Jeff Murray - 10/1/04

 

Q. I have heard that you originally started out actually working as a mortician, and that the showman hat came as an afterthought for you.  Can you tell me exactly how you ended up working with stiffs initially, and how the unusual transition finally came about, that landed you into the career that you have inevitably been in now for decades?

 

A. Well, actually it was a desire of mine to be in outdoor show business since childhood. It was the mortuary profession that was the afterthought. We lived only about a mile from the fairgrounds in Madera California where I grew up. The old West Coast Shows wintered there at the end of each season, and in the spring, I would ride my bike out and watch the carnies bring the rides and shows out to be readied for the coming season. I have always had a love for the weird and unusual. My mother took me to a real freak show when I was very young, and I still remember it quite well. The carnival carried their own sideshow, and they would set it up, banners and all, for painting and repairs. I loved and was fascinated by those banners.

 

At about age 10 I told almost everyone in the family that I wanted to join the carnival sideshow. Needless to say, this freaked out my folks, who I think already thought I was pretty strange. As a matter of fact, they would tell their friends that I wanted to join the circus, which to them and most other people seemed much more acceptable than a sideshow. Anyway, I ended up in the mortuary profession as a licensed embalmer and funeral director with a wife and three kids. I still had the burning desire to get into the backend business, and would drag my little family to every festival, still date and fair in the area looking for the sideshow. When eventually I was divorced and on my own, I left everything behind to chase my dream of becoming a showman. That was about 1978, but it wasn't until I met Sue that I really got rolling.

 

Q. You mentioned your mother took you to see your first “Freak Show" when you were "very young."  Just how young were you and what do you recall from that first experience?

 

A. I was probably four or five years old when I saw my first sideshow. There were some other kids about my age seeing the show also. I remember sitting in the Fat Lady’s lap at some point, but I don't know how I got there. Now this was in the early 1950s, and I remember parts of the outside bally also. The other thing that sticks out in my mind is that me and the other kids went back into the annex part of the tent.

 

In other words, the "blow." There was a pedestal with something on it, which was covered by a black cloth. One of the kids pulled the cloth off, and I saw my first pickled punk. I believe it was a two-headed specimen, but that part is kind of fuzzy. We were in there when the people began filing in, and my mother was among the group. A man in a lab jacket came in and did the lecture on the baby. I don't remember being frightened at all, but the experience has stayed with me ever since. I have no idea who operated the show, and other than the fire-eater, fat lady and baby, I do not remember any of the other acts.

 

Q. What inspired you to become a showman and not just work in sideshows, but to actually own and operate them?

 

A.  The funny thing is that I never pictured myself performing in a sideshow. I wanted to own one, bally the front and sell tickets and take in the scratch. This didn't exactly work out, as my wife Sue and I both performed in our shows. I did talk the front and lecture inside, but also worked magic, the blade box, electric chair, did the blow spiel, set up the tents and bannerlines, drove the trucks, pounded stakes, repainted banners and everything else. Money was never a driving force for me; I wanted to be in this business. We had years when we came home with suitcases full of dough and years we limped in broke. But don't be fooled. The sideshow business is tough and getting tougher. I was in my early 30s when I finally got started, but now, I can't pound those stakes anymore, and can't drive for hours on end. If you hire a big crew, then there goes your profit. That is why you see so many grind shows and museums now. But I still enjoy operating shows.

 

Q. Even though it wasn't your original goal what acts did you and Sue perform and how did it work out?

 

A. Well, working with Sue was always enjoyable.

 

We did the blade box and electric chair together, and when she wasn't on stage she would be in the front ticket box. Some shows use two ticket boxes, but we always used just the one, and she is very fast at making change and moving the people into the show. There came a day when she refused to continue doing the electric chair although the blade box was her favorite and she performed that routine for several years. During the electric chair act, at some point when the juice was flowing through her body, I would light gasoline soaked torches from her fingers and tongue.

 

Well, on a couple of occasions when lighting a torch from her tongue, I accidentally caught her eyebrows on fire. She forgave me the first time, but when it happened again, she handed in her resignation. We used green help for some of these acts in later years by hiring carny girls or local girls from modeling agencies. I also like ballying the front and lecturing inside. I never liked magic. I do not even enjoy seeing others perform it very much unless they are a real pro. I did a few easy magic tricks in the show only because I did a pitch afterwards and could make a little extra scratch by selling a package of little tricks and puzzles.

 

Pete Hennen once told me he could let people into his show for a dime because he made his real money from them after he had them inside. I did not understand this at first, but remember, you don't have to split your inside money with the carnival office. Pete said they could have half the money off the front box, just let me keep what I get on the inside. So we dinged them on the blade box, magic pitch, freak pitchcards, souvenirs and the blow. The blow alone can nearly match what you do on the front if you have a strong enough act performing.

 

I once saw a videotape of Ward and Chris's inside show, and they did an act and a ding, another act followed by a ding and so on. Every other performance had a pitch of some kind. This is a MUST if you operate a 10 in One. Later I even put extra attractions in my museum shows. I added a small ticket box with one of my kids in it on the inside and ran a continuous tape advertising the exhibit. This is an easy way to grab an extra half a buck if you can get away with it. I can eat a little fire when in a pinch and could do a lame pincushion act if I had to. But give me a microphone and we're off to the races.

 

Q. The sideshow business has apparently been a family affair for the Murray's.  Can you talk a little about the other members' involvement with you over the years, as well as how they influenced your business namesake of "Harmur Shows"?

 

A. The name HARMUR comes from our last names. Sue's maiden name was Harlan and mine of coarse is Murray. Put them together and you get an abbreviated HARMUR - Harlan and Murray. We tried MURHAR but that sounded really ridiculous! I think at some point all of our six children worked our shows. They all enjoyed it at the time, most were in their teens then, but none have continued in the business.  Sue did not like taking the kids on the road. The carnival life has a lot of negativity associated with it, and carny punks usually end up in trouble along the line. We did have them out for a few seasons, but stayed on top of them constantly and I can happily say we have a great bunch of children.

 

In addition to that we have had three partners at various times over the years. Jon Friday was a circus man with a love for the sideshow. We started communications through an ad I had run in the Circus Report magazine selling some freak animals.

 

I was low on scratch at the time, and Jon wanted to take out a 10 in One. Well, I had one in the barn plus a couple of grind show guts. We put up some money, framed a second museum and jointly bought Chris’ & Ward’s “Eeka & The Monsters” show and hit the road.

