Capt. Don Leslie - 11/04


Here we are with Capt. Don Leslie, the last of the old time circus sideshow tattooed men, who also performs many amazing feats from the working acts of classic sideshows.


Q. Hello Capt. Don. It’s great to be able to speak with you. My first question for you is, what probably many of your fans want to know. When did you first begin your professional performing career?


A. I ran away when I was a kid, about 15, and started off running a pony ride on the show I was with. That was back in 1952 or ’53.


Q. How did you get into performing in the sideshow?


A. The pony ride was right across the midway from the bally stage for the sideshow. One time I went over to the sideshow, when the crowd had dispersed, and this guy in the show said to me, “Are you with the show?” and I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Do your parents know where you are?” So I said, “No, but boy I’d sure like to know how to eat fire and swallow swords.” So he says, “Let me send your parents a telegram so they know you’re alright and alive. I promise I won’t tell anybody where you are and I’ll teach you.” He was thinking that the first time I’d gag that would be it and he’d get out of it, but I stayed with it to his surprise.


I was a fire eater first. Carlos Leal was the fire eater and he was one of the best fire eaters in the business. However he was an inferior sword swallower. And every f'n time he’d go to swallow a sword he’d gag horribly. So when I went to learn to swallow swords I did the same thing. I didn’t have anything to compare it with. I’d never seen another sword swallower, so I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do, you know? (makes gagging noise) I made f'n people sick for Christ’s sake.


Anyway, I was on the Christiani Bros. Circus and The Doll Family was over there, so Harry Doll, he’d been around sword swallowers all his life, said, “I don’t know what you’re doing wrong, but I’ve been around a hundred sword swallowers and none of them do that, (makes gagging noise).”  So he said a show was going to be near us Sunday and Alex Linton was over there. I said, “Alex Linton!”  He was a big time sword swallower at the time, and we were going to ask him to come over. Alex came over and straightened me out. He’d swallow the swords with finesse. He had a shield there on the stage with a Bayonet and a stove poker and a big dagger and a couple of swords there and a big spoon, like what restaurants use, with the big handle, and the son of a bitch, he cleaned the whole f'n board and swallowed ‘em all. F'n blew me away!


Q. That must have been something to see.


A. Well Alex swallowed 4, 27” blades and I swallowed 5, 30” blades. He never lived to see me beat his record. He’d have been pleased. I was the only sword swallower student he had. He didn’t teach anybody else. You know everybody’s doing eleven, sixteen, whatever, and they do them straight down, aligned with the throat. I did the five the opposite way with one edge of the blades facing toward my mouth and the other facing the back of my neck.


Q. Did you ever have any major accidents with any of the sideshow stunts you have performed over the years?


A. In ’89, I swallowed the sword sandwich (the five blades like I just described), and I pulled it up and the f'n blood just ran off them. It scared the shit out of me! One time, I stayed drunk for twenty five years you know, I was drunk all the time, but one time I was doing the bally someplace and I swallowed the bayonet and I bent over, you know to show them the sword was down, and I fell face first right into the f'n tip.


Q. It’s amazing that didn’t kill you.


A. They just stepped aside and let me go, you know. I checked my stool, and it was black you know from internal bleeding, for a week-week and a half and then it finally started clearing so it was alright after that. That time in Seattle at the night club, with the sword sandwich though (the 1989 accident), that was… I never expected that. I didn’t feel it or anything, I pulled them out, f'n blood all over the place.


Q. What did that accident, in 1989, do to you internally?


A. I… I don’t know. I must have scraped the lining of the esophagus, you know the little capillaries, like the tiny little veins we all have on the surface of our skin. Well the lining of the esophagus has that too, you know.


Q. What did you do after that?


A. I went up to Canada, with the Conklin shows. I built a sideshow for them and I spent $60,000 of their money and built a sideshow and then I went up and performed in it and managed it. I did everything but swords, so I hired Lady Diane. Then her and I did a tour of the Micronesian Islands in the South Pacific on a boat, and we went to Guam together. I was the manager of a strip joint, and when I took over I fired all the strippers and put circus performers in!


Q. How long have you been performing professionally?


A. 51 years. Since 1953, it’s 51 years, this year. I spent 40 some odd years of those with circuses and carnivals.


Q. What were some of the shows you were with out at the carnivals and circuses?


A. Ah, Circus I was with the Ringling show, Christiani Bros., Clyde Beatty Cole Bros., probably about 15 or 20 different circuses and maybe the same amount of carnivals. Reithoffer, Fiesta Shows, Conklin Shows, things like that.


Q. Do any performers you’ve worked with stick out in your memory as people you enjoyed working with?


A. Yeah, the Doll Family. I was with the Doll Family for a long time. They were some of the original munchkins in the Wizard Of Oz. I’ve got a great picture around here somewhere of us together on the bally stage. Floyd Block, who used to be a blockhead and his last name was coincidentally block, used to work for Norman Brooks, and he had a speech impediment. It kind of would go along with the act. He’d say, “Good Ewening Wadies and Getwelmen. I’m Fwoyd Bwock, not because I’w a chiwp off we owd bwock. Haa, Haa, Haa. Not because I wawked a bwock to get here. Haa, Haa, Haa.” That’s how he’d talk, you know? He’d say, “And not because my head iws shwaped wike a wooden bwock. Haa, Haa, Haa.” He’d laugh at his f'n joke every time.


