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Dennis York and his side shows
Part of a vanishing breed
By Don Muret
Sideshow operator Dennis York is part of a vanishing breed in the carnival business.
York runs two attractions, Amazing Animals Alive! and Samson the Giant Horse. Both tents were set up at the Cleveland County Fair here as part of Reithoffer Shows midway. His company has headquarters in both New York and Florida.
Counting his operation, there are less than a half-dozen sideshows remaining in the outdoor amusement business, York said. Ward Hall, Jim Zajicek, Jack Constantine and John Strong are the others, he said. To this point, it is a small fraternity but one that still draws plenty of curious onlookers attending carnivals and special events.
In Shelby, patrons approached York, perched in front of the tent, and gazed at the colorful banners showcasing the six-legged cow, the pig with two heads and the Zonkey, half zebra, half donkey. The voice over the loud speakers promoting the sideshow, said, yes, these animals are indeed real, and Samson the Giant Horse "is standing up right now."
Still, in this sluggish economy, those interested in seeing the abnormal animals but questioning what they would get for their $2 wanted confirmation from the guy in front of the tent accepting their cash. Yes, York told one woman, the animals are real and what you see on the banners are all inside the tent. "A lot of people are scared they are going to get ripped off," he said.
York grew up in the carnival business. His parents owned pony rides and traveled the northeast. His family worked for Bob Commerford's petting zoos for 12 years before buying the sideshow from Dick Johnson in 1991. York's wife Jody and their 10-year-old son, Cash, travel with the sideshow.
In addition to Reithoffer Shows, York books with Amusements of America, Strates Shows, S&S Amusements and Triple Treat Shows, among other carnivals. Last year, York booked with Jeremy Floyd in Manchester, Tenn. Floyd is grandson of the late J.D. Floyd of the old Cumberland Valley Shows. A lot of "hopscotching," York said.
In mid-October, the sideshow moved to eastern North Carolina for the North Carolina State Fair, where Powers Great American Midway holds the carnival contract in conjunction with Wade Shows. It is York's biggest date of the season. Then it was on to Atlanta, where the sideshow played a date at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The economy remains soft but people still need to be entertained, York said. They are staying closer to home and attending their local fairs instead of splurging on big trips out of town, he said.
The primary expenses for operating a side show are tied to the feeding and care of the animals and those costs are about $2,000 a week, he said. Health inspectors check out his operation every month to make sure the animals are being treated properly.
The animals, most with birth defects, come from all over the country. The six-legged cow is from New York, the dwarf bull came from Alabama and the five-legged sheep was picked up from Ohio. "Farms have mistakes," York said.
Animal rights groups do not have many issues with York's operation. They are too busy worrying about circus animals, he said.
The sideshows are disappearing and so are the talented artists known for painting the colorful banners, York said. Jim DeMuse is responsible for painting the vivid displays for the Amazing Animals Alive! attraction. Vinyl signs, as well as electronic displays, are taking over on the midway and "nobody is painting anymore," York said. "That, and the older guys are dying off."