SW:  A lot of our readers may have seen your shows but most don't know much about your background in the business, lets start by giving us a short introduction?

      

RW:  I was born in Springfield, Mo. in 1948, to normal parents, as the talkers always said about the sideshow freaks. When I was five years old I attended my first fair: the Ozark Empire Fair held in Springfield. That same year we moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

 

In 1960 my uncle, Tom Beimborn a USDA meat inspector, bought a red & white 3100-pound Holstein steer that had been brought from out West to be butchered. He thought he just might make a pile of cash showing it at county fairs in Wisconsin. No one in our family had ever been in outdoor entertainment. Anyway, he bought an old army mess tent and used white canvas for the sidewalls. The very first fair we played was the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin. Tom was still hand lettering the front when the fair started. My cousin Wayne and I were hired to run the exhibit…”Bozo the Giant Steer”.  It was a dream come true for two twelve-year old boys.

 

We ended up playing the Wisconsin State Fair. The fair painted a big walk-thru banner for the front. It showed a giant steer turning over cars and people screaming and running! The highlight of the fair for Wayne and me was “Club Lido” the big girl show on Royal American Shows. “Miss Blaze Fury the Human Heat Wave” was the featured attraction…flaming tassels too!! We even got on the rides free…”we’re with it”, we’d tell the ticket takers.

 

I worked my way through college running one of my uncle’s Giant Steer Shows during the summer. Received my degree in Creative Communication from UWGB in 1971. It wasn’t long after graduating that I bought the first attraction that I owned outright…a live two-headed calf, my cash cow you might say.

 

SW:   Where do you call home when you’re not on the road?

 

RW:  “Dr. West’s Traveling Sideshows and Animal Menagerie” operates out of Nacogdoches, Texas. I relocated to Texas in 1981. Abby and I have a forty-five acre farm, Star Farm, just outside of town.

 

SW:  What other shows have you owned?

 

RW:  Um…Giant Horses, Miniature Horses, White-faced Buffalo, Giant Lizards, Giant Alligator, 1200-pound Hogs, Big Foot Creatures, Bucking Machines, Gargantuan Steers, Giant Rats…I also ran a food trailer for several years – “Rick’s Coyote Café”.

 

Sometimes I had as many as six or seven shows touring at the same time. The most I haul out of the barn now is four. 

 

SW:  Your live two-headed calf was your cash cow, how did this show differ from the other shows you have had on the road and why?
 

RW:  Well, it had two-heads. That was different!

 

It was harder to book on the independent midway. I have always had to play a balancing act with how strong I made my shows. If you look like you belong on the carnival midway the fair board would not book you. This type of exhibit traditionally played on the carnival so I had to over come their reluctance.

 

But it would never book as easy as say a Giant 3500-pound Steer in a little red barn display.

 

SW: How was your 2005 season, I've heard that some of the shows did very well this year, others had a hard time.  How was your season? 

 

RW:  Darn…it was a tuff season.  I think I had more equipment breakdowns this year than in the rest of my 45 years in the business combined. I don’t even want to list all the vehicle repairs I had to make. But I will say, I spent thousands of dollars on repairs.

 

But I want you to know, we didn’t even miss one spot.  Hey, it’s show business…the show must go on!

 

Help…I went through an army of so-called help this year. Again this is not something I usually have to deal with. No one wants to work any more. Why should they when the government will take care of them? Gatorman, who has been with me 17 years, and my wife Abby helped hold the whole thing together.

 

When I first started in this business, I would get to a fair and a large number of locals would be looking for work. You sure don’t see that anymore.  

      

SW:  How did the economy and weather effect you?

      

RW:  $3 a gallon gas and diesel even higher! How can diesel fuel be more than gas? We were also hit by bad weather. If it wasn’t too hot to breathe, it was raining. One fair even had to close early because of the tornadoes. The weather didn’t do us in, but it didn’t help either. The fair-goers seemed to be hanging on to their green-backs a little tighter this year.

 

Sure, we made money…it was just harder to hang on to it.