 

We played New England with Dean & Flynn Fiesta Shows. It was an okay season. The following year I stayed home and Jon leased my truck and equipment along with Capt. Don Leslie. They had a rough season, and Jon was late with a few payments. He made good though. He passed away several years ago, but we were friends to the end. My other partners have been Fred Olen Ray and Mark Frierson both at various times. We are all still in contact, coming up with some great ideas and adventures, but actually only doing a few.

 

Q.  Is it true that you had a longstanding feud with Capt. Harvey Boswell?

 

A. No, I never had a feud with Capt. Boswell. But he was mad at me over a business deal we had going. The Capt. had been dying for 30 years. Everyone in the business will tell you that. Whenever you heard from him, he'd say he was almost dead. I met him in 1972 and he had one foot in the grave then. I think he actually died a couple of years ago. Anyway, at some point he was selling off a lot of his stiffs, shrunken heads and punks because this time he was really going for the big one. Well, I wanted everything he had, but didn't have any money. I knew a guy who wanted a shrunken head and Boswell had one for a grand. This guy didn’t know the Capt., so I told him I had the head and wanted three grand for it. The guy says okay and sends me three big ones. I send a grand to Harvey, he ships me the head and I forward it to the buyer. A few weeks pass and I blow the money and I guess Harvey spent his too. Then the phone rings. The guy says the head isn't real and he wants his money back. I assure him the head is real, but he claims it’s a monkey head. I give him the stall for a week or two and then the lawyer’s letter arrives. I called Harvey, laid out the story and he says to tell the guy to F--k himself. I can't do that. He's going to sue me! I go to the post office and suddenly have a certified package. The guy shipped back the head. Well here is the thing, and why I don't understand why the Capt. was mad.

 

I shipped the head back to Harvey insured for three grand by UPS. When the head arrived, Harvey claimed it was destroyed during shipping and put in a claim for the insurance money. They did end up paying him and he sent me a check to give the guy a refund. So, he was actually out nothing, made a grand on the deal and was able to keep the damaged head. But he never talked to me again after that.

 

I heard he had some negative things to say about me from other show people, but frankly, I didn't care what he thought, and since he can't sue me now, he can go f--k himself! Just joking of course...Rest In Peace Harvey.

 

Q. Over the years you have worked with a lot of other great performers as well as some notable freaks.  Was there one person in particular that you had a close friendship with?

 

A. I would have to say that Otis Jordan was one of the so-called "freaks" that I became friends with. He was just a great guy and a pleasure to work with. He did not like being billed as the Frog Boy, and preferred the title Human Cigarette Factory. I liked Frog Boy, and while he worked for us, that is the banner we used for him. He did a wonderful act where he would roll and light a cigarette without the use of his arms and hands, which were ossified. After making the cigarette, he did a series of tricks with the cigarette. The audience loved him, and we would sell his pitchcards at the end of his performance. He kept all the money from the cards, and believe me, he sold a lot of them.

 

Lowell "Curely" Frisbie was with us until he died. He even lived in our home on a few occasions. He was an all around performer who could eat fire, swallow swords, do the blockhead and pincushion and anything else in the show you needed, plus set it up and take it down. Curley died on my birthday in 1987 after bypass surgery. Sue and I still miss him. Both of these people were good friends and lovely human beings.

 

Q. Who are some of the most influential people that you have had the pleasure to know and work with over the years in this business?

 

A.  When we first went into the sideshow business after buying Dean Potter’s 10 in One Circus Of The Fantastic, we made it a point to look up Ward Hall. It was about 1982, and Sue and I owned a sideshow but weren’t sure how to book it. We had previously had grind shows in California, but wanted a national tour. The Showmen’s convention was happening in Las Vegas, and we made it a point to go just to meet Ward and get some advice. The first thing he said to me was, "Why in the world do you want to go into the sideshow business?" So I told him about my life long desire to be a showman. I don’t think he was impressed, but very kindly helped us book our first season with the James H. Drew Exposition. Bobby Reynolds was at the same table, and informed us that the country was divided into two sections. I didn't pursue it further...etc, etc. He had one section and Ward had the other. We could work our show because we would be in Ward’s area, but we couldn't come into his territory. So Ward Hall and Chris were both very generous.

 

The one person who influenced us the most would have to be the late Peter G. Hennen. We drove to Georgia in 1984 just to meet Pete on our way back to California. I had heard a lot about him and his many outrageous shows including Frieda The Frog Girl, Hells Belles and others. Pete had fallen on hard times and lived in Leesburg, GA, in a small mobile home. His health was very bad for many reasons and he looked like death warmed over. His mind however was still going full steam, and he really had a lot to offer. Before he died, he gave me all his business files, scripts for bally tapes and lectures and hundreds of photos of his shows. Johnny Meah worked with Pete and did a lot of artwork for the display company designing show fronts and the like. Pete was a good friend and a great help with the success we had while operating our 10 in One. This is another person we truly miss.

 

Q. You bought your first 10-in-1 Sideshow from Dean Potter. How long did you operate that show and what acts performed for you?

 

A. Well, I still have parts of that original show. Some of the bannerline is still around, part of the electric chair, the original bladebox, all the stakes and miscellaneous other components.

 

Here is something interesting. When we bought the show from Dean, it came with Percilla Bejanos (Monkey Girl) complete wardrobe of costumes. She had handmade and sewn almost everything herself. There were quite a few jungle theme outfits and lots of other interesting accessories. I had all the costumes in the barn for about a year, but without any need for them they were all sent to the dump. This was about 1983 and I didn't even think about their potential future collectible ability.

 

We toured that show from 1983 to about 1988 making improvements and changes to the front as we went. We had Curley Frisbie with us in the beginning, and added acts as we traveled. We didn't carry any human oddities for several years simply because most were regulars with other shows like Walter Wanous, Ward & Chris, Carl Cullison and one or two others. 

 

After Walter retired, some performers became available. We have employed Paul Fish (fat man from the movie “Carny”) Bruce Snowden, Melinda Maxey, Prince Arthur, Capt. Don Leslie, Otis Jordan, Butch Schute, Little Richard Freeman, Jack and Rose Donahue and others. At one point we had Dolly Regan lined up to work after many years with Ward Hall. Unfortunately, she required special living quarters and an attendant to care for her, which was out of our budget. We went to museum shows in the early 1990s and then ventured out with a live show (Bat Boy) in 2002.

