John Robinson - 12/1/04

Sideshow World


Before you read this interview I'd like to share a few things with you.  A lot of people asked why we posted an interview with a staff member when I posted the interview of myself.  Well, the reason is a lot of people asked for it.  They wanted to know just who the webmaster was.  Now we're at a point where a lot of people have asked for an interview of John.  So I put this interview together.  Although I'm asking the questions I think you'll see that I didn't ask questions that would just benefit Sideshow Central or myself.  I asked real questions and received real answers. T


Q. Itís no secret that you had a long-standing appreciation of sideshow and sideshow memorabilia before joining the Sideshow Central staff.  What was your first experience with sideshows?


A. My first impressions of the circus sideshow was when I was about five years old.  I was a fan of the television show Circus Boy with Mickey (Braddock) Dolenz who is probably best known for his role as a singer and a drummer in the 1960's music group, The Monkees.  I really enjoyed all of his adventures.  While other kids my age where watching Lassie, I was playing circus performer with Corky, Bimbo his pet elephant and the rest of the circus performers.


I also remember every fall when the circus came to town.  Posters would start appearing on all the vacant buildings.  As the days got closer for the circus to arrive the excitement would build.  I would run down to Wall Boulevard and stand there on the sidewalk waiting for the first site of the train to pull into the station.  Then they unloaded the wagons and animals to assemble them for the grand parade.  With wide eyes I watched with wonderment as the elephants, the clowns, and the fire eater passed.  I wanted so badly to join in the parade and be part of the grand show as it passed.


Q. With that in mind, what was it that truly got you hooked on sideshows?


A. Actually, I think it was the high wire act.  They had performers walk across Washington Boulevard between some of the highest buildings in downtown Ogden, UT.


There was a free show every year on Washington Boulevard where the Talker would build his tip "you will see, you will be amazed, you won't believe, step right this way to see the strangest sights your eyes will ever see, right on the inside."  There would be just enough of a show to get your interest and have you wanting to attend the sideshow that evening and every other show they would perform the rest of their stay on the midway.  The animals, the wagons and all of the performers, even sideshow folks, would be parading down Main Street trying to get a crowd for that night's performance.


Q. Does anyone else in your family have the same kind of attraction to the world of sideshow?


A. Not really. My mother has always told me stories of when she was a girl attending the County fairs.  The one thing she remembers is the, as she would say, ďlittle deformed babies in the bottles.Ē 


I have one daughter that, since she has gotten to know Mark Frierson, really likes my collection and tells everyone that itís hers when Iím gone.


My wife tolerates my collecting and interest in the sideshow.  But I have to say that every time I can get her inside a show she enjoys herself even if she wonít admit it to her friends.


Q. You have a very large collection of sideshow memorabilia.  How long have you been working on your collection?


A. I have been collecting seriously for about 5 years.  I have enough in my collection to start a Dime Museum.  Thatís what I hope to do when I retire from my day job.


I have always been interested in old museums and their collections.  One of the best I have ever seen with its old collection of mummies, old taxidermy and thousands upon thousands of great displays was the Niagara Falls Museum which closed in 1999 and most of that collection was sold to Bill Jamieson who is well know for his collection of shrunken heads.


Q. That's a lot of memorabilia. Do you remember what your very first piece was?


A. I started out with fossils. I would pick them up outside my house in Roy, Utah.  Since the whole area was under Lake Bountiful there were many marine fossils in the rocks just laying all over where I lived.  I continued collecting fossils and started to collect strange and old taxidermy.


This lead to freak sea-life like star fish with many legs.  Some of the star fish only had three or four legs.  Then came the Alien collectibles, as I was a fan of the old B movies in the fifties and sixties the monsters, space aliens, etc. etc.


As I got older and had more resources and places I could buy circus and sideshow collectibles, I got serious and started to add many wonderful items to my collection.