Q. When you were a young boy, did you aspire to be a performer?


A. No. I had no idea I’d wind up as a performer. Like I said, I was running the pony ride and being a candy butcher. When I was on the shows though, I did the sideshow and then I candy butchered in the big show. Drove a truck and all that. I lived on Whiskey and speed. In those days, when you were on the circus, you know you’d move every day. Every f'n day, you’d set up in the morning and tear down every night. You were working 18 or 22 hours a day, you can’t keep that f'n pace up very long. At night, when you’d go to the office, they’d give you an envelope with gas money for the truck and there’d be speed in there. The show gave them to you, so you wouldn’t wreck their f'n trucks.


Q. Do you think the classic carnival sideshow will ever come back to the midways?


A. No, because you can’t shock anybody nowadays. I remember doing pins and they’d be f'n dropping like flies! They’d be passed out. I had seven people down one time. I’ve had three down many times. One down hundreds of times. Even the blockhead. People would pass out on the f'n blockhead. Floyd Block, boy he f'n grossed them out. He’d do two screwdrivers and then lick them and ask someone, “Wanna Wick?” And all that shit. He had people f'n passing out. He’d do two ice picks, two screwdrivers, a hammer in each hand. I can only do one side of my nose, because back in my drinking days, I was in a bar room one time and some guy closed this other side for me. Some 'ahole, I called him a faggot or something and he closed this side for me.


The sideshow will never come back because you’ve got sixteen year old little girls out there with their tongues pierced.  That used to be a big deal, you know, with the gaff iron tongue, you know like Poobah does. I used to do the gaff iron tongue years ago, but I had to stop that because like I said, there’s f'n sixteen year old girls with their tongues pierced out there. But it’s no big f'n deal. Tattoos used to be big and now, you know, people in the audience have more tattoos than I have!


Q. Would you say that performing the sideshow acts, have taken a toll on your body over the years?


A. No, I’d say it was the cigarettes and booze that did a number on me but being on mud shows that move every day, it’s just… (shakes his head), even when you’re young it’s a son of a bitch. You’d get up in the morning, you’re sitting up on the f'n truck, leaning on the wheel, because there’s no sense in laying down, they’ll be banging on the door waking you up in a minute. Pull onto the lot in the wee hours of the morning, they’d wake you up, you get up, unload all the shit, set the show up, and we went in work clothes. We’d run and wash up out of a f'n bucket, shave in a rearview mirror or side mirror on the truck, then put wardrobe on, run the sideshow, do the come in, get out of the f'n costume, put a Coca-Cola coat on, and run in the show and sell cotton candy, cracker jacks, peanuts and that shit, and just before the show was over, run out, take that off, put your costume back on, catch the blow off of the circus, you know. Then as the night show, you’d do the whole thing over again. And then when the night show’s over, get back into the working clothes, tear that son of a bitch down, load it up, and drive it a hundred and fifty miles and do it again, 24/7. It’s just a bastard. On a carnival, you know, you go and set up and you’re going to be there for eight days or ten days, six days, whatever. This thing here with the circus, you’re going to move tonight, you know. Shit. Every day was set up and every day was tear down.


Q. Would you say then that you prefer working at carnivals, as opposed to circuses?


A. The one thing on the circus with the sideshow, you only do like four, you might do six shows a day. That’d be a big day at a straw house or something. On the carnival, you do eighteen, twenty, twenty two shows a day. It’s a f'n grind. You can’t go anywhere. You go to take a piss and you’re on already again. But with the carnivals, it’s good because you’re going to be there for while. You only have to set up once and tear down when the fair’s over. That’s the only good part about it. You don’t get any time to yourself anyway. Trying to leave the fair grounds, you’re too f'n tired at the end of the day and who the " f " wants to go downtown. But then with the ride boys, they’d go out and get shit faced and come back to work all day. I ain’t going to do that anymore.


I carried tattoo equipment with me and I used to tattoo the ride boys, a jointee once in a while, but mostly the ride boys, because those rides are right there, and if you have any f'n problems, you just yell, and they’ll come right over there and kick ass for you. I’d put a tattoo on them for a freebie, a guy would come up and say, “I like that one.” And point to something and I’d tell him to sit down and I’d put it on him. If I had any rowdies in the show, I’d just call them and they’d take them out back and pound the shit out of them. 


Q. When you started in the sideshow, did you know you wanted to be a tattooed man?


A. No, I just added that. I was a fire eater and then a sword swallower and then I added a tattooed man, because you’d get more money. It cost them less. See? You’d pay a salary to a tattooed attraction, a salary to a fire eater, a salary to a sword swallower, so I said they could give me more money and I would do all three for less than paying three people. So it just cut down. They saved money and I made money because I did so many acts. On a carnival ten in one, you can’t just have one guy doing the whole show, you’ve got to have a little line up. But I made money on how I looked and I did swords, and I did pins in the blow so I made extra money that way. With Ward (Hall) I did fire and then pins in the blow.


Q. One last question, what would you say was the best show you worked on?


A. Hall and Christ. Ward does a f'n powerful pitch. On the pickled punks too, Ward is great at it. Ward is a better inside lecturer, I think, than he is an outside talker. He’s a good outside talker and he can sure turn a tip alright, but he’s a good inside lecturer I think. He’s got something about congeniality and charisma inside the tent.


Q. Well thank you very much Capt. Don and break a leg out there.


A. See you down the road.

Interview by Ses Carny




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