The Sideshow Banner Art of Fred G. Johnson
Though considered nothing more than mere signage by the artists who created them, sideshow banners have come to embody the curious and quirky spirit of early circus and freak show Americana with their colorful and exaggerated promises of sword swallowers, magic, mermaids, bearded ladies, five-legged cows, two-headed calves and much more all alive for your shock and amazement inside for just five cents!
Fred G. Johnson is considered to be one of the finest sideshow banner painters in the history of the circus and sideshow world. He had a 65-year career of banner painting, creating many works that are still prized by collectors and museums around the world. He worked for the O. Henry Tent and Awning Company in Chicago for 40 years from 1934 – 1974.
Known as the ‘Picasso’ of circus art, Fred G. Johnson designed advertisements for the Century of Progress Exposition, the 1933 World’s Fair held in Chicago, the city’s old White City and Riverview amusement parks, traveling shows throughout the country, and all the great circuses, including Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey and the Clyde Beatty Circus.
His banners have been exhibited at the State of Illinois Building, some now hang in museums, and others were auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York.
A native of Chicago, Mr. Johnson started running errands at age 14 for the United States Tent & Awning Co. Banner painter H. D. Cummings was looking for someone to clean pots and do odd jobs and took Mr. Johnson on. The older man taught him to paint, something he learned well without any formal training in figure or scene drawing.
Two headed calf
World’s smallest cow
Tanagra live mermaid
Sylvia, big footed girl
Spider Girl and Sponge Girl
Robert and Ralph, siamese twins
Wild European mountain sheep
Monkeys and porcupines
Master of magic
Father and daughter lobster family
The last mile Death Row
Jungle land voodoo torture
Human pin cushion
Harold Smith music from glasses
Human frog baby, world’s strangest birth
Dwarf African goat
Dolly Reagan, half lady half baby
Tomb of terror cemetery creep
Cavalcade od wonders, freaks past and present
Beared lady Brenda Beatty
5 legged cow
3 legged chicken
2 headed baby
Nellie the dog child
Fred Johnson was the oldest living sideshow banner artist until his death at 98 years old in 1990.
His works were exhibited in July of 1989 at the State of Illinois Art Center Gallery as Fred G. Johnson’s Sideshow Banners. They also hang in the circus museums in Baraboo, Wisconsin and Sarasota, Florida.
Among his banners auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1981 were Minnie Ha-Ha the Monkey Girl, Josephine the Electric Girl, Albert the Rubber Skin Man, The World`s Strangest Married Couple and Dickie the Penguin Boy.