"The Master of a Freak Menagerie"


"You don't know the feeling of loneliness you get standing by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a dancing chicken."

Bob Reynolds was reminiscing. He took a bite of fan-tailed shrimp and a sip of beer.

"There's a law that you can't transport animals on buses," he said. "So when the chicken started yelling, they just stopped and tossed us out..."

He had had much the same problem with his dancing chicken in various hotels, he said, until he lined an empty Bull Durham sack with black velvet and put it over the chicken's head so it wouldn't crow so early in the morning.

He looked around the Antler Room of the Fresno Elks Club and told how it was in those days traveling with a dancing chicken act on the carnival circuit.

"Some people put a hot plate under sheet metal to make their chickens dance," he said, with some distaste. "I never much cared for that. I'd put a little Scotch tape on the chicken's legs and it'd shake like crazy trying to get it off..."

The road from Tenth street and Avenue A in New York to the Elks Club in Fresno - and his present eminence at the age of 42 as king of the animal freak shows - has given Reynolds a certain ... perspective ... toward mundane matters.

"When I was up for membership in the Elks," he said, "they asked what I did. And I said I was a showman. So they wanted to know exactly what that was. And I told them. Then after awhile I got in - I guess they couldn't find anything unpatriotic about it."


True. Consider, for example, Henry the Tattooed Dog. Henry, a young Chinese hairless, has an eagle and scantily clad girl tattooed on his chest. And on his left haunch, there's the Marine insignia and "Death Before Dishonor," which is a pretty heavy commitment for a dog.

Reynolds bought Henry from a sailor in a San Diego bar. "Whenever this guy got drunk," Reynolds said, "he always wanted to get a tattoo. But he was a physical coward. So he bought this dog and every time his felt the urge he went out and had it tattooed instead."

Henry is one of the more prosaic animals who live with Reynolds, his wife and two daughters on a one-acre ranch in the suburbs of Fresno.

There's also Hoppy the Five-Legged Dog, Minnie the Six-Footed Cat, Jumbo the Elephant-Skinned Dog, Shorty the Midget Cow, The Sacred Sheep of the Navajo, Suzy the Five-Legged Cow and Sideshow the Six-Legged Cow. Among others.

Later this month, Reynolds will start touring fairs, exhibiting his menagerie. Kids, 25 cents. Adults, 50 cents.

High spots of the season include Indio, Bakersfield, Hanford, Del Mar, Pomona, Pleasanton, Blackfoot (Ida.) and Vancouver (B.C.). This year, for the first time, Reynolds will also present a medieval torture chamber - iron maiden, thumbscrews, racks, guillotines and such - to capitalize on the violence market he says was opened up by TV.

He also has plans for a Midget Village, which will feature midget animals, midget buildings and midget people. But by and large, he prefers to work with the animals - even though he has an interest in a Coney Island operation that exhibits a fat woman, the tallest man in the world and Kokomo, the Mule-Faced Boy.

Animals are easier to work with," Reynold said. "But it's still no fun schlepping them all around the country. The ideal act, I guess, wouldn't eat or talk back."

He got started in show biz on New York's Lower East Side as a pitchman when he was 10, became an apprentice to Professor Heckler and his flea circus, worked up a magician's act, did comedy routines, and joined the old Ringling Brothers Circus with a human freak show.

It was, he said, your typical carney life. Then along came Anita Singura, a young German girl who was touring the U.S. with a show featuring the world's only two-headed woman. He sold Anita his show, then married her. Now, he said, they have two of the four animal freak shows in the country, operating during the summer season on the East and West Coasts.

They've made Fresno their western base of operations for three years. Their suburban spread has a swimming pool and rambling ranch-style house. Bookcases are crammed with material on P. T. Barnum, Billy Rose and Mike Todd. The five- and six-legged beasts out back seem almost and afterthought.

"This is a quarter business," Reynolds said. "But I work at it. I make as much as a good engineer, I guess."

When things are slow on the animal freak show circuit, Reynolds loads up with ballpoint pens or a homemade rug shampoo ("Rey-new") and pitches them at expositions or department stores.

Reynolds is somewhat chagrined at what he feels was a major mistake in not gong into the topless freak market a few years back.

"A topless tattooed lady, for instance," he said. "Or a topless three-breasted lady. I know where I could get them. But now ... I doubt they'd dance bottomless..."

In a way, Reynolds life is as structured as an insurance salesman's. Besides the Elks, he's a member of various trade organizations like Showfolks of America and the Western Fairs Association.

"I'm about the last of the younger operators," he said. "After I'm gone, you won't see anything but noisy rides and some guy shouting, 'Hey, win the lady a teddy bear!'"

He thinks that his daughters Tina and Kathy, 14 and 10, might want to take over the business some day. They already go on the circuit when school's out and Reynolds boasts that Tina can run the show by herself.

"I'm teaching her to eat fire right now," he said. "It'll be something she'll always have, something to fall back on."

Kids in general, he said, are a bit skeptical about his show. They seem to think the two legs growing from his cow's head were transplanted or that the extra leg growing from another cow's butt was glued on somehow.

But, he said, the kids show up because "you can't see this kind of thing on the boob tube. And the SPCA people keep bitching about mistreating the animals," Reynolds said. "Hell, those animals get better medical attention than my kids."

Right now, he's in the market for five-legged sheep and two-headed snakes.

"Two-headed snakes really trip me out," he said. "I could get more five-legged cows, but when you've got several already you kind of get particular about them..."

Reynolds said he would go crazy if he could get one of the mythical pushme-pullyous of the Dr. Doolittle books. But on the whole, he eschews things he considers too freaky.

Strange creatures in jars, for example. He has some in his home - for his own amusement - but he finds they distract from his other attractions when he put them in his shows. The same thing was true of the 800-year-old Indian.

"It was dead, of course," he said. "But it was too good. Nobody talked about anything else. And then I was always getting stopped by the police because somebody told them I was carting this dead body around. He was 800 years old, for God's sake, I didn't kill him..."

With his family and far flung freak shows, Reynolds is less lonely now than in the days he was running around the country with the dancing chicken. And every now and then he envisions himself getting older, leaving the more arduous phase of show biz to others.

Maybe Anita and I'll get together a flea circus and go traveling," he said with a faraway look in his eye. "Professor Reynolds and His Trained Fleas. It's a good show. The hardest thing to learn is tying the chariots on. I decapitated a whole lot before I learned that one..."


by Don Wegars - San Fransico Chronicle on Feb. 21, 1972


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