Doug Higley - 12/1/03

 

Q. At what point in your life did you become interested in the sideshow and who or what got you interested?

 

A. I became interested as a kid growing up in New York. My Mom would take me to the Times Square Dime Museum and to Coney Island and wait outside as I stayed inside the BIG sideshows of the time (1950's) which were just a quarter and featured many acts and of course the blow-offs. There was Francesco Lentini, the 3-legged man, The Mule Face Boy, The Seal and Turtle Girls (real), a Half and Half etc. etc. This was entertainment!

 

My strongest memory is of a storefront across from the huge variety show with the spectacular banners. The storefront had no banners but was painted white with blue lettering. “See: ALIVE! The Alligator Man! ALIVE! 10 cents.”  In a screened window on the street was a Live Ant Eater trying to dig its way out! I entered this dark gloomy (no lights) humid and mildewed hall. Scared to death...it was empty...there was a small riser next to the wall...a guy came out took my dime and went back behind a curtain dividing the room. Soon a tall man came out in a bathrobe. He lectured his own act and took off the robe and showed me his gator skin. Then he sat down on the edge of the riser and just talked to me for about 10 minutes until my Mom called in to see if I was alright. (ha-ha-ha) He was a great guy and gave me a little “life advise” even. Even though I don’t recall his name I will never forget him as a person.  I even had [Mark] Frierson paint me a banner of him.


Q. Can you give us a little insight as to how you went from a young boy spending 25 cents to see a sideshow to actually owning one of your own and becoming an artist?

 

A. This was many years later. I had been a Magician at kid’s parties and an Escape Artist in Night Clubs.  It was a crappy little act but luckily I had broken into broadcasting, radio specifically, at the time. I was on a station in Anchorage and got a hold of one of Brill's Bibles.  I guess it was around 1971 or so. In it was an ad from Peter Hennen (Fla...Hell's Bells etc.) who was selling punks and specimens and the like. I was stoked to find that! I bought a little Two Headed Pig I named “Hogzilla The 2 Headed Monster!”, which Pete sent up to Alaska in a five gallon pail. I re-did the formalin, got a jar, painted up the banners and intended to show it somewhere. Luck would have it, Parley Bear came to town with his Flying Circus combined with Gene Holter's Wild Animal Show and I built a little joint out of plywood under the sideshow top. It was a ball! All the farmers got a big kick out of seeing the little pig for a quarter. I also got to wrestle one of Gene's Big Tigers in the show...(scary stuff!). Didn't make any money worth a hoot but it was lot's of fun.

 

Q. What sorts of things do you remember most from those first shows?

 

A. Mostly listening to the customers.  That was the most fun of all as they would come in and tell me what it was, what breed, how old it was etc. Never a beef, just good fun.  Especially when they came in and saw the little jar with the tiny baby piglet floating in it....not quite the Raging Monster I had painted tearing down buildings on the outside! ha-ha-ha. They loved it...so did I.

 

Q. What kinds of shows did you run and what did you like best?

 

A. I always ran Grind Shows. What I really liked was that although I occasionally used a tape I almost always did a live pitch.  What a blast!

 

Q. Would you say there was a turning point in your career when you felt that you made it to the big time?

 

A. No. I never made it to the big time. This was something I did more as a Performance Artist as I always had a full time gig to work around. My biggest show would be the Pygmy Jungle I did in a little trailer (6'x4'!) that I set up outside of The Happy Time Circus at the Placerville Fair. It was the early 90's and I was proud to be working with Dave Toumey (Happy) who I consider to be one of, if not the, world's greatest clowns.

 

For the most part though, I just set up little shows at Flea markets and such. Unique in the business in that I would create a NEW show sometimes weekly just for ONE gig! I would re-paint the entire trailer and banner line, re-create the exhibits and re-theme the show just for, say a weekend at a Chili Cook-Off (The Undersea Mystery Show!). Then, a couple of weeks later for a weekend at a Flea Market I might re-do the whole thing from scratch as The Bigfoot Museum! Like I said...performance art. No one ever knew this either. I could have used the same show as they were in different towns, but the fun and excitement was in the creation of the show.

 

I do have some exhibits and gaffs in Bobby Reynolds’s Show and numerous others...does that count as the Big Time?