 

SW:  What are the differences in touring a show today, than they were 25 years ago, Why and how do you deal with them?

 

RW:  When I started out, anything you were man enough to do, you could do. Now you have to deal with the USDA, sales tax, state tax, federal tax, permits, licenses, the DOT, electric codes, million-dollar ins. coverage, astronomical lot rents, and piles and piles of paper work.

 

There was a time when I could rent space for $75 or $100, make a few thousand, put $20 in the gas tank and head for the next spot. No one was keeping tabs on you. Drive any truck and trailer you could get down the road. You didn’t need any special license.

 

Now, everyone has their hand out…”where’s my cut of your pie”.

 

It’s almost a sin to have cash in this country. Try getting picked up with $10,000 in cash.  You would be lucky if they let you keep your own hard earned money. I’m not kidding.

 

And our patrons are getting smarter. They have been there, seen that, and done that…just  ask them. You can’t just throw any old thing in a tent and make money any more. It is a lot tougher to make a decent living on the road today. How many rich showmen do you know?

 

The bottom line: You have to be able to jump through their hoops.

I can do it…but they can’t make me like it. 

      

SW:  Taking a show on the road is a lot of hard work, what are some of the challenges you face with live animals and your traveling shows?

 

RW:  There is always danger when dealing with animals. People do not realize how easily a giant horse, cow or hog can hurt or even kill you. You can never become complacent when dealing with animals.

 

Exotics can be even more difficult to handle.

 

(My wife’s sister was accidentally killed by one of their draft horses.)

 

On the other hand, our animals become family. Their welfare comes first. If it’s hot, they get fans. We make sure they have water. If it’s cold we bring out the heat lamps. When we travel we need to schedule rest stops. They need to be fed on time. They eat before we do. We make our plans around the animals needs. It’s a twenty-four hour, 365 days a year job. If you have a problem caring for your cat or goldfish this isn’t the job for you. When we are not touring, we are still taking care of our animals.

 

Trailering animals is dangerous. You have to know how to get them from point A to B safely. It’s very easy to hurt an animal while hauling them.

 

Finally we have to be able to protect our animals from the fair-goers and the people from the animals. And it sure helps to have all your paper work in order when the USDA or the Humane Society shows up with the local whiner in tow. 

 

SW: You've shared a little about the risk you take handing freak animals, what mishaps, have you had and how did it effect your attitude toward the business? 

 

 RW:  I haven’t had any animals get seriously hurt while exhibiting them.

 

And I haven’t had an animal hospitalize me…yet. I am getting a little slower with age and that brings an added risk.

 

 I did have a giant 2600-pound horse go down in a trailer one time on the way to the Kansas State Fair

 

He couldn’t get up and was thrashing about. It was hot and I needed to get him out of the trailer quick. Luckily, I found a rodeo arena not far down the road.  I pulled into the parking lot and opened both back doors on the trailer. It took me a few minutes before I could figure out how I was going to get him out.

 

I moved the truck and trailer to where it was facing up a hill. I drove two three-foot tent stakes in the ground behind the trailer. Next I tied a rope from the stakes to the horse’s hind legs. I jumped in the truck, popping the clutch in and out as I drove the truck and trailer up a hill. The horse slid out the back unhurt.  In just a few minutes he was on his feet and munching down grass!

 

I have had many animals die over the years. It’s just a part of having animals. But it still is hard to deal with…they’re not just an attraction, they’re family.

 

SW:  You said exotics are even more difficult to handle, what are some of the thing you have experienced and why are they more difficult?
 

RW:  Well, let’s talk about my 12-foot alligator for a minute. I cannot afford to have even a small handling mistake. If I took chances, sooner or later I would wind up in the hospital.  The lizards I owned had a septic bite. Knowing that, I handled them in a manner that kept me from getting bit. There are different degrees of danger handling different animals. You have to know what those dangers are. 

 

SW:  There are many groups trying to end the use of exotic animals in circuses and traveling shows.  Have you run into any problems exhibiting your animals, what has happened and how does it affect your shows?

