Here we are with Capt. Don Leslie, the
last of the old time circus sideshow tattooed men, who also
performs many amazing feats from the working acts of classic
Hello Capt. Don. It’s great to be able to speak with you. My first
question for you is, what probably many of your fans want to know.
When did you first begin your professional performing career?
I ran away when I was a kid, about 15, and started off running a
pony ride on the show I was with. That
back in 1952 or ’53.
How did you get into performing in the sideshow?
The pony ride was right across the midway from the bally stage for
the sideshow. One time I went over to the sideshow, when the crowd
had dispersed, and this guy in the show said to me, “Are you with
the show?” and I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Do your parents know
where you are?” So I said, “No, but boy I’d sure like to know how
to eat fire and swallow swords.” So he says, “Let me send your
parents a telegram so they know you’re alright and alive. I
promise I won’t tell anybody where you are and I’ll teach you.” He
was thinking that the first time I’d gag that would be it and he’d
get out of it, but I stayed with it to his surprise.
I was a fire eater first. Carlos Leal
was the fire eater and he was one of the best fire eaters in the
business. However he was an inferior sword swallower. And every
f'n time he’d go to swallow a sword he’d gag horribly. So when I
went to learn to swallow swords I did the same thing. I didn’t
have anything to compare it with. I’d never seen another sword
swallower, so I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do, you
know? (makes gagging noise) I made f'n people sick for Christ’s
Anyway, I was on the Christiani Bros.
Circus and The Doll Family was over there, so Harry Doll, he’d
been around sword swallowers all his life, said, “I don’t know
what you’re doing wrong, but I’ve been around a hundred sword
swallowers and none of them do that, (makes gagging noise).” So
he said a show was going to be near us Sunday and Alex Linton was
over there. I said, “Alex Linton!” He was a big time sword
swallower at the time, and we were going to ask him to come over.
Alex came over and straightened me out. He’d swallow the swords
with finesse. He had a shield there on the stage with a Bayonet
and a stove poker and a big dagger and a couple of swords there
and a big spoon, like what restaurants use, with the big handle,
and the son of a bitch, he cleaned the whole f'n board and
swallowed ‘em all. F'n blew me away!
That must have been something to see.
Well Alex swallowed 4, 27” blades and I swallowed 5, 30” blades.
He never lived to see me beat his record. He’d have been pleased.
I was the only sword swallower student he had. He didn’t teach
anybody else. You know everybody’s doing eleven, sixteen,
whatever, and they do them straight down, aligned with the throat.
I did the five the opposite way with one edge of the blades
facing toward my mouth and the other facing the back of my neck.
Did you ever have any major accidents with any of the sideshow
stunts you have performed over the years?
In ’89, I swallowed the sword sandwich (the five blades like I
just described), and I pulled it up and the f'n blood just ran off
them. It scared the shit out of me! One time, I stayed drunk for
twenty five years you know, I was drunk all the time, but one time
I was doing the bally someplace and I swallowed the bayonet and I
bent over, you know to show them the sword was down, and I fell
face first right into the f'n tip.
It’s amazing that didn’t kill you.
They just stepped aside and let me go, you know. I checked my
stool, and it was black you know from internal bleeding, for a
week-week and a half and then it finally started clearing so it
was alright after that. That time in Seattle at the night club,
with the sword sandwich though (the 1989 accident), that was… I
never expected that. I didn’t feel it or anything, I pulled them
out, f'n blood all over the place.
What did that accident, in 1989, do to you internally?
I… I don’t know. I must have scraped the lining of the esophagus,
you know the little capillaries, like the tiny little veins we all
have on the surface of our skin. Well the lining of the esophagus
has that too, you know.
What did you do after that?
I went up to Canada, with the Conklin shows. I built a sideshow
for them and I spent $60,000 of their money and built a sideshow
and then I went up and performed in it and managed it. I did
everything but swords, so I hired Lady Diane. Then her and I did a
tour of the Micronesian Islands in the South Pacific on a boat,
and we went to Guam together. I was the manager of a strip joint,
and when I took over I fired all the strippers and put circus
How long have you been performing professionally?
51 years. Since 1953, it’s 51 years, this year. I spent 40 some
odd years of those with circuses and carnivals.
What were some of the shows you were with out at the carnivals and
Ah, Circus I was with the Ringling show, Christiani Bros., Clyde
Beatty Cole Bros., probably about 15 or 20 different circuses and
maybe the same amount of carnivals. Reithoffer, Fiesta Shows,
Conklin Shows, things like that.
Do any performers you’ve worked with stick out in your memory as
people you enjoyed working with?
Yeah, the Doll Family. I was with the Doll Family for a long time.
They were some of the original munchkins in the Wizard Of Oz. I’ve
got a great picture around here somewhere of us together on the
bally stage. Floyd Block, who used to be a blockhead and his last
name was coincidentally block, used to work for Norman Brooks, and
he had a speech impediment. It kind of would go along with the
act. He’d say, “Good Ewening Wadies and Getwelmen. I’m Fwoyd Bwock,
not because I’w a chiwp off we owd bwock. Haa, Haa, Haa. Not
because I wawked a bwock to get here. Haa, Haa, Haa.” That’s how
he’d talk, you know? He’d say, “And not because my head iws
shwaped wike a wooden bwock. Haa, Haa, Haa.” He’d laugh at his f'n
joke every time.
When you were a young boy, did you aspire to be a performer?
