View Full Version : Side Show at County Fair

08-26-2007, 03:02 PM
Hello all.

Owning a haunted attraction has been a dream of mine since childhood and I've recently been getting closer and closer to actually giving it a shot.

I've done a number of home haunts over the years and was one of two major set/effect/prop/etc. designers and operators for my one of my area's best known haunted attractions for a run of four years.

My problem is, I'm still a bit young compared to most others in the profession (I'm approaching my mid twenties), which I'm afraid will still give me the impression of inexperience around investors and so on -- and on top of that, I'm still trying to finish up a year of school and I have some college debt to pay off (nothing outrageous, but debt is debt!), so a major financial investment like a haunted house is out of the question for me for a little while, anyway.

I thought up a possible solution, however, and I'm curious as to everyone's thoughts and I also wondered if anyone had ever pulled off anything similar and could share some insight...

If I opened something similar to a haunt, specifically a side show at the county fair, I would be able to keep the financial investment down and still work in the "macabre entertainment" industry that we all love. Parking, power and advertising would already be taken care of by the fair's staff, so all I would need to take care of, aside from the show itself, would be renting the space, a tent, and general liability insurance.

What I envision is something similar to a very, very small-scale Ripley's or dime museum -- a small walk-through exhibit housed within a large tent with wall-to-wall oddities -- both real and manufactured -- to examine and study. Some small illusions, but no scares or actors popping out or anything.

For such a small-scale, laid-back exhibit, admission would have to be kept extremely low, but with a good throughput and some interesting novelties and souvenirs, I think it has the potential to be profitable. I'm not looking to make a fortune off something like this, or even make a living (the fair only runs one week out of the summer, after all), but I think if it was moderately successful it could open the doors to bigger projects later on. And either way it would be a good experience and help me to fulfill a small dream!

Has anyone done anything like this? Does anyone have any thoughts or concerns about such a project? Any help would be greatly appreciated.


08-26-2007, 06:41 PM
If you haven't already, you need to visit:


Doug Higley is a genius and has everything you need to operate your own little traveling horror show.

08-26-2007, 09:32 PM
I saw a great sideshow thing, very similar to what you are discribing at the Suwanee County Fair in Florida when I performed there two years ago. Very unique and fun. If I recall, they had a guy standing outside Talking about the oddities inside. "The smallest woman" The lady that could walk on glass, the sword swaller etc. Additionally, they had many "odditeies such as the "captured baby alien fetus" etc. The guy spent a good 20-30 minutes building a crowd and hyping the show while bringing out some of the cast. Then he said the fee was "normally" $6.00, but we could get in that day for only $2.00. I think about 20-30 was in our group and the show was about 15 minutes long. No seating we would just move from one place to another....

Duke of Darkness
08-28-2007, 02:27 PM
I have also been considering something along these lines. Not so much a sideshow, but a museum of the strange. Perhaps themed around torture devices. At the end I am thinking about doing a themed illusion show. Well, not exactly a show, just one or two grand (and macabre) illusions.

If you decide to move forward with this, PM me and we can exchange ideas.

BTW, I second the poster who recommended Higley. His work is truly top notch and he will even through in ideas on how to make money with it.


Greg Chrise
08-28-2007, 10:12 PM
Long term you would be building more every year even just to make the fair experience better for return customers. You didn't say where you are. State fairs even here command big up front money and a piece of the action.

My origional point would be that the accumulation over time of new displays each year (not necessarily the offereing at the fair) gives you accumulated scenes that become the larger event after years of small investment per year.

Some regional fairs see an attendance of 4.5 million walk by customers and imagine what even a small cheap attraction seeing perhaps 1% of this number would bring. It must be made to look inviting and professional at least on the outside to get 1%

At these attendance numbers you are into about 35,000 people at say $3 and crashing $100,000 per year.

Please put your location in your profile. Knowing the town or region really helps in pondering advice.

08-29-2007, 12:15 AM
Whoops! Forgot I never filled out my profile info. Thanks for reminding me, Greg! I'm in Upstate New York to answer your question (the Jefferson County Fair in Watertown, specifically), and as far as money goes, the (very limited) information on the fair's web site reads:

Outside rental space is $25.00 per front foot plus $25.00 per foot for one-half of each sale side. Each concession will receive one (1) 110 volt electrical service for $50.00. Additional hookups or higher voltage needs will result in additional costs. Tents are available at additional cost.

Liability insurance is required. The lessee must prove proof of coverage showing combined limits of $1,000,000.00.

Not having much experience in the business end, I'm not sure if this is a reasonable amount or not, but it at least seems "possible" to me -- profitable, who knows, but possible.

They didn't offer any statistics on their web site about how many customers they see each season/day/etc., but I'm sure (at least I'd hope) they have that information ready and available at request -- I'd surely want to know before I invested any kind of money in a project like this.

