SW: Rick I would like to
start with this season and then explore your life in the
business. I have heard from many of the showmen out this
year some have done OK others have had a hard time this
season. How was your season and would you give a quick over
view of your route?
RD: My 05 season consisted of
playing 21 spots late April thru Sept. in Penna. and N.Y.
with several different carnivals. Six county fairs and 15
fireman field day type events.
I took out two grind shows
with my one helper Lurch who has been with me for 7 years
now, even though he says each year is his last!
SW: What shows did you take out this season?
RD: Giant rat show on a trailer
frame up, towed by my giant snake show truck, which also has
my living quarters in it, so I cut the nut to the bone
(expenses) operating this way.
SW: How did the economy effect and the weather effect the
RD: 05 was dry and extreme heat
thru much of it, high 90's. Attendance on most spots was
quite good but too many walkers and not enough spenders! I
do not point to any one thing such as high gas prices or
natural disasters, etc. I believe it is a combination of a
lot of factors which all leads to one conclusion, it is just
too expensive for the average family now days to
Financially, this season my two
grind shows grossed together what I would normally gross
with just one show, so for me at least, I was down about 50%
from recent previous seasons.
It's not what you gross at any
one spot that counts, it's what you come in with at the end
of a season that matters. You take the good with the bad,
give it your best shot, and see what ya got when it's all
For me this season I basically
worked to buy new equipment and keep myself going through the
off season until I can open again in the spring and give it
another try. I bought a 1979 30 foot motor home with 45,000
miles on her and the former office trailer on Bartlebaugh
Amusements which I am now framing into a new reptile show,
which I will use the motor home to tow it. So the money I
made this season goes right back into the shows and
hopefully next season is better.
SW: Now letís go back to where it all started for you, what
was it that first interested you about show business?
RD: Age 10, I saw a magician at school and I started
learning magic and juggling.
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?
This question goes to my
core as a person and as a sideshow operator. What attracted
me to instantly give my life over to this business by seeing
that magician when I was just 10 ? I can only answer it this
way; love at first sight. Chemistry. Inner passion realized.
Basically, just a sense of KNOWING I need to follow this
path. All those things and more, but I am not eloquent
enough to describe it in words. Age 10 that day I KNEW where
I belonged in this world and pursued it from that day
forward. Let me ask you one...what makes one person feel
love at first sight with another, and pursue that person to
marriage? Same thing in my case, even though I was just
10--love at first sight! That's my best answer to your
understand your passion, I have pursued that kind of passion
all my life. Love at first sight, It makes all else
What were the first tricks you learned and where did you
tricks I learned were card fanning and bare hand production
of cards by the back-palm method and shuffling a deck with
one hand, rolling fifty cent pieces across my fingers two at
a time, then production of doves from silk scarves,
right on up to large illusions. Taught by Jim Steele
magician on the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus (CBCB) sideshow.
I performed a lot as a young
boy for civic clubs, nursing homes, schools, charity events.
At 13 I put sideshow acts in my
magic show which I learned on the (CBCB) sideshow in
1966. I am now 53 years old.
SW: What was the first show you worked and what was
your experience on that show?
RD: At age 13 in 1966 I traveled
for 7 weeks with Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus (CBCB)
during my school vacation. I worked sideshow there and
shared a bunk house with Sealo the seal boy who would give
me a quarter a day to run errands for him.
Jimmy James was a
clown there and he would everyday give me a quarter so I
could buy a soda at the cookhouse. Jimmy later went on to
become the announcer for (CBCB).
SW: You traveled for 7 weeks during school vacation with
Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. what was the experience like and
what acts did you learn while you were with them?
RD: I learned sword swallowing,
fire eating, knife throwing, ticket selling, inside lecture,
and how to pitch this or that. On the sideshow were Johnny
Monroe knife thrower, Fransis Doran sword swallower, Cliff
and Mamie King midget fire eater and electric girl, Andy
Brisky fire eater, Vernon Goins tattooed contortionist,
Princess Margaret Ann tiny woman, Sealo the seal boy,
magician Jim Steele. Sideshow manager was Chuck Fuller.
SW: How were you treated when you worked Clyde Beatty
Cole Bros. (CBCB)?
RD: I was treated fine there as
everyone saw my passion for the business, it was all a close
knit sense of family. One minute I'd be behind the side wall
choking down a coat hangar, next I'd be practicing throwing
knives into a plank board, then work on fire eating, each
performer would take a few minutes with me to help me out.
