JOHN SHAW

Kiddies Don't Try This at Home!!!!!

 

 

Q: What was your first memories of Show Business and how did that influence you?

A: My first memory of show business was when I got to ride in the opening ceremonies of the Ringling show at
Madison Square Garden. The other thing I remember is seeing a magician at my elementary school, but I can't remember which one was first, it was all around the same time.

Q: It's my understanding that you were bitten by the show bug at age 8, what was it that you liked about magic?

A: Just the fact that I could do something that few others could and it would even impress adults. At 8 most boys are trying to find there way and discover who they are. I, like a lot of other future magi used magic tricks to be accepted. Later I took my love of magic and used it to freak people out.


Q: What were the first tricks you learned and were did you perform?

A: I bought a Blackstone magic kit from Kay Bee Toys. It had a slew of tricks that were all pretty cheesy, but to me they were the Holy Grail. I think the first trick I learned was the Lota Bowl. That is the trick where you empty a bowl of water and it keeps refilling itself over and over again. Then there was the snapper, which to this day is still one of my favorite tricks to pull on someone. My first shows were of coarse for my family, then when we would have company I would do a show for them, then I did a few shows for my friends at there birthday parties. But, my first professional tricks came when I was about 14 and I met a clown/magician at a party and he gave me the number for a gentleman who sold professional magic out of his house. The first time I set foot in his showroom I thought I was going to die, it was like discovering King Tut's Tomb to me. That's when I knew that I really wanted to stick with this.

Q: What was the reaction of your family when they learned about your interest?

A: Well, they thought it was great. They have always been very supportive of what I do. They don't always agree with some of the risks I take but they support me.

Q: You were in a parade at Madison Square Garden, Why and how were you selected to be a part of the circus parade?

A: Back in the day, I don't know if they still do, some people from the show would come into the audience and select some kids at random to sit in the cars that opened the show. I was there with my Cub Scout troop...(hold for laughter), and they were picking people in my section so I jumped up and made sure they picked me. It was a great experience that I have never forgotten.

Q: Now that was Ringling Brothers?

A: Yes, the Ringling show

Q: Now, it was around the age of 10 you experienced your first sideshow, Was that on The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus what impressed you about the sideshow?

A: No, the first sideshow I saw was at the Clyde Beatty show. It was in a mall parking lot and my father, who was a police officer at the time, took me to see the circus. He told me about the tent outside and said that we should go take a look, and low and behold there were the freaks. They had them all, a bearded lady, snake girl, fire eater, contortionist, little people, and a sword swallower. Once again I was chosen to pull a sword from his gullet and I thought he was the coolest guy in the world. Just to see everyone looking up at us and being in total awe, it was very impressive.

Q: Do you remember who was on that show and your impression of their acts?

A: I don't remember any of there names but the sword swallower and the really sexy fire eater/snake girl. I thought all of them were incredible at the time. I don't know if I saw them today if I would have the same impression.

Q: How did that effect the direction you thought you wanted to go?

A: Well, I love magic and always will. I have made a good living off of magic as well. But, I always kept my love of sideshow stunts out of my performing life because I didn't think anyone but me wanted to see this stuff. But, I put in fire eating first into my magic act and it went over, in a huge way. So now my act is a combination of my two loves, the magic & illusion and the sideshow stunts.

Q: You referrer to the sideshow acts as stunts, some people think that the sideshow acts are like magic acts, you know the sword goes into the handle etc. Could you tell our reader what the differences between the two arts are and do you think people miss understand what sideshow performers do and the danger that they face in doing the acts.

A: Well, when I perform magic I usually refer to them as effects or illusions. I do not claim that they are real. Although when I do an effect that is a ghost effect or haunted effect I neither deny nor say if it was real or not, I let them make that decision. But when I am performing sideshow stunts that is exactly what they are. We are no different then a stuntman, because we take calculated risks. We are trained and skilled performers who make dangerous stunts fun and exciting to watch but for the most part come out mostly unscathed. I let the audience know throughout the course of the show how long some of the stunts have taken me to perfect and how many hours and sometimes years it has taken to make it look so easy. With magic there is only the illusion of danger for the most part, but not always. In the sideshow there is real actual and sometimes physical harm that can come to us. Although we have been known to stretch the truth form time to time ala Barnum.

