Forty-Three Years of Continuous Performances  By Bill Hall  Feb. 2013 Carnival Magazine

 

 

Ask anyone how they got into show business and you are in for an interesting, and sometimes surprising, conversation.  For some of us it was the family business and we grew up following in our parents' footsteps.

 

For others a facet of the show business, or an individual connected to it, became a positive influence on our goals and ambitions.  In the case of sideshow operator John Strong Jr. it was both.

 

John's father owned and operated The Big John Strong 3 Ring Tented Circus that traveled the West Coast of the U.S./  John Jr. grew up on the show where he learned the circus, sideshow and concession business.  At age three he started performing in the ring as a clown.  From an early age his mother encouraged him to follow his dream of owning his own circus someday.  His father instilled in him the qualities of being an honest and reliable person and the importance of being liked by people.

 

During the winter months John attended public schools in his hometown.  It  was there that he began polishing his skills of running a sideshow.  During the school classroom show and tell sessions he would take things to school from the circus sideshow including a four-legged chicken.  John Jr. gradually developed a pitch to go along with the display and realized the potential in the curiosity he aroused among the other students.

 

 

At the age of eleven John Jr. had saved enough money form performing on the circus and selling cotton candy to purchase a stuffed, two-headed cow.  This was the start of his sideshow.  He presented the cow as an after show paid attraction.  Eventually he added live performances featuring a blade box., fire eating and magic, which he taught himself to excel in.

 

With his growing interest in the sideshow business developing John Jr. had ambitions to build a bigger and better operation.  His stepfather, Bobby Reynolds, and Bobby's partner, Jack Waller, were operating one of the biggest and best sideshows in the country.   John Jr.'s goal was to strive for something  like their show. Jack Waller was known for  his sideshow blade box and a pitch that was  only outdone later by his mentor John Jr.

When Jack passed away he requested that his ashes be mixed with the paint used on the blade box so he would always be part of the show and always have a pretty girl on top of him. John Jr. saw that his wish was granted.


Bobby Reynolds was known for his sideshow attractions that brought in the crowds by creating the curiosity factor.  Although John Jr. admired Bobby's showmanship his dad had taught him quite a different approach to making money. John Jr. was taught by his father to "Always be honest in whatever you do and let your word be your bond." John Jr. had developed a philosophy that he wanted to be remembered for giving people value for their dollar.

 

Bobby Reynolds had an opposing view, requesting that his tombstone be inscribed: "Screw you-I got your dollar."

 

After graduating from high school John Jr. left his father's circus and accepted a position as stage manager at the Circus World theme park in Florida. His tenure at the park lasted two years. As luck would have it on the way back to California he heard of a two-cow that was for sale and he acquired it.


The purchase inspired him to build flashy sideshow for the road. At the twenty he invested $10,000 in equipment, including an 80-foot bannerline.  Beside the two-headed cow, he featured a real mummy that he named "Count Demonicus." John Jr. performed all the live acts himself sword swallowing, fire eating, bed of nails blade box and electric chair.

In his early thirties John Jr. a for a character part in the Hollywood "Batman." His ability to swallow and eat fire got him the part over sixty candidates. Mingling with Hollywood stars and gaining some Hollywood fame became one of the highlights of his career.

 

Following a brief seven month Hollywood John Jr. got back into business of sideshows.

 

He decided it was time to put more credence in his show by deviating from stuffed and specimens to live deformed creatures.  The public had always shown more interest in the bottled displays thinking the, probably more legitimate than things that were stuffed. However John Jr. knew that there was nothing better than live animals so he set out to acquire some to accompany the two-headed cow. He found two-headed snakes, turtles and a tortoise; a live six-legged cow; and five-legged dogs.


During the spring and summer John Jr. takes his sideshow on the road, leaving his south Texas winter quarters for major county and state fairs nationwide. During the winter he works festivals and flea markets in addition to having a 100-foot show set up near his home in La Feria. John Jr. boasts of having a show going week in and week out for forty-three years.

 
Rising fuel costs, salaries for live performers and high percentages have necessitated changes in the sideshow business. Live sideshows have become impractical, but museum type shows that own their own attractions are still able to survive.  Today John Jr. travels with two semis specially built to house his museum attractions and a custom stage trailer. Future plans include adding major illusions and a three tier bannerline-possibly the world's tallest.


Living on his father's principals has made John a success in show business.

 

"You never have to be the biggest, but always be personable and operate a good, clean show and you will always be welcomed back."

Author's Note: My thanks to John Robinson of Sideshow World for allowing me to use some information contained in an interview with John Strong Jr. The article photos are provided by John Strong Jr.  www.CarnivalMag.com

 

Special Thanks to Bill Hall and the Editor of Carnival Kevin Freese for their permission to repost this article on Sideshow World

 

I like to also that Rick West for the interview he did that was used for come of the information in this article. John Robinson Sideshow World


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