Johnny Meah: Czar of the Bizarre

According to the Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame, December 12, 1937 was the DOB of Johnny Meah.

Meah is of particular interest because he is not just a genuine sideshow performer, but also a highly respected visual artist, whose sideshow banners have been exhibited at the Smithsonian, the Barnum Museum, and Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outside Art. He is a third generation artist. His father was a cartoonist at the Bristol Press in Bristol Connecticut; his grandfather was a calligrapher. Johnny himself spent a year at RISD.

As a teenager, Meah was mentored by Hugo Zachinni, best known as a human cannonball, but also adept at painting canvas sideshow banners. Meah learned the craft from him, but also 17 sideshow acts in the bargain. From the ’50s through the ’70s he performed with the circuses like the King Brothers, then Hunt Brothers, and the Cristiani Brothers, and carnivals likes those of O.C. Buck, Ross Manning and Ward Hall. In the ’80s his banners began to get taken seriously as art and he was exhibited at museums. His picture was in Life magazine in 1983. His work was featured in books like Freaks, Geeks, and Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway (1995) and Painters of the Peculiar: A Guide to Sideshow Banner Artists and Their Respective Work (2018). He’s featured in the 1999 documentary Sideshow: Alive on the Inside, is one of the commentators on the bonus track on the 2004 DVD release of Tod Browning’s Freaks, and was an advisor on the HBO series Carnivale (2003-2005). In 2003 he published a novel based on his experiences called Polidore.

Learn much more about Johnny Meah at the Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame and at the International Independent Showmen’s Museum.