Sideshows or back-end pieces are more scarce than ever,
a situation that makes it easier for Dennis Sideshow
Attractions of Vestal, N.Y., to find bookings.
The company is owned by Rick and Deb Dennis; their main
acts are a Giant Rat show, a World's Smallest Woman
show, reptiles and a dunking machine. Most of the route
is in the Northeastern U.S.
Dennis said he started in the sideshow business as a
youth. "When I was 12 years old, I traveled with a
sideshow on the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus," he
said. "They came through town and I hooked up with'em.
They taught me how to eat fire and swallow swords."
The old circus sideshow included a tattooed man, a
rubber man, Serpentina the Snake Charmer and other
attractions. Dennis stayed with the show for seven weeks
that first summer. "When I got back home, I was a
veteran sword swallower and fire eater," he said.
He was bitten by the show biz bug. "I had my own show at
16, framing my own units," Dennis said. "I traveled with
Ward Hall for four years and he really broke me in. He
taught me how to talk the front, and book routes."
Soon Dennis had added archery, juggling and
knife-throwing to his skills, shooting arrows and
throwing knives to bust balloons around living targets.
Now he performs less than he used to, preferring to
showcase other acts and attractions.
Now Dennis books on with such shows as S&S Amusements
and Benner Amusements in Pennsylvania, J&J Amusements in
Ohio, the Patriot Unit of Conklin Shows in New York,
Coleman Bros. Shows in New England and Empire Shows, of
Buffalo, N.Y. As an independently booked show, he "hopscotches,"
traveling with different carnivals for different
stretches of their route.
The show stays out 20-24 weeks per year, starting in
early May and closing in late September. "We would have
started earlier this year, but my transmission went out
on our way to our first date, so we had to take care of
that," Dennis said.
Sideshow attractions aren't as easy to find as they once
were and you've got to know them when you see them,
Dennis said. "I had my 'World's Smallest Woman' walk
right by me last summer while I was working my dunk
tank," Dennis said. "I closed down the joint and chased
her down on the midway. She was a little under age, so I
ended up spending the whole afternoon courting her and
her dad and convincing them that I was all right. I told
them that people were going to look at her anyway, she
might as well make some money from it, and she was all
In addition to the World's Smallest Woman show, the
Dennises own a UFO Star Baby Show, a "humanoid/alien
mix" that Dennis said was a take-off on a "48 Hours"
shown last year. "We framed a unit with newspaper
stories and 'Government Secrets Exposed' on the panels,"
said Dennis. "It's educational and entertaining."
Dennis also carries two Giant Rat shows (the rats are
actually the South American capybaras commonly used as
sideshow attractions), as well as "standards" like the
Headless Woman illusion, which has been around "100
years," and a 12-foot Great White shark. Under the
management of Dean Gurney, he also books a second unit
part of the year, which plays select dates with
"I have all of my equipment stacked so I can take it out
as it's needed," Dennis said. "We do most of our own
painting and I have the trailers already framed, so if I
come across a two-headed snake or something, i just have
to paint the panels."
The Dennises stayed busy all summer. "There aren't too
many back-enders left any more," Dennis noted. "We don't
have any bad habits and we're dependable. I have long
hair and a beard, and if anybody says anything about it,
I tell them that I also have a drug abuse show and
sometimes I have to go in and be the wild man."
Dennis charges $1 for the World's Smallest Woman show,
and the main attraction pitches a Bible souvenir for 50
cents. The Giant Rat show also costs $1, with the show
also featuring a three-foot alligator billed as a "crocagator"
from the sewers of New York City.
"Nowadays, you've got to give them a lot more for their
money," Dennis pointed out. "For years, I charged $1 for
only the rat."
Like most successful sideshow men, Dennis knows how to
drum up some extra publicity when necessary. "Sometimes
we stir up a little something when business is a little
slow," Dennis said. "I might call the local newspaper
and plant a story about the rats not really being rats."
Dennis once anonymously called a county coroner to help
promote his Headless Woman show, complaining about a
dead body being on display. "The coroner came and
checked it out and said, 'Yeah, she's alive'," Dennis
said, laughing. "It makes a good story for the local
The 1994 season had its ups and downs for Dennis
Sideshow Attractions. "We had a slow start but a good
finish," Dennis said. "We were worried about halfway
through the season, but mid-July through September was
very good. I really have to thank Conklin and Coleman
Bros., because they have such a good route that they
pulled me out by my bootstraps."
Rick Dennis on the far right swallowing a sword
One Trip to Many Drug Abuse Show