 

As for Dean's old "Circus of the Fantastic," you can find parts of it at several locations on our ranch.

 

Q. As in every business there are people you really enjoy and those who test you every way they can. Who were some of the most unpleasant, what was it that caused you to feel that way and what happened?

 

A. The most unpleasant people were not those with the sideshow. Oh sure, I had a few run ins with performers. Fat Man Bruce Snowden screwed on me because I wouldn't buy him a mattress to sleep on.  Sue fired bearded lady Malinda Maxey because she refused to work unless we stopped patrons entering the show who had cameras. There were a few other incidents over the years. In retrospect, these things could have all been worked out.  I still feel a friendship towards Bruce and Malinda and even some of the others who were much worse offenders.

 

My main beef about unpleasant people is directed at the carnival owners. There are truly some despicable people running carnivals. Some of the biggest shows can be the worse to deal with. Without going into the gruesome details here are some shows I will never again book with; Reithoffer Shows, Gooding’s Million Dollar Midway (now out of business) B&B Amusements, Cumberland Valley Shows and a few whose names most wouldn't know. Live and learn.

 

Q. What were some of the problems you ran into with the carnival owners?

 

A. Most of the problems with carnival owners were over percentages and space. Here is an example of what I mean. When booking a show, you usually phone the carnival office and tell them what you have and how much space you require. If they can use you, they will give you a place and date to show up plus inform you of the percentage they will require from your ticket sales. You might also be in for a surprise if you don't ask about any additional charges they may have because they can think up some doozies. You arrive at the appointed time and look up the lot man for your location. Your show has a 100-foot front. The lot man has your space on his map, and you have been given 63 feet for your show. But I have a hundred foot bannerline!  He asks, “Well, can you squeeze it in there some way?”  Since they already have a ride setup on each side of your spot, you leave forty feet off of the banner line and open the best you can.

 

Opening day you go to the show office for your rolls of tickets and find out they do not trust you to sell them yourself. You can either take their ride coupons or the carnival will hire a person to sell the tickets in your ticket box, and you will pay their salary. My choice would be to take their coupons and hope they didn't run any pay one price wristband promotions. Now you are open and things are going okay. Some stiff from the midway office drives his golf cart down and wants to know how much of the inside money you make will go to them. You tell him none and he leaves, but comes back in a few minutes and says the fair will not allow shows to sell anything or charge for an added attraction after the patron has purchased an admission to the tent. Now you are out your inside money. The fair is 10 days, so after three days of turning in your tickets each night, you want your end of the money to date. Now, there is never anyone in the office when you expect, so you must wait. Finally you get the office manager, and she doesn't remember you even though you turn your tickets into her each night. You get that all straightened out and she pulls out the calculator. Her figures come up a yard and a half short of what your figures say.

 

Something is wrong here, so you go over them a few times and they still don't match up. What's wrong? Well I'll tell you what’s wrong. That 50% they quoted you over the phone is now 57%. So you say, hey, I was quoted 50% when I talked to Mr. Slime Ball last week. The office manager tells you that they always charge shows 57% and you must have misunderstood. Okay, let me talk to Mr. Slime Ball, and that’s when you learn he is gone for the entire spot and won't be available until the following fair.

 

What are you going to do? You are set-up, have no other place to go, must be able to pay your performers and couldn't get off of the lot even if you wanted since you are blocked in by trucks, rides and house trailers. The last night of the fair, you find you still have to pay for a ticket seller since you used their coupons. There is a fee for garbage disposal and an OABA (Outdoor Amusement Business Association) donation if you are a member or not. Even though you only played the one spot with this show, you were forced to buy their show logo shirts and ID cards for yourself and entire crew. You end up leaving with about a grand or two less then you had expected. Or in some cases, can't afford to leave if you didn't make enough to meet expenses. Why did this happen? Simple, you were lied to. You were treated more like a sucker then those marks on the midway.

 

The bottom line is money, and they don't care where it comes from or how they get it. Believe it or not, I have laid out a simple story, as there can be much more to the screwing some carnivals can give you. I have actually seen one large carnival "snatch" a showman’s equipment because he couldn't pay his rent at the end of a spot. Not all operate in this manner, but there are a few who make it their practice. You'll learn quickly who they are if you become a showman.

 

Q. Please recall for me your best ever "on the road" story, as well as your most awful recollection.

 

A. We were in Virginia traveling to a town called Wise to play the fair with the Drew Show.

 

It was about three a.m. and foggy when we hit town, and had no idea where the fairgrounds were. In the fog I could make out a motel sign, so we inched our way into the parking lot to only find that there were no vacancies. It was a tight parking lot, and I couldn't back out, so I thought I would make a wide turn through a vacant lot back to the road. I asked Curley, “Is it clear?” He said, “Ya go ahead.”  “Are you sure its clear?” “Ya, go ahead.” I could see nothing, but put it in gear and headed back toward the main road. About five seconds later the truck was nose first into a canal and the trailer we were pulling had its back bumper touching the ground and the tongue in the air. It took four hours and a wrecker to get us out. The vacant lot was actually a newly planted lawn attached to the Motel property, which between the truck, trailer and wrecker we had totally destroyed.

 

Fortunately we were gone before the owners awoke. Transportation problems are the worse thing you can have on the road. On the other hand, we have had many great experiences over the years and met a ton of delightful people. We have enjoyed seeing the country and visiting historical places. We have especially enjoyed our tours in New England with Gene Dean and his Fiesta Shows, giving us a chance to visit Plymouth Rock, Salem, House of Seven Gables and more. Sue loves it when we can get away, even though only for a short period and see the sights.

 

Best ever on the road story? Probably our second season on the road when we came home with forty thousand in cash packed in Sue’s luggage. We stopped in Las Vegas on our way back and rented a luxury suite for a week. We ate prime rib every night and slept till noon everyday and bought a new truck when we got back home with cash. We thought every season would be like that. Once again, live and learn.

 

Q. I’ve heard stories from some of the old showmen that they could make thousands of dollars each season.  I know some young people that want to start their own shows and have talked with some of the old timers.  Most were given a word of caution like you mentioned Ward gave you.  Would you like to give some advice to the young about starting a show?