SW: So the other
performers on the show took you under their wing and taught
you the acts. What did you do when you returned home
after working with (CBCB)?
the end of my 7 week summer tour I came home and continued
doing shows for local civic groupís now swallowing swords,
etc. using the acts I had learned that summer.
SW: What did your family
think of you running off and joining the circus? Were they
RD: My parents supported me but
made me phone them every few days and send them my route
sheet so they knew where I was going.
SW: After your experience with
(CBCB) where did you go from
there and how did working on (CBCB) help you with your choosing
to continue work in the business?
RD: I began working a lot of shows with Count Desmond the
world record holder sword swallower since he lived very
nearby me so we played clubs and theater shows for a few
years together as well as a brief time on Circus Bartok.
I also worked with Jon Friday who
managed the Sells and Gray Circus sideshow. I went over to
Carson and Barnes 5 ring Circus to work the sideshow for Jim
Steinmetz. I made the bally openings and swallowed swords,
did knife throwing, I supplied a 30 x 60 tent Jim supplied
the bannerline and booked it. I also announced the big show
for 16 weeks for D.R. Miller when the regular announcer blew
the show over a salary dispute.
I worked aerial upside down
strait jacket escape over center ring with the rope on fire,
then came down and finished announcing the rest of the show,
at the end of the show I'd run through the backyard, get on the
sideshow bally and catch the big show blow off, grinding
them in for the last show of the night.
As most performers learn they have mishaps, what were some
of the things that happened and how did it affect your
attitude about performing?
performers have mishaps as you say but ALL fire eaters get
burned to one extent or another. I had one bad accident
doing the fire blast, spewing liquid to a torch for a ball
of fire effect. Bottom line is I did 6 weeks on my back in
the hospital, 7 skin grafts where they took skin off my
thigh and grated it to my chest, all second and third degree
burns. It happened in N.Y. in front of a live audience, I
was like 16 years old then. I recovered and kept on with the
fire eating act but left out the "blast".
How did that affect me? Well,
when you're 16 you think you're invincible. Ever since that
accident I am extra careful even when doing a regular fire
eating act, keeping my fuel source a safe distance from my
SW: I have been told by
other performers that it isn't will you get hurt, it's when.
You haven't done the blast since the accident, have you
thought about adding it or has anyone ask you to include it
in your show?
After the fire eating "blast" accident I stopped doing
the blast out of fear, no more skin grafts could then be
done and the risk outweighed the benefit. I've had four
wives, three of them accomplished fire eaters, they took
over the fire acts in my ten in one. None of them
"blasted" but each one of them WAS a blast! Hopefully
wife # 4 (Lori) ends up being a keeper.
Back in 1966 Andy Brisky on the Beatty show taught me
the fire eating, he used the biggest torches I ever saw
used ! As I recall, Mephisto also used some mighty big
A lot of performers 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?
RD: It is
human nature to doubt the fire eater, the sword swallower.
When we perform, each performer I think in his own style
shows the audience the inherent danger to the act, yet they
still doubt. I used to let a person come on stage when I had
my ten in one out, I'd swallow a sword and let the person
pull it out slowly inch by inch. One time an adult woman had
it half way out...and decided on her own to shove it back
down! I always keep my thumb on the cross section beneath
the handle to prohibit that! Is that experience of a
sideshow veteran sword swallower? I think it is more common
sense and respect for preserving one's own life.
When my human blockheads
worked, I never allowed them to allow an audience member
remove an ice pick from their nose. The actor was willing
but as a show owner I wouldn't allow it. Never know what a
mark will do to ya!
SW: Did you have any
conversation with that woman after the act, if so what did
she say about her actions?
Re: the woman trying to kill me--- as the woman tried
hard to shove the sword back down my throat naturally I
knew what she was trying to do, but, the audience never
knew. I just backed away from her and pulled the blade
out myself and went right into introducing the next act.
No use causing a scene over it, just continued the show
as usual and get 'em down to the
blow-off--make a few bucks, bally a new show and repeat
the whole process.
SW: Do you explain to
your audience before you invite one of them to the stage
about safety and how they should handle themselves in
relationship to assisting you?
