Founded in Seattle in the early 1990s, The Jim Rose Circus rose to national prominence during 1992’s Lollapalooza tour, when fans and journalists alike were first exposed to the mindblowing thrill-ride of their stage show. With the charismatic Rose leading audiences on a journey rife with black magic, stunning performances and dangerous exploits, Rolling Stone called the group an “absolute must-see act” and USA Today hailed The Jim Rose Circus as “Lollapalooza’s word of mouth hit attaction.”
After Lollapalooza, Jim Rose and his crew of sideshow performers headlined seven world tours and released a self-titled video on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings that became a cult classic. In 1994, they were chosen to tour with Nine Inch Nails and a then-unknown Marilyn Manson, and later with KoRn and Godsmack, and appearances on The X-Files and The Simpsons in the mid-1990s brought Rose’s legendary persona to the masses. In 2009, Jim Rose joined forces with professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts for The Legends Collide Tour, and in 2010, Rose worked with Guns N’ Roses, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice Cooper. In addition, Rose also did a one-month engagement at the Palms casino in Las Vegas.
Jim Rose’s autobiography, Freak Like Me, was published in 1995 and his most recent work, Snake Oil (Life’s Calculations, Misdirections, And Manipulations) was released in 2005.
Rose currently resides in Las Vegas, busily preparing his next literary project, planning a world tour, consulting and playing poker. To learn more about Rose, check out www.jimrosecircus.com.
What was your childhood like? How did you initially become interested in being a performer?
I was born premature and cross-eyed. My father was an amateur magician and mentalist. After birth, I was so small I had to stay at the hospital in an incubator for two weeks. Standard cribs were too big, so when I was brought home my parents fitted me in a shoe box to serve as my first bed. My mother used to joke that she didn’t remember how much I weighed, but she did know I was a women’s size 7. I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona as something of a freak myself, not getting corrective surgery for my crossed-eyes until the age of eight.
I lived across the street from the fairgrounds and went to all the traditional circuses, monster truck shows, motorcycle daredevils, freak shows and legitimate theater that came to town. My first job was at the fairgrounds, doing odd jobs like selling soft drinks. I fetched soft drinks and cigarettes for the Lobster Boy, the Penguin Boy, the Frog Boy. I was doing that for awhile and then learned to do the human blockhead and how to be a motorcycle daredevil. That was my first real job, but I had a little motorcycle accident. I attempted to jump 27 cows and must have landed on some spent cud. I went a bit wobbly. I cleared the cows but still managed to crash. I hurt my back, so that’s why when I speak to you today I have the posture of a jumbo shrimp.
Before the Jim Rose Circus became popular in America, you honed your craft in Europe. What did you learn from that experience?
I kind of gave up on entertaining for a while: I attended the University of Arizona and studied political science, then moved to Washington D.C. and dabbled in spoken word performances, played in punk bands and the like while working on fundraising events for social causes (as well as a stint in car sales). I used to perform at a place called D.C. Space back in the day of Henry Rollins and Fugazi, right about 1984-85. I was there when that happened; I didn’t break because I was not very good at that time, I only got started.
At one of my shows, I ran into a little French girl named Bebe who comes from a circus family in France. She has been my beloved wife for over 25 spectacular years. She took me to France and I began working with her family circus. She introduced me to the European tradition of circus spectacle, which inspired me to research it thoroughly. Her brother is the director of the Royal De Luxe, the largest circus in Europe; one sister and her German husband have the Randalini circus, and I used to travel with them, going around the Lake of Constance. So I learned a great deal about circus stuff and freak shows at that time; I didn’t know too much about how to run a freak show. It was hard to find anything about it in the U.S. because it had disappeared for about fifteen years. So I brought some of the American stunts over there and I picked up some Euro stunts and brought them back to the U.S.
I then went to Venice Beach where I worked as Jimmy the Geek Rubber Man. I got my presentation skills up doing seven shows a day, seven days a week as a street performer. That is how I made my money: fucking with tourists.
How did you get recruited to join the 1992 Lollapalooza Festival?
I’d done a sold out tour of Canada and I’d done some national television in the U.S. Perry Farrell saw me on The Sally Jessie Raphael Show and asked me to join up. We did and we’ve not looked back since. At the time, I had no idea who his band was. Hell, the first day of Lollapalooza someone pointed out this band to me and said, “look it’s Jane’s Addiction!” I said “Well, I hope she gets treatment.”
How did your appearances on The X-Files and The Simpsons come about, and how did those appearances affect your career?
Chris Carter, the producer, read my book, Freak Like Me. He was a fan and so was David Duchovny. They originally got in touch with me to see if I could do something on the show. I’d never heard of The X-Files; I was touring Europe at the time and I said no, and they came back again and again, they were very adamant and I said no. Then my agent called me up one day and said, “You know, this is a pretty big show, and said they will let me help write the script if I decide to be in it.” To which I replied, “Now I definitely don’t want to be in it because that sounds like too much work.” They called back with a good offer, so I said “Okay, I won’t help write it.” Darin Morgan wrote it and he did a really good job.
The episode was “Humbug” from the second season of The X-Files and I was featured as Dr. Blockhead. Trivia fans may be curious to know that Gillian Anderson ate a live cricket after a dare from me during the filming. It was the first real curveball episode. I was the lead murder suspect in it; they do fan favorite voting and that episode comes in at number one or number two all the time.
And then The Simpsons, well they got a hold of me, they wanted to do a Homerpalooza. They knew that my show was pretty much the vibe of that festival for many years. My wife Bebe is the Human Cannonball in the Jim Rose Circus, so Homer basically took her place in that episode.
After The X-Files and The Simpsons, things changed for us. People perceived us differently. We got the rock-and-roll tour buses and nice hotels. It was like some kind of pop-culture thing going on.
