Filling Void in the Carnival Industry


 November 14th 1994

Sideshows or back-end pieces are more scarce than ever, a situation that makes it easier for Dennis Sideshow Attractions of Vestal, N.Y., to find bookings.

The company is owned by Rick and Deb Dennis; their main acts are a Giant Rat show, a World's Smallest Woman show, reptiles and a dunking machine. Most of the route is in the Northeastern U.S.
Dennis said he started in the sideshow business as a youth. "When I was 12 years old, I traveled with a sideshow on the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus," he said. "They came through town and I hooked up with'em. They taught me how to eat fire and swallow swords."
The old circus sideshow included a tattooed man, a rubber man, Serpentina the Snake Charmer and other attractions. Dennis stayed with the show for seven weeks that first summer. "When I got back home, I was a veteran sword swallower and fire eater," he said.
He was bitten by the show biz bug. "I had my own show at 16, framing my own units," Dennis said. "I traveled with Ward Hall for four years and he really broke me in. He taught me how to talk the front, and book routes."
Soon Dennis had added archery, juggling and knife-throwing to his skills, shooting arrows and throwing knives to bust balloons around living targets. Now he performs less than he used to, preferring to showcase other acts and attractions.
Now Dennis books on with such shows as S&S Amusements and Benner Amusements in Pennsylvania, J&J Amusements in Ohio, the Patriot Unit of  Conklin  Shows in New York, Coleman Bros. Shows in New England and Empire Shows, of Buffalo, N.Y. As an independently booked show, he "hopscotches," traveling with different carnivals for different stretches of their route.
The show stays out 20-24 weeks per year, starting in early May and closing in late September. "We would have started earlier this year, but my transmission went out on our way to our first date, so we had to take care of that," Dennis said.
Sideshow attractions aren't as easy to find as they once were and you've got to know them when you see them, Dennis said. "I had my 'World's Smallest Woman' walk right by me last summer while I was working my dunk tank," Dennis said. "I closed down the joint and chased her down on the midway. She was a little under age, so I ended up spending the whole afternoon courting her and her dad and convincing them that I was all right. I told them that people were going to look at her anyway, she might as well make some money from it, and she was all for it."
In addition to the World's Smallest Woman show, the Dennises own a UFO Star Baby Show, a "humanoid/alien mix" that Dennis said was a take-off on a "48 Hours" shown last year. "We framed a unit with newspaper stories and 'Government Secrets Exposed' on the panels," said Dennis. "It's educational and entertaining."

Dennis also carries two Giant Rat shows (the rats are actually the South American capybaras commonly used as sideshow attractions), as well as "standards" like the Headless Woman illusion, which has been around "100 years," and a 12-foot Great White shark. Under the management of Dean Gurney, he also books a second unit part of the year, which plays select dates with carnivals.
"I have all of my equipment stacked so I can take it out as it's needed," Dennis said. "We do most of our own painting and I have the trailers already framed, so if I come across a two-headed snake or something, i just have to paint the panels."


The Dennises stayed busy all summer. "There aren't too many back-enders left any more," Dennis noted. "We don't have any bad habits and we're dependable. I have long hair and a beard, and if anybody says anything about it, I tell them that I also have a drug abuse show and sometimes I have to go in and be the wild man."


Dennis charges $1 for the World's Smallest Woman show, and the main attraction pitches a Bible souvenir for 50 cents. The Giant Rat show also costs $1, with the show also featuring a three-foot alligator billed as a "crocagator" from the sewers of New York City.
"Nowadays, you've got to give them a lot more for their money," Dennis pointed out. "For years, I charged $1 for only the rat."

Like most successful sideshow men, Dennis knows how to drum up some extra publicity when necessary. "Sometimes we stir up a little something when business is a little slow," Dennis said. "I might call the local newspaper and plant a story about the rats not really being rats."

Dennis once anonymously called a county coroner to help promote his Headless Woman show, complaining about a dead body being on display. "The coroner came and checked it out and said, 'Yeah, she's alive'," Dennis said, laughing. "It makes a good story for the local news."

The 1994 season had its ups and downs for Dennis Sideshow Attractions. "We had a slow start but a good finish," Dennis said. "We were worried about halfway through the season, but mid-July through September was very good. I really have to thank Conklin and Coleman Bros., because they have such a good route that they pulled me out by my bootstraps."



    Rick Dennis on the far right swallowing a sword
    One Trip to Many Drug Abuse Show


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