John, I’d like to begin the interview by having you give us
a little background on your family and when your family got
into the outdoor entertainment business.
JS: My dad got into the
outdoor entertainment business in the forties. My
grandfather, John Strong I, was a juggler and he used to
perform at different vaudeville events and entertainment
events and used to take my dad to the circus when he was
little and my dad’s dream was to always own a circus. In
the mid-forties, my dad did a combination standup comedy and
What venues did he work?
He did vaudeville and comedy club routes. There weren’t that
many in the forties. In 1947 he met my mom in Hollywood,
Calif. Lucille Ball brought my dad out from Jamestown, New
York. My dad was an aspiring actor and was in a couple of
movies...one with Robert Young called “The Cannibal Ghost”.
He wasn’t getting enough steady work and stuff, so he went
into the concession business selling snow cones and cotton
candy on parade routes. He went from standup comedy to being
a concessionaire. Then he met my mom who was never in the
business. She lived across the street on Hollywood and Vine.
They got married in 1948. My mom said “What are you gonna
do...What do you want to do with your life?” And my dad
said he always wanted to own a circus. My mom said, “Then
why don’t you have a circus?” My dad said a lot of people
think circus people are like Gypsies...they have a bad
reputation. Mom said, “Nonsense. If you do a good job,
always keep your word, and do more than you say you’re going
to do, you’ll always be welcomed back.” So, my mom and dad
turned around from their honeymoon...they were in northern
California looking at the redwoods…and they bought one pony
and a dog. My mom was a good trainer; she started training
it, and they started their one-ring circus. They started in
schools in 1948, and my dad ended the tent show in 1984, but
he still continued indoors in gymnasiums, sports arenas, and
armories, etc., as an indoor circus. So my dad had his show
out for 48 years, starting in 1948. Gradually turned into a
three-ring big tent circus that would travel through eight
states and Canada.
Were you were born on the show?
was born into a circus family, but I was born at the Queen
of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles. My mom moved from
Hollywood and bought a piece of property in Thousand Oaks
next to a zoo so they could have more exotic animals. They
ended up buying a small elephant that they named Nina and we
were raised with this elephant, my two sisters and I. We
would go to school in the winter and we would go on weekends
and whenever we could on vacations and summer vacations on
the circus. When I graduated high school, I went with my
dad’s circus for a year and then I worked the Ringling for
Are some of your earliest recollections about your dad’s
Sure, I have some of my fondest memories.... my dad would
always hire interesting acts and I would always try to
emulate the acts. I started out as a lion tamer and we had a
lady named Frances Fisher who was very famous on the backend
She had a
bear act and a lion act and so, the earliest pictures of me
are with a baby lion. From there I became a clown at three
years old, at 5 years old I was a plate spinner, and at 6
years old I started taking up juggling and hand balancing.
So, I was a hand balancer and juggler from the time I was
six until a year after I graduated high school.
And you’d do all those acts on your dad’s show?
I did probably two acts, the hand balancing and the juggling
combination plate spinning for years and years. I ended up
doing Rola-Bola and unicycle as well in the act.
Did your dad have a sideshow with the circus?
I remember my dad’s first sideshow...my dad use to play
fairs in the spring and the summer months and he brought out
an entertainment package for different fairs in California
and Oregon. I don’t think he was ever up in Washington, but
in California and Oregon he would play pretty big fairs. I
remember my dad having a 2-nose, 2-tongue cow that was quite
interesting. And he had a 4-legged chicken and he use to
charge a dime to see. These unusual sideshow attractions did
very, very well at the fairs. He would normally pick a site
on the carnival midway separate from the circus.
Is that what sparked your interest in sideshows?
I think it did, yes, because when I was younger, I use to
take the 4-legged chicken when we use to have show-and-tell
on animals and stuff.
You’d take it to school?
Sure, we’d take the elephant one day to school, the 2-nose
cow to school.
I was the
hit of the classroom. I remember how much interest the
people had in the unusual animals in the sideshow…and I
remember at a dime how they use to line up… and I think
that’s what really did spark my interest in the sideshow was
my dad’s sideshow out at the fairs.
Do you remember seeing any other sideshows when you were
Yes, I remember Pete Cortez’ sideshow at the Bakersfield
fair when I was quite young. He had ‘Seal-O, the Seal boy’
in the show.
