SW: Rick I would like to start with this season and then explore your life in the business.  I have heard from many of the showmen out this year some have done OK others have had a hard time this season.  How was your season and would you give a quick over view of your route?


RD: My 05 season consisted of playing 21 spots late April thru Sept. in Penna. and N.Y. with several different carnivals. Six county fairs and 15 fireman field day type events.



I took out two grind shows with my one helper Lurch who has been with me for 7 years now, even though he says each year is his last!

SW: What shows did you take out this season?

RD:  Giant rat show on a trailer frame up, towed by my giant snake show truck, which also has my living quarters in it, so I cut the nut to the bone (expenses) operating this way.

SW: How did the economy effect and the weather effect the attendance?

RD: 05 was dry and extreme heat thru much of it, high 90's. Attendance on most spots was quite good but too many walkers and not enough spenders! I do not point to any one thing such as high gas prices or natural disasters, etc. I believe it is a combination of a lot of factors which all leads to one conclusion, it is just too expensive for the average family now days to live--period.


Financially, this season my two grind shows grossed together what I would normally gross with just one show, so for me at least, I was down about 50% from recent previous seasons.


It's not what you gross at any one spot that counts, it's what you come in with at the end of a season that matters. You take the good with the bad, give it your best shot, and see what ya got when it's all over.


For me this season I basically worked to buy new equipment and keep myself going through the off season until I can open again in the spring and give it another try. I bought a 1979 30 foot motor home with 45,000 miles on her and the former office trailer on Bartlebaugh Amusements which I am now framing into a new reptile show, which I will use the motor home to tow it. So the money I made this season goes right back into the shows and hopefully next season is better.

Now letís go back to where it all started for you, what was it that first interested you about show business?

RD:  Age 10, I saw a magician at school and I started learning magic and juggling.



 SW: A lot of kids are exposed to Magic and Sideshows, Most just play around with dime store magic or play circus moving on to the other things kids find interesting. What was it that attracted you to both these forms of entertainment?


RD:  This question goes to my core as a person and as a sideshow operator. What attracted me to instantly give my life over to this business by seeing that magician when I was just 10 ? I can only answer it this way; love at first sight. Chemistry. Inner passion realized. Basically, just a sense of KNOWING I need to follow this path.  All those things and more, but I am not eloquent enough to describe it in words. Age 10 that day I KNEW where I belonged in this world and pursued it from that day forward. Let me ask you one...what makes one person feel love at first sight with another, and pursue that person to marriage?  Same thing in my case, even though I was just 10--love at first sight!   That's my best answer to your question.



SW: I understand your passion, I have pursued that kind of passion all my life.  Love at first sight,  It makes all else secondary.



SW: What were the first tricks you learned and where did you perform?

RD:  First tricks I learned were card fanning and bare hand production of cards by the back-palm method and shuffling a deck with one hand, rolling fifty cent pieces across my fingers two at a time, then production of doves from silk scarves,  right on up to large illusions. Taught by Jim Steele magician on the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus (CBCB) sideshow.


I performed a lot as a young boy for civic clubs, nursing homes, schools, charity events. At 13 I put sideshow acts in  my magic show which I learned on the (CBCB) sideshow in 1966. I am now 53 years old.


SW: What was the first show you worked and what was your experience on that show?

RD: At age 13 in 1966 I traveled for 7 weeks with Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus (CBCB) during my school vacation. I worked sideshow there and shared a bunk house with Sealo the seal boy who would give me a quarter a day to run errands for him.


Jimmy James was a clown there and he would everyday give me a quarter so I could buy a soda at the cookhouse. Jimmy later went on to become the announcer for (CBCB). 


SW: You traveled for 7 weeks during school vacation with Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. what was the experience like and what acts did you learn while you were with them?

RD I learned sword swallowing, fire eating, knife throwing, ticket selling, inside lecture, and how to pitch this or that. On the sideshow were Johnny Monroe knife thrower, Fransis Doran sword swallower, Cliff and Mamie King midget fire eater and electric girl, Andy Brisky fire eater, Vernon Goins tattooed contortionist, Princess Margaret Ann tiny woman, Sealo the seal boy, magician Jim Steele. Sideshow manager was Chuck Fuller.

How were you treated when you worked Clyde Beatty Cole Bros.

RD: I was treated fine there as everyone saw my passion for the business, it was all a close knit sense of family. One minute I'd be behind the side wall choking down a coat hangar, next I'd be practicing throwing knives into a plank board, then work on fire eating, each performer would take a few minutes with me to help me out.




