In his own words: Circus Circus performer JR Johns
Northern Nevada Business Weekly: Tell us about JR Johns & Associates/Dog Gone Silly and what you do.
JR Johns: I perform every day with 17 dogs. We have been performing at Circus Circus for many years — I started at Circus Circus in 1982. My duties include the feeding, care, training and well-being of the dogs, and I also oversee the creation of the performances.
NNBW: How did you get into this?
Johns: I started in early 1977. I was randomly looking for work in Orlando, and there was a theme park called Circus World that was owned by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. I walked in and thought I would end up running a ride at the theme park, and that particular day they were looking for a stage hand for their huge circus production show. As I walked into the 2,000-seat theater, there were dancers practicing, aerialists up in the air, a 14-piece orchestra rehearsing and lions in the ring, and elephants on another side. Right when I walked in there I knew what I needed to do and where I was going: I wanted to be a performer.
NNBW: What are the largest challenges you’ve had to overcome in your career as a performer?
Johns: Getting attention, and it gets more difficult with every passing year. When I started, it was a pretty simple proposition. You had a great act, you had a director who would come see you perform, and you were contracted. Now you have Facebook, Twitter, Web sites. You are trying to get attention in a sea of people who are all trying to get attention. It is like raising your hand at Lollapalooza — nobody sees you.
NNBW: How do you come up with new tricks or bits for your performances?
Johns: It is a combination of many different factors. I’ve been in the business a long time, and I have friends who are magicians, jugglers and comedians. I see things that I like all the time that they inspire me to create. I also run every morning, and it’s almost a meditative state that I get into. I have created 90 percent of my onstage routines and acts during the course of a three-mile run.
NNBW: Over the course of your long career as a performer, is there one particular act of which you are most proud?
Johns: Presently I do five different acts. My pride goes into the fact that out of those five acts there is no “B” act — they are all standalones.
NNBW: What’s the most important thing you have learned in a career working with animals?
Johns: When you are working with dogs, there is no one size fits all, and that applies to any kind of business. If you have an idea, and you want it to grow, you can’t just say it’s going just one way. When it turns right or left, you have to be able to roll with that, and that’s been my success with dogs over the years, being able to see their personalities and take what they care for and turn that into something they can do every day on stage.
NNBW: What’s the most important thing you have learned as a lifelong performer?
Johns: How to be as natural as you can possibly be. Don’t contrive on stage, because it comes through. You have to be larger than life, but you have to be just a huge inflated version of who you are.
NNBW: Where do you get most of the dogs you train for your acts?
Johns: I get them from various rescue organizations, mainly the SPCA of Northern Nevada and High Sierra Rescue in Portola.
NNBW: Do you have a favorite dog?
Johns: Not really. They are very individual and very specific, and they all have their charms and their naughtiness.
NNBW: Is there one particular breed of dog that outperforms others?
Johns: Terriers. When you want a crackerjack, you go find a terrier. When you want a great pet, you might not want a terrier. They need to use their talents for something, and if you don’t give them something for good they turn to evil. But as far as performers, they are unbelievable.
NNBW: Dogs are such a large part of your life — how do you handle it when they get too old to perform or die?
Johns: It never gets easier. But the one thing I take solace in is that the guys who go through the course of their lives with me, from cradle to grave, the life they had has been astounding. They are on video, in commercial photography, and they have been on TV. How many dogs do you know that leave behind a body of work?
NNBW: What was your first job?
Johns: When I was 12 years old I laid sod for a local landscaper. I made 50 cents an hour, and I was glad to get it.
NNBW: Tell us about your dream job.
Johns: I think I have always been living my dream. Performing and performing with the dogs, I don’t think there’s anything I could have done that’s been more interesting or more rewarding. Who gets to come to work everyday and have people applauding, laughing and cheering for you? That is my work. How can you argue with that?
NNBW: Any advice for young performers who want to enter the profession?
Johns: The entertainment business can be very difficult and very harsh. You need talent, but you also need dogged tenacity. You have to be willing to take one punch in the face after another. If you are thin-skinned, it is the wrong business to get into.
NNBW: How do you spend your time away from work?
Johns: My time away is very minimal. Working with 17 of my guys, it is 24/7. But when I am able to break loose for a few hours here and there, I get on my motorcycles. I love riding; I got my first motorcycle when I was 11 years old.
NNBW: What do you consider to be your biggest professional accomplishment?
Johns: Writing, producing and rehearsing an hour-and-15-minute theatrical presentation called Dog Gone Silly. It is 75 minutes of me and my dogs in multiple scenes. The big achievement for that show was when I put it on for the SPCA for a fundraiser at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in the Celebrity Showroom. We did two shows on a Sunday and they were completely sold out. I handed the SPCA a check at the end of the day for almost $20,000. That was a really proud moment. The show was an artistic triumph, and I could give the SPCA 20 grand in cash.
NNBW: Why did you choose a career in northern Nevada? What do you like most about working/living here?
Johns: First off, I am a Renoite. After buying my first home in 1986 in Reno, I am a big fan. The weather also is a really important factor for the dogs. When I worked in Las Vegas, it was miserable for the dogs. They spent all their time inside in the air conditioning. I love northern Nevada, it is great. Every performer wants to be in Las Vegas, but it’s harsh. Northern Nevada is just a beautiful place to live, especially if you love the outdoors.
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