Where did your interest in sideshow start?
went to every state or county fair in the area as a kid,
every one my daddy would take me to. When I spent more than
a few minutes in a sideshow, my daddy would usually come and
pull me out, they just fascinated me. When I was a teenager
I got a book called Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, a
paperback version of Mannix's "Step Right Up". I read
that a couple of times and tried to get a bread knife down
my throat. I didn't hurt myself, but I didn't learn to
swallow swords at the time. I was just always fascinated by
the sideshow acts. It was real magic to me.
I finished college, I went into VISTA, it's the domestic
Peace Corps. I ended up in upstate New York with
migrant workers, and, when they left for Florida I went with
ended up working on my own and with a couple of other
organizations, including the United Farm Workers led by
Ceasar Chavez, who I was fortunate to get to know. I was
still fascinated by carnival life and I was near Orlando, so
I would go buy the Amusement Business each week. One week I
saw Ward Hall's ad for sideshow help so I wrote him and told
him I was really interested and by that time I could do the
blockhead a little bit.
the Orlando Fair, a guy name Ralph Smoot taught me how to do
the pincushion so I had another act in my repertoire. Ward
put me on a unit with Dick Johnson. I made the whole season
and had a good time; I was twenty six. After working for
Dick, I worked for Whitey Sutton over on the James E.
When did you get your first show?
Three years after that. I got my own show in 1976. I got
started in the business in 1973 and just 3 years later I
became a sideshow owner went on from there.
When you finally entered the business how did it change your
sure became more cynical. I had been working in places where
I had been helping people and now I was where people were
yelling "hey you idiot". No, I really enjoyed it! I
remember a guy named Woody, I want to say Dunton, I may be
wrong, I'm not sure. He was running Lou Dufour's "Woman"
show. He walked up to me one day. He had been talking with
Dick and said to me, "You new this year, a First of May?" I
said "Yes". He asked me, "How do you like it?" I said, "I
like it fine", and he said, "Well then you're stuck with it,
then! If you didn't like it you would leave, if you like
it, then you'll be stuck doing it the rest of your life in
one form or another." He was right.
Everyone tells me it's the passion that drives them. From
the time they enter their first top it keeps drawing them
back no matter what they are doing.
You couldn't do it if it wasn't a passion. People say I
would like to do this because it looks fun. I had people
come up to me in Coney Island, of course we were in New York
City; they would ask me about performing. They would say
they did some outrageous stuff. You knew they were getting
a kick out of it. I would ask them can you do it ten times
a day, five or six days a week for six months. They would
say, "I don't want to do that."
You've been in the sideshow since 73 to 92?
Yes, I started in 73 with Dick Johnson's unit for Ward and
When was the last year you worked on a sideshow?
Last time I worked a sideshow, I had my acts for a month in
'92. It was an ill-fated season; everything that could go
wrong went wrong. We closed early that year and that was my
last full sideshow.
You've been doing Pitch ever since?
Ya, I still do some of the acts but I do a jam pitch as my
primary source of income. It's a mini one; it's a little
bit bigger than the one written up on Sideshow World, I do a
little bit more with it but it's basically that kind of
Now you did blockhead and pincushion when you started in the
show, what other things did you do at the start of your
Yeah, I did the blockhead and pincushion, I even MC'd the
you want to hear a funny story? Dick was the MC of the show
and he pulled me aside once a short time after I had been
with the show, maybe a week or so. He said "Do you think
you can MC like I do?" I said, "Sure boss, you give me a
couple of weeks to really listen to you, then I'll be able
to. He said OK. Then that night after the second show he
said, (well, he always called me "Louie" after "Screwy
Louie, the Human Blockhead". He always did, and, he probably
still does). He said
Louie, I've got to go, you'll need to MC. I said "WHAT?".
He said, "I gotta go I got to go to the office, they
called. I gotta go and make a call, you need to MC." I
didn't know that he was standing behind the back sidewall
and listening. I stammered and stuttered, but I got through
it. I made one of the performers not very happy with me. I
guess it was something I said. Other than that it was
alright. I made amends with that; I said that if I made a
mistake I'm sorry. Dick came back and said "You can do it",
so he taught me how to do the Blow-off opening and the Blade
Box. I got to be a pretty decent talker.