SW: So the other performers on the show took you under their wing and taught you the acts.  What did you do when you returned home after working with (CBCB)?


RD: At the end of my 7 week summer tour I came home and continued doing shows for local civic groupís now swallowing swords, etc. using the acts I had learned that summer. 



SW: What did your family think of you running off and joining the circus?  Were they supportive?

RD: My parents supported me but made me phone them every few days and send them my route sheet so they knew where I was going.

After your experience with
(CBCB) where did you go from there and how did working on (CBCB) help you with your choosing to continue work in the business?

RD: I began working a lot of shows with Count Desmond the world record holder sword swallower since he lived very nearby me so we played clubs and theater shows for a few years together as well as a brief time on Circus Bartok.

I also worked with Jon Friday who managed the Sells and Gray Circus sideshow.  I went over to Carson and Barnes 5 ring Circus to work the sideshow for Jim Steinmetz. I made the bally openings and swallowed swords, did knife throwing, I supplied a 30 x 60 tent Jim supplied the bannerline and booked it. I also announced the big show for 16 weeks for D.R. Miller when the regular announcer blew the show over a salary dispute.


I worked aerial upside down strait jacket escape over center ring with the rope on fire, then came down and finished announcing the rest of the show, at the end of the show I'd run through the backyard, get on the sideshow bally and catch the big show blow off, grinding them in for the last show of the night. 



SW: As most performers learn they have mishaps, what were some of the things that happened and how did it affect your attitude about performing? 


RD:  Most performers have mishaps as you say but ALL fire eaters get burned to one extent or another. I had one bad accident doing the fire blast, spewing liquid to a torch for a ball of fire effect. Bottom line is I did 6 weeks on my back in the hospital, 7 skin grafts where they took skin off my thigh and grated it to my chest, all second and third degree burns. It happened in N.Y. in front of a live audience, I was like 16 years old then. I recovered and kept on with the fire eating act but left out the "blast".


How did that affect me? Well, when you're 16 you think you're invincible. Ever since that accident I am extra careful even when doing a regular fire eating act, keeping my fuel source a safe distance from my torches. 



SW: I have been told by other performers that it isn't will you get hurt, it's when.  You haven't done the blast since the accident, have you thought about adding it or has anyone ask you to include it in your show? 


RD: After the fire eating "blast" accident I stopped doing the blast out of fear, no more skin grafts could then be done and the risk outweighed the benefit. I've had four wives, three of them accomplished fire eaters, they took over the fire acts in my ten in one. None of them "blasted" but each one of them WAS a blast! Hopefully wife # 4 (Lori) ends up being a keeper.


Back in 1966 Andy Brisky on the Beatty show taught me the fire eating, he used the biggest torches I ever saw used ! As I recall, Mephisto also used some mighty big torches.



SW: A lot of performers referrer to the sideshow acts as stunts, some people think that the sideshow acts are like magic acts, you know the sword goes into the handle etc.  Could you tell our reader what the differences between the two arts are and do you think people miss understand what sideshow performers do and the danger that they face in doing the acts?

RD:  It is human nature to doubt the fire eater, the sword swallower. When we perform, each performer I think in his own style shows the audience the inherent danger to the act, yet they still doubt. I used to let a person come on stage when I had my ten in one out, I'd swallow a sword and let the person pull it out slowly inch by inch. One time an adult woman had it half way out...and decided on her own to shove it back down!  I always keep my thumb on the cross section beneath the handle to prohibit that! Is that experience of a sideshow veteran sword swallower? I think it is more common sense and respect for preserving one's own life.


When my human blockheads worked, I never allowed them to allow an audience member remove an ice pick from their nose. The actor was willing but as a show owner I wouldn't allow it. Never know what a mark will do to ya!



SW: Did you have any conversation with that woman after the act, if so what did she say about her actions?

RD: Re: the woman trying to kill me--- as the woman tried hard to shove the sword back down my throat naturally I knew what she was trying to do, but, the audience never knew. I just backed away from her and pulled the blade out myself and went right into introducing the next act. No use causing a scene over it, just continued the show as usual and get 'em down to the

blow-off--make a few bucks, bally a new show and repeat the whole process.



SW: Do you explain to your audience before you invite one of them to the stage about safety and how they should handle themselves in relationship to assisting you?

