Jimmy Zajicek

 

"...I look forward to seeing Jim's Show and always enjoy being with him. 

He is one of the true, honest to God showman in the business."

......Ward Hall  January, 2005

 

Q; We’re at the Florida State Fairinterview with Jimmy Zajicek. As our starting point I'd like to ask you how you became interested in the world of sideshow.
 
A:
Ah, I just always liked the circus.  I would go to every fair, every circus that came through, and the sideshows I always liked all of them….and all that stuff. 


Q: I’d like to get a little background.  Where did you grow up? Where were you born? What Year?
 
A: 1961,
Chicago Heights Illinois. Lived in Chicago until I was about nine or ten and then my father moved us to Warsaw, Wisconsin.
 
Q: Was anybody in your family in the business?
 
A:
No.
 
Q: Before joining the industry
many of us had some idea of what we wanted to do when we grew up, what did you want to do and how did you become attracted to getting in the business?
 
A: I always just wanted to be in the circus. I didn’t know what, where, how, or why I just wanted to be in the circus.
 
Q: What was the first circus you remember seeing?
 
A: Ringling Brothers
, Barnum & Bailey, at the Chicago amphitheater, International Amphitheater in Chicago.
 
Q:  What was it about the circus that you liked the best?
 
A: All of the color, the animals, the chameleon guys, all that, everything.
 
Q:
How long have you been working in the business?
 
A: Since I was, since 1979.
 
Q: How old were you then?
 
A: Seventeen
 
Q: What Circus was that?
 
A
:
Franzen Brothers Circus
 
Q:
When did you get your first inkling that you might want to do something in sideshows?
 
A: When I was a little kid we use to have carnivals for muscular dystrophy, I use to put together a sideshow every year in the backyard. Put up a camping tent.
 
Q: To raise funds?
 
A: Yeah, they
had channel 7 where I grew up in Warsaw, to raise funds for muscular dystrophy, you would send in and they’d send you a carnival kit then you would put it all together and then whatever profits you made you would donate back to muscular dystrophy. At the end they would have a party on T.V. for all the kids that had carnivals throughout the neighborhoods in the city. Then they would be on T.V. in a big thank you for everybody having their carnivals, and so that’s what we did.
 
Q:
You said the first show you worked on was the Franzen Brothers Circus?
 
A:
Yes.
 
Q:
What was your first job?
 
A: Tech crew guy, set up and tear down. Fifty dollars a week to set up and tear down the big tent.
 
Q:
What were some of the other jobs that you had in circus?
 
A: I was the electrician, truck driver, the prop guy. I did a Rolla bola act, wire act.
 
Q:
How did you get into performing? 
 
A: I just wanted to be uh, the main thing was money, I was getting fifty dollars a week putting up tents and I thought the place to go to make the money was to be
a performer. So then I learned a bunch of acts, then I found out there was no money in that either.  So, then I just kept bouncing around looking for a nitch. But also none of my acts were ever really very good so I’d call up a circus and say,
“Hey, you need a rolla bola guy?”
“No, we got that booked.”
“You need a wire guy?”
“No, we got that booked.”
“Uh, you need an Elephant guy?”
“No we’ve got plenty of Elephant guys.”
“Okay you need a truck driver? You need an electrician? You need this?”
I always had to keep myself versatile to keep
working.
 
Q:
So the idea was to know a lot of different things so that you could fit in wherever you went.
 
A: Right, I was the
jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
 
Q:
How many shows have you worked on?
 
A:
Worked on a lot of shows. Yeah, just about every, almost every show in the country at one time or another.
 
Q:
How did you first get involved with elephants?
 
A: I was working for
Franzen Brothers, he fired me seven times in one year. So on the seventh time I said “well that’s a lucky number, I’ll leave.”  So I finally did leave on the seventh time. I was headed back to Wisconsin and I was driving back on I-90 coming around Chicago and I saw the Hoxie Brothers show, and they looked fresh so I took a chance, followed them, and ended up in Joliet Illinois. That’s where the show parked. It was nighttime so I went to sleep. When I heard the stake drivers in the morning I got up, went out and went looking for work. Right away they wanted to put me on the big top I said “Nah, I’ve done that already. I want to learn something new.”  Well the electricians need help so I went over there, no they didn’t need help. They said the elephant guys needed help. So I walked over by the elephants and there was Joe Frisco and Ted Merricash, and a big screaming match is going on right amongst the bulls. I said “Hey I understand you’re looking for some help.”