Thanks for everyone's replies, and to respond to a few other comments:

Haunter112: I did stumble across the site while researching "gaffs" and it looked very impressive. I was tempted to buy his $25 booklet on the subject, but I wasn't sure if it legitimately had any answers or if it was just his charismatic "sideshow barker" salesmanship of the book that was luring me in! Either way, it's definitely just the type of thing I was considering, and I'll probably end up buying something off of Higley one of these days -- thanks!

XXXDirk: That's more or less what I had in mind, though I'd have to try to keep it small at first meaning few or no "performers" -- not to mention the difficulty of finding "freaks" that can walk on glass and eat fire in northern New York! (There are plenty of other kinds of freaks hanging around, but who would pay to see them when you can just drive around downtown?) Without performers, I was originally thinking of simply a constant flow of admission -- pay for your ticket and wander around and peruse as long as you like -- but your description has me wondering if regularly timed "shows" might be better... definitely something to consider.

As an example of a kind-of performerless show, there is a photo located here (http://www.tackytreasures.com/tackyhtml/tackyimages/adm-2996.jpg) that shows a similar setup -- a small space filled with offbeat objects and memorabilia, though I would probably lean towards something a bit more macabre than kitschy, and I would have some kind of spectacular centerpiece to it all, perhaps one of Higley's "mermaids" or something like that.

Duke: I'd love to exchange ideas. Whether I end up going through with it this upcoming year or the next, I'd love to bounce some concepts off you anytime! I'll send you a PM sometime this week with some of my thoughts...

Generally speaking, I think my first step will be to contact the fair officials and find out some more information about their regular throughput, some more specific pricing information, and whether the idea is acceptable and doable by their standards.

After that I guess my plan of action would be to go over a budget, do the paperwork, and start setting up for the show itself...

Thanks again for the replies, everyone, and with what I've brought up now are there any new thoughts?

08-29-2007, 11:15 AM
Hi PSluhaun

If your going to do a grind show, I highly recommend Doug's book it is worth every penny.

If you buy his book then decide to buy one of his Gaff's he will deduct the cost of the
book from the price of the gaff. The other thing when you business with Doug and need
his advice on your grind show he is just a phone call away with free advice.
(yes he does answer his phone and return email's)

If you look at his web site http://grindshow.com/GrindShow/Main_Exhibit_Hall.html
the Mermaid in the chest, just above the Atomic Fish is the one Doug made for me.
I have some other items he has made for me too. I payed for my Mermaid in just 3
hours using the setup and signage Doug laysout in his book.

08-29-2007, 02:12 PM
Concerning Doug Higley's $25 grindshow How-To:

Doug's booklet contains the secret to making money year round at your local jockey lot, swap meet, or flea market!

You'll learn the psychology necessary to "sell" a creepshow to modern audiences.

Doug's plan is cheap, simple, and it WORKS!

Get the book, get a ZIBIT, and get going!

Duke of Darkness
08-29-2007, 04:06 PM
It sounds like Doug is developing a following in the haunt community similar to what he has long enjoyed in the sideshow and magic communities. Not to turn this into a Doug Higley lovefest, but he is the real deal and he knows how the grindshow works from years of experience.


Greg Chrise
08-29-2007, 10:25 PM
Many times despite footage front booth spaces available to anyone, company or organization to promote what ever, things that are an attraction my be nixed because of contracts with the carnival operator that sets up rides and games.

The choices are to well in advance become a headliner directly from the fair operators or you will be forced to become the carnival operator's bitch. By headliner, this means that this event is mentioned in advertising for the fair that is equal billing to the carnival company.

To do this with out conflict with multi million dollar negotiations you have to be a draw for ( and acceptable for ) children, not the young adults the carnival sees at it's customers.

All of a sudden you are in a different mind set, like Free petting zoo, the frankie perez puppets and such. You will find although not a union, even the puppet guy has been an established member of the states fair group, a paying member since 1979 (just an example) So he might have a say in what you even do for children or more directly to them.

To be community acceptable you get into a different method of "merchandising" as well. Your event may infact be free to any attending and please buy souvenier merchandise. This does two things, it gets you out of the control of ticket price that carnival rides would see as a contractual competition and two, customers are voluntarily rewarding you which relative to mark up on merchandise might be more than a fixed two or three dollar ticket price.

The merchanidise can be tailored to all skill levels, all age levels and ultimately levels of intrest.

Children might want a two headed elmo for $35 (supplies are limited) and older customers might want to pick up a physical book about the history of side shows. Not one you wrote, just one you bought a bunch of copies wholesale of.

The little museum with all the three by five descriptions of the unbelievable dump into the gift section. Even if the whole affair is only two rooms. You can't forget the little things like look into this hole for a quarter.

