John Bradshaw

 

Q: Where did your interest in sideshow start?

 

A: I 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.

 

After 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 them.

 

I 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.

 

At 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. Strates Show.

 

Q: When did you get your first show? 

 

A: 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.

 

Q:  When you finally entered the business how did it change your life?

 

A:  I 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.

 

JR: 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.

 

A: 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."

 

Q: You've been in the sideshow since 73 to 92?

 

A: Yes, I started in 73 with Dick Johnson's unit for Ward and Chris.

 

Q: When was the last year you worked on a sideshow?

 

A:  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.

 

Q: You've been doing Pitch ever since?

 

A:  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 operation.

 

Q: Now you did blockhead and pincushion when you started in the show, what other things did you do at the start of your sideshow career?

 

A: Yeah, I did the blockhead and pincushion, I even MC'd the show. 

 

Do 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.

 

Q:  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?

 

A: I 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 really say.

 

Q:  What were the challenges of being a talker? Did it come naturally or did you have to really work at it? 

 

A: 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.

 

Q:  Are there any tricks in doing a good spiel or pitch?

 

A:  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. 

 

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a talker or pitchman?

 

A:  I 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. 

 

Q:  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?

 

A: 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. 

 

On a 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.

 

I'll 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 in close. 

 

Get 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?

 

A: In the summertime I work fairs and festivals, during the cold times of the year I work in inside flea markets.

 

Q: How has that worked for you?

 

A: I 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 hard. 

 

Q: 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?

 

A:  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." 

 

When 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.

 

Q: Now you worked on Coney Island and also had a show on the road.  What was the difference between the two shows?

 

A: 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. 

 

New 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.

 

Q:  Coney Island being a store front show, did you draw the same kind of crowds as you do at the fairs?

 

A: 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.

 

Q: What was the year you start your show in Coney Island?

 

A:  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.

 

Q: When did Melvin Burkhart come to work for you?

 

A:  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.

 

Q: You met Mark Frierson through Melvin, is that right?

 

A: 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 first season.

 

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 he died. 

 

Q: I know Otis worked for Jeff Murray for awhile. Did he work for you or Jeff first? 

 

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 big family.

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 it anymore. 

 

 

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 help it.

 

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 good show. 

 

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?

 

 Yes, ladies and gentlemen we have for you here an extra added attraction.

 You will witness the amazing, the shocking and it will continue on the Inside.

                                                                                                                                                             

Photograph 1 & 2 John Bradshaw courtesy of John Bradshaw

Photograph 3 John Bradshaw at Coney Island used with permission of Todd Robbins from the Coney Island Website.

Photograph 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 year before.

Photograph 5 John Bradshaw, Melvin Burkhart, Mike Wilson in hood, Ruby Rodriquez the Snake Charmer. courtesy of Mark Frierson

Photograph 6 Otis Jordon ,banner by Mark Frierson courtesy of www.phreeque.com

Photograph 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 site drop us a line.

 

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