The Freakiest Show
An interview with the man behind the definitive documentary about the infamous Jim Rose Circus Sideshow
Ah, the 1990s. Flannel…microbrews…grunge…and the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, an inventive troupe that started in the grimy clubs of Seattle, vaulted into the alt-rock world touring with Lollapalooza in 1992, and finally gate-crashed the mainstream, entertaining an increasingly discomfited audience on Sally Jessy Raphael. Jim Rose was the ringmaster, introducing a parade of Marvels: Zamora the Torture King (Tim Cridland), who never met a body part he didn’t want to skewer; Matt “The Tube” Crowley, who could deftly insert a tube up his nose and down into his stomach, a pump then drawing out the bile for a brave soul from the audience to consume; the Amazing Mister Lifto (Joe Hermann), who lifted weights with chains attached to his nipples or scrotum; the Enigma (Paul Lawrence), who swallowed slugs and swords (not necessarily in that order). Just good clean fun.
Jan Gregor was along for the ride in that heady era, as road manager, jack-of-all-trades Mr. Fixit, and archivist. First he published the book Circus of the Scars: The True Inside Odyssey of a Modern Circus Sideshow. And now he’s produced a documentary to make audiences squirm anew; Circus of the Scars: The Insider Odyssey of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow (directed by Chicory “Cory” Wees), which debuted last year at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. But he sees it as more than just a film about people doing unsettling stunts. “It’s a classic entertainment business story, except instead of guys playing guitar, you got guys swallowing swords and eating fire and doing the pincushion act,” he says. “I think people will be surprised. They might think ‘I’m going to go see a film about guys doing weird stuff,’ but I think they’ll be surprised that they can find that they connect with these guys; connect with their human struggle or the emotions or whatever. So I think that’s an interesting thing.”
I spoke with Gregor about the delights of working with the Sideshow and how he hammered the documentary into shape:
Why was the Sideshow such a good act for its time?
Because the cast was so great! That’s the thing, really; it was just such an amazing cast. Jim’s a great character. The Circus wouldn’t have happened without him. But it wouldn’t have happened without all the troupe members either. And part of my reason for really wanting to do the film was I felt like all the Marvels deserved recognition for what they did in helping bring back sideshow arts.
There’s a great contrast between the opening sequence at Lollapalooza, with people pounding on the stage going “Lifto, Lifto!” and then you’re on Sally Jessy Raphael, out of the alternative rock bubble and in the mainstream, and you’re doing the milder stunts but people are still turning away and saying, “That’s revolting!”
Yeah. For a year it was truly the most shocking show on earth. And it was just right in time, because of the Modern Primitives movement and tattooing and piercing and grunge and everything — it had just come together. And the thing is, Jim was great at hype, but the show lived up to its hype; it truly lived up to its hype. And I was really proud that we could do it so lean and mean. I mean, on that Lollapalooza tour, you look at somebody like Ministry, they had twenty-seven people on the road, it was nuts. We were just the troupe and me.
And in the film, I finally got to see Eddie Vedder drinking Matt’s stomach bile! Did it surprise you when he did that?
Well, Chris [Cornell] was the first to drink it. But Eddie was coming over every day during our show and getting right in front of the stage; he was watching every show almost. And then in Minneapolis they threatened to arrest Lifto if he did his swingin’ dick, and Eddie got the whole crowd chanting during their show, “Lifto, Lifto!” And Lifto would go over to their show and sit on an amp, high up, like a pagan god. And you got to understand, Jim was always backstage goading everybody. So it became kind of this outrageous bet on the tour, you know. So everybody partook.
Was there one stunt in particular that was most likely to guarantee people fainting?
Well, the pincushion act for sure. But it was surprising; in San Francisco, a woman fainted when Matt did that can smash [smashing a can on a body part], and he dated her later! So we’d say, “Make them faint and date them.” Matt’s act would certainly get some faints sometimes, Lifto would get faints, and sword swallowing too. I mean, it was a phobic show; it touched on phobias. And the troupe really was kind of a Johnny Appleseed of sideshow going around the world, because now you see this stuff everywhere. Like when we did Sally Jessy, that aired in May. And then we get to Omaha, Nebraska, the next October and we have a night off, so we go to this Halloween show. And these guys have taken the Sally Jessy tape and memorized the lines and they’re doing all the light stuff from the show that they can do, eating worms and stuff like that. And it’s the same thing after The Word aired in England. The Word was a very popular, kind of outrageous show; Nirvana was on there once [Kurt Cobain famously called Courtney Love “the best fuck in the world” while on the show]. That Circus of Horrors show which is still going on [in the UK], that was started because the producers saw our show; that started because they saw us.
