It's easy to understand why some people might take the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow as further evidence that the entertainment industry is going to the devil.
How else to explain the raging popularity of a show whose star will snack on light bulbs, hammer a nail up his nose, and invite someone from the audience to stand on his head while he lies face-down in a pile of broken glass? Or whose idea of a big finish is to lie on a "bed of razor-sharp swords, having a concrete block placed on the chest and it beaten with a sledgehammer. It is the most severe of all martial arts challenges," says Rose, over the phone from a tour stop in Philadelphia.
Nor is Rose's act the most extreme in the show. Consider, for example, Matt "The Tube" Crowley, who can put a condom in his mouth, then blow it out through his nose. Or the Torture King who smiles after plunging a meat skewer through both cheeks. Or theEnigma, a sword-swallower whose body is one giant tattooed jigsaw puzzle. Or the Amazing Mr. Lifto, who can pick up a Sunbeam iron by tying it to a hook through his tongue.
"If you're the type of person who lights your house on fire after seeing 'Beavis and Butt-head,' " laughs Rose, "don't come near us."
Bizarre? Sure. But before you start muttering to yourself that this country ought to return to old-fashioned entertainment, you may want to consider the fact that there's very little in the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow that wasn't standard circus fare 80 years ago.
"Your great-aunt Betty would come to a show like this," says Rose. "She'd look through fingers over her eyes, but she'd be there. These things were all the rage."
Everyone remembers the rage for human curiosities like Gen. Tom Thumb or Chang and Eng, the "Original Siamese Twins." But just as important to the sideshows were the "Self-Made Freaks," people of bizarre appearance and unusual ability whose entertainment value consisted of being able to shock and amaze.
And a lot of what they did back then was not that far removed from what Rose and company are doing today.
So when you watch Rose nosh on a GE softwhite, what you're seeing isn't all that different from the show audiences got at the turn of the century when Alfonso "The Human Ostrich" worked Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show On Earth, ingesting cork, glass, wool and paraffin. Likewise, Matt "The Tube" Crowley's ability to swallow and regurgitate stuff is not dissimilar to the routine "The Great Waldo" performed at the Ripley Believe It or Not shows in the '30s.
And though Mr. Lifto, whose repertoire includes such stunts as suspending a cinder block from a chain attached to his nipples, may seem like the last word in outre entertainment, it's worth noting that back in the '30s, Rasmus Nielson would lift an anvil by rings attached to his chest.
Rose blames the demise of sideshow entertainment on its popularity, ironically. "There used to be human marvels, people that were born normal and could do amazing things, because they'd changed their bodies," he says.
They did so well, they were lucrative, that entrepreneurial sharks infested the waters and turned [the shows] into cons and hoaxes. There were only so many Jim Roses or whatever around, so the sharks went into cons and hoaxes, and people became disillusioned."
It was mostly a matter of chance that Rose learned the truth aboutsideshow wonders. "I grew up next to a state fairgrounds, so I got to see pretty much the last generation," he says. "There were cons and hoaxes, but there would always be one human marvel. I can remember people would leave that tent shaking their head and talking to themselves about the guy that put the blowtorch out with his tongue.
"Since I lived next door, they'd recruit the neighbor hoodlums to vend soft drinks, etc. They'd promise us big stuffed animals at the end of the run. We never got them, but we stole enough to make it worth our while."
He laughs. "That gave me access to the last generation for a couple of years there. Ever since then, I was hooked."
Although he learned the basics of an escape artist act on his own, his real education didn't begin until he went off to the Fool School in Amsterdam.
"That's when I started meeting all kinds of bizarre humans, people that were like the human dartboard, people that could put their face in broken glass and let you step on their head. These are some of the skills that I acquired."
Rose applied his skills to street-performance, and plied his trade at Covent Gardens in London and outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris. He even played the streets of Baltimore briefly.
"I got kicked out of the Fishmarket area, back years ago," he says, laughing. "I used to live in Washington, D.C., and there wasn't a lot to do, so on the weekends I'd go up to Baltimore and hang around the aquarium area there and do a tamer version of some of the stuff I do now. But they thought that was perhaps too extreme, so I was asked to leave."
Extreme, however, is largely a matter of taste, and what Rose does has amazingly wide-spread appeal. He's a major draw in Europe, and has a growing cult audience in America.
Even better, his video -- "The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow," which was released by the same company that handles the Black Crowes and Andrew Dice Clay -- sells some 2,500 copies a week.
Did he expect his act to bring such success? "No, I just thought it would get me through the recession," he says. "I'm kidding. Once I decided to do a stage show, it happened rather quickly. I had my stage show going for about a month and a half, and I was in Newsweek."
Still, for all his in-your-face outrageousness, Rose is savvy enough not to make his show too disgusting. One absolute rule is no gratuitous gore onstage. "People ask, 'Jim, where do you draw the line?' It's blood," he says. "There's no blood in this show."
Beyond that, he always tries to emphasize that this is just entertainment. "We do it with a lot of comedy," he says. "It is a funny show. People laugh.
"They say 50 percent of all laughter is nervous laughter, so you can imagine -- they're howling."
What: Jim Rose Circus Sideshow
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
Call: (410) 659-7625 for information; (410) 481-7328 for tickets