Q: A lot of kids are exposed to Magic and Sideshows, Most just play around with dime store magic or play circus moving on
to the other things kids find interesting. What was it that attracted you to both these forms of entertainment?

A: MONEY!!! Just kidding. We all know there isn't a whole lot of that in the beginning. It was the sensation that I got from being on stage, the rush and the butterflies. I lived in a semi rural town and I didn't hang out with a lot of my friends outside of school. So I had plenty of time to practice and hone my skills. And when I would show someone and I could fool them or freak them out I knew I didn't want that feeling to end.

Q: Was it something your parents supported or did they think it was just a passing fad?

A: They were always very supportive of my magic. I don't think they thought that I would make a living from it, but the sideshow act was a little different. They thought I was going to kill myself with the crazy things I was trying to do. You see everything I perform in the show I taught myself. I used trial and error to figure this stuff out, I wish I had access to someone who could have helped me but at that time there was just no one for me to go to. So like most parents they tried to talk me out of it, but that didn't work obviously. It is not what I would suggest others do, I was very lucky in a few situations.

Q: What encouragement did you receive from you friends and family, and how did that effect you decision to enter the Sideshow?

A: They all thought the things that I could do were very impressive, but they didn't want me to get hurt. That was everyone's main concern, they were afraid that since I didn't have anyone to teach me that I would screw myself up. And I a few occasions I did just that and had to go to the emergency room. Buy, no pain no gain, and I soldiered on.

Q: What was your biggest break as a child performer?

A: I would have to say when I landed a deal with all the recreation departments. I thought I hit the mother load. They were paying me $500 to do an hour show. To a young kid that was great

Q: Going from Magic to Sideshow Arts is a little jump, what were some of the acts you learned?

A: First was escapes, then fire eating, bed of nails, blockhead, glass eating, and pincushion.

Q: As most performers learn they have mishaps, what were some of the things that happened to you?

A: Well, I burned the hell out of myself many, many times. Learning to eat fire wit no one to help was a painful lesson. The blockhead act also proved to be a bit painful when I would scrape the inside of the nose and bleed. Glass eating actually didn't give me any problem as I developed a way of trying it that made it less dangerous. But, pain is part of the job if you are not willing to bleed for this art form then you should not get into it.

Q: Most season performer who advise the up and coming to search out a mentor and not try to learn the acts
on their own, what your thoughts and advice to a new comer?

A: Definitely get a mentor!!! I would never suggest that anyone should learn the way I did. You will learn quicker and much more safely, avoiding all the pitfalls that I went through.

Q: You mentioned that you self taught yourself the sideshow acts, but wouldn't recommend others trying to learn with out a professional mentor, Could you give me more of your thoughts and reasoning on why it's best to find a mentor?

A: For the simple reason of health issues. I spent a lot of time researching the human anatomy, looking up different body parts and where all of the nerves are. I would not change this for the world because my knowledge has served me many times. With a mentor you would just be able to learn the stunts in a safer environment. When I taught myself how to eat glass, I spent a week doing it. I started with a small piece, chewed it up and waited to see what would happen the next day, and then I kept going until I could devour the whole bulb. It just makes sense to have a mentor, I was very lucky and fortunately for me I had a lot of resource material on the human body.

Q: I would say your were more than lucky, without proper training and conditioning crashed glass can cut you insides or even kill you. Where you aware of the risks and did you have the information on conditioning when you started?

A: I was aware of the risks but I used my knowledge. I knew what glass was made of and I knew how fine light bulb glass was and how I could grind it up with my teeth. S
o, I just put my best foot forward and went for it. Common sense plays a big part in my life; I really took the time to break up the glass with a hammer at first to see how it broke and to see how small the fragments were. Then I read up on what glass is made of and what are its primary components and put the equation together to make it work. As far as conditioning for the stunt, that came late after I figured out how to do it. I have a nutritionist friend who sat down with me and went over all the things that they could think of that would boost my immune system and gave me there best guess as to what to eat to make my system stronger for the stunts that I wanted to do. But, first they told me not to do it...LOL.

