"ALIVE" assured the sign outside a fair booth that depicted exotic women in skimpy bikinis wrapped in snakes.
Inside the booth was "Zona and her Snakes" -- Kathy Powell, 35, who has managed to hang onto her life while playing Zona for almost a year now, with Koko the boa and Caesar the python.
At the 110th annual Maryland State Fair that continues through this holiday weekend in Timonium, Powell's job is to lounge on a bean bag chair, dressed in gym shorts and a modest top, while the 8-foot boa and 10-foot python uncoil across her lap.
Her occupation seemed to be something she wanted to do since she was a girl plying Georgia swimming holes, she said.
"I used to go swim with the water moccasins and cotton mouths, and ever since I wanted to play with snakes," she said. "I've always had a fantasy to live dangerous."
Not that Koko or Caesar are mean. They're like any pets, she said. Except that Koko "decided one time to give me a big hug around my neck," she said. "All you do is hug them a little bit around the neck and they stop."
Otherwise, snakes don't demand much. A couple times a month the python eats a big rabbit, she said, and the boa downs a medium one.
Powell and the snakes work for Bobby Brooks, a sideshow impresario from Key Largo, Fla., who says he's a golfing pal of Jimmy Buffett, the singer and slumming bon vivant.
The Zona booth and another nearby display purported to be the world's largest rat -- a 32-pound swamp rat he bought in India -- are but two of more than 20 acts Brooks has carted around the country in his 29-year career.
At other fairs with more space to rent on the midway, he has set up an anti-drug booth featuring a former drug addict in a wheelchair. "He's been off it for years," Brooks said, "but he's real messed up. He tells the people how it could hurt."
Brooks likes to be topical. Back in the 1960s, after the actress Jayne Mansfield was decapitated in a car accident, "I had a headless show, a girl without a head," he said. It was an illusion, he admitted, but how he created it is a "trade secret."
Brooks is a husky man, 42, with a gray thatch hanging down to his T-shirt collar. As his work takes him around the country, new acts sometimes suggest themselves in the people he meets.
A 29-inch man he spotted on a cruise off Miami came to work for him as "the world's littlest man." A 700-pound teen-ager who was introduced to him in Richmond, Va., signed on with him as "the world's fattest girl."
The prospect of steady work apparently compensates for whatever embarrassment these people might feel.
"Money, money," he said. "Overcomes everything."
In a neighboring fair booth yesterday that served up titillation of a different kind, a straw poll of fair-goers pulling levers in a mock voting booth put Clarence Du Burns ahead of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in the race for City Hall. Debbie Rabinowitz of radio station WCBM, which is sponsoring the running poll with the League of Women Voters, said that as of Wednesday night, with more than 900 people participating, Burns had 225 votes to 198 for Schmoke.
In a fictitious U.S. Senate race, Rep. Helen Bentley was %o defeating incumbent Barbara Mikulski, 367 to 290, Rabinowitz said.
Politicians visiting the fair have come by to ask who's ahead and to look into the methods of the poll "to make sure it's kosher," Rabinowitz said. "We're running it like a real election."
A more exciting draw seemed to be inside a flag-draped #F camouflage tent where fair-goers could shoot plastic paint balls around a shooting gallery decorated to suggest the Persian Gulf.
Amid a landscape of sandbag fortifications, barrels labeled as "Iraqi oil" and cloth poster caricatures of Iraqi life, shooters had a choice of hitting effigies of famous figures linked by moving seesaws. The heads of Saddam Hussein and Ronald Reagan appeared on one seesaw. Madonna and Jesse Jackson were strangely joined on another. Behind them, a man in a motorcycle helmet and protected by a plastic shield ducked and dodged to provide an even harder moving target.
Sometimes, the man fires water balloons back at the shooters, the booth manager said. "Gets them all fired up."
After sending paint balls whizzing and splattering, Don Bushover, 13, of Randallstown, lowered his gun and said with a sigh, "It's so awesome."