 

A. You can have some great seasons and can limp home broke as well. How many rich sideshow owners do you know?  That should answer the question about the big money in the sideshow business. My advice to would-be showmen is to follow your dream. You will either make it or not. The main thing is doing something you enjoy and don't worry about making a lot of money. You will survive, and at the very least you will be doing something that you desire to do. Unfortunately, there is not much of a future in the sideshow business as it exists today. If I were starting over, I would book with a medium sized carnival that wanted a sideshow and gave me a great deal...like 25% and no dings.

 

I would stay with them as they grew and got bigger fair dates, improving and changing my show as I went. Then the sideshow would be a fixture on their midway and fair goers would expect to see me there each year. But wherever you book, make sure you have some classy stuff. Lie out a beautiful show front and make the carnival owners want you to be a part of their midway. On an average year, you can probably make enough to not work all winter and take a vacation to Hawaii for a week or so. If you’re smart, you'll invest a little back into your show, and a little more into something different.

 

Q. In your career you’ve been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things.  What is your most memorable experience with the show?

 

A. Probably the most memorable and important thing to me was when my parents visited our show for the first time. I was very proud of our show, and my folks had no idea how we operated or what they would be seeing. Well, they were impressed and very happy that I had finally reached my life’s desire. My folks always backed me up on whatever I did. They might not have liked my choices at the time, but I was never told you can't do that! If it had not been for the support of my parents and especially Sue, I would still be doing the 8 to 5 thing and have missed some wonderful experiences. My parents became sideshow fans, and my mother even traveled with us to a few California dates.

 

My Dad passed away in 2003, but at 85 my mother is still going strong and loves to travel.

 

Q. You have exhibited a great deal of odd and curious objects over the years. What were some of your most memorable experiences and personal favorites?

 

A. One of my favorite shows was the “Horrors Of Drug Abuse” where we exhibited about a half dozen pickled punks. Now these were bouncers, not the real thing, but they looked realistic as hell. I would add a little coffee to the water in the jars to make them murky looking. This was a mistake by the way, as the coffee stained the latex punks and eventually they looked like African pygmies. But the show was a big hit, and we packed it every place we showed. Unfortunately, most carnivals won't book any type of punk show even if they are bouncers. It’s a big heat score. We called it Horrors of Drug Abuse to try to make it look educational.

 

It was a fun show. We actually had people get sick after they saw the babies. One lady fainted because she was so upset. Of course we couldn't tell her they were phony. I owned Billy Bryson a real two-headed baby. I sold him to John Strong shortly after I had purchased it from Vanteen. This was at least ten years ago.

 

He can be seen in the movie “She Freak.” Sue didn't want him around, although the kids just loved Billy. He has one angelic head and the other head is that of an idiot, almost a pinhead.

 

John Strong openly exhibits Billy, but I am afraid the law will snatch him one of these days if John isn't careful. Vanteen had Billy many years, and cried when I drove away with him.

 

He was in the original square medical jar housed in a wooden 1930s radio cabinet. I sold him cheap, and John has made his investment back a hundred times over. We have had so many freak specimens I’ve lost track. I have sold most to collectors. At one time there seemed to be an unending supply of oddities. I regret selling a lot of these specimens and artifacts. But since I am still doing it, I guess I haven’t learned my lesson yet.

 

Q. You said you regret selling a lot of the specimens and artifacts you owned and exhibited. Can you shed a little more light on that comment?

 

A. Well, as I said, I am still selling specimens and exhibits when I have them, so my regrets do not run deep. I was sorry for selling Billy Bryson at first, but I didn't want to risk showing him and have him taken by a local D.A. in some backwater town. I have had other real punks as well, perhaps twenty or thirty over the years. I bought them as investments and never exhibited any in our many shows. Sue didn't like having them around for personal reasons, so I would store them away in our building and sell them to oddity collectors when the time was right. We have owned many freak specimens of all types, but I never became real attached to any of them.

 

My biggest regret is that there aren’t more specimens around for me to obtain. At that one point I thought the supply of oddities was unending. The same goes for sideshow banners. I once bought thirteen Fred Johnson banners from Walter Wanous for five hundred dollars. There was one in that group that we later sold for $1,800.00 alone.

 

Q. You have exhibited a great deal of odd and curious people over the years. What were some of your most memorable experiences and personal favorites?

 

A. Well, we were talking about Bruce Snowden (Harold Huge) awhile back. Bruce is an intelligent and humorous fellow. Even though our working relationship didn't work out, I still like the guy. We were in Ohio playing a small fair with Nolan Amusements. I left the lot for a run to town with Otis for some grocery shopping. Upon our return I was cornered by the fair board people and the carnival owners wanting to know who was paying for the damages created by the sideshow Fat Man. Hell, I've been gone, what are you talking about? Well, it seems that Bruce felt the call of nature during my absence and went to use the public restrooms. There were four toilets each separated by a block brick wall. Bruce went to use the stall on the far end. The number one stall. Numbers two and three were empty and the fourth had a man in it. Bruce dropped his drawers and as he went to sit down, he used the walls to support himself. Well, he pushed the wall over which in turn hit the next wall and like dominos they all came down crushing the toilets and nearly killing the man at the end. It ends up with Bruce sitting there with his pants around his ankles on the only remaining intact toilet in the men’s room and the rest of the place destroyed. The farmer managed to escape with his life, but the place was ruined. Probably three thousand dollars damage to rebuild and replace everything. The fair people wanted to know what I was going to do. Thinking fast, I said I hope my Fat Man doesn't sue you people.  What kind of a public facility are you operating? He could have been killed, and the other man too. I won't pay you anything, why should I? I'll probably have to talk Bruce all night to keep him from retaining a lawyer to sue you.

 

Well, they fell for it, and I didn't hear anymore about it. But we got into trouble again at the next spot with Bruce. It was in Springfield. In order to stay clean, Bruce would strip down completely naked inside the sideshow tent, and we would take a hose and spray him off.  His belly hung so low, that it covered his genitals, so he kind of looked like a big blob rotating in the middle of the tent while we hosed him down. Then he would stay naked and rotate until the summer heat dried him off. They make no towel big enough to fit around Bruce.

 

Well, one day after spraying him down, we left for town...yes, again, and upon my return another call to the fair office. One of the ladies from the committee had been taking a group of church women around the grounds before the fair opened. Just for fun, they decided to peek into the sideshow. Well, to their utter horror, they got a gander at a seven hundred pound naked fat man rotating in the middle of the tent.  I guess this caused much shock and swooning and the incident was reported to the authorities.