RD: When I did sword swallowing with whoever I had on stage to inspect the blade, I had them search for the notorious roll up button. They knew and so did the audience the blade was real. The audience would always notice that when I swallowed the sword my eyes would water a lot--they saw my eyes water--they knew they had just witnessed REAL!


Sure, I instruct each stage volunteer what they are to do, etc. but the bottom line is ya never know what they'll actually do when their moment comes!  That's why I always kept my thumb beneath the cross section of the handle so they couldn't force it down me, more than once that has saved my life.



SW: What kind of preparation and precautions do you do before you go on stage?

RD:  When I worked my ten in one for about eight seasons I would not do any real preparation before each show except make sure I had disinfectant handy for my swords, and maybe I'd throw a few knives out back behind the sidewall before coming on stage to chop a cigarette from the lips of my wife. Basically we'd do a dozen shows a day for 5 months tour. Each show you do with a schedule like that keeps you tuned up.


There are no preparations when it comes to the knife throwing act other than be totally relaxed . The cigarette from her lips is a delicate shot, I must be very at ease and relaxed and comfortable mentally throwing that shot. Sometimes I would miss by a mere hair and then the knife is touching the tip of the cigarette so I throw another one on the inside of that knife to cut the damn thing in half! I give credit to my wife for standing there for such a dangerous shot, even though it took me years before I could do that shot. And just so you know-it was a regular cigarette, not in a holder for extra length, not even a 100 long cig, just a regular size cigarette. That is the most nerve wracking act I've ever done--taking someone else's life in my hands show after show, season after season.


 SW: You say that this shot is the most nerve wracking act you have ever done.  Can you explain what that felt like and how did that make the target person feel?

RD:  What's it feel like to do the cigarette chopping throw?  let me premise it by saying I practiced that one shot for two years before putting one of my wives at the board. When I do that shot I have first just thrown 32 knives, 4 sets of 8 each all around her body in four different positions, then finish up with the cigarette shot. When I release that knife it's not "I hope" I get it---it's I KNOW I've got it!  Her life is in my hand. I'm focused and see only the very tip of that cigarette--I shoot for the tip. It's an instinct shot. Anyone who does archery knows what an instinct shot is.


What does the target girl feel ? Whew...THANK YOU GOD !!!! ha ha

Has any of your assistance been hurt, how and what happened?

RD: Nope, never hit any of 'em but skinned 'em plenty, the knife coming to rest in the board touching usually her upper thigh area, no blood, kinda like a brush burn. When that happens, it's not intentional and it takes my breath away!  The audience gasps but I gasp louder!   The wife smiles and styles for the audience, but after the show I may not be getting any, if ya know what I mean!

SW: What is it that you like best about the business?

RD: What I like best about the business? Running into my new old friends when we play the same spot, such as Jeff Murray and Doc Swan this season. Talking over the sideshow business in general with other showmen, hangin. Telling stories, comparing notes, sharing some laughs. I also enjoy the tranquility of a day in a strange town and then opening for business that night there. Just love being out there again each new season. Making big money is not my priority. I made my money when I was younger and there was money to be made out there. Now I just want to make a decent living operating my shows and have fun fun fun doing it! (never grow up)!! 



SW: What do you like least?

RDWhat I like least about the business?  Without a doubt mechanical break downs! I'm not a mechanic. Down time on the side of some remote road somewhere especially at night costs big bucks in lost spot, or repairs. This season I got lucky, just had a heater hose blow which I managed to repair. Sent my guy Lurch for gallon of anti-freeze and a hose clamp, we were on our way. Not all seasons go that way, one season I had four of my trucks down, two of 'em with blown motors! 


SW: I understand negative people, do you get a lot of beefs from people that attend your shows and how do you handle them?

RD: Beefs from the marks?? Who me? ha ha yeah it happens, I had my bozo dunk tank out about 8 seasons in a row and ya get a few heat scores with that piece but generally we try to fix it before it goes to the office. No real beefs on my grind shows other than once in awhile some mark will say hey, that ain't no giant rat, it's a so and so--I seen it on animal planet TV show!!  I'd say something like yep your right buddy BUT I gave mine STEROIDS!! That's what ya didn't see on TV!!

SW: Visiting with other show folks they have shared stories about people crawling under the side wall, stealing the exhibits etc. over the years have you ever had any of these kinds of problems and how did you handle them?