In talking with many of the folks in the business they have
told me you're one of the best talkers in the business. How
does that make you feel?
appreciate them saying that! I have made a living at it but
I don't know about being one of the best. That's all I can
What were the challenges of being a talker? Did it come
naturally or did you have to really work at it?
didn't come naturally... it was scary as hell! You know my
knees knocked, I stammered and stuttered, but I got through
it because I wanted to do it. You know it has to be a
calling to want to be in this business. It was a long time
until I realized I was any good at it. I was just doing it
and hoping I didn't sound too stupid. I remember being in a
spot, I think it was Hamburg New York, and someone had
written an article in the paper. A pretty young lady wrote
the article calling me "the Silver Tongued Orator of the
Sideshow". I said, "Gee's I must be better than I
thought!" It was always a thing I took pride in, but I
never got a big head about it or anything else I did. I
just wanted to do the best I could for the show and make a
few bucks for myself.
Are there any tricks in doing a good spiel or pitch?
There's a lot of tricks to doing it. I learn more every
day. As the weeks go by, I figure out another angle. Yeah,
there's a lot of things to do; it's your inflection, your
body language, the pauses you make, the eye contact you
make, there's a lot of tricks to it.
What do you enjoy most about being a talker or pitchman?
enjoy taking a bunch of people who have stopped to see a
free magic trick or are curious to see a little sample of a
show. With a jam, it's getting a free gift, I enjoy the
satisfaction of getting them to spend their money. It's
like I did something; here's a whole bunch of people who
didn't think they were going to buy what I'm selling, all of
sudden lots of them have.
What are the differences between giving a spiel and turning
a tip or doing a jam pitch and getting the crowd to by your
product? How do they differ and how are they the same?
Doing a jam auction is a lot harder, for me there's no doubt
about it. I used to, in Coney Island, train a lot of my
performers to do an opening. I would say, "Look, it's real
easy! You point to the first picture and say something
about that, then you point to the next picture and say
something about that and when you get down to the end for
our feature, you spend a little more time on that. Then you
tell them that everyone goes in on a kid's ticket. It's not
as easy as that makes it sound, but a jam auction is much
more difficult. It's thirty five minutes on my mini jam,
but on a full blown jam, it can be two hours, talking people
into spending quite a bit of money.
sideshow, you ask for a buck or two or three, whatever it
is. Back when I started, it was fifty cents. It's not
easy; no pitch is easy! You have to talk to the
people, you can't talk at them. You just can't stand up
there and run your mouth, you have to make them a part of
it! You have to get them in close.
never forget being up on the bally one time working for
Whitey Sutton. Normally he didn't have a bally. I brought
mine after my first season with my own show, and, I finished
the season with him. Francis Doran was doing the sword
swallowing and during the bally with me he would say "Get 'em
in close John, get 'em in close!" I said "I know Francis,
I know!" You know, it's all a part of it. You have to get
them involved emotionally, even physically, by getting them
them involved in what you're doing so they don't want to let
go of being a part of it! They want to continue it. For
the little money you're charging them, they feel comfortable
with it at that point.
Q: Where do you do most of your jam auctions?
the summertime I work fairs and festivals, during the cold
times of the year I work in inside flea markets.
How has that worked for you?
make a living. I'm not getting rich and I never did, I make
a living, have a good time, and don't have to work very
Let's take a step back and visit about the talker and their
role in the sideshow. I find the talker to be one of the
most fascinating parts of the sideshow. What has been your
experience as a talker?
For me it's about the best part of the show. On the bally
you can display about every emotion there is. You can make
people laugh, you can make them almost cry, you can give
them a sense of revulsion, a sense of pity, a sense of
fear. Just about any emotion you have in a performance,
you can get while you're on the bally.
Usually the bally is a format thing, you do this, you do
that, you change a little bit to fit the audience. You
speed it up for certain crowds and slow it down for others.
But I've had times when nothing has worked, nothing I was
used to using would work! They just wouldn't turn. You've
got to do something! You can't say, "I'll just call it a
night and close up and we'll miss supper tonight because we
don't have any money to eat off of. I remember one time in
Coney Island I couldn't get people to turn for anything!
I'd get twenty five or thirty people in front of me; I'd
build a tip of twenty five or thirty people and only turn
four. It was on a Saturday and they just weren't coming
in. So, I saw a big hank of rope lying by the ticket box.