Did you go see the show?
Oh, I kinda lived over there. I thought it was really
interesting. Another sideshow man was Bobby Reynolds when I
was quite young. I remember I had a stuffed two-headed cow
and Bobby fell in love with the stuffed two-headed cow and
he wanted to trade me an electric chair and a 4-horned sheep
for my cow but I never traded it.
SSW: Do you
still have the two-headed cow?
I had it for years and years and years. It was born in 1917.
It had a blue ribbon from a fair that said 1917, so I knew
it was at least that old. Eventually the blue ribbon was
lost, but we made a carrying box for it so we could haul it
without damaging the two-headed cow. I just gave it to
Samantha who has “99 eyes” to add to her sideshow. She came
for a visit and I let her have that and a couple other
attractions that I had in winter quarters in La Feria. I’ve
also had other two-headed cows.
Many of us have no idea what it would be like growing up on
a circus. A lot of kids dream of running away with the
circus. Seeing you grew up on a circus, did you ever dream
of running away from the circus?
I use to want to run away from the circus and go home. I
like the circus and stuff. We would travel with the circus
the whole summer route and we’d end right before school
would start in Portland, Oregon. My dad would play the
World’s Largest Shopping Center where we would buy our
school clothes and stuff. It was exciting to be on the
circus. The applause…people really loving your acts…everyone
really interested in how you learned to do them.
We really loved the circus and we really loved the
action at the circus, but it was always good to get home and
have the uniqueness of both lives…having a home life and the
Did your sisters do an act too?
Yes, both of my sisters. My eldest sister, her name is
Sandy. She’s two years older than I am and she was an
aerialist, doing a swinging ladder act, and she also did a
pigeon act for many years. And my other sister, Linda, was
the elephant handler. And she put Nina through her paces.
First, she rode the elephant when she was younger. My dad
was the trainer of the elephant or I should say handler of
the elephant. My dad had her trained by a professional
elephant trainer. Also my youngest sister is not really my
younger sister, she’s 3 months older than I am. They were
both adopted because my mom didn’t think she could conceive
children. She had seven other children before I was
conceived, but they were all stillborn. You know, she
couldn’t carry them through and she adopted and then I came
along. I had a heart murmur and they weren’t sure if I was
going to live, but I made it. Linda helped me with my
juggling and hand-balancing act all through elementary
school and junior high.
You must have been the darling of the family being the only
son to carry on the circus name?
I was pretty spoiled. My dad thought so highly of me taking
over the show and being an heir to the circus that he put my
name on the truck. From that time on, the circus was known
as the ‘Big John Strong and Son Circus’.
And how old were you at that time?
I’d say around 9.
Oh, you must have been in heaven.
Yes, I was so bright they called me ‘Son’.
How did you get started in the sideshow business?
Well, my dad use to pay us a nominal salary for working the
summer and we use to save the money and stuff and both my
sisters and I had a pretty good bank account going, and I
was always a hustler at my dad’s circus. I was always
selling cotton candy. That’s how I got my first sideshow
attraction…by selling cotton candy and getting 25% when I
was 11 years old, and I bought that stuffed cow in
Ely, Nevada and that was
the start of my sideshow. I did it as an after-show in the
center ring where we’d sell tickets before the show ended
and people could see the two-headed cow at the end of the
show. And eventually I added fire eating, a blade box, some
magic, and some other things to the after-show.
Did one of your sisters work in the blade box?
No, we had a girl from Germany that did an acrobatic act.
Her name was Heidi.
My sisters never really got
interested in the sideshow. They had their hands full with
what they were doing. My one sister went into the food
concessions, managed the food concession trailers. She was
pretty occupied, and the other sister was in charge of the
coloring book pitch.
When did you separate from the circus and start doing your
I separated from the circus a year after I graduated high
school on my dad’s circus. I separated and did my own
sideshows when I came back from Circus World. I was there
two years as manager of a stage show at a theme park in
Haines City, Fla. that Kenneth
Feld built which was Ringling Bros/Barnum & Bailey
Theme Circus Park and I found a live 2-headed cow on the way
up there and when I left there I bought the cow and brought
it back to California. Then I immediately built a better
sideshow...a more flashy sideshow than I had on the circus.
How big was that show?
