HEY, RUBE! THE FIGHT IS ON

“Hey, Rube!” is a slang phrase most commonly used in the United States by circus and traveling carnival workers (“carnies“), with origins in the middle 19th century. It is a rallying call, or a cry for help, used by carnies in a fight with outsiders.

In the early days of circuses in America (c. 1800–1860), it was very common for carnies to get into fights with the locals as they traveled from town to town. Circuses were rowdy, loud, and often lewd affairs, where country people could gather, blow off steam, and voice political views. Mark Twain’s classic description of a circus and other shows in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides illustration. It was a rare show that did not include at least some violence, and this often involved the members of the circus.

When a carnie was attacked or in trouble, he would yell “Hey, Rube!” and all carnies in earshot would rush to his aid. Circus pioneer and legendary clown Dan Rice called it “a terrible cry, as no other expression in the language does, that a fierce deadly fight is on, that men who are far away from home must band together in a struggle that means life or death to them.”

‘Hey, Rube!’ remains the safety phrase used by modern theatrical performers to alert security of a violent audience member, especially in environments where entertainers face large numbers of drunken patrons. (Wikipedia)


I remember this from growing up. It was the cry of the circus people, calling all their friends and co-workers to come join the battle. It was the circus and carnival people against the rest of the world. I think there are at least two movies and who knows how many books using this as their name. The circuses are almost all gone now. The realization of the cruelties against animals and sometimes humans in carnivals and circuses eventually doomed them. It makes me sad because I loved the flyers — the trapeze artists — and the high-wire people. I loved the glitter and the tents and that scent of strange creatures.

Jimmy Stewart (clown) and Charlton Heston in “The Greatest Show On Earth”

After I realized the ugly underpinnings of these shows, I couldn’t attend them any more. Neither — apparently — could a lot of other people, hence the closing.

Nonetheless, I think I’m allowed to miss the excitement of the circus, the something unique and special that an arriving circus brought to town. And then, we can all watch a nice, cleaned-up version of the story in “The Greatest Show On Earth.”

You just can’t go wrong with Charlton Heston.

17 thoughts on “HEY, RUBE! THE FIGHT IS ON”

  1. “You just can’t go wrong with Charlton Heston.” Too bad Charlton Heston went wrong when he became president of the NRA and gave his infamous “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands” speech.

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    1. I think he regretted that. I also think he was right on the edge of dementia by then, too. A sad end to a pretty good guy, otherwise. In person, he resembled my Uncle Abe. That’s how I see him. Tired, at the end of a long PR trip and longing for a good night’s sleep.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never been to a circus… and for whatever reason, never saw that as a part of missed childhood experiences. Kind of like I feel about Disney World/Disneyland… I don’t get what its appeal is other than as a giant corporate money-suck from families…

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  3. No, you can’t beat Charlton Heston – after all, he also parted the Red Sea. Jimmy Stewart was always more my style, though. My mother took me to the circus when I was small and it just wasn’t for me…along with parades (Mardi Gras was a terror!) and anything else that involved large crowds. But my best friend and I loved caranvils! We rode all the rides and were fearless. How I miss those days!

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    1. And this one has BOTH. I loved this movie when I was a kid. Sadly, most of DeMille’s movies don’t stand up well to time, but when I was 8, that was a GREAT movie. Not so much this year. But I did get to meet Chuck Heston and that was pretty cool.

      I used to love carnivals. Roller coasters. The Cyclone. I only gave up Coney Island a few years ago when Garry pointed out our bones were screaming “NO NO NO.” It was hard to argue.

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      1. LOL…too funny! And you actually met Chuck? WOW. My dad once met Dan Blocker (sp?) from Bonanza. He said he was twice as large in person! The closest I came to meeting anyone famous was in Las Vegas when I ate at the next table to Steve and Eddie (again, sp?). LOL

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        1. Every once in a while, Garry got to interview stars. He lobbied for these jobs because he has always been in love with the movies — and baseball. I’m fourth after movies, baseball, and a Norwich Terrier named Divot. He got this job. We went to NY, stayed at the Drake hotel. I met Heston and Henry Fonda and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the producer — probably the most important guy there. It was the opening for “Midway.”

          Garry interviewed “Lucky Chucky” who kissed my hand. Really. He did. I was young. I thought this kind of thing was going to keep happening forever.

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  4. We don’t have circuses in Malaysia. At least not in the East side. I never imagined there to be a need for a “hey rube!” phrase there. I do know about the animal cruelties though. I hope circuses could find a way to be entertaining with ethically acceptable ways so that I can come to one someday. Nice post btw!

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  5. Nearly all the circuses are gone now, I think the few that still visit Hobart don’t have animal acts. I have mixed feelings about it. I liked the circus when I was a child and I liked seeing animals because I rarely saw any but even then I did not like to see elephants balancing on two legs. It looked so ungainly and I worried they might fall and hurt themselves. We went to see the Moscow Circus once and I think I only saw maybe one more after that. I don’t think I would go to another but I do feel a bit sad that they are gone because they were colourful and exciting to a child who didn’t know about the bad stuff and because many of them were family concerns that had existed for generations.

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