Q. To date how many pieces would you estimate you have in your collection?


A. I have never counted them, but I would guess several thousand.  The real answer should be not enough.  I would think most collectors would say that.


Q. Do you have any particular favorites?


A. I have many favorites.  So it would be hard to pick just one.  I really like my Feejee Mermaid and enjoy collecting them and have several in my collection. I also really like my shrunken head collection.  I have many gaffed heads that were made by Mark Frierson, Homer Tate, Juan Cabana and from South America.  I also have an Alligator Man which is always of interest to folks that visit my collection.  I enjoy my banner collection.  I could go on and on so I would have to say my favorites would be my whole collection.


Q. What piece would you say has the most interesting history behind it?


A. It is this little Tiger that was originally acquired in Somers, NY billed as "The birthplace of the American Circus". The gentleman that owned him said he was used in the 1950's in traveling sideshows, possibly on the road with Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers as "THE WORLD'S SMALLEST TIGER!" For years and years he was exhibited in sideshows while he was alive, as being the World's Smallest Tiger, caught on an African Safari by the World's Smallest Hunter! After his death, he was stuffed and now for your entertainment, right before your very eyes, HURRY! HURRY! STEP RIGHT UP! He was once ALIVE on the inside!!


Another piece is one of my Feegee Mermaids.  This particular specimen toured the USA and Canada as part of a large Museum Show "Circus Magnus" created by the prestigious Musee De La Civilization in Quebec Canada.


The show was scheduled to tour the world eventually ending up in Paris, France. But after numerous engagements at major museums on this side of the world, some of the contributors complained that their 'on-loan' exhibits were being held too long. The Museum therefore ended the tour early. However it appeared in Chicago, New York and other major US Cities as well as Canadian stops.


The Circus Magnus Tour was a large spectacular museum show featuring the History of the Circus in Art, Actual Artifacts and Equipment. etc.


This Feegee Mermaid was chosen by the Museum in Quebec as the sole representative of the famous Mermaid exhibits that have been shown since the 1500's including the world famous showing by P.T. Barnum at his New York Museum in the 1800's. The exhibit itself is half of a pair of Mer's that were created by sideshow and special FX prop artist Doug Higley of California. The male half was purchased prior to the Museum's selection by a showman and collector in Toronto.


(Coincidently both of this style of creature wound up north of the border. Truthfully they were not a 'pair' but had just been created at the same looked female and the other had a more male appearance for some reason.)


Q. As your love of sideshow grew you must have made some friends in the industry.  Who was the first person to really bring you into the behind the scenes workings of sideshow? 


A. I had met many of the great folks over the years that worked in the sideshow, but I would have to say Mark Frierson was my mentor.  He took the time to introduce me to many folks in the business. He spends hours with me on the phone and shares his history.  Mark has a great knowledge of the sideshow.  Another person has to be Ward Hall.  When Ward calls me he shares so much of his history.  I have hours upon hours of stories about his life in the sideshow and entertainment world.  Judy Tomaini Rock is another person I have great respect for.  She and her family have a great connection to the business.  Judy's parents Al the Giant and Jeanie the half girl are some of the greatest folks who ever lived in sideshow history.  Judy has shared so many wonderful stories and has been a great friend.


Q. What kind of relationship did you have with Mark and how did it originate?


A. My relationship with Mark started out with me buying one of his gaffs off an online auction.  At the time I didnít know how busy he can get. I bought a walking fish to add to my collection.


Some time passed before I heard from him so I got his contact information and gave him a call.   That was the first contact I had with Mark.


Our relationship has grown over the years and he has become one of my best friends.


Q. When did you become heavily involved with the online sideshow community?


A. I was interested in some information about some of the banners and gaffs I own.  So I did some online inquiries and was directed to Slims DG.  I found a wealth of information and support from the members of that group.  As I became more involved with Slims DG I began to email some of the folks in the group, like Slim Price, Judy Tomaini Rock and others, for information about sideshow history.


Slim had posted some of his stories online and I became very interested in his history. It was about the time Sideshow Central was starting.