“No we can’t use you, we can’t use you.”


I said “Well I just came off the
Franzen show, thought you needed an experienced hand.”


They said “Nah, we don’t need you.”


So I started to walk away and Frisco goes “wait a minute. What did you do over there?”


I said I worked the elephants.  He said “Franzen works his own elephants”


I said “Yeah he works the elephant, but I pulled up the tent and stuff with the elephant.” and I was lying because I wanted the job. So they said “Oh, we thought you were just a town schmuck, these are tough elephants here we need a guy that has a little experience, yeah we can use you.” So they put me on.
An hour later I got slammed by an elephant, so I learned exactly what NOT to do. From there it just went up and up. Whenever I couldn’t get work, I could always get a job as an elephant guy.
 
Q: What did Joe say when he found out you really didn’t know anything about elephants?
 
A: He never found out. The hardest part is
getting the job. After the elephant slammed me, then I knew what not to do and knew my limitations pretty good right there. It was good I got slammed that first time, and I stayed, rather than uh, you know the cards were laid on the table right there, what I was getting into and I was willing to accept that. I just had to pay more attention and be more careful.
 
Q: I understand you worked on
the John Strong Sr. Circus. Tell me a little bit about that.
 
A: Yeah, I went there in ’82 and ’83. A bunch of us that had worked on Franzen, I had left to go to the Hoxie Brothers show, and then from the Hoxie Show  I went to Mexico and  that’s were I learned Rolla Bola so then when I got back to the states I wanted to book my Rolla Bola act. So I called uh, I heard Big John needed an act so I called him up and he hired me and then a bunch of other Franzen people went over there too. I worked for
him during the ’82 and ’83 season.
 
Q: How did you get involved in the sideshow part of it? What was the first
involvement?
 
A: When I went to work for Big John he had a little sideshow and his deal was he’d hire you as an act but then you would have to do other things like that year I did Rolla Bola, did
Wire in the show, and then I was the electrician, I drove truck, and for extra money he said I could run his little sideshow which went for a quarter. So I ran that and that was my extra money.
 
Q: What did they have for attractions in the sideshow?
 
A: In the sideshow I had a big pigeon alive, a little dwarf cow, a couple pigmy goats, and then I would supplement it with fire eating, and I’d do the blockhead. So I’d go on the box, talk the box, in the ticket box with a microphone, and then I would go in, after I got them inside, I would go do the blockhead, eat fire, and come back out
 and doing it again.
 
Q: They didn’t
actually bally it was done more like a grind show?
 
A: It was a grind show but it was live on the mic.
 
Q: What was the first sideshow you owned?
 
A: The one I have currently is uh, when I was working the elephants for
Cuneo I always liked sideshows. I was always friends with John Strong Jr., Ward, and Chris. So I’ve always had an interest in it so I started collecting stuff. I bought a small show from Manuel King when I played Houston with the Migley Show. I had the attractions so I finally put it together and then wherever I went with the elephants on the Shrine dates, wherever I could lay it down, I’d set it up. If I couldn’t then I, I just didn’t, and then it grew from there.
 
Q:
How do you bill yourself?
 
A:
Curator of the Unusual. That’s what I am, curator of the unusual.
 
Q:  Where did that name come from?
 
A: Oh, I just dreamed it up.
 
Q: What type of attractions do you have in your
show? Tell me a little bit about the size of your show and how you lay it down.
 
A: When it’s all up it’s a 95 foot banner line. 20 x 60 tent, there’s about 50 different attractions most of them pickled or stuffed. I have a live
two-nose cow, which John Strong helped me find. A two-headed turtle that John helped me find. An albino turtle and a snake, and then a little horse I’ve added recently.
 
