The Bug Man Cometh
Showman Jim Rose Has Been Playing With People's Minds For Years, But Now It's Considered An Art Form.
By Brendan Doherty
APRIL 5, 1999: I'D TELL YOU what happens, but I know you're a family paper," says Jim Rose, director and owner of the Jim Rose Circus. "We've had a lot of incarnations--punk-rock freak show, adult spook show, the turn-out-the-lights and terrorize show, the Mexican transvestite wrestlers and women sumo wrestlers. Last year it was PT Barnum meets John Waters. But this is different."
So says the grand showman of the underworld. He isn't a rock star. He isn't an author. He isn't a choreographer. Instead, like the great con artists and illusionists of the world, he runs a circus that's a little of each. The Jim Rose Circus to be exact. But before you pile your kiddies into the car for a thick layer of cotton candy and front-row view of the elephants, you should know that this isn't your grandfather's circus. This circus is rated "R."
Rose's assemblage of characters--the pierced, the tattooed, the transvestites, the Mexican midget transvestite wrestlers--have been grabbing attention from even the most jaded audiences since 1992. The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow was just as much a main attraction as the music at Lollapalooza in '92. Lollapalooza organizers, fronted by founder and organizer Perry Farrel of Jane's Addiction, discovered Jim Rose and his cohorts on daytime talk show Sally Jesse Raphael.
From there, he landed a feature spot on the Wall Street Journal's front page, complete with a linotype caricature of his head. Such media exposure even landed him on the most-watched episode of the X-Files, as the murderous Dr. Blockhead. The Rose Circus was also characterized on the Simpsons, when Homer ran off to join Rose's show as a human cannonball.
"I'm a con man," says the 42-year-old Rose. "Everybody that's followed my career knows that. A con man and snake-oil salesman. People don't mind a con man as long as they're not the ones who get conned."
Rose has toured the world several times, growing ever more slick, and seemingly sick, in the process. The show is one grand car wreck onstage, and for the rock and roll set, it's a chance to see something they've never seen before, or perhaps since their last trip to a keg party. (Most anyone in the latter set has seen plenty of vomit, and someone eat some sort of bug at the urging of a judgment-impaired ring of spectators.) But pick up impossibly heavy objects using pierced body parts? Probably not. If you've managed to avoid his cross-country gross-out tours since 1992 (all three of us), be forewarned: Jim Rose is coming to a theater near you.
Currently touring with the Secrets of the Strange tour, Rose hits Tucson for the first time since 1994. He says it's a homecoming of sorts: "I used to be your bug man." Rose grew up in Phoenix, and worked for Dixon Pest Control in Tucson from 1975 to 1982. Of those early years, he recalls spending the first 11 years of his life with crossed eyes, a condition for which he received merciless teasing. In his 1995 biography Freak Like Me, he writes that he learned to cope by acting out in entertaining ways, deflecting his attackers with humor. During summers, he worked for the Arizona State Fair. It was there that he learned the valuable career skill of how to take advantage of others...and what crazy people are really about.
"We would go there when we were younger, as 'neighbor-hoodlums,' " says Rose. "We'd vend soft drinks and keep the money. They recruited kids out of the neighborhood, and we were always taken advantage of by the carnies. We learned how to get badges, and pretty soon we were just taking advantage of the whole ability to be behind the scenes at a traveling show in a mid-sized town."
As to his own entree into performance art, even his early tales will make your toes curl: "Believing the urban legend that a dog's mouth is cleaner than a human's, I'd lie down with a mouth full of milk, and let the dog lap it out...I'd do anything and everything to divert people's eyes from mine."
A successful operation in the sixth grade fixed his eyes, but did nothing to cure his burgeoning attention-seeking skills. As a student at Starlight Parks Elementary in Phoenix, he wrote a send-up of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, and cajoled his pals to play parts. His role in the modern-day circus is as master. And, he's a huckster of the highest order. He jokes. He cajoles. He banters. He prods. He's a car salesman selling you circus freaks instead of Chryslers.
"I was born a showman. It was exciting," Rose recalls. "It gave me a jolt--that edge-of-your-seat feeling that makes you feel like you're going to puke, and more." After high school, Rose moved to Washington, D.C., where he met Bebe, his wife and carnival queen. It was through Bebe's family, who had connections with the Paris circus and sideshow circuit, that the pair's own show evolved.
First came Bruno, who taught him the trick of eating bulbs (the glass is very thin, and one must chew the glass slowly on back molars). He later learned how to be a human dart board, to escape from a straight jacket, lie on a bed of nails, and shove a screwdriver up his nose. After a short stint on Venice Beach to beef up his crowd patter, the pair moved to Seattle (in the early '90s) to find more performers, like Mr. Lifto (a former insurance salesman who lifts things via multiple body piercings), the Enigma (who is almost completely tattooed blue and eats bugs), and Matt the Tube (who eats his own bile). Wife Bebe gets a cannonball shot at her stomach. Rose even went a step further, adding a group of folks who would do anything to be stared at and paid. It's become its own industry.
And although it's been an enormously successful model, he says the new show, Secrets of the Strange, is different. The key, says Rose, is mind control; more like Yuri Geller on the couch with the Amazing Kreskin. It's also a little more, if the term applies, mainstream. It'll even make it's way off-Broadway, with a stint this summer at New York City's Westbeth Theater.
"You're not going to see any of the disgusting 1991-'93 acts," he says without apology. "The King of Gross is gone. This time, it's a warped seminar, where we spend time talking about fears and phobias. What does someone like Mr. Lifto fear? We ask him, and then we act it out."
"It only takes me four minutes," says Rose. "I establish that brainwashing is real. I've read a lot on the subject, and it's always two things: People don't walk out of their house and join a cult or become a prostitute. They walk out of their houses and they meet someone who knows the two keys of mind control. Once I've established that brainwashing is real, we can look at how it's very empowering."
But Rose is deliberate in explaining he intends to use his powers for fun, if not also good. "People spend hundreds of dollars to walk on hot coals," says Rose. "All of that to overcome fear. It gets people some self-esteem, but there are tricks. This is the same with the show. My intent is to entertain. I use security cameras. We're taking off the masks."
Does anybody buy it? Judge for yourself: Four promoters of Jim Rose shows in the last few years attest that all of the dates were at least 70-percent full, in theaters ranging from an 800 to 1,200 capacity.
"Why is When the Animals Attack popular?" asked one promoter. "Why is Scariest Police Car Chases popular? People just want to see other people doing crazy shit. They love it, and they'll pay for it. It's half rock crowd, half Jerry Springer types."
Rose believes he can take a softer, more psychologically based show to Broadway and the mainstream, just as the mainstream has gone further into the gutter.
By comparison, some of the things, writes Ottowa Sun columnist and reviewer Ben Rayner, aren't so bad: "It wasn't that freaky," says Rayner. "Not that the sold-out show by manic Rose and his band of ghoulish sideshow performers didn't make for an amusing and occasionally stomach-churning evening. It's just that you can only watch a man regurgitate the contents of his stomach in layers or lift a cinder block with his penis so many times without getting blasé."
"There's a lot of mainstream (people) in that audience," counters Rose. "We've been around long enough that we've got our own momentum. People come for the same reason that makes us have to look at a car accident: We can't help ourselves. Any time a human is in an unfamiliar situation, he looks at what everybody else is doing. A person gets tired of dirt in their mouth, so they wash their food off in the river. People see this. Five-hundred years later, every person washes his or her food. That's why it's perfectly normal behavior to watch a person watch a scorpion walk into his mouth.
"And guess what," he ends wryly, "your bug man is going to Broadway."
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