Q.  Were you surprised to find that so many other people on the internet shared your interests?


A. Was I surprised?  Not really. What is surprising to me is this thing called "cyber space."  I marvel at it every time I think of it. That how easy it is to network with people of like minds.  To network with the community that years ago you had to be part of the sideshow to do.


But in todayís world it is very easy if you know where to go.  You can meet a lot of the people that have worked and lived their lives in the business.


Over the years I have met many folks, but because of the internet I have gotten to know and made friends with people all over the world in the business. In the past I couldnít have met most of these folks let alone had any kind of relationships.  My first contact with most folks has been via email and as friendships have developed then we have more personal contact over the phone and even getting to meet and socialize with others in the business.


Q. Was there one website that really sucked you in once you made your way onto the proverbial online midway?


A. Sideshow Central sucked me in.  It was just about the time I found the site that Derek asked me to join the staff as their historian.


From there I have been more than involved with the online World of the Sideshow.


Q. What one website do you feel was the most crucial for keeping the sideshow industry alive on the internet?


A. I think it was Slims DG.  It wasn't quite a standard website, but it was where the community gathered to share and help others in the business.


I wish Slims was still up and working, it had the largest membership of any DG when it closed even to this day.  What a sad day it was when Joe took the site down.


Slims was a real time group you posted and got feedback almost instantaneously.


I think that Slims and Sideshow Central complimented each other.  This is what I hope the new Sideshow Central Yahoo group will become.  A place where the whole community will come and share?  Give advice and help those that want to learn.  A place where not only the Showmen/women can come but the fans and others that will help to carry the sideshow into the future.


Q. What was it about Slims that made it so important?


A. It was where the folks that worked in the sideshow came to share.  The show world's watering hole.  Slims was the place to be, to learn from the greats.


Where else could a person go to have first person contact with Showmen/women and Performers like Ward Hall, Todd Robbins, Jim Rose and there are so many others that I donít have room to mention them all.


Q. Youíve moved on a bit since you first started out and have now become a staff member of Sideshow Central.  When Sideshow Central first opened its doors what were your initial thoughts on the site and itís staff?


A. I thought "Oh this is nice."  It didnít have very much content but as I learned after I was asked to be on staff that it was the original intent not to be as expansive as it has become.   The staff have always been great even when I first started to have contact with them.  Some before Sideshow Central was online.


Derek was very helpful with a couple of requests I had of him.  I got to know Ses better after I was on the staff.  I had the pleasure of seeing his show in Las Vegas in October.  What a performer. He has so much energy it made me tired just watching his show.


Q. Did you ever foresee yourself becoming part of a website such as Sideshow Central?


A. Not at the time, but I canít see myself not being part of it now.


Again Sideshow Central the site and all the staff are volunteers.  We do it because the past needs to be saved and the future if it is to continue needs to be promoted and thatís what we do.


We have a lot of freedom because the site doesnít have stock holders and we donít have to answer to the business world.  We can do what needs to be done just because the community wants it.  Without everyoneís support Sideshow Central would not have become the success it has.


Q. Now that you are part of Sideshow Central do you look at the internet sideshow community differently?


A. Yes.  As I have become friends with a lot of folks and got to know more about others the community is very supportive.  I know itís a hard life for those on the road, but there has never been a time that I have needed help that someone hasnít taken the time to help me, even when they have been in the middle of their season, and all of you know how busy that can be.


Q. What do you feel you have contributed to the world of sideshow since joining the Sideshow Central staff?


A. I hope I have been able to help preserve the past.  I hope that folks have found the stories and resources we have posted on Sideshow Central to be helpful and of interest.  As well as all the other staff members I have invested a lot of time in Sideshow Central.  I also hope that what I have to offer in the future will help to meet our mission of Preserving the Past and Promoting the Future of Sideshow.