Q: I
see you have been doing some live ballys. When did that start?
 
A: That’s going real good, that started last fall. Ward Hall had called me up and said Chris and Pete where going to come visit me and he said that if I built a small bally platform, him and Pete would work the front of the show for me while they were visiting. So I built the 
bally platform and they got tied up with other things and never made it. So I had the bally, so myself and my guys said what the hell we’ll just do it ourselves and that’s how it started.
 
Q: How is it going?
 
A: It’s going great! Now we use it more as a supplement than as a main, as a staple, but it’s going pretty good and we’re learning all the time.
 
Q: How did that first bally go?
 
A: It was a little rough but I had talked
the mic back on the John Strong Circus but it had been probably sixteen years since I’d done that. So once I got out there it was rough, nervous and everything but as we go along it just gets better but it’s something you don’t learn overnight. You’ve got to just keep doing it everyday, everyday, everyday to develop it.

 

Q: What differences do you see between working a fair and a circus?
 
A: I really like the circus better because it’s a controlled environment and it’s geared to make money. In a fair there is a lot of competition a lot of noise and it’s not very well, it’s not as controlled, they just wander around. On a Circus they’re funneled onto a midway and the traps, is what they’ll call them, are little shows or pony rides and elephant ride and all that stuff. They get them contained in an area and then hit them hard. Then they go in the show and so it’s more controlled and you don’t have to work the hours. It’s a
powerhouse for like an hour before the show, half hour intermission, and then you hit them again after the show. Where on a fair you can do less money or more money but it structures out over twelve hours, it’s a long grind. Where the circus is hit them hard, hit them fast.
 
Q: As in most businesses
you develop relationships with the people you work with and some of them even become friends. Who are some of the people who have influenced you in the sideshow business? Also the circus.
 
A: Wayne
Franzen because he gave me my start even though he was a stubborn German and I’m a stubborn Po-Hunk. We clashed a lot. Big John Strong was a big influence to me, anything I wanted to try he was for.  He stood by me even after I never worked for him again he’d always call me, find me work and help me out. He was a really big; I used to call him my second father in the business. He was a big influence on me. Then just other guys that I ran with depending on what avenue I was going.  Ward and Chris when I met them, they’ve always helped me out they like the elephants and I like the sideshow they helped me out quite a bit. There’s a lot of stories where they’ve helped me quite a bit, even with the elephants, they’re just regular showmen. Great showman. All the elephant guys I’ve run across, Joe gave me a start even when I lied to him. Gary Johnson taught me the intricate parts of working elephants. John Cuneo was a big influence later on. There are so many people it’s hard to pinpoint because each one contributed so much to me that I could never repay any of them.
 
 
Q: What did your family think about you going into this type of business?          
 
A: At first they thought it would be a novelty, I’d be out there a year or two and then I’
d come back. In fact, when I first left the high school to go back to join the circus between my junior and senior year my father drove me down to the birthplace of Ronald Regan; Tampico, Illinois. Wayne liked to hire farm kids, I wasn’t a farm kid. City kid; tall skinny. I went there and he told my father before he left “Don’t worry you’ll see him in two weeks. He’ll be back, he isn’t going to last.” Twenty-Six years later I’m still here.
 
Q: You seem to have a real love for the elephants. Why did you
quit working elephants and start working the sideshow?
 
A: Uh, the times changed and I pretty much basically got pushed out. Elephants are pretty much being pushed out by animal rights
groups, legislation, and stuff. After working for Cuneo there was really no place I could go that I would have the opportunity that I had there. I would be going backwards. Except for a couple places I could maybe work. So I just decided I had a pretty good run with the elephants. And even though I miss them immensely it’s time to move on and that’s why I just went full steam ahead with the sideshow.
 
Q: Did Mr.
Cuneo own the elephants?
 
A: Yeah, he owned all the elephants I worked.
 
Q: How long did you work for Mr.
Cuneo?
 
A: Nine years.

Q:
Did he influence how you do business?  
 