Q: What kind of preparation and precautions do you do before you go on stage?

A: I stretch for about 30 minutes prior to the show. I also take charcoal pills 30 minutes prior to the show to help absorb the toxins and poisons I put in my system. I drink lots of water before and after the show, along with eating asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, raw spinach, all with crushed hot peppers mixed in.

Q: I've been told by many performers that they prepare not only physically but mentally before doing their acts. How does your preparation help you mentally while you’re on stage?

A: It is very important to focus on stage and I usually have my alone time prior to the show so that I can get my head in the right place. I usually like to be alone before a show and my crew knows that and leaves me alone. I can be something of a bastard before the show because I am a serious perfectionist. I never feel that the show is good enough, it can always be better. With the proper meditation before the show it allows me to be funnier and more relaxed while on stage so that I can have fun with the audience.

Q: In the last couple of years the sideshow has had a revival among young people; most of them have never had an opportunity to see what most of us think is a traditional sideshow. How would you compare what a lot of today's performers do with the traditional sideshow acts?

A: I like watching the traditional acts myself, from a historical point of view. But from a performers view point I find a lot of those acts lacking entertainment value for today's audience. I perform a very theatrical sideshow with lots of costumes and upbeat music and special effects. The venues I play and the audiences that I work for expect more, they are comparing us to video games, MTV, JACKASS, things like that. You have to really up the aunty, production value wise at your shows now. Kids are much slicker now you can't get up there and do a bally with old time humor and expect a kid covered in tattoos and piercings to be impressed or laugh. You have to know your audience, and today's audience want more of everything. That is one of the reasons that I have put both my magic/illusion act and my sideshow act together. It mixes well and lets them see a little of everything, not just one or the other, so it doesn't get stale for them.

Q: You were a street performer when you first started, what kind of reaction did you receive from your audience?

A: It was mixed, like most street performances. Some days you had great audiences that were fun to perform for and then you had those other ones that made you want to jump off a roof. But, they always loved the fire eating that was my mainstay.

Q: I know there are many young people that try to break into show business by street performing; did you have a lot of competition and what advise would you give a person wanting to start now a days in the business?

A: The first thing that they are going to realize is that no one want to pay you. Everyone tells you to do this show for free and it will get you exposure. The only thing I ever received form a free show was more requests for free shows. You have to do them in the beginning but try to get at least a little money out of them so that they don't think you are a push over. You might also want to get use to eating roman noodle soup, because you will not make a lot of money in the beginning, but stick with it and if you want it bad enough you will succeed. Don't let anyone tell you that it can't be done, because there are a lot of us out there doing this for a living. Always try to keep your act fresh and exciting to get stuck in a rut where you are just doing the stunt and that's it. You need to make sure that the people are having fun and they will be excited to see you again.

Q: You have performed all around the country, what was your first big job, and where did that lead you?

A: My first big job came when I met an older magician named Jack Adams. I was doing a show with Jeff McBride and several others at a Hindu monastery in upstate NY. Jack lived there and he and I became friends. I later asked him if he would take me on as an apprentice and teach me more about the art of stage presence and showmanship. I later toured all of the US with him and his daughter in a show called The Incredible Merlin Magic Show. It was the biggest thing I had done up till then, and I learned volumes form that man and I will always be indebted to him for what he taught me. He was a student of Al Flosso, and he passed on a lot of what he learned to me.

Q: Jack Adams was your mentor, why do think he made such an impact on you and what would you say was the greatest wisdom you learned from your experience working with him?

A: Because he told me when I sucked. Unlike a lot of people you know they are always nice and they don't tell you when an effect you are doing or a joke or something sucks. I don't need people to tell me that everything is good, because I know that is not true. I need someone to be constructive with me, tell me what you didn't like and how I might make it better, that makes you good. He was very honest and even though my feelings were hurt from time to time, it made me the performer I am today. The greatest wisdom he gave to me was to be myself and not to copy others. I have emulated some that I think are great but I don't copy them. Take something that you think is great and make it your own, but do not do it the same way that they do, then you are just cheating yourself and cheapening the original piece.