When I did sword swallowing with whoever I had on stage
to inspect the blade, I had them search for the
notorious roll up button. They knew and so did the
audience the blade was real. The audience would always
notice that when I swallowed the sword my eyes would
water a lot--they saw my eyes water--they knew they had
just witnessed REAL!
Sure, I instruct each stage volunteer what they are to
do, etc. but the bottom line is ya never know what
they'll actually do when their moment comes!
That's why I always kept my thumb beneath the cross
section of the handle so they couldn't force it down me,
more than once that has saved my life.
What kind of preparation and
precautions do you do before you go on stage?
RD: When I worked my ten in one for about
eight seasons I would not do any real preparation before
each show except make sure I had disinfectant handy for my
swords, and maybe I'd throw a few knives out back behind the
sidewall before coming on stage to chop a cigarette from the
lips of my wife. Basically we'd do a dozen shows a day for 5
months tour. Each show you do with a schedule like that
keeps you tuned up.
There are no preparations when
it comes to the knife throwing act other than be totally
relaxed . The cigarette from her lips is a delicate shot, I
must be very at ease and relaxed and comfortable mentally
throwing that shot. Sometimes I would miss by a mere hair
and then the knife is touching the tip of the cigarette so I
throw another one on the inside of that knife to cut the
damn thing in half! I give credit to my wife for standing
there for such a dangerous shot, even though it took me years
before I could do that shot. And just so you know-it was a
regular cigarette, not in a holder for extra length, not
even a 100 long cig, just a regular size cigarette. That is
the most nerve wracking act I've ever done--taking someone
else's life in my hands show after show, season after
say that this shot is the most nerve wracking act you have ever
done. Can you explain what that felt like and how did that
make the target person feel?
What's it feel like to do the cigarette chopping throw? let
me premise it by saying I practiced that one shot for two
years before putting one of my wives at the board. When I do
that shot I have first just thrown 32 knives, 4 sets of 8
each all around her body in four different positions, then
finish up with the cigarette shot. When I release that knife
it's not "I hope" I get it---it's I KNOW I've got it!
Her life is in my hand. I'm focused and see only the very
tip of that cigarette--I shoot for the tip. It's an instinct
shot. Anyone who does archery knows what an instinct shot
What does the target girl feel ?
Whew...THANK YOU GOD !!!! ha ha
SW: Has any of your assistance been hurt, how and what
Nope, never hit any of 'em but skinned 'em plenty, the knife
coming to rest in the board touching usually her upper thigh
area, no blood, kinda like a brush burn. When that happens,
it's not intentional and it takes my breath away! The
audience gasps but I gasp louder! The wife
smiles and styles for the audience, but after the show I may
not be getting any, if ya know what I mean!
What is it that you like best about the business?
RD: What I
like best about the business? Running into my new old
friends when we play the same spot, such as Jeff Murray and
Doc Swan this season. Talking over the sideshow business in
general with other showmen, hangin. Telling stories,
comparing notes, sharing some laughs. I also enjoy the
tranquility of a day in a strange town and then opening for
business that night there. Just love being out there again
each new season. Making big money is not my priority. I made
my money when I was younger and there was money to be made
out there. Now I just want to make a decent living operating
my shows and have fun fun fun doing it! (never grow up)!!
What do you like least?
RD: What I like
least about the business? Without a doubt mechanical break
downs! I'm not a mechanic. Down time on the side of some
remote road somewhere especially at night costs big bucks in
lost spot, or repairs. This season I got lucky, just had a
heater hose blow which I managed to repair. Sent my guy
Lurch for gallon of anti-freeze and a hose clamp, we were on
our way. Not all seasons go that way, one season I had four
of my trucks down, two of 'em with blown motors!
I understand negative people, do you get a lot of beefs from
people that attend your shows and how do you handle them?
RD: Beefs from the
marks?? Who me? ha ha yeah it happens, I had my bozo dunk
tank out about 8 seasons in a row and ya get a few heat
scores with that piece but generally we try to fix it before
it goes to the office. No real beefs on my grind shows other
than once in awhile some mark will say hey, that ain't no
giant rat, it's a so and so--I seen it on animal planet TV
show!! I'd say something like yep your right buddy BUT I
gave mine STEROIDS!! That's what ya didn't see on TV!!
SW: Visiting with other show folks they have shared
stories about people crawling under the side wall, stealing
the exhibits etc. over the years have you ever had any of
these kinds of problems and how did you handle them?
