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 live.

 

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 Ohio camp.

 

DICK BEST

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 destination. 

 

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 necessities.

 

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 3,000 persons.

 

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 unit.

 

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 the beam.

 

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 several days.

 


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