Was there a difference in how you were regarded in countries outside the US?
There were definitely cultural differences that were pretty funny. I was highly amused at the Roskilde Festival to have Russian clowns try to kick us off the stage. What they were objecting to was their fear of blood, but there wasn’t usually blood in the show. In the case of France, it was hard with the translation. Bebe [Jim Rose’s wife] tried to translate and did a good job, but it was still tough. We had one amusing situation where we had been hired to be on an outside stage in the middle of this little town in France for this festival. And I talked to the promoter, and I said, “Do you realize that at two in the afternoon Lifto is gonna be lifting a couple of irons with his dick?” And the guy goes, “Excellent! Excellent! Yes, Yes!”
I mean, it’s an extreme show. And I think there were a lot of situations where promoters were hiring it for that reason too. It was a fun alternative to people that did bands endlessly. And a lot of rooms said that; they enjoyed having something a little different. And that’s another area where this troupe helped pull back a lot of [sideshow] acts that are doing the rock and roll circuit. I mean, you see a lot of stuff on that circuit [now] that wasn’t happening in the ’80s.
You filmed a lot of the stuff that’s in the movie, right?
Both me and Tim [Cridland]. We were hoarding ephemera and everything with the idea that we would be doing something like this with the troupe. The crazy stuff you see, like the opening, that was Tim with his Super-8. Some of the stuff that you say, “Who would film that?” — that’s Tim. And I was sending home ephemera to myself the whole time we were on the road. And I was taping a lot of shows on cassette, for the sake of playing them back and improving the show while we were traveling. So some of that stuff you hear that you say, “Wow, I can’t believe there’s a tape of that!” like Chris Cornell’s voice, that’s why we have it.
And then me and Tim combined our ephemera when we worked on the book. And even then, I was still watching eBay for stuff. It’s funny, one of my gigs was to make sure people weren’t filming the show, and here I am twelve years later buying footage off eBay that had got by me! So I always knew that I had a “documentary in a box,” stored in a couple suitcases. And after making the book, I kept trying to find somebody that would help me finish it. And I had met Cory; he worked on Spokanarchy[a 2011 documentary about the Spokane music scene], and then he started doing some videos for me and I thought he was getting really good, so I proposed it to him. And I just buried him in stuff; it was overwhelming!
And then finally we said, “Okay, let’s just make a trailer.” And we made it, and it was just obvious that we had a film here; just look at all the characters! And that’s one thing we wondered about in making this documentary. I knew everybody was a great character back then. But then you wonder, okay, thirty years later, are they still going to be good characters that are interesting? And I think they all are.
I know you and other people in the troupe had a falling out with Jim, but there’s not too much of that in the documentary.
The first two hour cut of the film definitely had a lot more people telling stories, but we decided we didn’t want to bludgeon the viewer. We tried to approach Jim when we started and he just ignored us. Then we tried one more time and Jim started going back and forth with Cory, and immediately went into cross-examination mode: “Who’s paying for it? Who’s involved? What’s going on? I’ll be involved, but you’re going to have to interview these guys again, ask them different questions.” Cory said it was like letting a shark in the fish tank. So then I went to my Plan B. I knew he’d just done an interview with Coney Island [a permanent sideshow organization in South Brooklyn], so I bought that interview. And it actually catches him in a better way than I think if we had interviewed him; it worked amazingly well. I’ve been really happy that people have felt that it’s balanced and no one has said we’re too harsh on Jim.
How’s the film doing on the festival circuit?
It’s been getting better with every festival, really. I feel like we are getting a word of mouth going. And that’s my attitude on it. The original troupe was a word of mouth thing — you had to see this show! — and that’s how I feel about the film. It’s a DIY labor of love; let’s just see what we can do as far as word of mouth.
Are you getting any sense if there are people seeing it that weren’t familiar with the Sideshow before?
Part of my hope is that we can shock young people as much as it was a shock then. And the few young people that have seen it, I think they have been shocked. But I feel like young people are so straight today that I like the idea of them seeing it. There is one thing on YouTube where it’s one of those couples reviewing shows from a long time ago, and they watch the Moore Theatre official video we did [in 1993]. And they’re just horrified by the whole thing.
So then you know you’ve done your job.
Upcoming screenings of Circus of the Scars: the Coney Island Film Festival (May 5), and the Seattle International Film Festival (May 19 and 21, plus a streaming option May 22-28).
One thought on “The Freakiest Show”
Really looking forward to seeing this in Seattle. I know it’s won awards at several of the film festivals it’s already played so anticipating a fascinating reminder of the 1990s.