If you really sit down and talk to anyone with experience in this market, they see themselves as a merchandiser, everything else is just a means to the end. Everyone is a winner. Even in the games that will most likely be there, the prize is relative to how much money someone spent but even the lowest expendature with no skill proven at all gets a trinket of sometype. The actual value of the merchandise is usually marked up in percieved value of 10 to 15 times.

For example, the stuffed animals come in a chinese cargo container with a value of about a nickel each but the same thing bought at walmart (after being stuffed as it came flat as just sewed material) is easily $20. So the game of chance wears someone out throwing hoops and takes in $5 and they get a percieved $20 toy and feel great about the experience. In reality the purveyor made easily $4.50 in as many minutes.

but, once you mention ticket sales, you are in direct competition with the ride ccontractor(s)

All of this being laid out, you have an investment in not only your attraction but all of this merchandise that may or may not be picked up just to avoid being in conflict with major contractors.

By being a desireable advertisable headliner, the fair actually pays you to show up in addition to the merchandise scheme but this requires years of credible performance, hence belonging to the group that pretty much does nothing more than list your event as a member and send you a news letter with the dates of when each regional fair will take place and where.

Because vendors and ride contractors have all had to, you will be expected to have permits and licenses and so on for each event to the city and state or they will run you off.

I have watched so many set up or intend to and be directed to the carnival operator, pay them a fee and not be able to direct any great number of potential customers to their display and spend hours and hours attending. Of course this big flat fee has been paid for a terrible location that some other long term member has had dibs on proper spaces for two years prior.

In this environment, as a business it would be easier to get $3 per car for parking.

On a positive note, I have always thought to avoid the fair entirely and set up at larger flea markets and trade day events. They still want the business permits and licensing but, you aren't being dictated by any carnival man. One such trade days in Texas sees in November over 1 million passers by. Even a poor display could attract 2000 cutomers in such an environment. This is the high month of yearly attendance of a monthly event because of perhaps the christmas shopping season?

In comparison, a haunted house event as the first project has no necessary merchandise, is not dictated by some ride man, requires no membership to get placed or be judged if your event is worthy placement. The ticket prices these days for a well thought out event are $10 instead of $3, you aren't having to be cute like the petting zoo or the pan for gold for the diaper set (old and young)

What you might want to consider is in fact being a side show attraction at an existing large multiple element haunted house event. Screw the carvival, screw the circus, screw the muppets and micky mouse too. You might have to travel 100 miles to be there but in the big logic of the whole thing if it is going to have an element of the macabre, it doesn't fair well in happy (even fabricated happy) venues.

Your maden attempt to learn might be to set up at a more local low attendance event in the Halloween season or this first location might prove to be enough?

I don't want to pee on any ideas or anything. I'm too old to pee that far and the mail system isn't what it used to be. Luckily I got directly into haunted events as I found people that had experience and a location but no physical haunt. I had a haunt and no actors and no location. It was a fluke that took only 8 years working hard seasonally all over the region to get one 2 miles away. I had all of the above opportunities in mind and luckily didn't have to start out that way.

Some of the other opportunities do have merit and infact might have better income opportunities than our haunt. But, I did have to study what the opportunities in those worlds might entail work wise.

It comes down to what does your display offer, what is the percieved value, how long does it engage real intrest and then are you working percentages of 100,000 potential customers, 1 million potential customers or 4.5 million?

If what you have to offer is top notch divide by 20
If it is a total first start and/or in competition with other events that suck the same potential client and is controled by the man divide by 500.

Usually after 10 to 20 years you can figure out if it is working.

Duke of Darkness
08-29-2007, 11:16 PM
Greg makes some really good points. I don't know if I am quite as pessimistic about the fair circuit as he is, it does have it's drawbacks. It can be hard to break in and they may have rules about what you can show, sell, or perform. As I noted in my PM, often entertainment is paid a flat fee and delivered for free.

I have considered doing a "what is that thing?" style grindshow at flea markets. I wonder if something on a somewhat grander scale could work?

A haunt that I used to work with was at a large festival this year. Their feature haunt has a pirate theme and they had a pirate retail outlet. They themed the area, brought some props, costumed everyone and sold pirate themed stuff. Anything and everything with a pirate theme. From what I was told, they did quite well.

Just thinking out loud, what about an odd combo of merchandising and entertainment? You have a barker out front doing the old grindshow bit. When they come in, they get to browse through a mini-museum of sideshow history. Then there is a blow-off (upsee) exhibit that costs a measly dollar to see. The whole thing dumps out into a themed gift shop. Just an example, of course. Could be done to all kinds of different themes.

Lets keep brainstorming here.


08-30-2007, 09:13 AM
The awful truth is that sideshows, freakshows, grindshows, etc. have been disappearing from fair and carnival midways for decades.