RD: Nobody ever tried to steal my exhibits, I had my help sleep in the sideshow top a lot and I'm always up late walking my dogs, checking on things, etc.



SW: It sounds like you've had a pretty well rounded career, what do you feel you have given back to the art and how have you influenced other showmen/women and performers who know you or have seen your shows?

RD: What have I given back to the sideshow biz ? My life. Figure the rest out. 


Don't know that I influence any other showmen, we all live the same life out there, have experienced the same obstacles, truck breakdowns, help leaving in the middle of the night, losing spots on short or no notice, working sick or injured, over-coming impossible tasks, etc. We all may not like each other but we all respect each other. 


SW: I think this is the best answer I've ever heard for passion, what has it cost you to give your life to showbiz? ie. relationships, family, etc?

RD: What has it cost me to devote my life to outdoor shows?  A normal childhood and three wives!  But on balance I wouldn't have had it any other way, no regrets.  I mix my life 50 50 half year on the road half year at home--always seems good to come home end of the season and mow the yard!  Go to school events of my 13 year old daughter Kati, visit my family, but even when I'm home I am usually framing some new grind show, then booking the route, so I work on the shows a lot.


I like the best of both world's, home life and road life.  Come spring though I'm always ready to hit the road with my little hairless dog Baby Fred, a Chinese hairless who has traveled with me the last 12 seasons--Fred has been with me longer than any of my wives!! ha ha   Featured Fred in a grind show once--tattooed him with stick on tats as a living art gallery--people loved him cause his tongue hangs out the side of his mouth.  Then I had a 900 lb. live tattooed pig I had actually tattooed with Walt Disney characters and Elvis--people asked where I got it from, told 'em I rescued it from the Hell's Angels!!


SW: I know a lot of the folks in the business do variations on an act, have you developed any new acts, what are they and what reaction do you get from your audiences?

RD:  As to variations on acts. In the early 80's I put a power drill in the blockhead act which worked inside my Willie Wright went wrong drug abuse show and used a chain saw on my blade box on occasion. Standard acts, new twist.  My wife Lori hates the chain saw and knife throwing acts!! Afraid the odds are against me after all these years and I'll stick her with a butcher knife!! or--actually screw up and hack her in half with that noisy chain saw! Gotta love it huh?


Had framed 25 or so different grind shows thru the years, made money with most of them and the set up tear down time is much nicer than the ten in one I used to operate.


I put in two seasons for Ward and Chris in 74 and 75 when they had their European Illusion show out playing major fairs, had a lot of fun times back then.



SW: You worked with Ward and Chris on their European Illusion show, what was some of the things you did on that show?


RD: I worked with my then wife Pamela on their Illusion show we played major fairs. Magician Jerry Conklin and family worked one half the show and Pamela and I worked the other half. I also promoted this show by using the shows buzz saw to cut through a female news reporter and have her write about the experience. I promoted the show by doing handcuff escape while pushed from the high dive at a local pool wherever we were playing.



SW: I would like to thank you for taking the time to share with us.  I just have a couple of questions before we're done.

SW: Do you have anything else you would like to share?

RD: Anything else I wanna share? Just to encourage anyone who feels they want to do this for a living to know there are some sideshow owners out there willing to help a new guy get started, save a new guy lots of time and mistakes.  I suggest putting in a season with one of these guys and be quick to listen and slow to speak...learn and take in all you can, then try your hand at your own show after you are better prepared from seeing how the pro's do it. New ways are good, but traditional ways are the core.


It's not all good and it's not all bad, but when it's hell, it's a scorcher!!  It's a rough way to go, even for veteran operators.

Many times I thought about running away from the carnival to join home! ha


SW: Is there any on you would like to thank?

RD: Who would I like to thank?  How about you John for net working a lot of sideshow people together, awesome I think. And I thank Jesus Christ for being with me every step of the way. Many times out there when things got beyond being rough I knew I was never truly alone. Ever read foot prints in the sand? HE carried me.

Interview by John Robinson


   1-Header Rick Dennis Interview, by JR Robinson


Photographs courtesy of Rick Dennis

   2-Big Rat Show

   3-Rick at age 14

   4-Clyde Betty Cole Brothers Circus

   5-Rick & Lori Dennis

   6-Rick far left swallowing sword

   7-Human Target & Pretzel Girl show

   8-Fred the Tattooed Dog

   9-900 lb Tattooed Pig

   10-Rick doing Handcuff Escape while Pushed from the High Dive at a Local Pool



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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