I told the ticket taker to grab the end of the rope keep
pulling, every time I pull, you pull back then when I let go
pull it in. He said "What are you doing?" I said "I don't
know but we gotta do something." I was out there sweating
and muttering and occasionally saying "damn it" and pulling
this stupid rope. People were gathering and I said let me
tell you about the show; I would say hold it a minute we
started turning people. Someone came out and said "Who
taught you that; how'd you learn it?". I said "I don't know
I just made it up."
nothing else works, you just have to try something else
completely different that makes it fresher. If I had my
performers talking on the front of the show, (I had the
tattooed man talk a few times, like once a show), if they
got stale I would say instead of saying this time, "The fire
eater, the man who can drink burning gasoline like it was
iced tea!", say, "The human volcano, the man who eats fire
and breathes flames!" They'd say, "Why do I have to say
that?" I would say "Just say it, I want to see how that
works." Not that it made it any stronger either way but it
made them more tense and gave a little tension to the bally
which made it a little fresher.
Now you worked on Coney Island and also had a show on the
road. What was the difference between the two shows?
Obviously you didn't have to tear down and set up. If a
storm came you'd close the grid on the front of the building
and go home. You were through, that was the nice part of
it. But then again you were in the same location and you
saw some of the same people everyday. Some of them were
nice to see and I enjoyed them and there were the others I
wished would go on to somewhere else. You'd like to avoid
those people. Then there were the kids who made the snide
remarks and things like that.
York is a show town and it wasn't hard to work in New York.
I thought it was going to be a horrible! The first time I
worked there was over a Labor Day weekend... just me and
they hired a girl. I said "This will never work but I'll go
up and try it for a weekend. But the people there were all
right and I didn't have any more trouble with the people
there than I did any place else. The same type things and
the same sense of curiosity and wonder brings people in and
are the same things that everybody responds to. You know, I
did have to change a few of my Southern expressions and a
joke or two. I couldn't say "dawg", I had to say "dog". I
used to do a line with the snakes: When the girls would get
ready to put the snake back in its cage, I would say,
"Girls, be sure to lock that cage up tight! That poor old
snake lives in a cage; he's so poor he doesn't even have a
pit to hiss in!". People in New York didn't think that was
funny. I don't know if they didn't get it or just didn't
think it was funny--probably both. So I changed the line
and said, "Girls, put the snake back and be sure to lock the
cage this time! Ladies and gentleman, the other day we were
doing the next act (we had a sixteen foot python) and that
big snake came slithering across the floor, right into the
audience! There was panic and people almost trampled each
other! So we have a new rule here. If you see the snake
come out, raise your hand and let me know. I'll go out
first,,,,,,and hold the door open for all of you!" They
thought that was funny.
Coney Island being a store front show, did you draw the same
kind of crowds as you do at the fairs?
Yeah, they were a whole lot alike; the only difference is
they can come next weekend just as easily as this weekend.
Basically people come into the sideshow for mostly the same
reasons. Not everybody has the same reason but overall they
come in for the same reasons.
What was the year you start your show in Coney Island?
Like I said I went up on a Labor Day weekend and that was in
'85, then we did the next season in '86 and I was there
until '91. It was in Dick Zigun's building but I hired the
acts and paid the performers myself and I was paying him a
percentage of what I took in. Dick supplied the building,
the lighting, the stage, the sound, the ticket seller and
the ticket taker. I supplied the banners, the performers
and the props.
When did Melvin Burkhart come to work for you?
That was the first full year I was at Coney Island, He was
on the Toby Tyler Circus and Ward Hall had the sideshow.
The circus folded and he was without a job, so he came to
work for me. I worked with him on Strates and I said
"Melvin, if I ever had a show of my own I would love to have
you come to work for me. He said maybe one day, son." It
ended up that he finished his career with me.
You met Mark Frierson through Melvin, is that right?
I've never gotten to meet Mark in person. I've talked to
him on the phone and have done business with him for years.
Yeah, that's how I got to know him and he was my number one
banner painter for a long time.
Q: Who are some of the
memorable people you worked with and talked for?
A: Good Lord, John, that
could take all night! Melvin Burkhart is right up
there at the top of the most memorable, along with
Otis Jordan. They were the two people I would
have to say that I was most pleased to work with.