Competition, increased overhead, and a stubborn refusal to change with the times has made the whole thing unprofitable.

The classic sideshow just doesn't work anymore.

Doug Higley's grindshow plan approaches things differently.

He advocates:

1. Setting up a single-o (single attraction) rather than a big, multiple attraction show.

2. Avoiding the carnival midways where there is just too much competition and overhead. He favors flea markets and small street festivals.

3. Replacing the big cheezy banners of yesteryear with small carefully worded signs that stimulate curiosity (not horror or revulsion).

Does it work?

There are people right now making hundreds of dollars every weekend with Doug's plan and zibits.

Anyone interested in doing a modern sideshow should really visit Doug's website.

Greg Chrise
08-30-2007, 09:12 PM
I got word that at a big trade days Saturday night one of those Distortions Beast Attractions was set up. I drove the hour or so hoping to check it out and couldn't get there until 9 PM.

I was told normally that section of the place is hoppoing until Midnight. As I arrived it was quite chilly and the stage they had was all packing up. Very few people were there. I had figured it would be packed and operating like any haunt would. It was closed and unattended.

So you are stuck in the day time hours. Perhaps they made a killing and I didn't get to see the lines?

All in related topics, quite a few articles were published about a Japanese American that dresses and trapses around New York City hand sewing carcasses together and considering them art. Though he came from gaff groups origionally, he marketed it as art and got into the MOMA. Of course all the art magazines and his 15 minutes of fame made certainly a NY city cultural impact.

In other art history, turn of the century oil paintings of tremendous size were generally not sold, but small entrance fees to enter a room to see them saw lines of people for years. In this day and age the big museums waited until they died and house them. I think you have to pay at the door at the museum but I know where the doors are open to the outside sculpture and don't feel like being a donating member. Generally museums have the same collection for decades.

In the old days there was no Internet or easy way of marketing and the word of mouth kept things alive. I see no reason why Dukes description would not work. DADA artists had displays where you looked into a peep hole to see a wax recreation of a naked woman. Nothing really exposed but all the buzz all the same.

The word side show takes me way back to being two years old and still being brilliant enough to tell that the bearded lady had glued on a nasty fake beard and she wasn't real good looking to begin with.

I will offer this suggestion. Even though the display might not be heavy traffic and bring in major bucks at a smaller venue, the buzz of actually having well though out displays and bringing up crypto zoo ology topics of is it real is worth a butt load of web site traffic. So the display in a way might only pay for the labor it takes to set it up but the end potential of exposure could be quite grand. If one knows how to monetize website traffic.

The first few outings might be more of a social experiment in what do people think and what questions do they ask or have the guts to inquire about.

Because that Japanese American kids name was so long I can't remember it but if he had a brand name that was rememberable it would be more than 15 minutes of fame. I can remember the Kobiachi Maro test from the second Star Treck movie but I'm not sure if his name was Yokahoma?

In summation, in modern day one little booth at the flea market can have the experience beamed globally. If the trinket sales cover the storage garage and the gas and lunch to get it there and back you have it going on, provided you are set up with web design and domain names.

My third thought, even though this is the new millenium, I pass once a month a Billy the Kid museum on a major highway that goes between Dallas Texas and Shreveport Louisiana. It has stuff all over the outside and boasts that it is only a dollar. In the same region brand new hiway frontage buildings of great size can be had for $800 per month. I'll bet $800 people would comeby. I'll bet also if it wasn't a dollar, it was free to get in TOTALLY FREE, more people would stop by.

While there you could buy a soft drink for $1.25 and it's 25 cents to use the bathroom. I have never stopped in this place as it is a little tricky to get onto the frontage road and I usually am hauling stuff and worn out by then. I am old enough that such a display wouldn't intrest me as much as how many people stop buy. It looks run down and a good place to get tuberculosis or leprosy. I can get those for free (if I don't already have them somewhere)

I'm sure even this Billy the Kid fungus collection could get on Texas Country reporter and get picked up for the internet version of the collection pretty easily if such a thing existed. Unless of course, all the artifacts and pictures are all stolen from every where else and not an origional display effort, being on the highway and still being underground to the global maket is all it will be.

For me it is more intresting to ponder what is in there than to actually see it even for a dollar. I don't want to be let down or brought into reality.

Even though you have a physical display, perhaps the expectation of a customers expectations is also like the internet, all the information is free if you are really into it you can donate or buy this. If you aren't you have not been burdened and still have a positive experience. What the hell it was free and you have mind numbed so many more into wandering the planet repeating in a trance that you have to see this...It is free (outside of travel expenes and penicillin)

If one in 20 is likely to really need a souvenier or feels like donating for your effort to keep the experience free for so many more, so be it, that one sale of a Tshirt mark up paid for 20 people. One of your Google Sponsors could be Tuberculosis Facts and Medicine dot com?