Well, the banner-line was 80 ft. It was a circus rope
banner-line. And I invested about $10,000 into my first
midway sideshow. When I started the midway sideshow, it was
a live show primarily…I performed sword swallowing, fire
eating, bed of nails, blade box, electric chair, and what
else did we have back then...We had a mummy that I picked up
when I was younger in Reno, Nevada…it was a real mummy named
“Count Demonicus” and we had the
stuffed 2-headed cow that died, that I brought back to
California after leaving Circus World.
How old were you when you started the midway sideshow?
I’d say, around 20.
Did your sideshow go over big?
No. The sideshow was doing OK, but I wouldn’t say big. In
fact, I remember running into your Uncle Tom (Beimborn) in
Paso Robles and Lakeport, California. He was doing BIG. But
anyway, that was the first start.
Do you remember the first pitch you did on for a bally?
I remember the first pitch I did on my dad’s show. My first
sideshow out in front of the midway was a 30 x 40 tent...it
was an army tent that I got at a company called Canvas
Specialty in L.A. I told everybody there was a sword
swallower inside and we were going for fifty cents at that
time in front of my dad’s show, but I couldn’t swallow a
sword. Some guy in the crowd....
Why would you say you had a sword swallower if you didn’t
Because I wanted the money…some guy in the crowd said, “Hey,
where’s the sword swallower?” I had a couple of swords from
a sword swallower who was in my dad’s show, that left the
show and sold them to me...he needed the money to get on
down the road…We had, I don’t know, maybe 150 people in the
show, and I didn’t want to refund the money so I just
crammed the sword down my throat…and became a sword
Are you saying you got the sword down the first time you
wouldn’t say it was my exact first time. It was the first
time I got the sword down my throat. I tried to put it down
my throat before, it wouldn’t go, but it was either that or
they wanted their money back, so I thought I’d better
swallow the sword…I didn’t want to return the money.
SSW: John, you have played on both
circus and carnival lots. Do you prefer to work on one or
That’ s a tough question…I really like them both…but on the
carnival there are more hours to operate so there is a
better chance to make money. Also it is a lot easier than
moving all your equipment everyday like you have to do on
SSW: Have you run into any problems
exhibiting freak animals?
JS: No problems…maybe have an
individual complaint about something or other, but I have
not had any problems with any animal rights groups
What banner painters have you used and who did the banners
you are currently flying?
had a few different banner painters. My first banner
painter…I just saw some art work on some Christmas windows
in my hometown and I got him to paint the first sets of
banners and the paints were flat and not that colorful. And
then I saw better work and they gradually got better and
better and better. John Hiner of course is the best banner
painter that I’ve seen in this day and age. He does most of
my work. John is not well right now, so he’s not doing too
much work, but most of the sideshow banners and signs I’m
using right now were done by John
Hiner. And I would say for quality and for selling tickets
he’s the best banner painter since
Johnny Wicks and even better than Fred Johnson.
SSW: I’ve heard you do
a great blade box pitch. Is it one of your better ones?
JS: I do a
lot of good pitches but yes that would probably be the best
pitch...the most money I’ve ever made on a pitch was with my
blade box pitch. We’ve been able to incorporate it into big
a Shrine Circus date that we did in June, we got almost 90%
of the arena to come down and pay to see the girl in the
box. The box is very sentimental to me because it was made
by my stepfather, Bobby Reynolds, and the one I have is the
sister to Bobby’s blade box and it was owned by Jack Waller
who was a great
sideshow man and kinda like a mentor to me. When he died he
wanted his ashes mixed into the blade box paint so he could
always be part of the show and always have a pretty girl on
top of him.
Did that really happen?
I understand you were in the ‘Batman’ movie. Can you tell us
a little bit about your movie experience?
That experience opened up a lot of doors to different things
that I’ve never seen in the circus or in all of the outdoor
show business at the fairs or anything I had done at the
time. Everybody dreams of becoming a star or being on
television or in movies and ‘Batman’ was a major $100
million production movie and I was hired as two of the
circus gang members in the cast so I played two of the
character actors and I was on call for seven months. I also
did scenes in the movie as a sword swallower, and as a
different character as the fire- eater, and it was really
exciting. I was in my early 30’s when I auditioned for the
role and beat out 60 other fire eaters and sword swallowers
to get the part. I got paid quite well, got my
SAG card, and got my Blue
Cross insurance from the movie. I was never in a major movie
like that before, and that was a very, very major movie at
the time and still they have Batman Movies coming out, or
one just came out last summer. It changed a lot of things in
my life. I got a major commercial out of it and I got a lot
of prestige out of the movie and I got to see how major
movies are made from behind the scenes, and got to meet many
of the stars of the movie. It was a very exciting time.