 

Q. Of all your experiences in the sideshow business what did you like best?

 

A. The theme's, the exhibits and most of all painting the fronts, panels and banners etc. Hell, I'm a frustrated artist and it was a way to have the public see my stuff and watch their reaction. I loved being the UNKNOWN artist to the point where they didn't even know it was a piece of art much less that there was an artist! Most of my 'zibits were believed to be REAL by 99.9% of the public. The best time was at Universal Studios Hollywood.  I had exhibits in a big Halloween Show that Reynolds was putting on there. I stood back and watched THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of people file by and listened to their comments about the Chupacabra etc. There were actually Mexicans CROSSING themselves!!!  All of my gaffs were one of a kind pieces too.  They were never copied, molded in rubber or cast.  Everything was a unique 'zibit.

 

I also had a good time with the public. I guess I'm the really rare bird who never had a beef or ANYBODY ask for their money back EVER.  I always gave 'em more than they bargained for, kept the price right and did my own talkin' and lectures. I had some pretty funny things said to me though on occasion.

 

Q. Can you elaborate on some of those funny things?

 

A.  Aside from the stories they would tell me about their personal experience with Big Foot or UFOs or whatever, the funniest and most repeated question I received when I did the Pygmy Jungle was before they paid their 50 cents... "Are the Mummies Alive?" One day I tracked 12 folks asking that question! Not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

 

Once at the Placerville date there were a couple of lady high school teachers that came by the show a few times during the day.  They were fascinated with the little 14" mummified people. I had about 4 or 5 in the show trailer which was the 6'x4' box trailer where they would look over the side into the 'pit'. Of course being an 'educational experience' I included actual Amazon Tribal artifacts and weapons...real museum stuff...and photos etc...so it all looked legit...the show told the 'story of a tiny tribe called the Acuna blah blah blah. Anyway, late in the day these two teachers came back and in all seriousness said "Look, we feel that due to the importance of this exhibit, these Mummies should be studied in a University. Why haven't you done that?" In the ONLY time I ever broke through that 4th wall between showman and public I answered "Because I made them in my kitchen."  Their jaws dropped and we had a long laugh. I felt great. I had really snookered them with the little guys.

 

Q. About your gaffs, how did some of them come about?

 

A. Well, occasionally I would do a 'take' on a traditional Feegee Mermaid...but for the most part I tried not to be traditional in any way. I liked to create 'creatures' from 'whole cloth' so to speak and come up with something no one had ever seen before...like my Atomic Fish. For $250 to $350 in some cases the showman got something new that was totally believable and not seen as a 'gaff'. The story was they were caught off Tahiti after the French Nuke tests! ha-ha-ha. I took one to a Professional Fishing show and just carried it around with me in a box and these die-hard pro fishermen went nuts! They believed every bit of it. Man I loved that! Funny thing was, I had never even looked at a picture of a fish when I made it...I just made it out of my head...this way it didn't look like an ALTERED fish but something no one had ever seen. 

 

One of my favorites was a piece I made for a showman in Toledo. I called it the Lake Erie Water Dog. It's a way out 'take' on a Feegee but like nothing anyone ever saw before. Pure Sci-Fi and they bought it hook line and sinker. You get comments like "I ain't never goin' in the water again!" The main thing is they have to look real AND off the chart weird. It really throws people off when it's slightly familiar BUT...Frierson does some fantastic taxidermy pieces and no disrespect to Mark but that was a bit too normal for me ha-ha-ha. I worked in Polymer Clay and Watercolors and no one knew what the hell it was...lots of fun. Tate made stuff out of glue and toilet paper and they were ok for their time I guess but way to fake for me but they did have their charm. There is still a big Tate piece on Hwy 10 in Arizona called The Thing! Still wins the money!

 

Q. Out of all the experiences you have had in the sideshow what has been the hardest part for you?

 

A. Setting up by myself was hard but the slough was lousy.  By the end of the day I just wanted to sit down!

 

Q. I understand you had your own show on the road.  Was it a lot of hard work and did you ever get tired of it?

 

A. Technically I was never 'on the road', like in a route. I would go out (up to about 200 miles give or take) when I wanted to, to a specific location, play the gig and go home Sunday night to a warm bath. I ate good and had a lot of fun. Remember, I had a regular job (Broadcasting) so it kept me from doing the road thing.  As much as I wanted to hook up, I just never could. I was a Single Father with a Daughter to raise proper, so there ya go. She would come with me though and we had a great time with the shows we did. Also at this time I was announcing at Motor Sports events in season as well...so there never was time to go with Bobby or the other shows...darn it!

