By Coffin Ed.
Oversized foam cowboy hats, showbags full of sugar and plastic junk, vomit inducing carnival rides and all manner of deep fried, super fatty, dyspepsia inducing food on a stick – just some of the reasons why I haven’t bothered to visit the Royal Easter Show at Homebush during the past twenty years. Yes I know there are cute farmyard animals, an unlimited supply of tea and scones and woodchoppers prepared to put the toes on the line – but somehow the Show (for me) has never been the same since it left Moore Park.
Whilst many of the attractions have remained standard over the past fifty odd years, one thing that is definitely missing today is the incredible sideshow alley. It’s not hard to see why these so called tent shows have disappeared from the showground landscape. Public tastes and levels of sophistication have undergone massive changes and we are no longer thrilled or allowed to see enormously fat ladies or Walla Walla, “The World’s Smallest Trotter”.
Those readers old enough to remember the sideshows of the 50s and 60s might recall an area of the Showground that was often shunned by the general public, at least by good Christian families and those who considered it all a bit rough and tumble. In my own case I can remember my Dad reluctantly letting me visit the ‘alley’, but not until I was about nine or ten years old. It was here the crowds jostled to watch the parade of boxers from Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Troupe (‘Where Australian Champions Are Discovered’) or an astonishing array of circus freaks that included Chang the Chinese pinhead and Mexican Rose, the 344kg fat lady, who was lifted by crane from the ship that brought her to Australia.
To be honest I only have the vaguest recollections of the classic sideshow days but one attraction that I will never forget is the remarkable Pygmy Revue featuring the tiny Queen Ubangi. As a small child I was captivated by the site of Ubangi, amidst a group of other colourfully attired ‘pygmies’. These days the exploitation of people because of their physical size in such a public arena would not be tolerated however this was definitely a less enlightened, albeit innocent time..
With the White Australia policy in full swing, we seldom saw people from Africa, let alone one as exotic and diminutive as Queen Ubangi, who was less than three feet high. Ubangi, who was christened Maria Peters, hailed from Cape Province in South Africa and eventually spent some thirty four years touring Australian showgrounds, granted considerable leniency from Australian immigration officials at the time. Promoted by former boxer Dave Meekin, whose slogan was “Show Time Is Pygmy Time”, she appeared at showgrounds all over the country from the 20s through to the late 50s. When the Holt Government dismantled the White Australian policy in the mid 60s, it paved the way for Ubangi to take out citizenship and she spent the remainder of her life living on the Gold Coast, dying in her early eighties.
These days the sideshows have long disappeared from Australian agricultural fairs, as have the once free sample bags. In 2017, it’s at least a couple of hundred dollars to take a family of four or five to the show as you eat your lasagne on a stick, dizzy yourself on the rides and accumulate a ridiculous number of plastic show bags packed with tooth rotting sugar and sinister militaristic items like sniper rifles and dastardly ninja swords..
Back in the 50s, exhausted and stressed parents could drop in at the Aspro stand and grab a free sample, guaranteed to knock out that headache and even cure your rheumatism, as the naughty kiddies ran amok screaming for their Jolly Jumbo Liquorice bags. Today you need to take your own analgesics – even though most of the pain you feel will be coming from your wallet!