 

 RW:  I have not had to deal with any organized protest groups up to this point. It is usually a single individual. When someone complains about anything concerning an animal exhibit, they send a vet out to check the animal and your paper work. It does not matter if it is justified or not.

 

One time, one of my miniature horses, Wizard, came up with an eye infection. We took him to a veterinarian hospital to have him checked out. The attending vet gave me some medicine to fight the infection. I was to inject the little guy twice daily. Back at the fair, one over-weight lady who was up viewing our pigmy prodigy saw me give it a shot and scurried off to complain that, “I was drugging the poor pony”.  The Humane Society called the fair board, who called a local vet, someone called the newspaper, and before I knew it, the whole crew along with the sheriff are shutting down my Miniature Horse Show and looking to arrest the owner. When I finally arrived at the show, the whole thing was taken care of in a matter of minutes. But you can see how things can get way out of hand rather quickly.

 

I do see the bans and rules becoming a bigger problem every year. There are state, city, and federal regulations and bans on the books and they are proposing more every day. They make it the exhibitors’ job to know all the laws. 

 

 SW:  Some states are trying to outlaw the exhibition of exotic animals, what do you think about these groups and what do you think will be in the future for showmen who want to use animals in their shows?

 

RW:  I see it becoming harder and harder to exhibit animals. The government caters to the minority. They are the most vocal group and have been able to force their views down the majorities’ throat. I believe the time will come in this country when it will be against the law to exhibit any animals. If that doesn’t happen, the paper work and exorbitant fees for licensing will probably drive everyone into another line of work.

 

SW:  I know there are several shows out that feature animals that have two heads, multiple legs etc. is there higher risks in exhibiting these animals and do the showmen that exhibit them have more protest from animal rights folks?
 

RW:   Freak animals can have health problem but many do not.  I knew a guy that had a very dwarf pony that was over 30 yrs. old. Freak animals do draw more heat from the whiners. I had a mini horse that I exhibited that had crippled feet. Some paying-gawkers thought he would be better off dead. His feet didn’t hurt him. They just didn’t grow straight.

 

But, I can even get a beef on a content, cud-chewing giant cow.  There are getting more people out there who think it is a sin to even own an animal.

 

SW:  When exhibiting what folks refer to as FREAK animals, is there any special problems that you face, what are they and how do they effect what you can do and where you can exhibit them?
 

RW:  Number one, make sure your animals are well cared for. They need clean bedding and fresh water at all times. If they have a medical problem deal with it before someone complains. Before you book a spot, check to see if they allow the animal or animals you are showing. Example: no freak animal can be exhibited in the state of Florida. To bring an alligator in Oklahoma you need a permit. By the way, you need the permits before you get in the state.

 

I try to eliminate as many problems as I can before hand.

 

Pete Kolozsy’s Giant Rat, Willy, lives in an air-conditioned and heated dumpster with a built-in swimming pool. His rat lives better than most carnies.

 

SW:  Your shows have both domestic and exotics animals, has there been a difference in how your audiences react to these exhibitions?

 

RW:  A great animal exhibit works, it doesn’t make a bit of difference if it is an exotic or domestic animal. Today it helps to have something on the inside, but the front is still what gets them in. If you give them a good show on the inside, maybe you can play the spot again next year. If you burn’em you’ll have to play a new route every year.

 

SW:  What's the strangest/stupidest thing a mark has done and what did you do?

 
RW:  
One time while playing the Dane Co. Fair, I had a girl reach around the “Do Not Feed or Touch” sign and through the bars, letting my Giant Horse lick food off her hand.

 

You guessed it, he bite her. She screamed as she jerked her hand out of his mouth pealing back the skin on her fingers.

 

Hearing the scream, I ran inside to see what had happened.

 

Thankfully, all she kept saying over and over was, “I knew I wasn’t suppose to be feeding him.”

 

I wrote her a nice letter saying I would be more than happy to pay for any medical expenses. She wrote back that it was her fault and she hoped “Big Jim” was not traumatized from the incident.