 

Q. When we visited awhile back you mentioned that you had a museum in Tahoe, What ever happened to your museum?  What kind of exhibits do you have, and was it your first experience with a museum?

 

A. I forgot (how the hell did I do that?) to mention the biggest show I ever did. I built a 5,000 square foot old time dime museum called True Wonders Old Time Museum next to the casinos in Lake Tahoe! It was fabulous and a big room was dedicated to the sideshow 'zibits etc.

 

I Had my stuff, some Tate, some Frierson and a genuine 9 ˝ foot tall GIANT mummy named Olaf The Giant. A super exhibit that was a perfectly kept Gaff from Nelson Supply made in the late 1800's or early 1900's. It had been exhibited at the Seattle World's Fair too. What a piece. I had it on loan. Anyway I had a letter from Big Foot 'Expert' Professor Grover Krantz DEMANDING it be turned over for study or else! He thought after seeing it, it would prove the locomotion traits of Big Foot. Now Krantz was a certified Professor at Washington State University and while Olaf was a cool realistic exhibit, even I could see the legs and thighs gave it away, too fleshed out for a mummy of that supposed age. The smarter they are the harder they fall.

 

The Museum also had Antique Toys (a huge collection of Tin Toys...65 Fully Restored Pedal Cars...) There was a Celebrity section with Sammy Davis Jr.’s costumes, Liberace and a big Bing Crosby Collection of all his stuff.  There were actual Movie Stunt Vehicles and a working Robby The Robot movie prop. It was a hell of a thing...but it flopped. Nobody cared. The admission was only $3 too!  Oh well, I'm still trying to recover from that and it was 1993-94. Really hurt.

 

To answer your last question, first experience with a Museum? Well sort of. I had this little traveling museums and I cut most of High School to self educate and hang out at The Museum Of Natural History in N.Y.

 

It was a life long dream and it dumped...so there ya go.

 

Q. When did you start creating gaffs?

 

A. Wow.  Well, I was living at Lake Tahoe and I saw an ad for a Pygmy Mummy. It was being sold by Jim Steinmetz. I bought the thing, having been away from sideshows for a few years it was a neat piece to get. It was made from Plaster of Paris in a wooden coffin. Really hokey...not as bad as Tate's though! I wanted another one but Jim told me the guy who made them had died at 93 yrs old! So, I started making them myself but in a different manner. I lucked out by finding a compound called Super Skulpy and the rest is a minor page in sideshow history.

 

Q. Who were some of the first people, collectors or showmen to buy and exhibit your gaffs/art?

 

A. Man you are trying my brain cells...I really can't remember the names of the first to buy them, but among the early buyers were Fred O. Ray, Vince Carmen, Jack Constantine, Brad Buyers (Sword Swallower), Bobby Reynolds, Stan Kramian (Magician), James Taylor and on and on. I don't know if Frierson has anything or ever did, though we threatened a trade once or twice. (Hi Mark.)

 

Q. I understand that you have some of your art in the American Dime Museum, has that helped to promote you and your artwork?

 

A. NO. ha-ha-ha. I didn't know James had some there! I remember he bought a small 2x3 banner when he was here at the house. hmmmmm.

 

Q. What other shows and museums have your work in their collections?

 

A. I can't remember the names at this point.  Lots. I put away the contact list so I'm lost on that one. There was a Major Museum that used one of my pieces to represent the Gaffs Of The World and specifically a Feegee Mermaid. It was the Musee De La Civilization out of Quebec and they toured a HUGE exhibit called Circus Magnus which was the history of the Circus. That was cool. I have the Mermaid here somewhere waiting for a slight repair job then I'll sell the thing I reckon. There are a few shows still out there that are built around one of my gaffs, and Bobby Reynolds has a few things if he is still out there.

 

Q. Are you still creating gaffs?

 

A. Nope. I could of course, but now with no Circus Report to advertise them in, it wouldn't be the same. I can do stuff If somebody needs a piece or two. The good thing is I sold everything I ever made instantly. So there's nothing lying around except the Mermaid, which I just got back from the Museum when their tour ended.

 

Q. Do you ever plan on working in the sideshow industry again in the future?

 

A. Nope. Done that. But I could make some 'zibits and maybe re-write the book I did on "Flea-market Sideshows a How-To." The info is still solid and hard to come by. That might be fun.