 

Well, I dodged this one too by simply saying that I paid for the spot where the sideshow was located, making it my property while the fair was in progress and the ladies were trespassing.  It might not have been legal, but it worked and they left us alone after that.

 

Bruce screwed me a few days later because I didn't buy him a mattress to sleep on. One of the other performers actually drove him to the bus stop so he could blow town. I never really understood how that happened, because I do not remember him asking for a mattress. Best regards to you Bruce, wherever you are.

 

Q. Tell me a little about Murray Ranch, and how it ties into the Hollywood movie scene.

 

A. The ranch we live on is well over 100 acres. It's been in my family since 1872. It’s really a very nice place and we have a river that runs through the property. My pal Fred Ray used the place for a few scenes in his popular movie “Dinosaur Island,” and we had an adult film company shoot some sex scenes here for a little number called “Lust & Desire.” I stayed for most of the filming on both pictures, and believe it or not, Fred's stuff was much more interesting than the porno. The property is available for location shooting, and we are listed with the film commission. I hope to shoot my own low budget film next spring titled “Freak Show Girls.” We have a working script and a lot of local talent willing to join the project. More on this later.

 

Q. In the past you've also partnered with such folks as B-film aficionado, Fred Olen Ray, and even sideshow artist Mark Frierson.  Would you share some of your experiences?

 

A. I met Fred Olen Ray through Mark Frierson. Fred was like me, having had an interest in the subject of freak shows, monsters and anything weird since childhood. We both were fans of Famous Monsters magazine, loved stories of UFOs and Big Foot and so on. Fred was interested in taking out a show of some kind, and he had already purchased a big trailer mounted grind show from Malcolm Gerry. We talked on the phone a few times and some how I ended up exhibiting some of Fred’s attractions in our Mystery Museum. Fred had an exhibit called the Alligator Man, which was really a knock out. Later he framed a show around the creature and flew Mark out to California to paint the front. We became close friends and partners on some short-lived projects. I worked and acted in several movies that he directed, and we had a lot of fun together.

 

One of our crazier adventures was playing a date in Indio, California. It was a first time festival promotion and we were suckered into playing it. I had the Baby show and Fred brought in his Alligator Man show. Turned out the attendance was very small and those who did show up didn't visit sideshows.

 

It was hot as hell in Indio and we were spinning our wheels. One day before opening, Fred and I have a few drinks, its hot so we have a few more, and a couple for old time sake, etc, etc. Now it's time to open and we're really happy, everything is funny and Fred thought he'd start talking his show instead of just running the bally tape. As the people enter the grounds Fred starts his unrehearsed spiel; "Hay lady, this show is weirder than that hair-do you have. Say Mister, is that your kid or did the alligator boy escape?” And on he goes, insulting everyone who walks in the gate. I'm in my ticket box laughing so hard that I get a cramp in my side that almost sobered me up on the spot. About the only joy to be had at that date was Fred’s insults to the patrons.

 

We remain friends although we do not see each other as much as I would like. Fred is a true friend and a very generous person besides being a talented showbiz professional. A strange thing about the Fred, Malcolm Gerry and Mark Frierson connection is that I first saw Marks artwork on a show owned by Malcolm while playing Peoria, Illinois with the Mighty Bluegrass Shows. I asked Malcolm who he had painting his banners and he told me about Mark and gave me his phone number. That winter I found the number and called Mark about doing some pictorials for us. In 1989 we commissioned Frierson Studios to paint our Mystery Museum show front, and he's been painting our shows ever since.

 

Mark and I were partnered in a show called Area 51, which was probably one of the best museum attractions ever presented. We had so many freaks and oddities there wasn't enough room for all the stuff in my 20'X40' tent. Unfortunately, I only worked the show in California, and couldn't get booked into the big fairs. We closed early and most of the exhibits were later sold off. We have had a great working relationship for over fifteen years now and we speak by phone very frequently. Interestingly, we have only met face to face on one occasion.

 

Q. What were the movies you appeared in and what was that experience like?

 

A.  All the films in which I appear were done by my old partner Fred Olen Ray. Fred has been called the modern king of the B movies, but don't limit him within that category because he is much more complex than that. I do not have many close friends, but I include Fred and his family in that short list. Of Fred's movies I appeared in; Bikini Drive-In, Attack Of The Sixty Foot Centerfold, Droid Gunner, The Shooter, Mom Can I Keep Her and a couple of others. Sue was also in Bikini Drive-In. Fred also did a documentary on Grind Shows which to my knowledge has never been released.

 

During the first few shoots I was very nervous in front of the camera. But by the time we did Mom Can I Keep Her, I was much more relaxed and had quite a lot of screen time doing that small part. Professional wrestler Terry Funk was one of the stars of the movie, and we had a lot of fun on the set. I was ready to start acting after that, even though I had no dialogue in the film. Fred however has yet to call upon me again to share my vast talent. Fred frequently invited me onto his sets, but was always afraid I would get bored. He was also good enough to rent some of our show equipment in a number of his films including Sideshow for which we provided all of the freak show props and sideshow guts. I'd like to work with Fred again on some project eventually, but just having the time to visit him in L.A. has been a problem.

 

Q. On what occasion did you meet Mark Frierson face to face? What is Mark like to be around in person?

 

A. I met Mark in person when he was flown out to California to paint Fred Ray's Alligator Man show front. Fred had the truck-mounted show parked at the home of Kung Fu celebrity David Carradine, and he wanted a real sideshow artist to do the renderings. Fred sent Mark a ticket and he came out. I think he stayed at Fred’s home in Sherman Oaks while he did the work.

 

We were playing some dates around L.A, and went to see how the job was coming along. Sue and I also had breakfast with Mark, Fred and a group of actors while in the area. Mark can also perform some sideshow stunts, and Fred had one of his cameramen come out and film him doing a blockhead routine.

 

Mark is entertaining, quite informed and knowledgeable about the business and a very talented artist and attraction builder. He has a friendly outgoing personality and is easy to do business with. We have developed a trust over the years and a lasting friendship. Keep your eyes open for the next Harmur/Frierson show!

 

Q. Infamous showman, John Strong, Jr. seems to have been dealt the brunt of a great many people's wrath lately.  Do you care to comment on this?