When it comes to stage performances, is there a line that you, as the leader of The Jim Rose Circus, refuse to cross?
Well, anytime there are stunts done successfully and it still creates blood, or if it has to do with mutilation, I won’t do it. If I put my face in broken glass and let people stomp on the back of my head and I come out looking like a hamburger, that’s not success. I mean, there is no blood or any of that in the show. I can’t seem to get away from the myths of ’91 and ’92. And at this point, the legend around those shows is so skewed, it’s nowhere near reality. There has never been live mutilation or blood in The Jim Rose Circus. But I’ll be damned if you ask some kids out there who think they knew what happened back in the old days, they are going to tell you all kinds of stuff… I had a guy one time who said, “Look Jim, here’s what I can do: Audience members can hold my eyes open while other audience members dump buckets of dirt in them.” And I knew he was wearing the thick contacts, and I knew he was microwaving the dirt to keep a lot of the potential for infection away. Still, I was noticing that the weight of dumping that dirt all at the same time was letting dirt get through the contacts and scratch the retina. And I just thought that it wasn’t foolproof enough to be in a professional circus. The Jim Rose Circus has always relied heavily on a bizarre kind of comedy and that’s what the audience expects, and the stunts are not secondary but they are vehicles to spin comedy around.
What was the inspiration behind Snake Oil?
I had so much stuff in my head that I just didn’t want it to get lost. This is stuff you would only know if you had hung around hustlers in the ’70s and ’80s, and that is what I did. I just didn’t want it to be lost, since I was one of the few old guys left who could get it published. My motivation was “What does a street education mean?” You hear about it all the time, now to get that degree you have to go through a ton of hard knocks. So I figured I would give people their street education without the hard knocks.
The second tier of the reason why I decided to write the book was, for example: brain washing! You can read a 200-page book on brainwashing and at the end of the book you know about as much about it as when you started. Then it dawns on you, “Wow, I could have distilled that into about two paragraphs and I would have understood it! So why did the author need to write 200 pages?” Because that is what a fucking book is. And that really frustrated me. I just came from the position that everything in the book could be summed up in a few paragraphs, this is what it is so here it is.
The third motivation behind the book was to allow people after reading it to be dumped off into a country that they didn’t know the language and still be able to make a living and survive. I wanted to chock that book full of different kinds of information: how to scam people, how to change your identity, how to disguise yourself, how to win a fight if cornered, how to do easy jail time if you have to go to jail, how to win free pints at a pub, different magic tricks, circus stunts, how to get even with people… it’s an eclectic encyclopedia on all things “shysterish.” I thought that’d be fun to put that out.
What has been your most interesting or memorable celebrity encounter?
I have met a lot of famous people in my time, but the coolest moment was when William S. Burroughs came to my show.
Al Jourgensen was the one who brought him to my show in Lawrence, Kansas. He had a cane but he didn’t need it, he basically used it to bat people away as he walked by. I knew that he loved Ferdinand Celine (French writer). I believe his favorite of his books was Journey to the Edge of Night, but I could be wrong. Anyways, I meet Burroughs for the first time, and I had no idea what to say to him. So I said “Hey, Mr. Burroughs, what do you think about Ferdinand Celine?” And he replied “He’s dead.” So now when people ask me about Burroughs, I say, “He’s dead.” Figured I would carry it on.
You recently went on tour with Jake “The Snake” Roberts. What inspired that idea?
You know, the movie The Wrestler was based on a documentary called Beyond the Mat, which featured Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who has had some ups and downs (as we all have) and I was always a big fan. I would like one of my last stories to be touring with Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
I wrote the show. It is basically pretty girls, amazing circus stunts, pro wrestling, and a fist fight. Who could ask for more?
The storyline is that I bring Jake out and talk about how great he is, and ask him some questions like, “What was it like to slam Andre the Giant?” He’ll answer it, and you never know what Jake will say on any given night. So at some point in the evening, he has to get the people to turn, which he is really good at, so to upset the audience and create the need for a fight, he tells me that he appreciates my comments but he takes real offense at circus people. So we try to impress him, and Jake makes fun of everything that we do and finally the circus attacks him and he beats the hell out of everybody except me. So he and I finish off the show with a fight.
When I booked the Jake “The Snake” show, all these wrestlers started calling up from across the country getting in touch saying, “I’ll bring a table, I’ll bring a trash can, I’ll bring anything as long as Jake ‘The Snake’ throws me through it!”
Typically-speaking, what does the audience look like at a show these days?
There is no such thing anymore. I have been around too long. You will see a biker next to a cowboy, next to a punk rocker, next to a University artist, next to a lesbian. And they are all pointing at the stage, laughing, and slapping each other on the back.
I pretty much bring communities together. God’s work.
What do you do when you’re not touring?
I play poker professionally.
What would you like to do that you simply haven’t found the time for yet?
Tracing the pivitol locations of the book Crime and Punishment in Russia.
If you could offer one piece of advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?
Never make a snap decision, no matter how impulsive you are feeling at that moment… and there will be a company called Apple, the second it is put on the stock market, invest every penny you have in it and then sell 10 years later.
What are you working on next?
You know what, it’s like an AA meeting, I take it one day at a time. I honestly just don’t know and to tell you the truth never have known. I never put any stress into it. I did Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and Jerry Falwell, I smoked pot right in front of John Kennedy Jr., back before he got his pilot license. Trent Reznor used to be my roommate, I know David Bowie, I did Ozzy Osbourne’s retirement party, and Sharon made the kids leave the room, William S. Burroughs used to come to my shows before he died, I was on The X-Files, Homer ran away and joined The Jim Rose Circus on The Simpsons as a human cannonball.
My only dream was a pop-out couch and a toaster, so I have to pinch myself daily to believe that all this is possible.