The other night, while watching the offbeat, but visually beautiful Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus by Terry Gilliam, I was charmed by the impressive Imaginarium wagon that the movie characters travel and live in. While the wagon in the movie (best known as the late Heath Ledger’s last performance) is whimsical and transports visitors to realms of fantasy, the basic idea of the carnival/sideshow and medicine show wagon is included in the tall, elaborate structure.
The rural areas of North America in the 19th century enjoyed traveling sideshows and medicine shows as their entertainment – welcome during the time of the Great Depression. These shows included circus performers, burlesque, vaudeville, Wild West spectacles, oddity exhibits and theater productions. Medicine shows traveled around delivering “miracle cure” medications and other products between various entertainment acts. Many of these types of shows traveled in horse drawn wagons decorated with elaborate paint and filigree to add to the flair of the production. Because of the transient nature of the job, many of the performers lived in these wagons full time. Movies like 1932’s Freaks and shows like HBO’s Carnivale give a glimpse into how these people lived on the road.
Very few of these wagons exist today, but some can be found refurbished and used as decor or displays. Even modern day fortune tellers like Suzie Kerr Wright, aka Astrogirl, has a recreated carnival wagon where she reads palms and interprets the Tarot.