 

A. John Strong has been an associate and friend for about 12 years. We had a show together at a few fair dates and John got Sue and me into the Spring Fair in El Monte, California with our museum. El Monte is probably one of the best spring dates in the country, and great for some quick cash to get you on the road. I first met John in the late 1970s and didn't know what to make of him. His dad was a beloved circus owner with a stellar reputation and a great showman to boot. John didn't want to stay with the circus where he grew up, but had a love for the sideshows and went out on his own.

 

Booked with Butler Amusements, John presented a small show which featured some freak animals and a live act...him. Although he didn't know how to swallow swords, he advertised a sword swallower on his outside banners. John could eat fire and do a few other acts however. One night a group of Hells Angels came into the show, watched what John could do and then demanded to see the sword swallower. We paid to see him....bring him out!

 

John had been practicing his swords, but couldn't get past the gag reflex. Well the bikers put the fear of God in him so he picked up his sword and shoved it down the hatch. His face was red, his eyes were watering and strange sounds were coming from his throat, but he had done it just the same. No matter what anyone says about John Strong Jr., he is one to be reckoned with. Ya, he got a lot of heat on Slim’s and he deserved a good deal of it. But not all of what John says is fabricated. I know his mother Ruth, and yes, she is a millionaire.

 

I have seen his attractions, and he has some great stuff, real freak animals other showmen would kill to have. He is talented and can work a crowd and does a classic blade box turn many would envy. He can also be a good friend when you need one. Just never sell him anything on credit. We still love ya John!

 

Q. One of your last shows was working with Tallon Crawford (Bat Boy). I understand he was with you for just one season. Was that show successful and would you have taken it out a second season if Tallon had stayed?

 

A.  The Bat Boy show was not a great financial success. It wasn't the show or Tallon, but just bad weather, poor economy and a lot of bad luck on the road. Tallon was green, but took to the business right away. In his recent Sideshow Central interview he talked of being treated like a rock star. Well, he wasn't kidding.

 

We actually had Bat Boy groupies in the show everyday.  At one point I had him booked on the Howard Stern show, but things didn't work out.

 

We still have a five-year contract with Tallon for any entertainment appearances or movie deals, but I expect nothing will come of it. We did get a lot of heat from that show at almost every fair. People kept asking if we were happy making money off a misfortunate person with a disability. It got to the point we would tell people we worked for him and that he owned the freak show. That shut them up fast. Tallon was a trooper, and we were happy with him for the most part.

 

I did not plan to take the show out again only because when you operate a show of this type, with one performer, you are putting all of your eggs in one basket. Had he hated the road, and left us in the middle of the season, we would have been screwed. I would like to play the Midwest next time we go out.

 

Q. How do you feel about the activist groups that came along and pushed for the displaying of freaks to be illegal? Do or have you had problems while you have had your show on the road, and how have you dealt with them?

 

A. I don't know what Otis Jordan, Dolly Regan, Sealo, or William Durks would have done had it not been for the sideshow. Who else would have given them a job? Some actually aspire to be entertainers. Tallon Crawford gets stared at wherever he goes. Isn't it better to get paid for the looks that would come anyway? These people who want to dictate how we live, what we see or say, they are the freaks in our society. They need to mind their own business. When they come around our show, I tell Sue to stay in the ticket box while I run them off. If they complain about the treatment of the performers, I invite them to go in and talk to them. If they still complain, I tell them to get the hell away from my business before I am forced to personally remove them. That usually works, as they just have big mouths but very little guts.

 

Same goes for these jerks that stay in for the whole show, and then come out wanting a refund. When we were in the southern states with our 10 in One, we'd have negro's who would pull this stunt. They would come out and demand a refund after seeing the entire show. Sue was afraid of them, but I had a better idea. I had an eight-foot python in a five gallon plastic bucket next to the ticket box. The bucket had a wooden cover, and we would use the snake for our outside bally show. This refund demand would happen so frequently, that I got an idea. One night a patron came out and said, “Sh*t man, I want my money back, that was bullsh*t in there.” I said, “Well I'll have to check with the manager.” I reached down, opened the bucket and pulled out the python.  "He says no refunds!" By the time I got that short sentence out of my mouth, the complainer was gone. No, it's not politically correct, but it works.

 

Q. In today’s politically correct world is it hard to find and frame a show with human anomalies or self-made freaks?

 

A. It is not hard to frame a show. Probably anyone could easily frame a tented or trailer mounted show. The only "must" for a sideshow is that you have a great front. That is what brings in the people. A grind tape helps, and if you bally a show, then that will add to the number of people buying tickets.

 

Human freaks are another matter. First they are hard to find. At least those who want to become sideshow entertainers.  Most now think of themselves as handicapped, and have loads of government funded programs to help them through life. Not like it was fifty years ago when their family either hid them away in the home, or they were placed in a hospital never to be seen again. You can see some mighty strange people roaming around the downtown mall these days.

 

Sure, they still get stared at, but now they are in an electric wheelchair and shopping in Macy's. If you can find a human anomaly who wants to work, you need to consider how they will travel, where they will live while on the road and how much you have to pay them to make it worth their while. Bat Boy got $ 500.00 per week rain or shine. We provided his transportation from fair to fair, plus gave him his own trailer to live in. He also received 50% of the pitchcard money, which at some dates can be substantial. The cost to frame the show was around $ 6,000.00 including the banners, sound system and new 15'X15' top and sidewalls Plus we purchased a new open-air trailer to haul the show. We traveled about two thousand miles for our first spot in Peoria, Illinois, and it was a blank. We got as far as New York State and our motor home blew the engine.

 

So we were out about $ 12,000 for framing the show, fuel, new equipment and replacing an engine before we played a date that made us any money. When we got to New England we started running into the "do gooders" who felt sorry for Tallon and wanted to let us know what horrible people we were for exploiting him in this way. Yes, you must have a pretty tough skin to present a real Freak Show these days. I am not interested in the self-made freaks. Most people that were considered human oddities in their day had a pretty normal mind. It was just their bodies that were a mess. A lot of these self-made freaks have their heads screwed on wrong. Not all, but there are some with deep psychological problems in my opinion. It's one thing to adorn your body, or perform physical feats with it, but another to mutilate yourself. I can see a tattooed pierced person at the grocery store for free, why would I pay to see one at the fair?

