Fooling Medicos, Not the Public
Led Dick Best to Showbiz Job
by Tom O'Connell
Altho his father disapproved of the
lives led by soldiers, sailors and showmen, Dick Best has had a
fling at all three, settling on the latter career and making it
pay off by backing his ideas all the way. This despite the
fact that on two occasions doctors gave him less than a year to
The Side Show impresario who this
season operated the shows on Cole Bros,' Circus and Johnny J.
Jones Exposition, got his first forecast of a short span when he
returned to civilian life in 1919 after a stretch with the U.S.
Army during World War I. Dick had been internally injured in
a truck crash, and service medicos insisted he remain at a
government hospital for treatment following his discharge in an
About then, Dick decided it was
high time that he saw some of the country instead of
languishing in a hospital. He started out "just to hobo
around," as he puts it, and he has been leading the itinerant
life of the circus and carnival showman almost continuously
since he made that decision.
Started as Butcher
Dick's entry into showbiz was via
a butcher's job. Born in Greenfield, Ind., in 1899, Dick
wound up as a butcher in a Detroit theater when he was 13
after his father died. The theater concession was owned
by Dad Rogers, and after suggesting to him that he eliminate
some of the moppets employed at the spot and get some grown
help, Dick progressed to boss butcher status.
In 1914 he enjoyed a brief career as a
mariner, making two trips to Europe on ships hauling cattle and
horses. Then came his army service.
Following the doctor's dire
prediction, Dick began roving the countryside with no particular
Enters Outdoor Field
With $1,400 in his kick, Dick was
taking things easy one day near Enid, Okla., when he struck up a
conversation with one of the local citizenry and was informed that
Campbell, Bailey & Hutchinson Circus, playing in Enid, was in the
market for a butcher. Dick inquired and was hired by Bill (Highgrass)
Campbell. Dick stayed with the show for a year and a half,
and after Frank Mutton, then boss butcher, left because his mother
was ill, Dick worked his way into the top butcher's slot.
Switching to Zeidman & Pollie Shows,
Dick acquired two Funhouses on the show and maintained them until
1928. During this year he changed again, this time for Royal
American Shows. On the latter show Dick had a Snake Show,
and eventually, the Side Show.
It was in 1943, while he was still
with Royal American, that Dick received his second notice for a
doctor that he was not long for this world. A trifle dubious
about this second gloomy judgment of his health, Dick switched
doctors. His new physician recommended that he have
his teeth extracted. Dick followed his advice and has been
rolling along in high gear ever since.
In the meantime, while the state of
his health was being clarified, Dick left Royal American.
From 1943 thru 1945 he leased Chadwick Beach in Englewood, Fla.,
from Lou Woods, operating the dance hall and bar at the spot, as
well as supplying fishermen with bait, tackle and other
He admits that fishing is his ruling
passion when he gets away from his show. He has put a large part
of his earnings in the sport. By 1939 he had acquired five
boats for use in the sport. With the coming of the war, he
disposed of the craft in 1942.
Florida a Dick's favorite fishing
spot, but paradoxically, he does not go after the deep-sea
monsters. He prefers to seek out game fish in a salt water
creek. He decries deep-sea fishing as too easy, calling it
more manual labor than sport. He feels there is a greater
kick in testing angling skills on the smaller, craftier species.
After selling out the Side Show on
Royal American to Cortes Lorow in 1943 and putting in the two-year
stint in Florida, Dick returned to show business in 1946. In
that year, entering a partnership with T. W. (Slim) Kelly, he put
five shows on Cavalcade of Amusements. During the following
season he bought out Kelly.
Joins JJJ Expo
Dick left Cavalcade the next year and
came up with the Side Show of the Johnny J. Jones Exposition.
He has maintained the attraction on that show since 1948.
While Dick traveled with Cole Bros. his wife Irene, handled the
unit on the Jones show and now he's back there. They have
been married 21 years and have no children. Dick is a
Shriner, Mason Elk and member of the Michigan Showmen's
Association, the Heart of America Showmen's League of America.
It was while he was with Royal
American that Dick staged one of the few artistic successes but
commercial failures of his career. He framed a Side Show
bountifully flashed with neon tubing, with the interior of the
show featuring a tiered seating arrangement that could acc-ommodate
The unit set Dick back some $60,000,
with the Side Show front alone casting half the total. He
persuaded problem Frenchy Healey to handle the top and started off
the season with high hopes. When Ruben Gruberg took a gander
at the show deluxe he offered to pay $35,000 for a half-interest
in the unit. Such appraisal by a fellow-showman gave Dick
more confidence than ever that the venture would succeed.
But as the season of 1939 progressed
it became clear that instead of a Technicolor moneymaker, the
super Side Show was a white elephant. Dick opines now that
the flash was just too much for the unsuspecting carnival patrons,
who weren't prepared for it. He feels that the streamlined
unit, with its 50-cent charge, was just tow years ahead of the big
money that come with the start of the war in 1941.
Starting the season with $60,000 he
finished the season with $35. He was so disgusted with the
entire operation that he gave the front of the Side Show to Royal
American management, while the remainder of the unit was pieced
out to any and all takers. How-ever, he expresses no sour
grapes feeling over the fiasco today.
While experimenting with neon flashing
in Winter Haven, Fla., with the Royal American he met the problem
of preventing the gas from catching fire. The electrical
wiring used in the neon units would frequently short circuit when
wet and ignite the gas. The wiring was fed to the tubing
thru several spots in a mounting board.
A local youth watching proceedings
suggested that Dick simply feed all the wiring thru one conduit,
which would protect it from water and short would protect it form
water and short circuits, instead of running it thru the boards
unprotected in several places. Dick tried the scheme and the
problem was licked. The Side Show manager says he was the
first operator in the business to put lavish neon flashing on a
He likes to recall the manner in which
he acquired Betty Lou Williams, the Four Legged Girl, for his
show. He relates that he heard rumors of a four-legged girl
in the backwoods of Georgia and determined to verify them for
himself. After five days of beating the brush near Albany,
Ga., he questioned a crossroads general store owner about the
girl. The proprietor looked askance at him and said he would
be glad to get someone who could help him.
The offer of aid rejuvenated the tired
searcher, but to his surprise it came in the form of a sheriff and
a few deputies, who marched the protesting Dick off to the pokey
on the grounds that anyone hunting a four legged girl mush be off
After eight hours of incarceration in
the town jail at Richland, Ga., he was released and re-sumed his
search. On a chance he asked a local schoolboy if he
know of the elusive girl, proffering a dollar for the information.
The boy calmly led him to the home of Betty Lou Williams-only a
few hundred years for the general area he have been combing for
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