Years of Continuous Performances
By Bill Hall
Feb. 2013 Carnival Magazine
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.
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
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.
growing interest in the sideshow business developing
John Jr. had ambitions to build a bigger and better
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
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.
Reynolds had an opposing view, requesting that his
tombstone be inscribed: "Screw you-I got your dollar."
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.
brief seven month Hollywood John Jr. got back into
business of sideshows.
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.
have to be the biggest, but always be personable and
operate a good, clean show and you will always be
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.
Special Thanks to
Bill Hall and the Editor of Carnival Kevin Freese for
their permission to repost this article on Sideshow
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