The Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame informs me that today is the birthday of sideshow performer and impresario Bobby Reynolds (b. 1931). I know this estimable personage (who billed himself as “The World’s Greatest Showman”) by legend only, but many of my acquaintance know and knew him well. Several of the folks on the dais with me spoke about him reverently at the Congress of Curious People the other night. When she was Miss Coney Island, our friend Lefty Lucy got to sit on his lap!
Reynolds has been unwell for several years but in his prime he was a principal bridge between the classic sideshow era (he was born the year before Tod Browning’s Freaks came out) and the sideshow revival that started in the 1980s. He learned his trade (as a talker, fire eater, sword swallower etc) at Hubert’s Museum (and Heckler’s Flea Circus, which was located within it) starting in the 1940s. He also learned some magic and the art of ventriloquism. He worked at circuses in the ’50s and ’60s and partnered with a guy named Jack Waller with his own sideshow at Coney Island, while continuing to present at carnivals, fairs, and such like over the decades. He is known for such oddities as a tattooed dog, and his two headed “pickled punk”, Ronny and Donny. He has exhibited such exquisite fol de rol as “the head of Pancho Villa” and “Bigfoot’s finger”. In the 1990s he went head to head with Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA, and some delicious press coverage resulted. He is (was) especially beloved for his hilarious, witty patter, in spite of the fact that he was functionally illterate. He certainly knew how to make the ink happen, whether it was on a dog or in a newspaper.
Here are some delightful articles I found about Bobby Reynolds and his doings from relatively recent times:
A few years ago there was a documentary in the works about him called Believe It You’re Nuts, named after what Reynolds called one of his own museums, as a parody of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. The original intention seems to have been to take Reynolds on the road one last time (this was in 2015) but it may have proved impracticable, as I see nothing about it online after the original crowdfund campaign. There are a few clips of him recreating his pitches on Youtube. Valuable stuff for those of who care about this culture.
ALSO. James Taylor of Shocked and Amazed wants you to know that Reynolds was also interviewed – at length – in the “Collectors Edition” of Shocked & Amazed: On and Off the Midway; he also generated his interview as a separate booklet back when he was featured as the cover of Volume 4 of Shocked and Amazed!, a very limited publication, the interview booklet, issued for Reynolds’ use as either a pitch item or a giveaway.
For more on variety arts history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,