How did you feel the first time you saw the completed movie
with your name, John Strong, running in the credits?
Well, I went to the premiere…I lived in Hollywood at the
time. My mom (Ruth) had a house there for 40 some years.
Anyway, the premiere was held at the Chinese Roman Theater,
very prestigious with the red carpet and you see Michael
Keeton, Michelle Pfiffer, Christopher Walken, Danny Devito,
and the director. And you’re sitting amongst these people
who are only an arm’s distance from you. You take your
favorite girl to the premiere and you’re dressed in your
best, and you see your name come up there, it’s like the
highlight of your life. When I saw my name in the credits,
I jumped out of my seat and hollered, “That’s me!” There’s
not that many people that have had that opportunity in their
You’ve already mentioned a few people who have influenced
you in the business, including your dad, of course…you also
mentioned Jack Waller and Bobby Reynolds I believe. Are
there any other people that had a big effect on how you
operate in the business?
Well, I think everybody you meet has an effect on you.
People that have the same kind of interest that you do, have
an even bigger effect. I would say the biggest influence on
me, of course, has been my father because he instilled a lot
of positive influence on me. Everything was always, “You
can do it, son. You’re talented.” Everything was positive
with my father. When I got older, you know, Bobby Reynolds
and Jack Waller had this magnificent show, ‘Red, White, and
Blue’. I remember I graduated in 1976 from high school, and
of course 1976 was the bicentennial and they had the most
massive, most beautiful sideshow I ever saw. I wanted to
emulate that and strive for something like that at the time.
Where do you see the backend business headed? Does it have a
No, I don’t think it does. Not in the avenue that we have
had the luxury of doing in the past, meaning the fairs. Already
there are no sideshows left on most circuses. There might be
a snake show or a pit show of
some sort, but there are no sideshows at all. They started
on circuses in the PT Barnum
era and then moved to carnivals. As carnivals grew there
were girl shows, sideshows, big banner-line back end-shows
and very few rides. Now, it’s mostly a traveling amusement
park, sideshows are considered politically incorrect in most
I keep hearing people say sideshows are making a
comeback…where is that coming from?
think what sells with the sideshows or with grind shows is
the curiosity factor. That’s never going to die. If you
create curiosity with any type of a business and get people
curious about something, that’s going to sell no matter what
you do if you got people. It’s just that the powers that be,
like the carnival owners and fair officials see the big
spectacular rides and everything as being very new and very
exciting. And they see the sideshows as being more old
fashioned than positive in the amusement industry.
heard that your stepfather, Bobby Reynolds, said he wanted
“Screw you, I got your dollar.” inscribed on his
tombstone. I’ve asked other show guys this question and I
believe it may become one of my stock questions for
interviews, “What would you like inscribed on your
I’d have to think about that for a second. I think more
than something being inscribed on your tombstone, I think
it’s what kind of influence you make while you’re here…not
to have something put on your tombstone.
How would you like showmen to remember you?
That I was a good showman and that I gave people value for
their dollar and I could make people laugh and entertain
Many showmen have a handle, or a nickname…do you have one?
Well, since my dad was 6’5” and wore the big top hat and big
boots and stuff, he was always ‘Big John’ and ever since I
was born I was ‘Little John’ because I was always my dad’s
son growing up. So my nickname since I was really small and
everything has been ‘Little John” but most people in the
carnival industry wouldn’t know that. It would be mostly
people in the circus industry.
Do you have any surprises up your sleeve for the upcoming
I think I have a few surprises up my sleeve for the upcoming
Are you keeping them secret?
JS: I think
I have to…ha, ha.
You’ve owned many two-headed animals over the years...maybe
more than anyone. The 2-headed turtles I own came from
you. Could you tell us a little bit about the two-headed
critters you own, and how do you find all these animals?
