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He speaks fluent carny

For the bygone flavor of sideshows in the sawdust, HBO consulted a Safety Harbor man who has been there, done that.

ERIC DEGGANS
Published September 13, 2003

Johnny Meah still remembers the struggle over the oil can.

When producers of HBO's new series Carnivale needed an expert on the long-gone world of 1930s-era carnivals, they turned to Meah, a 66-year-old Safety Harbor resident with a lifetime spent on the circuit and a worldwide reputation as a carnival banner artist.

And when the producers decided to dramatize a con in which the carnys mark an unsuspecting, cash-heavy customer and rob him later, they asked Meah how it might be done.

He told them how carny ride operators were often allowed to "keep their shakes," obtained by manipulating the ride to shake valuables out of riders' pockets. The "shakes" would then be stashed in a grease bucket to hide them from anyone who came looking.

But when Meah got the script back, a wallet was stashed in an oil can, which would ruin the cash inside. He protested, saying an oil can made no sense, but someone high up in the production liked the oil can, so it stayed in.

"Okay, so use the oil," said Meah, a showbiz pragmatist who knows better than to fight a network's decision to invoke artistic license. "I don't care if you put it in a vat of urine. I'm just here to tell you how things work. If you don't use it, that's your decision."

Turns out, the folks at Carnivale used a lot of Meah's suggestions, tapping his knowledge of carnival culture and history to create a Grapes of Wrath-meets-Twin Peaks story so authentic, you can almost taste the Dust Bowl grit in some sequences.

"Johnny was integral to making the thing authentic," said Daniel Knauf, creator and executive producer of Carnivale. "He'd write out, "This is what the barker says if it's a girlie show, here's how they'd bribe a local official, here's what a girlie show really is.' He knew what it was like back then, so he really was crucial to the ambience and the reality of it."

Carnivale is a slow-moving series lavishly produced and set in 1934's Dust Bowl. Centered on a traveling carnival that picks up a mysterious 18-year-old fugitive from a chain gang (Nick Stahl, Terminator 3), the show outlines a world on the edge of magic and reason, where technology has not yet taken over and the supernatural has not yet faded away.

Though the carnival operates like any other, constantly conning customers and filled with sideshow oddities such as a bearded lady, a reptile man and Siamese twins (all faked by HBO), there is a hidden, magical side patrons rarely see.

A fortune teller reads tarot cards by communicating mentally with her seemingly comatose mother; a blind man sees into the past and future; a dwarf (Michael J. Anderson, Twin Peaks) runs the show for a hidden master known only as "management."

Eventually, Stahl's character realizes that he has powers of his own, and he is connected in some supernatural way with a California evangelist (Clancy Brown, The Shawshank Redemption) who is also manifesting bizarre abilities. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression and overwhelming dust storms, a struggle between good and evil is brewing on a barren landscape that fits an apocalyptic vision.

He was born three years after the series' date, but Meah grew up in the shadow of the Depression, earning a familiarity with crushing poverty that he used to school Carnivale producers on the tenor of the times.

"One of the things the young writers I deal with can't get is the way we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps after this devastating economic collapse," said Meah, who grew up in Bristol, Conn., with a dad who worked as an editorial cartoonist (for two newspapers) and a salesman. "To open the kitchen cupboard and see no food . . . you have to get this overwhelming idea of poverty across."

Knauf said another reality Meah brought to light was the incredible amount of chicanery that surrounded many traveling carnivals.

"I had a Pollyannaish view of it: "They're entertainers. . . . They're happy people,' " said Knauf, laughing. "By talking to Johnny and getting a real feel for what the situation was, it made a much grittier story. Our carnys are crooked as the day is long . . . and the truth is always better than what you can make up anyway."

First contacted years ago by a producer who is no longer on the project (the series also uses a historian to verify facts), Meah takes pride in giving producers far more material than they need, delivering anecdotes and stories that resonate with fellow storytellers.

Another pivotal scene he helped develop involves a snake-charming sequence featuring the series' best-known actor, Adrienne Barbeau, who plays a maternal figure that Stahl's character finds himself curiously attracted to.

Flipping through stacks of Carnivale scripts - often up to four drafts per episode, color-coded according to their date - Meah outlined how he indicated which snakes producers could use, how dancers manipulated the snakes and what patter they used to titillate patrons.

Still, Meah's notes could take the Escape From New York star only so far.