 

SW:  I've talked to many show folks that have shared stories about people crawling under the side wall, stealing exhibits etc. over the years have you ever had problems and how did you handle them?


RW:  Back when I was twelve-years-old and we showed the Giant Steer in a tent, free-loaders would pull the sidewall down to get a free peek at “Bozo”.

 

My cousin Wayne and I filled a two-gallon fly sprayer with water and would spray the gawkers in the face when they looked in.  It sure was fun!

 

But we soon tired of the game. Next we piled hay bales in the back corner of the tent where the curious were sneaking a peek. I climbed up on the hay bales and Wayne handed me the pail he had fill with cold water. I waited for the next mooch to look in. I didn’t have to wait long… I dumped the whole bucket on him as he tried to get a free look. Boy, did we score on this one!

 

Soaked to the skin, the whiner headed around front to find the owner, my Uncle Tom.  We were in trouble now!

 

After apologizing and giving the guy a dry shirt, Tom headed back to have a little talk with Wayne and me. Uncle Tom told us he didn’t want anyone going to the office with a beef and, “No more water, period!”

 

I thought, “Darn, you can’t even throw a little water on a free-loader stealing a look.”

 

Now days, about the worst problem I have are marks trying to get the Big Hog up. He loves his naps. “The signs say, “Do Not Touch”. I mean it…this ain’t no petting zoo. The price of admission only buys a look.”

 

SW:  What was your strangest show?

 

RW:  The strangest for me was the Big Foot Creature Exhibit. It was the only exhibit I didn’t frame, although I did make many changes to the show after I bought it from Tyrone Malone. I felt I could have framed an exhibit I liked better starting from scratch. The show went over great some places and died in others, where as my other shows seem to do OK almost everywhere. It was also my first time working with a gaff. It took a little different approach.  

 

SW:  The Big Foot Creature Exhibit, that sounds very interesting, when did you have the show out, does someone have the show out today and what was it?
 
 
RW: 
It was in the 70’s that I first started showing the Creature. I believe the last year I had it out was 84. I never saw the show after I sold to Rick Owens. I do know it went to California.  

 

Johnny Chambers, who did the make-up for “Planet of the Apes” built the creature. And Jerry ‘Tyron’ Malone designed the show. Jerry was known for his frozen whale exhibit and later his custom racing semi tractors. The creature was shown in a big case with a glass top. I used a chemical on the underside of the glass that made it look frosted. Looked like the creature was frozen.  I also had another creature that a friend and I built out of latex. That’s another story. 

 

But the best creature ever shown was Frank Hansen’s. He brought his exhibit out in 1967. I met him at his first fair. His creature was encased in ice and shown in a custom-built freezer.  It is quite a story; people thought the creature was real. Many people still believe it was real. I had the chance to go up and visit Frank shortly before his death. I even had the opportunity to purchase the creature and the exhibit…

 

”Preserved Forever in a Coffin of Ice!”

 

You know, I should have bought it. 

 

SW:  What was it that first interested you about show business?

 

RW:  Everything about it was fun and exciting when I was a kid. I loved watching the ballys and the pitchmen. I wanted to own the animals in the sideshows. I was amazed people would pay to see a coatimundi that was billed as a “What is it?” This was fun and you could make money at it too. My cousin and I would watch the pitchmen work until we knew their entire routines…”One stingy old lady, bless her heart, sliced a tomato so thin it last her family the entire winter”… My mom still owns the slice-a-matic that I used to do my slicer pitch…for family and friends only of coarse!

 

Later on, I appreciated the independence the business gave me. I got to see the country and make some money. The money can be an elusive dream…always looking for the next big score. Many showmen have sunk everything they have made back into their shows. My Uncle Tom, warned me not to stick all the money I made back into more show equipment. It was good advice and still is. 

 

SW:  I understand how independence is a great asset to any job, but with independence comes higher risk, what are some of the things that may have given you second thought about working in show business?

RW:  The main thing that I have always hated about this business is how people treat you. You can be booking a spot for years and the next thing you know they don’t have space for you. It even happens to the carnivals. The carnival may have played a spot for 30 years but the fair thinks it’s time for a change.

