Nothing pleases sideshow frontman Jim Rose more than a falling ovation—that is, the sight of fans fainting as they watch the hair-curling stunts of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. Rose, 38, a former exterminator and car salesman, has revived the freak show — or ”thrill show,” as he prefers to call it — offering a generation of twentysomethings who grew up deprived of carnival culture the chance to see a human pincushion and a round of chain-saw football.
In his new book, Freak Like Me: Inside the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow (Dell, $13.95, cowritten with Melissa Rossi), Rose tells how a childhood spent hawking sodas and watching carny barkers at the Arizona State Fair led to a circus career. His troupe went on the road with Lollapalooza in 1992 and opened for Nine Inch Nails during their 1994-95 tour. An appearance on The X-Files cemented the circus’ fame, and now Rose and company are headlining their own national tour.
”My inspiration has to do with thrill shows of the 1950s and early 1960s,” says Rose, who has eaten lightbulbs and stuck nails up his nose. ”Late-20th-century phobias are endless. It’s my job to know that everybody has had superglue stuck between their thumb and index finger for a fraction of a second and it scared the hell out of ‘em. I add comedy to make the atrocities palatable.”
In Freak Like Me, Rose gives away many trade secrets—not, he says, to encourage fans to try his stunts at home, but rather ”to explain the professionalism required to do a show like this.” For a current antic, a sort of industrialized William Tell routine, ”we allow an audience member to come up on stage and bite into an apple, and we cut their initials into it with a chain saw,” he explains. ”And, of course, they get to keep that apple. It’s the best souvenir in the world.”