"You can't choreograph it too well. . . . Basically, you hold them away from your body when they decide they're going to defecate," said Barbeau, who ripped a disc in her back during the five hours she spent filming the scene - and loved every minute of it.

"Obviously, for a women in her mid 50s, there aren't that many roles . . . and here I am playing this sexy woman doing all kinds of fascinating things," said the actor, who prompted producers to spice up a role originally intended for an older, more wizened woman. "Ruthie's up there dancing with an 8-foot python, and people are throwing money they can ill afford to part with. . . . It's amazing, like Pirates of the Caribbean opening on a Saturday night."

The Carnivale pilot viewers will see Sunday is a revamped version; scenes featuring Brown's character were changed to show the evolution of his power. Still, the series reveals its secrets awfully slowly, even for viewers used to the slow pace of HBO series The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire.

It's as if executives at the premium cable network want to see how far they can slow a narrative before viewers start tossing their remotes through the screen. But Knauf blames such reactions on a viewership weaned on the rapid pace of MTV, ER and Law & Order, confident that his series can find Sopranos-level success with HBO fans.

"If you shoot this thing the way you shoot a contemporary film, it wouldn't feel like the 1930s, even if everything (onscreen) was authentic," he said. "You look at older films, they tend to breathe a little more. . . . You see people walking places, with no quick cuts. That (MTV-fast storytelling) pulled you right out of the period."

Still, the question remains: Why set such an epic story inside a carnival?

"Ever since I was a kid, I've been enamored of this thing," Knauf said. "You go in there and it smells like sawdust and bubble gum and vomit, and you get this giddy sense that anything could happen. This idea of something (workers) always travel with . . . they can't just clock out at the end of the day. It's one of those things I've always loved."

Meah's banners sell for upward of $2,000 these days. He's considered one of the last of the old-time artists who make such items, which are emblazoned with bright colors and stark images to draw passers-by into the sideshows (Knauf said HBO couldn't afford to commission Meah's work for Carnivale).

Still, though some of his banners are available through upscale retailer Neiman Marcus' catalog, Meah is hesitant to say that carnival culture is enjoying some sort of kitschy, yuppie-fed renaissance.

For him, the old-school carnival died a messy death a long time ago, felled by the corporatization of carnivals and the migration of human oddities to TV shows such as Ripley's Believe it or Not, Maury and Jerry Springer.

"I grew up in an era of human oddities. . . . Now you have people willing to throw themselves into a vat of horse manure if you'll put them oncamera," Meah said, noting that true carnival performers took pride in knowing how to entertain an audience beyond their natural skills.

"Now, it's not about (people saying) "I'm an entertainer.' It's "Look at me' . . . real frat boy stuff," Meah said, dropping references to MTV's Jackass and Meet My Folks producer Bruce Nash. (Hip as he is, the artist answers without hesitation when asked what he'd be doing if he hadn't fallen into carnival life: directing rock videos). "I think you've still got to be able to entertain people. It's a craft."

The stories come easily, almost without thinking for Meah, who chain-smokes Doral cigarettes while spinning expansive tales sitting in the kitchenette of his small home.

On walls are samples of his art, including a woman dressed in a bathing suit on a beach and a vivid banner featuring Pete "Poobah" Terhune, a dwarf who lifted weights with his tongue and was billed as the "iron tongued pygmy." Meah began to work with such characters at the tender age of 14, when he joined the King Brothers and Cristiani Circus, apprenticing under Hugo Zacchini, a human cannonball act and artist.

Starting as a circus clown, Meah soon realized that he could earn more money if he could perform more acts, and he eventually mastered 17 routines, from juggling and aerial tricks to sword swallowing and fire eating, which he still does today.

("It's a very unpleasant thing to learn," Meah said of sword swallowing. "You wind up spending a lot of time decorating your shoes.")

Nearly 50 years later, he's still piling up the skills, developing an international reputation as a banner artist, author, performer and carnival expert, working with documentarians, filmmakers and TV producers to help them understand a fringe culture that's quickly vanishing from the landscape.

"I've spent a lifetime absorbing this knowledge, the ever-changing psychology of the business," Meah said, pulling another Doral from the pack. "You have people today in the entertainment business . . . they don't know what makes the whole machine turn around. But (such knowledge) gives you a better understanding of your problems . . . and helps you make more money."

At a glance

Carnivale debuts Sunday at 9:35 p.m. on HBO. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (Mature Audiences).

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