 

Q. How has your background in the sideshow helped you with your current career?

 

A. Good question. The sideshow biz really helped me in many ways. Besides allowing me to be creative and wildly off the wall in my creations, sculptures etc. it introduced me to a bunch of folks who were the best one could hope to know. People of all types, manners and strata. Never had a bad experience with any one of them!  That's the truth! Hard to believe but very true. Interesting and funny and some crazy as bedbugs but all good people. Definitely taught me tolerance and to sit back and just enjoy folks for who they are.

 

Currently I'm doing voice-over work in LA.  You can hear my voice-over work by visiting my website listed at the bottom of the page.  It’s really not a career as the work is so spotty, I'm trying to score a new agent though.

 

Q. Who are some of the people you met while working in the sideshow?

 

A. That's a difficult question and the answer will sound odd, but when working with my shows I rarely met anyone in the biz.  Again, I was working Flea Markets etc. outside the normal path. Of course I met numerous show folks over the years BECAUSE I was in the biz or at their shows etc. Jeff Murray, Reynolds, Tim Cridland and the like. Many, I became acquainted with over the phone or through the mail and never did get to meet the likes of Vince Carmen, Stan Kremian, Brad Byers or even Jack Constantine.

 

Then there are the many who ordered the book on sideshows who were not in the biz but got into the biz because of the How-To.  There were pro performers like Brent De Witt a terrific working Clown who added a little sideshow and Ross Hartzell who is the premier Bow & Arrow act that bought a 'zibit after reading the book and getting the bug. The list is pretty long. I'm sure I met Bobby Reynolds when I was a kid attending his shows, but that friendship blossomed somewhat once I started creating 'zibits. Mark Frierson and I got to know each other on the phone so long ago I can't remember a thing about how or when. We should have put something together back then but didn't.  If memory serves me right we were going to do a book at one time...oh well..."I'll think about it tomorrow". As to collectors, I didn't cater to them much...mostly Showmen/women and I priced the 'zibits really low so they could make their money back on a Saturday or Sunday.

 

Q. Looking at the sideshow community as a whole who do you see as the person who has done the most to promote the industry?

 

A. Today: Todd Robbins hands down. He has inserted class and great comedy in such a professional manner. Very impressive.

 

Yesterday: Bobby Reynolds’s. What a pisser. Truly love the man.

 

Q. You mentioned Bobby, what kind of relationship do you have with him?  Would you consider him a friend, customer or mentor?

 

A. Mentor? Nah. More like a customer and a friend. We used to be in contact regularly but have lost touch. Not a good thing. I've tried calling him but never can catch him lately. A good man and a GREAT showman with a HUGE heart. I'd like to tell more but I can't yet (not to worry, it's all good).

 

Q. What are your thoughts on the sideshow industry as it is today with the “new generation” versus what it used to be?

 

A. Wow. Can of worms. Let's see. Personally, I never cared for the Torture stuff or hard to watch stuff. Just not my cup of Joe. But guys like Zamora (Tim Cridland) a terrific guy and act and is the top of the food chain and the best there ever was at it...I just can't watch him do it! ha-ha-ha. I'm not into the self made freaks at all, so I'd say I'm the wrong person to ask. My stuff is the Exhibit, the Museum and the 10 in 1 that had real freaks and stuff. People who hang Gorillas and Concrete Blocks from there Balls are ok I guess for today’s crowd but I'd rather see: The Giant Horse!

 

I think the big difference today is that the audience has changed drastically. Too many punks with too much money to spend on something other than their 'education'...yes education...which any sideshow worth its salt IS!  Parents will spend a fortune on themselves but if the kid wants to spend 50 cents to see The Strange Thing!..."NO! That costs money!" Nice message to the kid huh?

 

Q. I have been told you draw, what type of medium and style do you work with?

 

A. These days, I work on the computer, but I used to do it all. Paper (Cartooning) Animation, Paintings (Oil and Acrylic) Wood Panels and Canvas Banner blanks. Anything! Then of course there was the sculpting.

 

Q. Are any of your drawings for sale or on display?

 

A. No. Not anymore. Just a few things on display at the site. I'm getting pretty bored though so it may start up again. Especially If I got a commission or two.

 

Q. What are some of the other things you have done with radio and other media types?

 

A. Television Director/Producer, Copywriter, Radio Talk Show Host, Story Board Artist, Magician, Performer, Puppeteer, Puppet Builder, Voice Actor, Motor Sports Promoter, Animator and Telemarketer (ugh!)

