SSW:  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 juggling act.

 

SSW:  What venues did he work?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  Were you were born on the show?

 

JS:  Yes, I 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 two years.

 

SSW:  Are some of your earliest recollections about your dad’s circus?

 

JS:  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 of carnivals.

 

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.

 

SSW:  And you’d do all those acts on your dad’s show?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  Did your dad have a sideshow with the circus?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  Is that what sparked your interest in sideshows?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  You’d take it to school?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  Do you remember seeing any other sideshows when you were growing up?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  Did you go see the show?

 

JS:  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?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  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?

 

JS:  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 circus life.

 

SSW:  Did your sisters do an act too?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  You must have been the darling of the family being the only son to carry on the circus name?

 

JS:  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’.

 

SSW:  And how old were you at that time? 

 

JS:  I’d say around 9.

 

SSW:  Oh, you must have been in heaven.

 

JS:  Yes, I was so bright they called me ‘Son’.

 

SSW:  How did you get started in the sideshow business?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  Did one of your sisters work in the blade box?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  When did you separate from the circus and start doing your own sideshow?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  How big was that show?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  How old were you when you started the midway sideshow?

 

JS:  I’d say, around 20.

 

SSW:  Did your sideshow go over big?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  Do you remember the first pitch you did on for a bally?

 

JS:  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....

 

SSW:  Why would you say you had a sword swallower if you didn’t have one?

 

JS:  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 swallower.

 

SSW:  Are you saying you got the sword down the first time you tried?

 

JS: I 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 the other?

 

JS: 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 the circus.

 

 

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

 

 

SSW:  What banner painters have you used and who did the banners you are currently flying?

 

JS:   I’ve 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 venues...at 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.

 

SSW:  Did that really happen?

 

JS:  It happened!

 

SSW:  I understand you were in the ‘Batman’ movie. Can you tell us a little bit about your movie experience?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  How did you feel the first time you saw the completed movie with your name, John Strong, running in the credits?

 

JS:  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 life.

 

SSW:  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?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  Where do you see the backend business headed? Does it have a future?

 

JS:  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 avenues now. 

 

SSW:  I keep hearing people say sideshows are making a comeback…where is that coming from?

 

JS:  I 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. 

 

SSW:  I’ve 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 tombstone?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  How would you like showmen to remember you?

 

JS:  That I was a good showman and that I gave people value for their dollar and I could make people laugh and entertain them.

 

SSW:  Many showmen have a handle, or a nickname…do you have one?

 

JS:  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. 

 

 SSW:  Do you have any surprises up your sleeve for the upcoming season?

 

JS:  I think I have a few surprises up my sleeve for the upcoming season.

 

SSW:  Are you keeping them secret?

 

JS:  I think I have to…ha, ha.

 

SSW:  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?

 

JS:  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.

 

SSW:  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 the same?

 

JS:  The 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. 

 

SSW:  What do you think are the differences between an illusion show, the museum show, or a live performance sideshow? 

 

JS: 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,

 

 

Ripley’s 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.

 

SSW:  Is there anyone you’d like to thank before we wrap up?

 

JS:  I’ve 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.

  

Thank you, 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 

                 

A 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

 

Photographs:

Logo Big John Strong Circus 1958-59

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 show

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 Strong Sideshow

 


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