 

Q. Have you ever come to a point in time where you wanted to quit the business?

 

A. Oh, there have been many times. Sitting in the rain outside in the front box, cold, wet and no business in sight. The carnival owner just refuses to close the show, so you are stuck while he squeezes the last nickel out of the one family who has braved the weather to come, and now won't leave.

 

When you look across the midway and see some joint with a line out front and the marks waving their money in the air…"please take my money"... here is my two bucks...great, I've won a rubber ball! Or the food joint in the middle of the summer with the air conditioner going and lines buying their French fries or corn dogs. I'd think wow, I'm in the wrong business. Look at those people, that’s where I should be. But then there are those times the sideshow has the lines, you look across the midway but everyone is in front of the show. You think, boy, I'm glad I don't have a funky food joint or one of those stinking rip-off games.

 

This business is the greatest! I think it happens to all showmen. But these days we spread ourselves out a little. We now carry a novelty joint and we do also have two of those rip-off midway games. When we are not playing fair dates, Sue and I have an antiques and collectibles business and do outdoor shows around California. I also spend a lot of time on Ebay under the seller name "Showfolks," selling circus, carnival and sideshow memorabilia. Once you have outdoor show business in your blood, you’re pretty much in it for life.

 

Q. Where do you think the sideshow is going in the future?

 

A. Live entertainment doesn't seem to mean as much today as it did years ago. With TV, videos, computer games and the like, people stay home more. Even the big carnivals are feeling the pinch, and with this economy, people can't afford to pay three bucks to jump on a thrill ride that lasts 40 seconds.

 

Families now base their vacations around an amusement park where they can purchase a package deal to stay in a nice room and ride the attractions all day until they puke. Carnivals are trying to copy the amusement park theme, and that is a place where a freak show just doesn't fit in. Our business must change. It is harder to book any kind of a sideshow these days than ever before.

 

And don't forget that if you can book on a show, most carnivals now want over 50% of the money you take in. Many shows will not allow you to take cash, but must except their ride coupons instead.  The Bluegrass Shows only allow booked on attractions to take their coupons, which sounds fine at first. Then you learn that they have a "Pay One Price" wristband deal which allows the patrons to ride all day long for ten bucks. What happens? Everyone has a wristband and nobody is buying coupons. The sideshow can't take the wristbands and you turn away hundreds of people who won't go buy coupons because they have that damned pay one price band.

 

Even worse, the carnival runs that promotion everyday. Yes, sideshows must change. Jim Rose had a good thing going, but his show was so strong his audience was restricted. To survive, you must present a family oriented show where Dad can bring in Mom and all the kids and come out satisfied and telling their friends to check it out. But then, I hate to sound negative, but frankly I do not see much of a future with sideshows. As much as I love the business, we are in a bad position these days. There is just too much going against us. Maybe we can still survive, but it will take a person smarter than me to figure out the solution.

 

Q. Today there are a lot of young performers that do the old sideshow acts and some new innovative things. Most perform in nightclubs, at Ren Faires, etc.  What are your thoughts on the club shows? Do you feel they are part of what most people understand is sideshow? Do you think most performers today understand was it was like to work a 10-in-1?

 

A. I think the club scene is great, and I am happy that there is an interest in old sideshow acts and some of the new ideas as well.  It would be hard for a club performer to adapt to the 10 in One schedule. Our show opened with the midway, which means about 11am, and we would close on weekends at about midnight or 1 am. We ran a continuous show, and the fire-eater might do his complete act twelve or fourteen times a day. Same with the others. We had a pincushion in the blow, and he would be sticking pins in his body all day long. Some people did more then one act in the show, so they spent their entire waking hours performing. This routine went on for the length of the fair, usually seven to ten days. All the performers were expected to help set-up and take down the show. Only the freaks were excused from this. Sue and I both worked the intensive labor jobs as well, never expecting the others to do work we wouldn't do ourselves. So, everyone worked for the good of all.

 

Some performers working clubs, or the types of one night shows that Jim Rose was doing, would find it hard to fit into the 10 in One lifestyle.  This is not to say they could not meet the requirements. Only that it would take a whole new mindset to meet the demands of a show of this nature. Clubs might be the only venue where sideshow acts may be seen in the future. Keep plugging away friends.

 

Q. What impact do you think Harmur Sideshows has had on the business of sideshow and why?

 

A. I don't know if we have made any kind of an impact. We never tried to make an impact other than to our patrons. And of course make the show interesting enough that they would come back next year and visit the other guy’s sideshow when he was at the fair. Sue and I did not want to disappoint our customers, and have always tried to give them more than their monies worth. Even when we presented our big 10 in One back in the 1980s, there were only a handful of sideshows on the road. Today you could easily count them on one hand. Actually, I probably know everyone who is currently out, and most are having problems.

 

Impact on the business? None that I can think of. Other than just another addition to the history book of showbiz.

 

Q. I heard you had planned on framing a show this season with Mark Frierson, if so what was it and why didn't you get it on the road?

 

A. I am having a senior moment. I can't really remember what that show was going to be. I had some custom banner blanks made and instructed the people to ship them to Mark for painting. He has them, but we just ran out of time. Mark is so busy with his many projects. We couldn't frame the show and have it ready for the road when I wanted to go out. We have had several ideas for shows. We talked about bringing back a prehistoric show featuring a baby mammoth, a chupacabra show, an alien frozen body, a crime show, a medieval torture attraction, giant insects from around the world and probably a few others. I am sure we will have a show out again in the future. I am also working on a possible live show with Ses Carny, which will be interesting if we pull it off. Mark and I both get excited. Sue tells us we're nuts, but we make plans. Then something happens and we put it on the shelf until we talk again.  And guess what...we have already been talking about next season and framing another show. It could actually happen this time!  Mark and I have talked about many possible shows. We did have the Area 51 show together, so we have a track record of actually getting a project completed. 

 

Q. I understand that one of the ideas you were thinking about for this season was a crime show which may have featured Ted Bundy’s VW.  Who actually owns the Bundy VW and what is going on with the car?