A: Big influence because, before I always worked for somebody, here I worked for him but when he’d send me out I was in charge of everything. I took care of the payroll, I took care of his expenses, I’d have to send him the daily sheets. It was like running his office and making all the decisions on the road. He was at the home office. If I had a problem he would give me assistance. But basically he hired me to solve all of his problems with those elephants on the
road, everything.
 
Q: Sounds like he gave you a lot of responsibility.
 
A: A lot of responsibility. Had a semi-truck, elephants, hay, feed, all of the equipment. You know, I’m going down the road with millions of dollars of equipment and animals. He’d send me the contracts and I’d go fulfill them. I’d have to take care of all the little details.  Make sure I had the help, make sure I bought the feed, do the accounting, send him the money, everything. He actually taught me how to run a business basically.
 
Q: Many of us don’t have any idea
what it takes to care for or handle elephants. Could you give us a little idea about the difficulties in handling elephants?
 
A: Basics with elephants is that they are unlike any other animal. They’re like a kid that never grows up. So imagine having a kid that never grows up and every waking moment, every sleeping moment, you have to account for them first before you can account for your own needs.  Everybody sees the elephants in the ring at the circus that’s five minutes out of the day. The other twenty three hours and whatever minutes in the
day is devoted around them. You can’t go to the bathroom without accounting for them. You can’t go eat without accounting for them. You have to be, it’s like having a little infant.
 
Q: It becomes like a family?
 
A: It becomes like a family ‘cause they are so smart, they’re so intelligent, they have so much personality. You know, a dog is smart. An elephant can learn over 95 different words, and phrases, and variations of that.  It’s debatable. A lot of people think elephants are the smartest animal on earth. I think they are smarter than people, but the only thing that even comes close is maybe a dolphin or a primate, and that’s debatable. 
 
Q: You have a
beautiful banner-line set up here at the State Fair. How many feet do you have set up?
 
A: Here I have 80 feet.
 
Q: Who are some of the banner painters you have used?
 
A: The main banner painter I have is Bobby
Rawls and he’s an old show guy from way back. He used to paint the Beatty show, a circus painter. I use Jim Hand a lot. He’s an old circus painter. He used to paint the Hoxie show and a multitude of other shows. Then I have a guy coming up, he’s in his 40s and he did a little work on it. Brent Driver out of Kansas he splashed some paint on there. I tried to get all the old circus painters because I know the circus guys more than I know the carnival guys. I like the circus paint. It’s a little different style and I just like it. So I try to get all them old guys. Any guy I can find that painted circus I try to get them on there. I like to have a lot of different paint splashed on there.
 
Q: What are your plans for the future?
 
A: Uh, The banner lines are big enough and everything, maybe a bigger tent. But basically just upgrade the inside. I always try to keep it clean. Get better cabinets maybe. Better attractions when I can find
them. But basically the big expansion is over from when it first started. It’s going to stay about the same size as it is now. The only thing is I’ll try to upgrade the quality of everything overall.
 
Q: Do you think you will be staying in the sideshow business?
 
A: Yeah, I’ll be staying in it for awhile. Until it either kills me or I kill it. One or the other.
 

Q: Are there any other things you’d like to add before we close?
 
A: Uh, no. It’s an ongoing saga.
 

Q: Anyone you’d like to thank?

 

 

A: I’d like to thank everybody that ever helped me with anything I ever did in show business. I don’t know how it is in the carnival, but in the circus they are very secretive when you are a newcomer. Even I learned when a guy joins the circus, the first day he’s saying “Finally the good lord sent me to where my life calling is. The circus, this is it. This is where I am going to be! I’m finally here” and then the second day they’re on the circus they’re wandering around with three tennis balls trying to juggle. “I’ve got to get an act; I’ve got to get an act. This is my life.” Then the third day they’re saying “F" this I hope I never see another circus again!” Then they’re down the road.
 

 

Q: Three days, eh?
 
A: Yeah, usually it’s a
three-day process, ha ha.
 
Q: Thank you Jimmy. I think
we have an interesting interview.
 
                                                                                                                                                    Interview by Rick West
 

 

 

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