Two carnies are walking down a country road in the pouring rain. The carnival has folded, and they are walking to the next town. They’re cold, wet, and bedraggled. They pass a house and look in the picture window. A father is sitting by the fire reading to his children. His wife sits by his side, smiling at him and the children. One carnie says to the other, ‘Look at that poor bastard. I’ll bet he wishes he was in show business like us.’
In her book LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, Jacqueline Boles quotes this anecdote from her interviews and correspondence with Sally Rand, the legendary fan dancer. Dr. Boles, sociology professor emeritus at Georgia State University in Atlanta, has studied the lives of entertainers ranging from singers, dancers, comics, and others, celebrities and small timers. She spices her social science methodology with personal experiences and wit.
Dr. Boles, a longtime favorite both with students at Georgia State University and an appreciative audience of devoted friends, herself once performed as the lovely young female assistant in the stage and sideshow act of Rex Dane, magician and mind reader, otherwise known as Don Boles, beloved husband and father. She knows first hand the persistence required of entertainers, reporting how she and Don solicited 25 venues to obtain three bookings, a good result but typical in show business.
Studied in Life Upon the Wicked Stage are entertainers from tribal societies through modern Hollywood, shamans who employed the skills of ventriloquism and magic, dancing girls who doubled as prostitutes, court jesters and television stand-up comics. At the core of her research, Dr. Boles has sampled information in 117 biographies and autobiographies of entertainers, and she asks two central questions about the occupation: “why do people choose entertainment and why do they persist?”
You will recognize many of your favorites. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis, Jr., Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Gunther-Gebel Williams. 117 Stars 117. Plus some whose names you may not recognize but are nonetheless fascinating. Dr. Boles points out common traits, backgrounds, experiences, dreams. What’s best, she does so with great insight and humor.
A guy walks into a bar. He is dirty and smells terrible. Another guy at the bar says to him, “I know it’s none of my business, but, buddy, you smell really bad. Isn’t there anything you can do about that?” The first guy says, “I know I stink. I can’t help it. It’s my job.” The second man says, “What kind of a job do you have?” The first man says, “I clean out elephant poop in the circus.” The second man says, “Well, why don’t you get another job?” The first guy replies, “What, and quit show business?”
Still, there are serious drawbacks that make working in show business no laughing matter: persistent periods of unemployment, because there are never enough jobs to go around, the tragic deaths of talented people like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Lenny Bruce, Hank Williams.
Life Upon the Wicked Stage by Jacqueline Boles can be ordered on-line at Amazon.com.