Q: What other magicians would you say had a great effect on your stile and what was it that you learned from them?

A: Well, Jeff McBride was someone who came into my life when I was changing my magic act. I was looking for something much freakier and over the top to do. I was using heavy metal music in my show and lots of crazy make-up and pyro. someone told me about him and showed me a video of his act, and I said that is exactly the type of thing that I am working on. It was weird to see someone doing something that you have been trying to do without ever knowing that they exist. We later became friends and I have worked with him and learned volumes from him as well.

Q: You have had appearances on TV, Live performances, etc. What was the most interesting appearance you made?

A: I performed in a drag show one time that was pretty interesting. To see how they transform themselves and the pain that some of them go through to achieve the illusion is just incredible. I will never look at duck tape in the same way again; they could use them in a commercial to sell that stuff.

Q: I have read you were on the Howard Stern Show, what was your experiences and how did you get hooked up with Howard?

A: I was at a bar in
Brooklyn one night doing a show with a band. Before the show I was making my way up to the bar and I saw a guy who looked familiar. It turned out that he was K. C. one of the producers from the show. So I started talking to him and asked him flat out who do I talk to about getting on the show. He said me, why what do you do? I said watch and I took a straw from the bar and shoved it up my nose and pulled it out and licked a booger off it. He asked what else I could do and I told him to just watch the show. After the show he took my number and by the following week I was on the show. Just goes to show you, you never know who you will meet in a bar...LOL

Q: How did being on the Howard Stern Show help you career?

A: A lot, doing that show first of all is great on a resume. Secondly it is great for my demo reel, and then of coarse Howard got me the spot on Ripley's. I would have to say that doing his show was definitely worth getting up at 4 in the morning.

Q: What is it that you like best about performance?

A: The freedom to be who I am all the time. Most people get up everyday and hate what it is that they do for a living; I won't ever have to feel that way. I am one of the luckiest people in the world because I got to choose my profession because I wanted to do it, not because I had to pick something with good benefits and a 104 K. Those people envy us for our freedom and uniqueness.

Q: Show business is a great place and I find that most folks that are successful have a passion to perform. As you said you got to choose your profession because You wanted to do it, not because You had to pick something with good benefits and a 104 K, what are your plans if you can no longer perform and do you see yourself being in the business for the rest of you work career?

A: If I can no longer perform then my life would be pretty empty. I guess I would have to start giving classes on the art to at least be involved a little bit. This is the only job I can see myself doing, other then my other passion which is mortuary science. If for some reason I had to give up performing I would go back to that.


Q: Mortuary science, would you share a little background of how you got involved and why you find it interesting?

A: When I was in high school I was asked by my councilor what type of field I wanted to go into. I had already been involved with the haunted attraction industry and my grandmother used to take me to funeral homes when I was young, so the first thing I thought of was a mortician. I figured it was a good job; you would always have work since people always died. You didn't have to worry about not getting along wit your co-workers because you were around dead people so if they said anything you just get the hell out of there. I have always had an interest in the human body, especially when it was post mortem. I don't really know why but I could just stare at them all day when I was little.  I find that the vessel we occupy when we are alive is more interesting when it is in decay. I know that sounds sick but it really is hard to describe what it is that I like about mortuary science that anyone could understand without babbling on and on.

Q:
What do you like least?

A: Negative people and people who stereo type us for the way we look and what we do. It really pisses me off that people come up to me and ask me after a show, "So what is your day job?" They have no clue that you can make a living touring doing this type of entertainment and make a very nice living. Then you just have the people who hate you and talk shit because you have the freedom to look and be what you want to and get paid for it, while they have to sit in there office cubicle and rot away one day at a time.

Q: I understand negative people, do you get a lot of hackling from people at your shows and how do you handle them?

