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A barker is a person who uses voice and words to attract patrons to buy tickets for entertainment venues ranging from booths in carnivals to strip joints. Carnies might promise more than the show actually delivers in order to bring in a crowd. In fact, barkers have reputations for being hustlers who specialize in parting customers from their money. Barkers lead a nomadic life, working long hours for relatively little pay.
Traveling carnivals used to be more common than they are today as small towns had less entertainment and fewer attractions for people to enjoy. Barkers were part of the overall carnival experience. People who attended carnivals would be enticed to pay their entry fees by a barker. A carny might titillate walkers-by with descriptions of bearded ladies or lizard boys at a sideshow. A hustler would mark a person's back with chalk if the hustler succeeded in getting the person to play a rigged game over and over again, or a game where the player would likely lose. Other barkers would then know that the player was an easy "mark."
Traditionally, barkers were unskilled laborers who had good voices and good people skills. A barker might also be a con artist who had drug or alcohol problems. Even so, some barkers successfully moved into show business, including comedian and actor Jackie Gleason, television personality Ed McMahon and Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager.
As in the past, barkers work the spring through fall. Working days can be long, from early in the morning to late at night, up to 17 hours a day or more. When the carnival is moving to another location, the carnival must be torn down. This can make for even longer days for barkers.
The terms "job security" and "barker" do not have anything in common. If times are tough, carnies get cut, particularly new ones. In addition, while some barkers have been weeded out because of drug testing, drugs and alcohol are still part of the carny culture. Since carnival barkers have a seedy reputation, future employers may not be impressed with this type of job experience on a resume.
Being a barker still has attractions for those who want to travel. The life of a barker can be challenging as the carny must know how to deal with not only customers, but other eccentric carnies as well. In addition, while the pay is low, a typical barker does not have a lot of free time to spend money, meaning that most of the barker's money can be saved over the season.