 

A. Yes, now that you have reminded me, we were talking about a crime show. Mark knows the people who own the Theodore Bundy VW, which is stored at a celebrity’s home in L.A. The "Rock Star" was supposed to buy the murder car, but never had paid for it. The owners wanted it removed and relocated here at our ranch until either Mark and I took it out or it was again sold. The car was not the problem and neither were the exhibits as Mark and I both already have plenty available. This was another case of last minute planning with just more to do than time allowed. That creepy Volkswagen which carried an estimated thirty women to their deaths probably could have stood alone as a single-O attraction. It is still on the drawing boards, so you would-be showman don't bug us about where to find that VW!

 

Q. You mentioned taking a show out in 2005.  What kind of show and what route do you have in mind?

 

A. Yes, I hope to take out a small show plus our joints and book with a medium sized carnival in the Midwest. I do not know what the show will be at this point, but most likely a grind show or museum type attraction. Something that is easy to get up and down. All the exhibits would be in display cases with Plexiglas and wire screen fronts to keep down the vandalism and we would only need one person to work the front box. I still like the "Freaky Museum" idea as Fred Ray calls it. Just a lot of assorted weird stuff for all to see.....those who buy a ticket anyway.

 

Q. In my interview with Tallon Crawford he stated that you use an Eastern route for your show. Any particular reason you're thinking about the Midwest?

 

A. It just happened that we were playing the east when Tallon was with us. Sue likes it in that part of the country and in years past we did well there. The season we had Bat Boy was a tough one, and New England was not the place to be showing. The weather was bad and so was the economy. We have had our shows in almost every one of the lower 48 states, and usually hopscotch rather then stay with one show for the entire season. We only play a few dates in California. Most carnivals out this way will not book sideshows because the fairs don't want them.

 

Butch Butler will book John Strong into some of his dates with his gigantic Butler Amusements, but I never could get a foot in with the guy. Butch and John are old friends, so he takes care of John when he can. California fairs finally just about banned sideshows after years of having their event patrons burned and ripped-off by a certain showman based in this state. Now it is at the point where we can only show at small dates like festivals, shopping centers, swap meets and sponsored spots out west. So we have always traveled to other areas to make a living. We try to give the people something to remember and make them feel it was worth the price of a ticket.

 

This helps the next guy too, as people will remember our show and want to visit the next one that comes to town. California is now over 50% Mexican, and these people love sideshows. The grosser you make it, the better they like it, And if you can put a little Spanish on the bally tape and keep the price down to about half a buck, they jam in. We play the small festivals during the spring, which take place in the central valley of the state. These are agricultural towns and loaded with wetbacks. But as soon as those die out we head for parts unknown for the summer months.

 

Q.  What is it that actually causes the problems with booking in CA?

 

A. Well, as I said, you can't book shows out west. We have even tried to book directly with the fair boards and by-pass the carnival, but they won't let you in. Oh, something like a giant horse or smallest pig can get by, but nothing freaky. But it isn't just California or the various fairs across the country. A lot of the carnival owners are to blame as well. They don't want sideshows either.

 

The thinking now is that sideshows are something from the past. An unpleasant part of outdoor show business they want to get away from. These guys aren’t showmen anyway. They are either ride guys with a background of working with pig iron. Or they are businessmen only interested in the bottom line. Anyone will tell you that rides will make a hell of a lot more money than a freak show.  And if a sideshow is booked on, the space it occupies may be big enough to place a spectacular ride of some kind there instead. Owners are now selling footage to showmen instead of taking a percentage of the gross. Some are a hundred bucks a frontage foot or more. You got a thirty-foot front, you pay three grand to be there. Plus they think up all kinds of "dings" to hit you with.

 

They might ding you twenty-five bucks for trash removal, fifty bucks for hooking up the power to your show, another twenty for a parking pass, etc. And don't forget that most shows require you to have an ID badge and show shirt. On Fiesta shows in 2002 the price of a show ID card was $ 50.00. So anyway, it's getting so that it's not just the west coast, it’s tough getting booked in a lot of places.

 

Q. What does the future hold for Harmur Sideshows?

 

A. We'll keep plugging away and hold out as long as we can. Like I said earlier, we have some back up with our novelty joint and the midway games. There is always a way to make a buck in this business. Our first show had a 120-foot front. Now we are down to 50 and 30 foot fronts and I can see a time when a 10X10 foot joint will be the sideshow only because the show owners won't give up the space until after they have their rides up. But who knows, maybe sideshows will make a big comeback. This year at the California State Fair they had a sideshow of sorts. It wasn't on the carnival midway, but a special attraction on the free stage provided by the fair. They advertised the hell out of it, and as a free attraction it probably had good crowds. Of course it was a very mild version of an old time 10 in One without the freaks, and strong acts like a blockhead or pincushion. Maybe it's a start. I find that people are still drawn to the “dark side of the midway" as some say. I don't know what the future will bring, but we'll still be on the road doing something weird.

 

Q. You mentioned you had a couple game joints. What are they? Do you enjoy working them and how is the money compared to your sideshows?

 

A. We have the two games and a novelty joint. The novelties are basically direct sale impulse items and we carry inflates and all types of toys. Our two games are a "Fish-a-Bag" and a "One Ball." The Fish-a-Bag is a center joint with a large table on which are about fifty colorful bags with a hook on top of each. The customer uses a fishing pole with a ring on the end to "catch" a bag. There is a surprise in every bag and every player wins something. This game is mostly for kids and is a top grossing game. The One Ball is a game in which the player throws a baseball at a stack of aluminum milk bottles. The player must knock the bottles down and out of a painted circle to win his choice of large prizes. It's another popular game and we have done well with it. Both games and the novelties will out gross our museum show by about three to one. However, you must consider that the agent working the game gets 25% of the gross in his apron, plus we must pay for the stock (prizes) we give out. Then the carnival also gets its end of the deal, so everything averages out in the end.

 

Q. Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

 

A. Yes, I would like to thank the many sideshow fans and carnival buffs for their words of encouragement and desire to see backend shows survive. I want to thank Sue, a real lady, for all the hard times she endured while following my search for that four-leaf clover. We've been chasing rainbows for over 25 years now, not for a pot of gold, but because we love it. I salute all of the backend showmen who came before us and especially those who continue to operate in these hard times. It's a struggle. I thank my beloved parents who always supported every adventure and misadventure I engaged in. And finally, I thank God for being with us during our years of travel and for the many blessings we have received through his grace and mercy. I guess that’s it for now. Or should I say, "To Be Continued".....

 

                                                                                                                                Interview by John Robinson

 


Each month we will try and interview a new sideshow personality 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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