A: I LOVE hecklers!! They make me so happy when they shout out stupid remarks that are so common. Then I just go into a more comedy approach with them and get the audience to hate them or make fun of them. But, they do make it fun for me, so I keep on my toes. There is nothing that they can say that I haven't heard before or that I don't have a comeback for. I usually can shoot them down within 3 retorts.

Q: In the same vain do you get people that try to disrupt your show and have you been hurt by anyone from your audience?

A: I did have this one guy at my haunted attraction show that got pissed when I was messing with his girlfriend. She was this overly made up blonde girl who was very pretty and she knew it. She was drunk and tried to upstage me and I just proceeded to tare into her. I normally don't do that as a rule but she was really obnoxious and she deserved to get knocked down a few pegs, sometimes karma looks like me. He man got stupid and started to come on stage to fight me, but I have police security at that show and they grabbed him and took him away. It was kind of funny and I made a joke about it as they took him away and kept going on with the show. Some of the audience thought it was part of the act. But, I have had just two incidences where an audience member hurt me. They were both during the blockhead, I have the audience member pull the nail out with pliers, but theses two girls thought it was fake and they yanked on the nail really hard up and down and I just spewed blood all over them. Once again, I just made a joke cleaned myself off and kept going, the show must go on.

Q: I know of a couple of performers who had people removed because of threats but after the show the guy was wanting for them. Have you ever had that experience?

A: No, not yet....I have been very lucky. I have a great support team, and I always make sure that I have security at the show and that they follow me and my crew to our vehicles after the show.  I have my own security that I bring on shows that are big events just so I can make sure everyone is safe.  Plus, I usually make sure that I park away from the spectators.

Q:
It sounds like you've had a pretty well rounded career, what do you feel you have given back to the art and how have you influenced other performers who know you or have see you on stage?

A: I hope that I have at least made some people laugh and pick up a book to learn. I hope that I have given back to the art a new approach and a new audience. I hope that I have influenced other performers to see that you don't have to perform just within the boundaries of what you know. Go outside of what you know and you will see that there is a whole new group of spectators just waiting to be freaked out.

Q: Is there anything you haven't added to your performance that you would like to learn?

A: I'm currently working on sword swallowing, that is the one stunt that I feel I must learn. It is just the quintessential sideshow stunt that I feel I have not put into my act. I do so many other stunts but that is the one, for myself I feel I must do.

Q: I know a lot of the folks in the business do variations on an act, have you developed any new acts, what are they and what reaction do you get from your audiences?

A: I am doing a new stunt where I am handcuffed, wrapped in 50 feet of chain that is pad locked to me, and then I'm locked into a mail bag. Now, while I try to escape my two assistants beat me with baseball bats. It is a comedy piece for the most part, but I took two escape effects and put them together to try to make something not only funny but entertaining as well.

Q: Where do you want to find yourself in five years?

A: Hopefully still in Vegas. I have an audition the beginning of September for a show at the Excalibur Hotel, and if I get it I will be moving there again full time and that is where I would like to stay for many years. I would also like to continue to tour from time to time and do some shows overseas. But mostly I would like to be doing what I love and to meet more sideshow people and do combined shows so that a more wide variety of people can see what it is that we have devoted our lives to doing.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell our reader?

A: Never forget where we came from, we are sideshow performers. I have seen too many of us trying to be the main act, that is not what we are. We are the show on the side, if you make your show available to be a middle act or an opener then you will get more work. I work frequently the whole year long because I never forget that. I have headlined with my magic/illusion act, but never with the sideshow act. It is best when you don't give them too much of it because then they become immune to the sites and it loses its edge. We are the little dirty secret that is whispered about in the corner, and that is why so many people like to come play with us. If anyone would like to contact me they can get me through my web site at www.underworldent.com.

Interview by John Robinson

 

All Photographs courtesy of John Shaw

 

Each month we will try and interview a new performer for the site.  Because of the logistics of it face to face interviews are tough to come by.  A good percentage of the interviews we will be doing will be via e-mail or telephone.  If you are interested in being interviewed for the site drop us a line.

 

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