The commodification of subcultures was an annoying running narrative of the '90s, and the barnstorming Jim Rose Circus jacked up that process with more raging meathead bravado than most. By utilizing, quite literally, the oldest tricks in the huckster's handbook — and ones that were revived with more playfulness and less gross-out extremism both before (Coney Island's Sideshows by the Seashore) and after (Bindlestiff Family Cirkus) — Rose gloried in his role as the Perry Farrell of theatrical self-mutilation, more adept at brand management than creating anything original or shocking. His retinue of performers — the Amazing Mister Lifto (he of the tensile scrotum), Bebe the Circus Queen (she of the bed of nails), plus an array of others (the Torture King, Slug, Matt "the Tube" Crowley) — disgustingly repackaged what geeks and freaks had been hawking for decades (sword swallowing, fire-eating, sleight-of-hand, etc.).
Rose and Co. found the perfect mark in an "alt"-besotted mainstream — the troupe blew up after playing Lollapalooza's second stage in 1992 —ready for a frat-style initiation into pseudo-masochism. One notorious story had three "groupies" submitting to enemas and then competing to see who could keep from spraying their insides into bowls of Fruit Loops (supposedly held by Marilyn Manson). After one girl finally released her load into a bowl, Mr. Lifto walked up and ate the cereal. Subversive? Nah. Repulsive and opportunistic? Bingo! You know why carnies have to keep moving from town to town? Because they're con artists. By '98, Rose was hawking chainsaw football and Mexican-wrestling transvestites who faced off with giant purple dildos; cops in Lubbock, Texas, shut down one show, giving Rose a chance to crow about "redneck hillbillies" and throw around the word "Nazi.". The fact that the ringleader has regularly dipped into PR consulting work during the past decade is proof enough of his barker's bluster. D.M.