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In the early 1980s, I went on a week-long Florida theme park tour with my father. I was around eight years old. It was my first big trip away from home, and exciting (to say the least). One of the now-defunct theme parks we stopped at was Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus’ aptly titled “Circus World”. It was a circus-themed park with many different attractions. At the time, it was the Winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and that alone was a huge selling point for me. I remember a few rides, a short zip line, some strong men, and many clowns, but for some reason the biggest memory was two fake railroad cars containing two huge ‘carnival cut outs’. One cut out showed a lady with a huge python, and the other showed a lion swallowing a person. I had never seen one of these before – despite all of my visits to Bertrand Island Amusement Park and the ‘old’ Jersey Shore. So, I enthusiastically climbed the big stairs, placed my face in the hole, and my dad snapped a few photos. It was a good day, and a great vacation. One I will always cherish.
As vacations come and go, I always make sure to keep my eyes peeled for a carnival cut out whenever we are at a hopping tourist spot. They always seem to be occupied, and with or without a camera I take the opportunity to have some fun with it. In the past year, as we started work on Mighty Grams, I felt it would be appropriate to do a little research on the ‘carnival cut out’. After all, the Mighty Grams cards are digital versions of the painted piece of plywood with the “face in the hole” cut out. There are many terms that describe this novelty, including ‘face in the hole’ and ‘comic foreground’. The original ‘comic foreground’ was invented by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (you may know him as the ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ painter).
Born in 1848 to successful farmers living in the upstate New York town of Antwerp, Coolidge was an untrained artist who was known to sketch portraits and scenes from his parents’ farm when he was a young child. By the time he turned twenty, he was painting cartoons for the local newspaper and earned money as a "lightning cartoonist", which involved making quick sketches of people before an audience. He later went on to paint comical pieces such as
the famous ‘Dogs Playing Poker’. He even wrote a comical opera titled
“King Gallinipper”, which was centered on a mosquito epidemic that was
happening in New York and New Jersey at the time. Possibly influenced
by his interest in public art making, Coolidge later invented the ‘comic foreground’. It became such a hit that he filed a 125-year patent, which finally expired in 1999. Toward the later years of his life, Coolidge made hundreds of different comic foregrounds and started a mail order business selling them, which provided most of his income. He hired local art students to paint titles on the creations.
I like to think that Mighty Grams is the reincarnation, in many ways,
of what Coolidge began so many years ago. Who knows…if he were still
around, perhaps he would be one of our featured artists! Perhaps he
would even design a “dogs playing poker” invitation?