I've known some really great people in the business,
but Otis and I were very, very close, and Melvin was
like, my idol. Those are the two people I really
had a bond with. There were others, like Mike
Wilson, the tattooed man. We got along really
well. I got along with a lot of the other people
like Emmett and Percilla, and Bill Durks, when I
worked on Strates. I like Dick Johnson and Pete
Terhurne, both of whom I worked with on my very
I got along with
everybody! I never had much trouble with
anyone. But out of all of them, Melvin and Otis were
the ones that I was the closest to. I miss all the
great performers I have been around, but I was
closest to them. You know if I had ever met someone
that said they didn't like Melvin, I would have to
ask them, "What the hell is wrong with you?".
Melvin is one of the nicest people you'll ever
meet. Melvin is one of the most likeable people you
will ever meet and it came through on stage.
Melvin was a very hard
worker and when he was 81 and 82 he was doing four
acts out of my twelve act show. That's a heck of a
lot of work for someone in their eighties.
Otis, of course, was my
feature for all of those years, he was with me on
and off for many, many years. We always billed him
as the "Frog Boy" until we got to Coney Island. We
felt that sensitivities and political correctness
might not accept it there, so we billed him as the
"Human Cigarette Factory and he really loved that!
He had me take a picture of him with his banner so
he could take it home and show it to his relatives.
He was very pleased with that new title. One of the
reasons I was very close to him was because I had to
take care of him. Outside of that, we were friends
and got along great; we laughed and joked with each
other. Otis was one of those guys that if he didn't
come to work, he was like Melvin, if he didn't come
to work he was really sick. If Melvin or Otis would
say "I can't work" then you better call the doctor
because those guys need to go to the hospital.
They never did it to get
out of work; both of them loved it!
Otis missed the 1990
season with me because of his health. He called me
that winter and said, "I'm getting better...can I
come back to work for you?" I told him "Of course,
you always have a home with me!" He said, "I didn't
think I would miss it as much as I do! I really do
miss being in the show." Before he could come back
Q: I know Otis worked
for Jeff Murray for awhile. Did he work for you or
A: He worked for me up
until the time that I closed up my show on carnivals
in '79. Then I got him a job with Elsie Sutton.
I'd worked for her husband, Whitey. Then, I think
he worked a season with Jeff Murray, and then he
came back and worked for me in Coney Island the
second season I was there. He finished out his
career with me.
Q: What was your least
favorite part about the business?
A: You know, doing this
jam auction, I'm now remarried and have a little
four year old and they went with me to the fairs
this summer, and go with me to the flea markets now;
that's pretty nice. But when I was traveling
by myself it gets so damn lonesome, you know! But
on the sideshow you're with people of like minds.
You have friends and you tease each other, you play
cards with each other and that was some of the most
fun about it! You were all together it was like one
Like any other family,
some members you like better than others. People on
my show, I didn't keep around me the ones I couldn't
stand or they couldn't stand me. I would say "We
gotta part ways, man; this isn't working out!"
Most the time I would hire someone, we would make
the whole season with them. Many of them stayed
with me for many years. It was that and I had some
pride in putting on a nice show that people would
come in and say "WOW! That was really something!
I really enjoyed that!"
But, when the economics got to where I couldn't put
on a good show, that's when I lost interest in doing
Q: When you say
economics, what do you do you mean?
A: When the fairs got
greedy with the carnivals and the carnivals got
greedy with people like me. They could make more
money putting up games then a sideshow. My show took
up a hundred and ten feet. They could put up a
whole lot of games in there and charge the x-amount
of dollars per foot and make a lot of money. You
know for me that was really short sighted. Then
they only had games, rides and food concessions.
How long does it take to walk around the midway? If
you really don't want to ride but just grab a hot
dog and walk, you can be around most midways in just
a few minutes. When you have shows, especially ones
with ballys, they slow down the flow of traffic.
