James N. (Jimmie) Chanos left a legacy that now resides in the memories and histories of many small towns across the Midwest such as Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and elsewhere.
Chanos was one of the many Greek-immigrant professional wrestlers who appeared at carnivals and circuses. An as-yet-unknown number of these Greek wrestlers also became partners, purchased and/or established their own carnivals or small circuses. News accounts, local historical societies and assorted other sources report on the annual visits of these circuses to the local fair grounds. The images and attitudes of rural Americans toward Greek immigrants had as much to do with these traveling visitors as it did with any other group of persons or sources of information.
Chanos was born in Zaverda, Greece in 1895. In 1909, at age 12, Chanos accompanied his parents to the United States. The Chanoses settled first in DeKalb, IL, then to Muncie, IN. Around the time of the Balkan Wars, Chanos’ parents returned to Greece while he stayed in Muncie. In his prime, Chanos was no taller than 5’6 and weighed, most often, only around 147 lbs. Yet he “yearned to become a wrestler and worked out at the Muncie YMCA and wherever else a mat was available (Star Press (Muncie) April 8, 1979).”
By 1917, Chanos was wrestling professionally all around the nation. But in June, 1917 he returned to Muncie and enlisted in local Company G of the Indiana National Guard within three hours of his arrival. Chanos professionally wrestled for nearly 50 years. In 1923, Chanos won the welterweight champion title from Sam Davis of Cleveland, OH in a finish match at the National Guard Armory in Portland, IN on October 24, 1923 (Muncie Evening Press October 25, 1923; Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette October 26, 1923).
Carnival wrestling, known as the Athletic Show, or AT Show, in carny lingo was where local amateurs were encouraged to wrestle the carnival’s wrestler. These “matches” took place between local men and the carnival’s wrestler. The contest was always the same. Locals were promised $5 to $10 if they could stay in the ring or beat the carnival wrestler within a fixed period of time. If the local amateur failed he did not receive the money. While this sounds simple enough it was the side bets that made the greatest profit.
Unexpectedly, this type of wrestling was considered to be the hardest kind of contest. Professional wrestlers reported that this was an especially dangerous way to wrestle since the locals were never a match for any trained wrestler. The amateurs could unintentionally hurt the professional. While the professional was trying to keep the amateur in the ring, so that the side bets could be made (and hopefully increased, as the contest continued) the professional might very well get hurt unintentionally by the amateur’s blundering.
No one now knows the full roster of Greek immigrant wrestlers who became carnival/midway/sideshow/circus owners. Certainly aside from Chanos their number would have to include: John D. Kilonis (1885-1965), James E. Stratus (d. 1959) and Andrew Spheeris (d. 1951). The full measure of the influence these individuals and their shows exerted on rural America has yet to be determined.
As in the tragic case of Andrew Spheeris. As his daughter, Penelope, an internationally recognized film director, recalled: “My father got murdered at the carnival, defending a black boy in Troy, AL (Lansing State Journal November 7, 1989). Spheeris was killed on October 27, 1951. Deputy Sheriff W.S. Furlong arrested Thomas Jones “after several witnesses said they saw him shoot Andrew Spheeris, the carnival worker with a .38 caliber pistol (Anniston Star (Anniston AL) October 30, 1951).”
Nick Bozinis (1895-1969) another of the carnival wrestlers, never owned a carnival but he eventually worked as the treasurer of the James E. Strates Shows. I cite Bozinis, who had a fine career as a wrestler, because it may well yet prove to be the case that the vast majority of these Greek immigrant wrestlers went into such positions rather than own a carnival outright.
The direct influence of these Greek-owned shows is far from some sidebar to American entertainment. With the recent announcement that after more than 100 years the Ringling Bros Circus will give its last performance this May. Consequently, the James E. Strates Shows is now the last rail-moved carnival or circus in the United States. So, seen with an objective eye, the long term influence of Greeks in carnivals, circuses and even amusement parks continues.
Another point that cannot be overstated is that no matter what the urbanites of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles may now think, not everyone wanted/wants to live in a metropolis. It was not until after World War I that a shift in population began in earnest. By 1930, 56% of Americans lived in urban areas, whereas only 45% had been urban in 1910. Clouding some of these figures is the fact that as this shift was taking place some of these new urban residents moved to what would be called the suburbs and commuted to the urban centers.
Whatever the demographics may be it is still the case that these Greek-owned carnivals toured the nation’s fairgrounds. Advertisements in Billboard Magazine, taken at random in the 1940s-1950s, document that the Jimmie Chanos Show went to the following cities and towns in Indiana: Anderson, Cambridge, Elwood, Goshen, Greensburg, Greenfield, Indianapolis, Muncie, Portland, Richmond and for Ohio: Drexell, Eaton, Fairborn, Hoytville, Midway, Sidney, Spencerville, St. Marys, Urbana, Xenia. This is certainly only a select list many other small towns and cities were visited than those cited here.
These were not unexpected or unsupported visits, but rather often annual events at local Centennial Fairs, Firemen sponsored events, AMVETS Post events, local merchant events as well as county and state fairs. And as reported in the pages of the Palladium-Item (Richmond IN) “by 1962, the latest local Fairs Jimmie Chanos Shows are the biggest hits of the each year (in): Kendallville, Winamac, Frankfort and Muncie (September 30, 1962).”
In 1933, while traveling through Greenville, OH, Chanos met a young lady named Susie Fierstiene, who became his wife of 55 years. It was also the year Chanos first opened his Chanos Amusement Company. “Jimmie’s first purchases included three rides, a Merry-Go-Round, Chair-O-Plane and Ferris Wheel. There was no money for more equipment, but rides were added, and shows (Star Press (Muncie IN).” Along with rides were game booths, concessions, and a midway with an array of performers.
Jimmie Chanos died of a heart attack in his home on March 26, 1979. Susie and his son Nick assumed management of Chanos Amusements until Susie passed away in 1980. Nick J. Chanos, along with his wife, Laura Li, ran the Chanos Amusements well into the 2000s, again touring the Midwest appearing at local festivals and holiday events.
There is no single storyline in Greek-American historical accounts. To understand the Greek experience in North America is not to restrict one to what was taking place in major urban centers. We must also not be overly influenced by writers who only want to only report on how Americans saw and understood Greeks. The social questions we seek must always include the local Greek’s point of view. Jimmie Chanos’ life informs us not only of the complexity of images associated with Greeks in North America, but also how those associations differ one from the other, depending on where one lives.