I owned sideshows for many, many years. A few years ago, I’d
say, maybe seven years ago, I saw a live 2-headed turtle in
a sideshow in Sedalia, Missouri owned by Fred Lowery. He
also had a 2-headed rattlesnake. He took me to his camper
and out of an Igloo chest pulled out the 2-headed turtle
that was sunning itself and its heads were both moving. I
just thought that was really exciting. Now, I did have a
live 2-headed cow that I picked up coming back from Circus
World. And my dad had a 2-nose, 2-mouth cow. But something
in the reptile family seems to live a little longer than a
cow would with two heads. When I saw that 2-headed turtle
and 2-headed rattlesnake
I just had
to have a live 2-headed animal in my sideshow. I had an
80-foot show and I had lots of stuffed and bottled 2-headed
animals and attractions, but I didn’t
have a live 2-headed animal, so over the next couple of
months, I strived to acquire some 2-headed animals. Within
six weeks I had eight live two-headed turtles and then the
next spring, I had a live 2-headed snake. And after the
turtles, in fact just a month later, I bought a live Siamese
tortoise. I just strived to find them and acquire them
because my interest was so great.
Obviously, the live animals play the best. How about the
action between the bottled specimens and your stuffed
animals? Which one of those plays better, or do they play
people like the bottled attractions more than the stuffed
attractions because they think they’re so much more credible
because they look real. They believe that the stuffed
animals were manufactured. So in their mind, they can look
at the bottled attractions and say that these things are
really real. Doesn’t matter if they are real or not real,
most of them, are real. There are people who can gaff even
bottled specimens but it’s very few and far between. But
there’s nothing like having a live 2-headed animal that is
functional and good-looking.
What do you think are the differences between an illusion
show, the museum show, or a live performance sideshow?
The live show right now is so costly with the fuel crisis
and salaries of people that to lay down a show either paying
footage or percentage is too costly. High percentages paid
to the major carnivals and lack of independent space at a
major venue is another problem. The live shows…it’s not
economically feasible even though the interest is still
there. However, live shows have gone on to new venues like
Todd Robins on Broadway,
Believe It Or Not shows, weird, shocking shows in Las Vegas,
shows that play at colleges, and also at nightclubs and
stuff that are offshoots of the Jim Rose show that was a new
venue of the live show. But for the live show on the midway,
I believe there’s only one man that does it in the spring
and the summer with any regularity and that’s Ward Hall. The
live show is almost extinct on the carnival midway, where
live shows thrived for so many years. The museum show is a
sister of a live show and to the general public the
banner-lines and tents and everything else, the public
doesn’t know the difference between a live show or a museum
show, so it’s more economical for the owner of the sideshow
with the museum to own the attractions… pickled attractions,
stuffed attractions, museum attractions, or even live
attractions than it is to have live people. It’s just
economically out of the question to be able to make money
with a live show.
SSW: Since you have been
in show business your entire life, what advice would you
have for a rookie who is thinking of framing a sideshow?
JS: My advice is to
check out other sideshows and maybe travel a season with a
show before you start your own. There is so much to learn
before you can even think of taking out your own show. These
days, it would help if your family owned an oil refinery as
well, ha, ha.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank before we wrap up?
been lucky enough to meet almost every major showman that’s
alive in my lifetime. But there are a few people…my father,
Bobby Reynolds, Jack Waller, Butch Butler…people who stood
behind me when I was starting out and believed in me. I
couldn’t have done it without them. However, the main
person is my mom, who instilled value in me and gave me the
confidence to go
out and make it.
John, for taking the time to visit with us at Sideshow
World. We wish you all the best with your upcoming season.
Interviewed for Sideshow World
by Rick West
March 2006…Montgomery County Fair, Conroe Texas
big thank you to Joanne Englert for transcribing
the JS interview from audio tape to text for SSW.”
Header by JR Robinson
Header Photo of John Strong
courtesy of Rick West
Logo Big John Strong Circus
John Strong - Mom
Two Headed Animal displays
Barnum's Barnyard banner by
John Hiner photo courtesy of Rick West
Bobby Reynolds, two headed
baby photo courtesy of Samantha X
John Strong two headed baby
Lobster Girl and John
Strong's two faced cow photo courtesy of Elizabeth Anderson
John Strong and his two
headed snake photo courtesy of John Strong
John Strong's Sideshow Conroe
Texas photo courtesy Rick West
Painted ticket box John