They give people something to see, even if they
don't buy a ticket. They go out and say, "Yeah, I
went out there and saw a lady swallow a sword! That
was pretty cool!" You know, even though the rides
may cost a lot, once you got it paid for, it only
takes a few guys to run it, and, they don't need to
be highly paid either. On the sideshow you can't
get acts very cheaply any more. I'd like to see it
come back but I don't think it will ever be like it
used to be, and, the old operators of the carnivals
have fallen by the wayside. The new operators
mostly don't seem have a clue on how to use shows
correctly. I remember being with people like the
Vivona Brothers (Amusements of America) who
understood that. Dell and Travers, and quite a few
other carnival owners as well, were really good
about understanding the role of a show on the
midway. But I also remember being around some that
didn't have a clue how to use a backend show. They
didn't even know where the backend was except maybe
just a place to put a dark ride up. It's just
incredible! When I go these county fairs nowadays
and ask the managers when was the last time you had
a sideshow they will say "Never." "Did you ever
have a girl show?" "Never." "Have you ever
had any shows?" "Yes, we had a guy who bought in
snakes one time in a bus." I played a fair here
once and some guy had four little grind and
they all had cartoon-y fronts: a giant rat, smallest
horse, big snake, and a big pig. They had them all
lined up together and they looked like hell. They
book them on what we call an independent midway.
That's what I do with the jam. It's cheaper but the
locations aren't always as good. But with a jam you
don't want to be too close to the midway if you can
Q: What were some of the
other factors that played a role on you not being on
the road with your show?
A: Like I said it was
the economics. As far as the sideshow, I had people
that wanted to work, I had spots that I could go
to But it's kind of foolish to work as hard as you
have to, to get the show up and down and running if
you're not making some decent money. I'm not
talking about getting rich. You know, we had so
many spots and I would have been happy just to have
made the wages of someone working in a gas station
sometimes! When you get yourself to a big state
fair and you work yourself silly, you make good
money. But then you hit a bad spot and you lose
money. It was a labor of love for me always, but,
you know, I had to make a living too. By the time I
got into it, there wasn't a fortune to be made in
the business, I didn't want to go out and work a
whole lot of state fairs and I didn't want that big
of a crew. I did a lot of the acts myself; that way
I could hire better featured acts. In an average
show I would do the magic, blockhead, fire,
sometimes bed of nails, talk the blade box, the
blow-off and the front. You know, I worked like
hell back in those days! Then I could have two good
features; a couple of years on the road, I had Otis
and Albert Short, the "Human Corkscrew". I had
Frances Doran doing swords, a fat lady, a midget,
and many other good acts and attractions at various
times over the years. I had "Satina" (blade box)
and a blow-off. I always tried to have a pretty
Q; What was it that drew
the best crowds?
A: It was always the
oddities and the freaks! (Although we never
actually used the word "freak" in the show, out of
respect for our featured acts.) You know that was
one thing that was the death of the sideshow: the
lack of real oddities. The last few years I saw a
few sideshows, even after I closed my own show, that
only had working acts, no features. Three guys
and a girl in there and the guys would have blue
jeans and a tee shirt with a logo on it. They would
do pincushion, fire and all. You know, you might
have had the best fire eater that ever lived, but if
all your banner says is fire eater, your potential
customers will say that they have seen that before.
"There was a fire eater
here last year and I seen one when I was a kid, so,
I don't want to pay to see this one." So in my show
and in all the old shows, on the bally the talker
would say, "You're going to see this or you're going
to see that, but let me tell you about the people
here who can't change their clothes and walk down
the street and not be recognized as part of a
carnival sideshow. These are the people that are
here because we are the only ones that will have
them. These are the human oddities, nature's
mistakes." You know we over sold it, you know
because we were supposed to.
I used to do a bally on
Otis and I actually cried a few times when I did
it! I worked that strong! Dick Burnett use to tell
me "Bear down, John bear down!" "What do you mean
bear down Dick?" "Sell it. Sell it strong! Get
them to tears if you can, and they have to go in to
see what it was that got you so moved!"
Q: Would you share that
bally with us?
ladies and gentlemen we have for you here an extra added
will witness the amazing, the shocking and it will continue
on the Inside.
1 & 2 John Bradshaw courtesy of John Bradshaw
3 John Bradshaw at Coney Island used with permission of Todd
Robbins from the Coney Island Website.
4 John Bradshaw's
Doorway banner for John's sideshow which went on the road with
performers who had appeared in his sideshow at Coney Island the
5 John Bradshaw, Melvin Burkhart, Mike Wilson in hood,
Charmer. courtesy of Mark Frierson
6 Otis Jordon ,banner by Mark Frierson courtesy of
7 Otis Jordon's banner courtesy of Mark Frierson
Each month we will try and
interview a new performer for the site. Because of the logistics
of it face to face interviews are tough to come by. A good
percentage of the interviews we will be doing will be via e-mail
or telephone. If you are interested in being interviewed for the
drop us a line.
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