By Jesse Horn
Some of the world’s most fascinating and often most misunderstood professions are those in an area of entertainment housed under the banner “Sideshow”. Often called freak shows, these acts of old featured oddities and performances that could not be found in the mainstream. Despite their sometimes dubious reputation, a revival of the sideshow came in the 1990s with the help of the widely popular Jim Rose Circus. Currently there are scores of performers from this era wowing audiences across the globe. The success and appeal of these kinds of shows are obvious, bringing a spectator up-close to the outrageous and unbelievable. Yet there is a cloud of uncertainty and suspicion surrounding the infamous ringmaster, Jim Rose. Oddities contacted Mr. Rose, who agreed to grant access to behind the scenes of his journey into the performance life, as well as insight into his true art…deception.
Jim Rose is no stranger to controversy and discourse. His public fallout with members of his former troupe has villainized his appearance in the media. Yet he makes no apologies for his irreverent and sometimes unscrupulous demeanor. It is also sometimes difficult to get a consistent story from him, although his charismatic and humorous voice draws you in regardless.
“I was born premature and cross eyed,” Mr. Rose began. “I was left in a hospital for two weeks in an incubator before my parents could bring me home. When they did they didn’t have cribs my size so my first bed was a shoe box. I don’t remember how much I weighed but my mom says I was a women’s size 7.”
Rose explained that when he was in the sixth grade he received corrective eye surgery, and it was not long after that while at home he heard a knock at his Arizona home.
“There were these guys recruiting neighbor hoodlums to vend soft drinks at the state fair grounds. So I went and did that. That was a real eye opener, I had access to back stage to freak shows, traditional theatre, traditional circuses, monster truck shows, and of course my favorite, because I always wanted to be Evel Knievel, motorcycle daredevils.”
Rose said that for a while he learned what he could, including a stunt called human blockhead, where a performer hammers nails and other objects into their nasal cavity via their nostril.
“I noticed that around the “no pick pockets” sign there were pickpockets waiting for you to read the sign and touch your wallet so they would know where it was. They would have baby shows, like “Cyclops baby”, “Two-headed Baby”, “Lobster Baby”…See why they never asked to be born… the children of forgotten fathers. I thought it was a really nice touch, they would put strollers out front, which kind of psychologically makes you think that the baby might actually be real. But of course they were just in blue liquid and in jars. They are actually made out of rubber, they’re called bouncers, you know – pickled punks” A pickled punk is a rubber replica of something organic kept in a jar.
Rose explained that there were many other “tricks” to not only making a good show, but that sometimes were there to protect the performer.
“There’d be this guy, it was really cool, they billed him as the ‘wild man from Borneo’…and the audience would get really upset. They said he was going to eat a chicken live and he would be inside this cage. You would walk inside the tent and there would be a half full Porta Potty and a chicken running around inside that cage. That cage by the way was to protect the geek from the audience instead of the audience from the geek.” Rose said that the audience would be enraged when they would see the performer bite the chicken. “All he did was pick up the chicken and bite it on the neck where he had already bitten it a hundred times before and get a trickle of blood. He would smear it on his face, set the chicken down and that was it.” He continued to say that when the audience would get upset the “Wild Man” would pick up the Porta Potty and start splashing it on people to get them out of the tent.
“It was just colored water ya know, but it worked.”
After recovering from a botched motorcycle accident Rose said he went on to work with a hypnotist for a while. “Hypnotism is just a guy with a microphone that’s louder then you…and he’s being very forceful…It’s an unspoken agreement that I’m the director and you’re the actor. It’s just simpler for you with lights in your eyes and people staring at you, and some guy with a microphone telling you what to do, it’s just easier to do it then buck the system.”
Rose stated that this is the core of what stage hypnotism is, yet not all audience members go along.
“One time I had a guy that wouldn’t look me in the eyes, he wouldn’t do anything, man. You know, so finally off microphone (so the audience couldn’t hear me) I whispered into his ear “Just play along and I’ll give you a hundred dollars”. As soon as I said that, he rolled around like a pig in mud, and I said “alright stand up, stand up!” I said, “Before I bring you out from under hypnosis I want to leave you with a powerful thought…for the rest of your life you will believe, and tell your friends, that Jim Rose owes you money…One…two…three…Give him a big hand!” I bet he went out and said, “hey man, Jim said he’d give me some money”…and they’d say ‘you’re lying’.”
Rose went on to say that there are also easy tricks that can be played on audiences regarding telepathy.
“I used to do an act where I would have my wife not face the audience. She would be sitting on stage facing the wall and I would go to different audience members and say ‘whisper something in my ear’”. After this he said he would turn up to his wife.
“Ok Bebe, I will transfer what I have been told, from my brain to yours.” He continued to say that this would cause the audience to look up on to the stage.
“You could see her bring the microphone up to her mouth, and then I would just, because everyone would be watching her and no one would be watching me, I’d go, “I have sixty three cents…’” he laughed in a feminine voice.
Oddities asked Mr. Rose about reports that he suffered from a serious drug problem during this time period.
“Ya, I was a heroin addict, I don’t know if that constitutes as a drug problem or not. After the motorcycle accident I couldn’t walk for a year, and then I went onto a cane. It took a while before I could actually, you know, walk around again. So I went through a lot of pain and during that period did a lot of codeine and then dolodin, and then heroin.” He also confirmed that it was his wife Bebe that help him get off of drugs.
Among his odd endeavors, Jim also explained that he was involved in fundraising for the Moe Udall political campaign.
“He ran against Jimmy Carter and I was his fundraiser. He came in second. He was congressman from Arizona. I used to do fundraisers with like Gregory Peck and Robert Redford, actually while I was on heroine. They didn’t know, actually I forgot to tell them.”
When it came to offering advice for those aspiring to pursuit a life in the performing arts Mr. Rose kept true form, and didn’t offer any. “You know what, I don’t know anyone who has made any money out of it other then me in the last sixty or seventy years,” he said, which of course was not correct.
A lot can be said about not only the fascinating world of the sideshow, but about Jim Rose himself. He is and forever will be a conundrum. His ability to be a cunning showman also is matched by his shady and sometimes dubious demeanor. This does not reflect however on the world of the sideshow as a whole. There are scores of talented masters who take their art form to new levels. In upcoming months, Oddities will explore these talented and fascinating individuals, revealing their amazing and strange world.
Something fans don’t know about Jim Rose:
“I don’t like it that Dennys serves a chicken omelet…I think its wrong putting the chicken back into the egg. It’s like dipping your hamburger in milk. We have got to watch what we eat.”