 

Q. How about a little more information on your books.  What exactly have you written and where can people find your them?

 

A. I wrote The Last Museum which as I mentioned earlier was a How To do your own Flea-market Small Fair Sideshow. (out of print) Sold a TON of those and many are still being used on the road by small venue showman today (along with my 'zibits). It was a hand made little book but the info was solid and highly praised by even the tops in the biz!

 

I also wrote a History/Chemistry of the amusement dark rides "Scary Dark Rides" but that has gone through 5 printings and is currently sold out again. I may or may not re-write it and re-publish it.

 

Q. On your website it talks about you doing voice-overs and that you (“can sound like warm thunder....there is a quite power at work. Unless he gets silly then Mr. Magoo could pop out at any minute”).  Is voicing cartoon something you do also?

 

A. Yes. I have approximately 120 different voices in the catalog I can do. I'm in the agony of waiting at present for a new Toon Feature producer to call for some voice work.

 

Q. What other types of Voice-over do you do?

 

A. Commercials, Narration, Movie Trailers, anything! Even Phone On-Hold! ha-ha-ha.

 

Q. Have you ever worked in film and if so what are some of the movies that we may see you or your work in?

 

A. Only as an extra. One was called "Welcome To 18" where I had a decent close up! ha-ha-ha. Also there was a BAD (sorry) monster movie that used one of my gaffs. And I have done some Trailer (coming attractions) voice-overs.

 

Q. What are some of your current projects?

 

A. Trying to market the voice in a glutted Hollywood marketplace. Very difficult and frustrating stuff.

 

Q. Where can people go to learn more about you and your work?

 

A. Aside from my websites at the bottom of this page you can do a Google search for Doug Higley, I'm NOT the teacher. :-)

 

Q. Where do you see yourself in the next 5 or 10 years?

 

A. Dead.

 

Q. Dead! Why do you say that?

 

A. I picked that up from Reynolds. What can I say, its an answer...I hope it's a lie.

 

J.R. So do I!

 

Q. A few months ago there was a rumor that Doug Higley actually was dead, do you remember who started that rumor?

 

A. Nope. Not me that's for sure. ha-ha-ha I think Mark Frierson heard it somewhere, probably from James Taylor that he hadn't gotten a hold of me for a while etc. etc. and it went from there. I remember Mark called here and got a hold of my wife and was thrilled to hear I hadn't croaked. I figured it was somebody who had my 'zibits and wanted them to be worth something. Ain't life grand?  As the great sage Bug's Bunny once sang..."Oh carrots are dee-vine you get a dozen for a dime...its maaaagic."

 

Q. What advice would you offer to a new artist just trying to break into the business?

 

A. Be HONEST at ALL times! Give 'em something to see! Have fun with them (the public) and stay away from bad areas and laugh your ass off. That's about it...except to pass on what The Alligator Man told me in the early 1950's..."Be what ever you WANT to be..." Just get out and DO IT!

 

Q. The Alligator Man told you in the early 1950's..."Be what ever you WANT to be..." Just get out and DO IT! Have you been able to live your life according to his council?

 

A. He didn't exactly say 'just get out and do it'...that was my take on what he meant...and yes I have lived every day that way.

 

Q. Is there something in your life that you wish you had done that you haven’t?

 

A. Nope. Well...uh...I'd like to do a lot of things I did AGAIN! and AGAIN!

 

Q. What are some of the greatest treasures in your life?

 

A. Every day of it...and of course some family and a restored 1956 Chrysler Newport which I had to sell after the museum took a dump.

 

Q. At this point in your life what is your greatest goal?

 

A. Tomorrow morning...and a ride on Ghostrider at Knott's!  I live every day for the day...I don’t think ‘goals’...never did.  I just think ‘do it’ and see what comes up.

 

Q. If you had to describe yourself to someone who doesn't know much about you what would you tell them?

 

A. I'm a relaxed type of person, honest to a fault and just a big kid who never lost the wonder.

 

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

 

A. Nah...they'll figure it out sooner or later.

 

Q. Finally, is there anyone you would like to thank?

 

A. Mom...sadly passed...but a lady to the core who allowed me freedom and stretching room and saw that I had all I needed to get along in the world...and of course to the millions who have influenced my life for better or worse...it all came out in the end.

 

Interview by John Robinson

 

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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