RD: Nobody ever tried
to steal my exhibits, I had my help sleep in the sideshow
top a lot and I'm always up late walking my dogs, checking
on things, etc.
SW: 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
showmen/women and performers who know you or have seen your
What have I given back to the sideshow biz ?
My life. Figure the rest out.
Don't know that I influence any other showmen, we
all live the same life out there, have experienced the same
obstacles, truck breakdowns, help leaving in the middle of
the night, losing spots on short or no notice, working sick
or injured, over-coming impossible tasks, etc. We all
may not like each other but we all respect each other.
I think this is the best answer I've ever heard for passion, what
has it cost you to give your life to showbiz? ie.
relationships, family, etc?
What has it cost me to devote my life to outdoor shows?
A normal childhood and three wives! But on balance
I wouldn't have had it any other way, no regrets. I mix
my life 50 50 half year on the road half year at
home--always seems good to come home end of the season
and mow the yard! Go to school events of my 13
year old daughter Kati, visit my family, but even when
I'm home I am usually framing some new grind show, then
booking the route, so I work on the shows a lot.
like the best of both world's, home life and road life.
Come spring though I'm always ready to hit the road with
my little hairless dog Baby Fred, a Chinese hairless who
has traveled with me the last 12 seasons--Fred has been
with me longer than any of my wives!! ha ha Featured
Fred in a grind show once--tattooed him with stick on
tats as a living art gallery--people loved him cause his
tongue hangs out the side of his mouth. Then I had a
900 lb. live tattooed pig I had actually tattooed with
Walt Disney characters and Elvis--people asked where I
got it from, told 'em I rescued it from the Hell's
SW: 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?
RD: As to
variations on acts. In the early 80's I put a power drill in
the blockhead act which worked inside my Willie Wright went
wrong drug abuse show and used a chain saw on my blade box
on occasion. Standard acts, new twist. My wife Lori hates
the chain saw and knife throwing acts!! Afraid the odds are
against me after all these years and I'll stick her with a
butcher knife!! or--actually screw up and hack her in half
with that noisy chain saw! Gotta love it huh?
Had framed 25 or so
different grind shows thru the years, made money
with most of them and the set up tear down time is
much nicer than the ten in one I used to operate.
I put in two seasons for
Ward and Chris in 74 and 75 when they had their
European Illusion show out playing major fairs, had
a lot of fun times back then.
SW: You worked
with Ward and Chris on their European Illusion show,
what was some of the things you did on that show?
worked with my then wife Pamela on their Illusion
show we played major fairs. Magician Jerry Conklin
and family worked one half the show and Pamela and I
worked the other half. I also promoted this show by
using the shows buzz saw to cut through a female
news reporter and have her write about the
experience. I promoted the show by doing handcuff
escape while pushed from the high dive at a local
pool wherever we were playing.
would like to thank you for taking the time to share with
us. I just have a couple of questions before we're done.
Do you have anything else you would like to share?
Anything else I wanna share? Just to encourage
anyone who feels they want to do this for a living to
know there are some sideshow owners out there willing to
help a new guy get started, save a new guy lots of time
and mistakes. I suggest putting in a season with
one of these guys and be quick to listen and slow to
speak...learn and take in all you can, then try your
hand at your own show after you are better prepared from
seeing how the pro's do it. New ways are good, but
traditional ways are the core.
It's not all good and it's not all bad, but when it's
hell, it's a scorcher!! It's a rough way to go,
even for veteran operators.
Many times I thought about running away from the
carnival to join home! ha
Is there any on you would like to thank?
Who would I like to thank? How about you John for
net working a lot of sideshow people together,
awesome I think. And I thank Jesus Christ for being
with me every step of the way. Many times out there
when things got beyond being rough I knew I was
never truly alone. Ever read foot prints in the
sand? HE carried me.
Interview by John
1-Header Rick Dennis Interview, by JR Robinson
Photographs courtesy of Rick Dennis
2-Big Rat Show
3-Rick at age 14
4-Clyde Betty Cole Brothers Circus
5-Rick & Lori Dennis
6-Rick far left swallowing sword
7-Human Target & Pretzel Girl show
8-Fred the Tattooed Dog
9-900 lb Tattooed Pig
doing Handcuff Escape while Pushed from the
High Dive at a Local Pool