Mondo Carny

Eating with Jim Rose is a picnic, if not a circus

Our entrees are placed in front of us. My cashew chicken is tasty, but Rose has ordered especially well -- the shrimp special, featuring, in a lovely dark sauce, a circle of crustaceans so large as to belie their name.

Eventually, Rose moved to Washington, D.C., where in the '80s he wrote and produced a play and met "a gorgeous French girl named Bebe. She came from a circus family." He and Bebe became an item -- they've since married -- and he moved to Europe and toured with her in the Rondolini Circus, where he learned more "stuff to do . . . mostly magic, fire eating, the Human Blockhead. I would eat glass . . ."

People at other booths glance over when they hear this. Rose cringes. "I'm talkin' too loud," he says.

Lizard Man, Jim Rose and Bebe
Lizard Man, Jim Rose and Bebe

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Such skills eventually enabled Rose to found the Jim Rose Circus, which became a major box-office draw overseas. He proudly notes that his was the top-selling act in the history of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival -- he says he broke the record set by Tap Dogs there -- and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

When he finally achieved a measure of fame in this country, it was with the rock 'n' roll crowd. "I did Lollapalooza in this country. I come from a theater background; my first day at Lollapalooza, someone said, 'There's Jane's Addiction.' I said, 'I hope she gets treatment!'"

For this new audience, a new type of show was required. "So I put on some makeup, read a Rolling Stone, a Spin magazine, watched MTV, sped up the show so it had an MTV-edit feel . . . fast and furious, happenin' everywhere, eye candy, eye candy, eye candy. And of course, scream the f-word a lot, 'cause they need that."

While Rose is telling me about his current tour -- a bid for success on the comedy-club circuit -- the lovely Bebe comes into Char's to fetch him. With her is the third member of the company, known only as the Lizard Man. This young fellow wears a tattooed-on pattern of reptilian scales that covers the vast majority of his skin, including his face. His hair is dyed green, his teeth are sharpened to points, his tongue is split down the middle into a fork, and these tongue-halves are prehensile -- he can cross them.

Onstage, the Lizard Man's role is mute, but here at Char's, the former philosophy grad student from upstate New York talks to me enthusiastically -- with only a hint of a lisp -- about Wittgenstein and semantics.

"If you get him talkin' about philosophy, we'll never get outta here," says Rose, drawing us toward the door. Outside Char's, I point out Rose's name on the marquee of the Improv across the street, and ask him how it feels.

For a second, the dark childhood is forgotten. Rose thrusts his fists into the air and yells, "Arcadia Rules!"

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