www.theburlyq.com) and has create the first line of burlesque, showgirl, pinup (and flamingo) emojis (Burlyqji.)
Zemeckis is currently writing her third book, set to co-star in a film opposite Steve Carell, and developing several other films. She continues to chronicle the vast untouched history of burlesque and has one of the largest personal collections of burlesque memorabilia, with items from Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr, Lili St. Cyr, Ann Corio and many many more. @Lesliezemeckis, www.lesliezemeckis.com Follow Leslie Zemeckis on IG and Twitter.