Q. What is it like being a staff member on a site that demands a lot of work for no pay?


A. I donít see it as work and as far as the pay, I get more back from the folks in the community than I will ever be able to give.  I spend 8 hours plus a day researching for Sideshow Central 7 days a week.


I donít feel any demands, but I feel a part of sideshow history.  To be able to rub shoulders with the great people in the business, to learn, to have the first person contact with all the great folks.  Itís more than wonderful.


Q. Your role as our resident historian has created a need for you to get in contact with folks you may not have had a reason to have contact with prior to joining the Sideshow Central staff.  How do you feel about that?


A. I have enjoyed meeting and getting to know the people in the business.  I like people anyway so contacting them was natural for me.   I have learned so much more about the world of the sideshow from that personal contact than I have ever read in any book or seen in any documentary.


Q. Do you feel youíre looked upon differently or are taken more seriously now that youíve become a Sideshow Central staff member?


A. Yes, but I find it hard to take myself serious.  Itís like going down to the local park and having everyone take you under their wing and you become part of that group.  Not just a person on the sidelines but a real part of something wonderful.   Something that I am a part of that what I gain isnít the only thing.  But I can give back and people respect what Iím doing.


Q. What would you say is the best part of being associated with Sideshow Central?


A. All of the wonderful people I have gotten to know and become friends with.  The history is only part of it.  


The freedom I have in doing my work for the site is enjoyable too.  I feel more comfortable because I don't have someone looking over my shoulder all the time.


The support I get from all of the other staff members and the support I can give them is another part I enjoy.


Q. Obviously, the next question is what is the worst part?


A. When Derek wants to close down the site.  Sideshow Central and the sideshow world have become such a part of my life it would be a disaster if the site closed.  I have visited with several folks about when Slims closed and they feel lost because of the friendships and contacts that they have had with the folks they met there.  Sideshow Central is the same for me.  I know that the relationships will continue but the day to day contact goes away because thereís no need to have it everyday.


Q. Sideshow Central has grown exponentially since youíve come on board.  Due to this fact you have essentially taken over the role of our front man by getting our updates and information out to the rest of the sideshow community.  How does that make you feel?


A. Itís a lot of work posting all of the posters and banners on every vacant building all over the country every week.


Actually, I really like the role of front man.  It keeps me in contact with more people and I enjoy the front of the camera stuff.


Q. Why did you decide to take on that role in the first place?


A. Because without advertising nothing happens.  If you're not out there selling your product, in our case giving it away then most folks donít pay any attention.


As folks find out about Sideshow Central they'll know what a valuable resource it is and will come and visit on their own.


It also helps to meet new people that are in the business and get them to share their history with us.


Besides all that it also allows Derek to concentrate on the website itself without having to deal with the promotion of it quite as much.


Q. Itís no secret that youíve made some great contacts that led to new areas for Sideshow Central since becoming a staff member.  Youíve introduced areas such as the Judy Tomaini Rock Series, One On One With Ward Hall, the Slim Price Collection and most recently Show Talk With Lee Kolozsy.  These areas have been a big draw for Sideshow Central and have brought in an entirely new demographic.  How does it feel to know your efforts are directly responsible for a part of Sideshow Centralís current success?


A. I am willing to help in whatever areas Iím needed.  I do have a special place in my heart for the historic part of the business.


Iím the lucky one when it comes to being the historian because I learn much more that I will ever give back. Does it make me feel good? YES.  Not because of what I do, but because of all the folks that take their time and talents to share their lifeís experiences.


Q. In general, how would you describe your place on the Sideshow Central staff?


A. Whatever is needed.  I do a lot of research personally with folks in the business, over the internet and through books and other media.   Not only do I find historic information some of which has been lost or at least misplaced for a time, but I help with links, photographs, contacts and interviews with performers of today and yesteryear.


My place on Sideshow Central is part of a family. A great group of dedicated people that feel the same about our mission.


Iím also hoping our new section Corny-Ville Comics takes off.  I have drawn cartoons for many years and to be able to use them on Sideshow Central is a plus for me.