 

Try and get a loan when you’re starting out…better not tell them what you really do. Jim Zajicek booked a state fair this year and drove 1500 miles to get there. Guess what, the fair didn’t allow sideshows. Too bad…they don’t care what it cost you to get there and lay off two weeks!

 

You can get to a fair and wait all day, maybe two days before they spot you.  What other business is run like this?

 

You have no retirement unless you set it up. There’s no health insurance unless you are paying for it.  

 

 The repairs and upkeep on your equipment comes out of your profits along with the feed and vet care for your animals.

 

 You gotta love it…when it quits being profitable I hope I have enough sense to quit beating a dead horse.

 

SW:  You've stated some of the things you don't like about the business, along with the independence what do you like best about being in the business?
 

RW:  Freedom, freedom to go anywhere you want, stay as long as you like. If you want to take some time off, you take it. You take an idea, and frame a show around it. If you’re any good at designing and booking it you get a cash reward every time you set it up. Then you fine-tune it. It feels pretty good when you pull it off.

 

Cash business! Every other thing I have done has started with savings from my shows.

 

It’s always exciting to pull in to a new spot. This might be the big one this season! I feel it…we are going to score on this one!  

 

 

SW:  When it quits being profitable you hope that you have the sense to quit beating a dead horse. 

 I know some showmen that would just have the horse stuff and keep on exhibiting it. What do you think drives a person to want to stay in the business?

 

RW:  When Barnum’s elephant, Jumbo was killed in a train mishap, he made two displays. He had the hide stuffed and the skeleton mounted finding the silver-lining in a tragedy.  Barnum really knew how to put that dead horse principle to work.

 

Why you ask do we stay in the business? It’s a darn drug. Some people are addicted to gambling, some to booze. I guess we are addicted to the business. Seriously, I think it does get in your blood. It would be hard to work a 9 to 5 factory job after a few years on the road.

 

SW:  You've shared a little caution about someone new entering the business,  what advice do you have for anyone wanting to get into the business?
 

RW:   Read everything you can about the business and talk to the showmen who are out on the front lines. Only believe half of what you hear. The trick is knowing what half to believe! You may want to spend a summer working for someone to get some first hand experience.

 

SW:  Do you feel there is still room for the up and coming in the business?
 

RW:  Gosh, I’m sorry. There’s no room left!

 

There are not too many people jumping into the backend business. Carnivals take a big cut of the pie when you book with them. And it is difficult to book independent space.

 

A self-starter with a clean operation and a little luck can still hope to line up the curious fun-seekers. 

 

SW: Would it be helpful to have family in the business?


RW:   Having family in the business can be a real plus. They already know the ins and outs. They can also give you a helping hand when things fall apart.

 

I may never have gotten into the business if it were not for my uncle. He gave me a start and pointed me in the correct direction.

 

SW:  We have visited about the how and whys you entered the business, what support did you have from your family?

 

RW:  As you have already guessed, my uncle had a big influence on my life. He gave me a start in the business and showed me how to operate a show by example. I ran one of his Giant Steer Shows to raise money for college. I can safely say, he taught me most of the honest stuff I know about this business.

 

My mom took out one of my Giant Horse Shows for several years. And my cousin Wayne, who has his own grind shows, has helped me out numerous times.

 

SW:  I understand your mother joined you on the road this season, when it get in the blood it's always in the blood.  Do you have children in the business and what advice do you give when they want to run away and join the circus?

RW: 
I do not have any children. My animals are my family. 

If I did have children, I would tell them there are easier ways to make a living. But, if they just have to put out their own shows, at least get an education so they would have other options to fall back on.  

SW:  I have been told by many folks that you should have a skill to fall back on if things change, but their day jobs are the ones they have worked to get their formal education for.  I think most people would wonder why one would say get your education and if it doesn't work out on the midway you will have something to fall back on.  Do you have some thoughts you will share why someone would find being a carny preferable to what most folk do for their day jobs?
 

RW:   If you have a day job, you already have another skill.

