Mondo Carny

Several people say the same thing when I tell them I'm having lunch with Jim Rose: "I'd be afraid to have lunch with him. I'd be afraid he'd . . . do something." Something, they mean, like eating one of his drinking glasses, or sticking one of his utensils through his nostril and back into his skull, or using a manual force-feeding stomach pump to retrieve his entree from his innards. This sort of thing is, after all, what the man is internationally famous for.

But when I walk into Char's in Tempe and ask the trim guy in the loud shirt if he's Jim Rose, he says, "By default, sir," and politely extends his hand. We get a table, and he tells me that he's not very hungry; he just wants something light. No razor blades, no scorpions. It's almost an anticlimax -- until he starts to tell me his story.

Char's is a dimly lighted Thai restaurant across University Drive from the Improv, where Rose will be performing that weekend, kicking off a national tour of the Jim Rose Circus. For the uninitiated, Rose's "circus" is in fact closer, in form, to a carny sideshow of the old school, with freak-out physical feats and gross-outs and displays of daring. At the center of it is the black-clad Rose, sticking spoons into his head, gobbling razor blades, plopping a live scorpion onto the face and, stinger-first, into the mouth of his glamorous, enigmatically smiling wife Bebe, and baring his back for her to throw darts into it.

Then the show really gets going. Before it's over, weights have been hung from pierced ears and nipples, swords have been swallowed, and the aforementioned stomach pump has been put to revolting use. For the finale, Rose lies face-down in broken beer bottles and allows an audience member to stand on his head.

For Rose, the Tempe shows constitute a return of the native. He was born, forty-some years ago, here in the Valley, he grew up around 75th Avenue and Indian School and later, like Steven Spielberg, attended Arcadia High School. His earlier childhood was no Spielberg movie, however. To the obvious question -- how does one come to perform such stunts for one's livelihood? -- he refers me to the traumas of his rather Flannery O'Connor-esque childhood.

"I was born premature and cross-eyed; my first bed when taken out of the incubator was a shoe box. I don't know how much I weighed, but my mom laughs that I was a woman's size 7." His crossed eyes made life tough in grade school, he says. "I was constantly harassed and teased, beaten up a lot." We get our drinks. Water for Rose, wonderful Thai-style iced tea -- with milk -- for me. Rose says it looks like Indian chai tea, which he loves. He tastes mine. "This may be better than chai tea," he proclaims.

We share an excellent gai satay -- skewered chicken -- appetizer, and Rose continues his tale. Around the time he was in fifth grade, his father promised him corrective surgery for his eyes. "It was the best day of my life. I went and I told everybody, 'I'm gettin' my eyes fixed.' They didn't believe me. Finally the summer came, great day, got the operation, had bandages all around my eyes. Had to stay on for two weeks. So my little brother, who was also born cross-eyed, would take me out for walks, and the neighborhood kids'd throw rocks at me and say, 'Mole, mole, come outta your hole!'"

Two weeks later, the bandages were removed. "They wiped the yellow gook outta my eyes, and just when I was lookin' in the mirror, I heard the doctor say, 'It didn't work; we'll have to try again next year.' So I went back to school and was harassed more than even the year before."

The following year's operation was a success, but in the interim, "I got so I didn't want to be in public, and so my only friend was my dad." Rose describes his father, a City of Phoenix employee, as "an amateur magician and mentalist."

The exposure to his dad's interests shaped Rose's future, as did the job he got vending soft drinks at the state fairgrounds shortly after his eyes were permanently uncrossed.

Rose soon got hired on at the fairgrounds to do other work, and got backstage access. "Like in a lot of midsize cities, your state fairground was your cultural hub. So I got to see a lot of great acts -- Hendrix, Doors." His career course was set. He subsequently logged in work with traditional circus and legitimate theater -- he proudly notes that he played Nicely-Nicely Johnson in a Phoenix production of Guys and Dolls -- as well as with monster trucks, professional wrestling, motorcycle daredevils, freak shows.

"Everything that creased my brain, that gave me a jolt, I seemed to remember," he says. "I also, while at the state fairgrounds, learned a couple of little things, like the Human Blockhead. I didn't know at the time that I'd be Dr. Blockhead on The X-Files."

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.

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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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead