Carnival Hootchy-Kootchy Girls


17 August 2008



Starting in 1955 or when I was 9 years old and continuing for many, many years, in early August, my mother, father, brother and me, would go to visit my grandparents on my mother’s side and then go on to the Shenandoah County Fair in Woodstock, Virginia.

Like the typical county fair, the Shenandoah County Fair had judged live stock and farm fowl as well as judged “canned” vegetables, jams, farm crops, handicrafts and it also had a midway with carnival rides, side shows, food of various kinds and games of chance. It also always had some sort of entertainment like music groups or a car demolition derby.

And then, beyond the end of the midway and a good 50 yards beyond the last fair ground exhibit building, always sat a single, very large, fully enclosed, tent. During daylight, there was never any activity at this tent of any kind but as soon as it got dark, the front of the tent got bathed in light and a large crowd would gather in the front of it. Well, a large crowd of men anyway as this tent housed carnival hootchy-kootchy girls.

“Hootchy-kootchy” girls? In front of the tent was a very narrow stage running the length of the tent on which white women dressed in very suggestive, filmy clothes, (belly dancer attire comes to mind) would dance or shimmy while a carnival barker suggested that for a mere $5 tent admission, one could be witness to these beautiful, exotic, women dance and strip off their clothes (not sure now that the word "strip" was ever used).

At the time, witnessing these women and they were all women in their 30’s or 40’s, dance suggestively for free on that well lit stage, at the fair, was, well, just sweet.  I know, pervert at an early age. Sorry.

Of course, I never had the $5 and so never went inside the tent but after each free stage show, which seemed to be about once per hour, some 5 to 8 and sometimes more, men did pay and go inside the tent. 

Now, 50 years later, I can still see those women on the stage and hear the ridiculous jive of the barker trying to get the men into the tent but now I wonder:

-    If the ladies inside the tent were the same ladies doing the free shows outside?

-   Who were these ladies that danced and supposedly stripped at county fairs? I don’t see how they could have been local recruits but does that mean, they travelled around the country with others and that big tent? How did one become a hootchy woman? Suspect not something posted in "Want Ads" and never saw a flyer for "carnival stripper wanted" stapled to telephone pole. Did a boyfriend or husband work the fair manning a carnival ride or game of chance and that got the woman into stripping?

-    Although all the "ladies" I ever saw were white, I wonder if in other parts of the country, there were indeed black hootchy girls?

-   If the tent got paid $5 per head, what did a hootchy women get paid per show or night or per fair? Could not have been very much but then again, $5 in those days was a lot of money for the rural area around Woodstock, Virginia.

-   Don’t remember any of the free stage show women having specific performer names like Wild Cherry or Princess Lay-me but perhaps they did and I just don’t remember. For all I know, one or more of these stage women could have gone on to be a porno star or famous stripper somewhere. Must be some history book written on this subject somewhere.

-    Seems to me, all the women were rather thin or "curvy as it is called now" and actually quite attractive, which bodes the question if they actually worked at their craft and ran or lifted weights or worked out in between shows? And what did they do between shows beside sleep and eat? Wonder if they actually went down into the local towns and looked around and shopped. With me being so young and naïve at the time, perhaps these women on the stage and inside the tent  were drug users? No way of knowing now. And I wonder if there are some women, somewhere, still living, that once was a carnival, fair, hootchy-kootchy girl/woman?

 - Wonder if county fairs in certain parts of the country still have that big tent, out beyond all other fair ground tents and buildings where men gather when it gets dark? Wonder if what goes inside the tent has changed over the years?

Hootchy-Kootchy show at a county fair. In a galaxy far, far away, a very long, long time ago.