 

This is a tuff business. A smart show-guy keeps all his options open. This applies in the business as well as your life. Another skill or source of income gives you more options. More choices makes for a happier life.

 

I know this may be hard to believe, but some people actually retire from the road. It’s nice to have another source of income so you don’t have to depend on handouts.

 

Here’s a little story that I believe I got from Jimmy Z… one of the grunts in the  elephant dept. was always complaining about the mountain of elephant crap he had to shovel up every day. One day, a townie asked him, “Why don’t you quit if you hate it so much?” The surprised elephant hand said, ”What, and quit show business!”

 

SW:  Do you have plans to retire and at this point in you career how do you feel about retiring from the business?


RW:  I always thought I would be out there to the very end.  But it gets harder as you get older. This was the first year that I started feeling my age. It takes me longer to set up. I can’t make those over-nighters and I even need a nap now and then…ha, ha, ha.

 

I have cut back on the amount of time that I spend on the road. I use to be out 8-10 months but I have cut back to 3 months the last few years.

 

In the off-season I help my wife with her carriage business and work on our land, rentals, and timber investments.

 

As long as I have my health, I believe I will be out there doing at least a few shows a year.

 

SW:  It sounds like you've had a pretty well rounded career, what do you feel you have given back to the business and how have you influenced other showmen/women and performers who know you or have seen your shows?

 

RW:  That is a tough question John. There are many things that showmen learn from their years on the road. It may be a good booking, or a way to handle a particular problem, or how to square a beef, or maybe how to frame a show. I have had many people help me along the way and I hope I have been as helpful to the show guys I know.

 

My equipment always looks fresh and clean. I never burn the spots I play. My shows, or other showmen’s shows would still be welcome at a spot after I play it. 

 

SW: "There are many things that showmen learn from their years on the road."  What is the greatest lesson you've learned during your career?

 

RW: Treat people the way you wish to be treated.

 

“Love God and be happy”…P.T. Barnum

  

SW: Where do you think the business is going and Why?

 

RW:  I believe the business, as I have known it is dying. It’s been dying a slow death for a long time. Not that there won’t be a few shows out there working, but unlike some people, I don’t see sideshows making a big comeback…this is one time I pray to God I’m wrong.

  

SW:  Do you have any regrets?

 
RW:  
No regrets!

 

SW:  Is there any words of wisdom you would like to share with our reads?

 

RW:  Never give up! Never give up!  

 

SW:  Is there anyone you would like to thank?

 

RW:  I would like to thank my uncle, Tom Beimborn for all he has taught me, my wife Abby for putting up with me, my mom for believing in me, and my friends for all their help.  I would also like to thank the showmen who went before me for blazing the trail. And finally, I would like to thank you, John for giving us Sideshow World.  

 

                                                                                                   Interview by John Robinson Sideshow World


Photographs:

  Title Image Photograph,  Santa’s Helpers…Rick and Abby with a load of Christmas presents.

 

  Five-year-old showman. Ready for the fair…1953

 

  “10,000 hamburgers on the Hoof…Big Bill the Giant Steer!”

 

Dr. West’s amazing “Smallest Horse Show”…This display is nearly twenty-years-old…Photograph was taken in 2005

 

“Big Jim the Giant Horse…1 ½ Tons of Brute Strength!”

 

“Unchanged since the dinosaur age”…photo from 1972.

 

“Boss Hog, 1200-pounds of bacon bits on the hoof!”

 

Giant Horse Show…1982.

 

A Polaroid photograph of Rick and Bozo at their very first fair…1960. 

 

“8-foot, 8-hundred pound Big Foot Creature!”

 

Rick’s Coyote Café shortly after completion…1994.

 

An example of the newspaper ads that were used to advertise the shows when playing still dates.

 

“Bonnie and Clyde the Infamous Texas Giant Rats”…talk about a rat infestation!      ALIVE!   ALIVE!   ALIVE!

 

”Not your usual Dog and Pony Show!”

 

Abby and our pigmy prodigy…“Thumblina the Miniature Marvel”

 


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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