Andy Mullins, Midway Barker
Mullins, an actor by trade, grew up in Fort Worth and lives in Addison. As the State Fair of Texas’s joker-in-residence, he’s been hurling family-friendly barbs at unsuspecting visitors since 2004.
I grew up going to the state fair, but I’d never seen the midway barker before. They only started the character nine or ten years ago. The midway is right in the middle of the fair, where the Cotton Bowl is, and as a barker, I interact with the crowds as they walk by. I sit up on a pole in a little booth with a big blue curtain. The fair goes for 24 days straight, and I do six shows a day on the half hour, starting at twelve-thirty. I’m an actor during the rest of the year—I do theater, improv, some voice-over work—so I like to perform.
I’m six foot five, but from the booth it appears that I’m cut in half. It’s a big illusion. I get a lot of openmouthed, gaping looks. Each show lasts 25 minutes, and I’ve formulated a script over the years. The first thing I banter about is Big Tex. I ask, “What’s he got on me? Yeah, he’s fifty-two feet tall, and I’m only two and a half, but he talks slow.” I’ll do a stupid imitation of him: “Hellooo, folksss.” I tell jokes, and I tease people. I’ll see someone walk by with a bunch of toys in his hand and I’ll say, “Don’t win ’em all! Save some for the kids!” Or I’ll flirt. I can’t tell you how much the girls flirt back—they know how safe it is because I’m stuck there on a pole. My favorite is when a girl comes up to me and says, “I just can’t figure you out.” I’ll say, “Well, I’m a complicated man.” Then she might ask me to come down and go around the fair with her, and I’ll say, “Don’t think I can’t! I have a pogo stick, and I know how to use it.” If nobody’s paying attention to me, I’ll yell out, “I know all about the fair! Ask me anything!” So somebody will ask where the fried ice cream or a particular ride is, and I’ll direct him right to it. I know where every show is located and at what time it starts. That’s part of my job, to let people know where things are.
I never explain the illusion. People are always saying they know how it works. Last year, right before the fair ended, an article came out in the Dallas Morning News that explained the trick. But what’s the point of that, really? It’s just a fun illusion to enjoy. Some think I’m flying like Superman and I’m disappearing over the edge. Others ask me if I’ve been in the war. People will throw popcorn or candy at me to see if there are mirrors. When kids see me come out from behind the curtain at the end of my show, their eyes get real big. I just tell them, “I’m his twin brother. I’m going to go get him a corny dog.” Every once in a while someone will think I’m really a half-man. On my very first day, this lady walked up to me and said, “I hope you’re happy with what you’re doing. There are people who are really handicapped, and look at you, making fun of them.” That was heartbreaking.
Unless there’s a threat of rain, the fair is pretty crowded. It’s great for people-watching. Last year the Jonas Brothers performed, so there were thousands of teenagers. It was a really hot day, and about 150 people were treated for heat exposure. It was crazy. But the most dangerous time to do the show is during the Texas-OU game. I’ve gotten a paper cup full of beer in my face before. I give a cheer for OU, then a cheer for Texas, and I say, “Hey, I’m not taking sides. I’m half-and-half.” One day I have candy thrown at me, the next day it’s beer. You should see what some of the fans wear to the game. The girls will come barely dressed, and the guys will come painted orange, their bellies hanging out. And it never fails that ESPN will ask me to do a halftime spot with them. It seems like I get more exposure from this job than anything else I do.
I don’t know if acting is my calling, but it’s what I do best. I like getting onstage and performing in front of people. I’ve always done community theater, but a few years back I decided to get an agent and try to book some commercials and television work. I love theater, but theater doesn’t pay, so to supplement my income I do cartoon voice-over work for FUNimation and some improv, which keeps me sharp. And my wife, Joleen, and I just started our own sketch-comedy troupe, called Five Finger Discount, so we’re trying to get that under way. It all adds up to a salary, and the fair is a really good paycheck for me every year.
There’s only been three or four barkers before me; this will be my fifth year. I was working for Murder Mystery Players in Dallas when I got the call about the gig. None of the previous actors had held the job for more than two years. So I’m the longest-running barker. There’s something wrong with me, isn’t there? But I must be doing okay if I’m still here after five years. I joke around and say, “One day I’ll be the voice of Big Tex and I’ll get off of this pole!”
I don’t enjoy the grind every day, but it’s always worth it. Sometimes I don’t do a show, I’ll just talk with people. How’s it going? What are you doing? What have you seen? That sort of thing. When my wife comes out to see me, she’ll stand in the back and set me up sometimes; she’s got to perform too. So I’ll strike up a conversation with someone that way and then others will start listening and we joke back and forth and get the crowd into it. Then it gets fun and easy. There are days when I’m sweating up a storm. I’ll say, “I’m melting away here, folks! Look, there’s only half of me left!” You always have a good joke—or a bad one, for that matter.
I try to circumnavigate the whole fair every year just to see everything. On my breaks I go to my trailer, which I’ve shared for the past two years with Sergio, a Russian juggling champ. You meet people from all over the world doing this job. I’ve become friends with a Celtic band, the Killdares, and on the last day of the fair, I’ll grab a beer and watch them play. We’ll close the fair down and walk around and enjoy something you only have once a year: a Fletcher’s Corny Dog. Or a turkey leg. How many times a year can you eat a turkey leg?