America's freak show ringmaster Jim Rose turns his attention to the mystical properties of mind control.
By Coury Turczyn
APRIL 19, 1999: Deep down below the darkest reaches of the psyche, it lurkswaiting to be brought out into the light. Leave behind your preconceptions of what is "right" or "wrong," of that which is possible or impossible. Dig even further inside, past all the self-imposed limits on what you think you're capable of, to the hidden core of primal human behavior. For it is there you'll find Jim Rose.
Mentalism! Black Magic! Faith Healing! Brainwashing! These mysterious arts of Mind Control have been the stock in trade of psychics, reverends, and con men throughout the history of humankindand now they are laid bare and wriggling at The New Jim Rose Circus' Secrets of the Strange. After a lifetime of studying hypnotism and other powerful mind secrets, Mr. Rose has created his tour de force, a theatrical production that's the culmination of a career spent exposing the masses to testicle weight-lifting and Mexican transvestite wrestling.
"You know, hundreds of people have fainted during the Human Dartboard act over the years," Rose says matter-of-factly from his Los Angeles hotel room. "This year, no one willthey will laugh. And it's to prove a point: that it's all the power of suggestion."
Indeed, that's the lesson Rose learned when he first saw the Human Dartboard, which he says is "the first human marvel act that made my jaw drop." After that show, when he met the Dartboard, Rose remarked on the fact that so many people had fainted during the act. The Dartboard's response is something Rose hasn't forgotten: "You only get a lot of people to faint if you tell them they might ahead of time." It's an instruction Rose has used well in his own exploits as freak show provocateur, his circus becoming famous first as an original Lollapalooza act in 1992, then as an opener for Nine Inch Nails, and finally as a pop culture standby on episodes of The X-Files and The Simpsons. Over the years, and with several different tours, The Jim Rose Circus earned a rep as being not for the faint-hearted.
"We used to have a fainters' corner during that act [the Human Dartboard] where significant others with a rag would be patting down foreheads and wiping the bubbles from their lovers' noses," Rose says, almost wistfully. "But it is not happening this year because I am presenting it comically. I mean, there is no blood or any of that in this 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."
But it's that kind of stuff that has made Jim Rose a household namea name synonymous with nails being hammered into noses, stomach fluids being pumped out and consumed, football games being played with chainsaws. As ringmaster, Rose single-handedly brought back freak show amusements to the forefront of American culture, taking a nearly extinct form of sideshow entertainment and combining it with a modern rock 'n' roll sensibility.
As the prematurely born son of an amateur magician and mentalist, Rose grew up in Tucson, Arizona as something of a freak himself, not getting corrective surgery for his crossed eyes until the age of eight. After soaking up all the traditional circuses, monster truck shows, motorcycle daredevils, and legitimate theater that came to town, he attended the University of Arizona and got a political science degree. Rose dabbled in spoken word performances and the like while working on fundraising events for social causes (as well as a stint in car sales), but his career took a turn when he met his future wife, Bebe The Circus Queen, a French performer whose brother runs the largest circus in Europe, the Royal Deluxe. She introduced him to the European tradition of circus spectacle, which inspired him to research it thoroughly before finally reintroducing American audiences to freak show attractions such as The Enigma, the tattooed fellow who will do anything.
But for all his fame for presenting human oddities, does Rose ever draw the line of grossness?
"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," he says. "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."
Unfoolproofed acts aside, that leaves plenty of room for performers like the Armenian Rubberman, who can squeeze his body through the frame of a tennis racket. If you think such gruesome fare still isn't acceptable to the masses, just turn on your TV set and take a gander at Guinness World Records: Primetime or most of the FOX schedule.
"Today you see acts on prime time television that I was being thrown in jail for in '91 and '92," marvels Rose. "In '91, I sold thousands of tickets to what is today your next door neighbor: pierced and tattooed kids. So without a doubt it is already mainstreamed. And it was my goalI love dying arts and I love trying to revive them. There were no freak shows in '91, '92, and '93, so I put together an all-star cast. It is pretty obvious how television is seeking all of my performers now. But in '94, I started to realize, heck, there are a lot of kids out there who have been watching me now, and some of them are doing my show word for wordand that is not what I got into this for."
Ever mindful of his audience, Rose didn't want to simply keep repeating his old triumphsor worse, do things you can now see on television. For his next act, what he had in mind was a psychological spook show, something not seen here since the 1940s"You know, back when fluorescent (paint) would scare people," says Rose. "That is what they used to do: put fluorescent painted bats on the end of fishing poles, turn out the lights, and run up and down the audience, hanging them over your head. That would scare the hell out of people. But they were dealing with early 20th century fears and phobias. So I realized for it to be reinvented, we would have to get with the program and know what year we are in."
What he found was that despite society's technological advancement, it was still obsessed by such dubious miracles as faith healing, psychic surgery, fortune telling, or black magic. What do such arts have in common? Mind control. As a child, Rose says he read countless books on hypnotism, but couldn't figure out what they meant. So he started learning by watching, and discovered a world beyond freaks that was even more fascinating.
"I'm more interested nowadays in the mechanics behind fortune tellingis it a formula or is it real?" he muses. "How does someone use extreme concentration to disrupt an inanimate object? How can they just stare at a spoon and it bends before everyone's eyes? How can somebody read someone's mind and tell them how many coins they have in their pocket? You see, high pressure salesmen and con men are also under the umbrella of hypnotism, mind control, and brainwashing. And these human manipulations are a folk art; it's gone on since the beginning of the spoken word. I am a con man, but people like a con man if they're in on the con, and that's what my show is all aboutgetting in on the con."
Rose alternately describes Secrets of the Strange as being both "empowering" for audiences, but also "the most dangerous show I've ever done." Soon to open Off-Broadway in New York City's Westbeth Theatre, he likens the show's revelations to those expensive seminars that teach people how to walk on red-hot coals, which promises to increase self-esteem and confidence by allowing its participants to overcome their fears.
"Walking on red hot coals is the easiest thing in the world to do," Rose declares. "Let the coals heat up 'til they're only red in the middle, lots of charcoal around them, walk across briskly, be off all coals within seven seconds because the heat can't register in that amount of time. ThereI've saved you hundreds of dollars. Ah, The Jim Rose Circus is like a thousand fire-walks this year with Secrets of the Strange."
On the other hand, Rose also foresees a potential danger in unlocking the mysteries of mind control for audiencespotential cult leaders can be anywhere. "Anytime you can clearly explain something as powerful as brainwashing in four minutes, and people actually understand it, that's powerful information... I was always curious (about) what happened when those cult doors closedwhat were they doing to people that would make them never talk to their families again? Well it's not complicated. And it's real. And I'm gonna prove it."
At the end of the day, though, The Jim Rose Circus really only has one basic goal: "In my small way, I'm trying to entertain. If (audiences) get more than that out of it, and they do, that's just a bonus. My idea is just for people to walk in, forget all their troubles, and have a hell of a lot of fun for an hour and 45 minutes. That's my job."
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