No. I had no idea I’d wind up as a performer. Like I said, I was
running the pony ride and being a candy butcher. When I was on the
shows though, I did the sideshow and then I candy butchered in the
big show. Drove a truck and all that. I lived on Whiskey and
speed. In those days, when you were on the circus, you know you’d
move every day. Every f'n day, you’d set up in the morning and
tear down every night. You were working 18 or 22 hours a day, you
can’t keep that f'n pace up very long. At night, when you’d go to
the office, they’d give you an envelope with gas money for the
truck and there’d be speed in there. The show gave them to you, so
you wouldn’t wreck their f'n trucks.
Do you think the classic carnival sideshow will ever come back to
No, because you can’t shock anybody nowadays. I remember doing
pins and they’d be f'n dropping like flies! They’d be passed out.
I had seven people down one time. I’ve had three down many times.
One down hundreds of times. Even the blockhead. People would pass
out on the f'n blockhead. Floyd Block, boy he f'n grossed them
out. He’d do two screwdrivers and then lick them and ask someone,
“Wanna Wick?” And all that shit. He had people f'n passing out.
He’d do two ice picks, two screwdrivers, a hammer in each hand. I
can only do one side of my nose, because back in my drinking days,
I was in a bar room one time and some guy closed this other side
for me. Some 'ahole, I called him a faggot or something and he
closed this side for me.
The sideshow will never come back
because you’ve got sixteen year old little girls out there with
their tongues pierced. That used to be a big deal, you know, with
the gaff iron tongue, you know like Poobah does. I used to do the
gaff iron tongue years ago, but I had to stop that because like I
said, there’s f'n sixteen year old girls with their tongues
pierced out there. But it’s no big f'n deal. Tattoos used to be
big and now, you know, people in the audience have more tattoos
than I have!
Would you say that performing the sideshow acts, have taken a toll
on your body over the years?
No, I’d say it was the cigarettes and booze that did a number on
me but being on mud shows that move every day, it’s just… (shakes
his head), even when you’re young it’s a son of a bitch. You’d get
up in the morning, you’re sitting up on the f'n truck, leaning on
the wheel, because there’s no sense in laying down, they’ll be
banging on the door waking you up in a minute. Pull onto the lot
in the wee hours of the morning, they’d wake you up, you get up,
unload all the shit, set the show up, and we went in work clothes.
We’d run and wash up out of a f'n bucket, shave in a rearview
mirror or side mirror on the truck, then put wardrobe on, run the
sideshow, do the come in, get out of the f'n costume, put a
Coca-Cola coat on, and run in the show and sell cotton candy,
cracker jacks, peanuts and that shit, and just before the show was
over, run out, take that off, put your costume back on, catch the
blow off of the circus, you know. Then as the night show, you’d do
the whole thing over again. And then when the night show’s over,
get back into the working clothes, tear that son of a bitch down,
load it up, and drive it a hundred and fifty miles and do it
again, 24/7. It’s just a bastard. On a carnival, you know, you go
and set up and you’re going to be there for eight days or ten
days, six days, whatever. This thing here with the circus, you’re
going to move tonight, you know. Shit. Every day was set up and
every day was tear down.
Would you say then that you prefer working at carnivals, as
opposed to circuses?
The one thing on the circus with the sideshow, you only do like
four, you might do six shows a day. That’d be a big day at a straw
house or something. On the carnival, you do eighteen, twenty,
twenty two shows a day. It’s a f'n grind. You can’t go anywhere.
You go to take a piss and you’re on already again. But with the
carnivals, it’s good because you’re going to be there for while.
You only have to set up once and tear down when the fair’s over.
That’s the only good part about it. You don’t get any time to
yourself anyway. Trying to leave the fair grounds, you’re too f'n
tired at the end of the day and who the " f " wants to go
downtown. But then with the ride boys, they’d go out and get shit
faced and come back to work all day. I ain’t going to do that
I carried tattoo equipment with me and
I used to tattoo the ride boys, a jointee once in a while, but
mostly the ride boys, because those rides are right there, and if
you have any f'n problems, you just yell, and they’ll come right
over there and kick ass for you. I’d put a tattoo on them for a
freebie, a guy would come up and say, “I like that one.” And point
to something and I’d tell him to sit down and I’d put it on him.
If I had any rowdies in the show, I’d just call them and they’d
take them out back and pound the shit out of them.
When you started in the sideshow, did you know you wanted to be a
No, I just added that. I was a fire eater and then a sword
swallower and then I added a tattooed man, because you’d get more
money. It cost them less. See? You’d pay a salary to a tattooed
attraction, a salary to a fire eater, a salary to a sword
swallower, so I said they could give me more money and I would do
all three for less than paying three people. So it just cut down.
They saved money and I made money because I did so many acts. On a
carnival ten in one, you can’t just have one guy doing the whole
show, you’ve got to have a little line up. But I made money on how
I looked and I did swords, and I did pins in the blow so I made
extra money that way. With Ward (Hall) I did fire and then pins in
One last question, what would you say was the best show you worked
Hall and Christ. Ward does a f'n powerful pitch. On the pickled
punks too, Ward is great at it. Ward is a better inside lecturer,
I think, than he is an outside talker. He’s a good outside talker
and he can sure turn a tip alright, but he’s a good inside
lecturer I think. He’s got something about congeniality and
charisma inside the tent.
Well thank you very much Capt. Don and break a leg out there.
A. See you down the
Interview by Ses Carny
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