Q. This is a tough question to ask given the fact that Iím asking the questions, but what is it like to work for me, the webmaster of Sideshow Central?


A. Well, well I guess this is my chance to get even with "Derek Rose."


Derek has a great talent for web design.  He works very hard as a team member.  You know how some folks have to have it all their way.  Derek's not like that.  He works with all of the staff members to reach our goals, to serve our visitors and to have fun while it is all spinning out of control.


But the final product is there for the whole world to see and it is a fine product.


Q. Has your idea of who I am and what I do changed since you first saw my name out there on the discussion groups?


A. Yes, I just thought you were one of those web guys that sat behind their computer all day and created things.  Since I have been on the staff I know you're just one of the web guys that sits behind your computer all day and creates things.  But you also have a family and are a great husband and father, a wonderful friend and have amazing talents.


Q. What about the rest of the Sideshow Central staff?


A. Great group of folks, supportive and always there when they are needed.


Q. Were you surprised at the amount of work that actually goes into the site behind the scenes once you came on board?


A. Again I really donít see it as work, but it does take a lot of time and dedication to put all of the information and history on Sideshow Central and keep it fresh and keep folks coming back for more.  If itís not alive on the inside or in other words updated almost daily, then why bother to visit often.  Sideshow Central is always fresh and alive.  Everyday I look forward to what is new on our midway.


Q. What were your very first thoughts when you realized just what goes on behind the scenes?


A. Eee Gats what have I done to myself.  No, itís interesting to see how much work goes into a site like Sideshow Central.  But the end product is well worth the investment.


Q. There have been a lot of ups and downs and even possible closures of Sideshow Central throughout its growth.  Youíve stuck in there the whole time though.  Why?


A. I enjoy working with all of the folks in the sideshow community which include all of the staff at Sideshow Central.  With all the staff being volunteers it is only our love of sideshow that keeps us all working.


Sideshow Central has become one of the most important resources on the internet for Showmen, Performers and Fans.  I know there have been many times of frustration and that the site has come close to closing.


But most importantly it is still here and growing everyday.


It has been the many folks from the community that have supported the site by sharing their experiences, stories and lives with us.  Thatís what is important.  Thatís what keeps me going.  Itís the history, itís the friends, itís all of it.


Q. When you step back and actually take a look at Sideshow Central as a whole what are your feelings about the site?


A. I really think itís not what I think, but what the folks that access the site think.  If they are pleased then I have done my job and it has all been worth it.  I really enjoy Sideshow Central. I like the site and hope to keep it fresh well into future.


Q. What do you feel is the single most important aspect of Sideshow Centralís continued success?


A. The folks that contribute their experiences and stories.  Those that share the schedules and links. The Showmen/women, Performers and Fans that visit everyday.  Thatís what will keep it Alive well into the future.


Q. What are your thoughts on the future of Sideshow Central?


A. Well if it isnít shut down....I think it has a rich future.  The role Sideshow Central plays is it can be the vehicle to transport the information and history into the future.


Q. Finally, what impact do you think Sideshow Central has made on the online sideshow community?


A. I think Sideshow Central has not only made an impact on the online community, but it has carried itself into the whole world of the sideshow.  Sideshow Central and itís success has been in direct proportion to all of the folks that have invested themselves into it. I would like to thank everyone in the community for all you have done to make us what we are today and will become in the future.


Interview by Derek Rose


Post script: In Feb. 2005 Sideshow Central was retired and offered for sale.  Derek and the other staff made the decision not sale the site, and because of my great love and investment in the world of the sideshow, Sideshow World was born.  I have made the commitment to "keep the candle burning" as Slim Price would ask all of us to do.  With all the wonderful support from the community Sideshow World remains the greatest show on the internet and is a place where Showmen/women, performers and fans alike can come learn and keep the show Alive on the Inside...... John Robinson Sideshow World



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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