After a run in the WWF/E that lasted from 1985-1988, Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat departed the company and then returned in 1991. To promote his return, vignettes began to air that featured him blowing fire.
As Ricky was preparing to return, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon wanted him to learn how to breath fire, so the company was put in contact with Brian LaPalme, who spent 40 years of his life as a part of the circus, is a multi-time Gold medal winner in the Sarasota International Circus Festival and a theatrical makeup artist.
I caught up with Brian for a conversation about his collaboration with Ricky Steamboat. Initially, WWF wanted to use someone from Barnum & Bailey Circus, but they were denied and according to Steamboat, it was because some of their magicians did not want to give up their secrets. LaPalme recalled being contacted by Bruce Prichard and Prichard agreeing with Brian’s price to teach Ricky. Brian was able to teach Ricky how to perform the trick in two days.
What I heard back then and how many years ago was that? That was 1991 and now we’re in — we’re almost in 2022 so how many years was that? A long time ago. So what I had heard through Ricky [Steamboat] and Bruce Prichard was that they reached out to a lot of people to find someone who would be willing to teach and they found no one. No one. No one was willing to teach them how to do what we call ‘The Volcano’. ‘The Volcano’ is when you blow the fire out of your mouth, you know? And I would do like a circus tent in the 1980s or 90s in a big arena, I would do like 25 feet of fire right up the roof of the tent or you know, right up in a coliseum, in an arena, 25 feet of fire. So pretty amazing so they couldn’t find anyone. Now this was 1991 and it was the WWF, the World Wrestling Federation and I think they’re still in the same place in Connecticut I’m assuming. You can correct me but aren’t they in Stamford, Connecticut? All right, so do you know what is in Bridgeport, Connecticut? The Barnum Museum is in Bridgeport, Connecticut, P.T. Barnum so evidently after being told, ‘No, no, no, no’ by all these people, someone in the WWF management said, ‘Well right here in Connecticut, we have the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut’ so they reached out to the curator of the museum who is Robert Pelton, Bob Pelton and they said, ‘Do you know a fire eater that could teach one of our wrestlers how to do that volcano?’ And Bob Pelton was also a circus fan, that’s why he was the curator of the Barnum Museum because he loved the circus so, in the 80s when I was with Roberts Brothers Circus and then in the 90s, the early 90s when I was with Allan C. Hill’s Great American Circus, we always played Connecticut so you know, Bob Pelton knew me and knew that Brian LaPalme was the fire eater so, when they called him and said, you know, ‘Do you know anyone?’ One name — I was the only [one] who was doing the fire eating at that time so he said, ‘Yes. You want Brian LaPalme’ and not only did he say, you know, ‘You want Brian LaPalme,’ he said, ‘And Brian LaPalme is working for the circus producer Allan C. Hill and his suite of offices is in Sarasota, Florida and here’s the number for Allan C. Hill’s Great American Circus’ so, Bob gave them all that information and then I got a call from a guy named Bruce Prichard and you know, he said, ‘Could you do this?’ And I said, ‘I’m not a wrestling guy. I don’t know who Ricky The Dragon Steamboat is but, if he’s intelligent and if he’s willing to listen to me’ because blowing fire, you know, fire is real. It’s not plastic, it’s fire. You can get burned.
In my career, I was burned badly one time so this is real and I said, ‘Not only must he be very intelligent but he must also, you know, not be a –’ I don’t know. I don’t know the words I used. ‘He must not be a star who thinks he knows it all. He must — everything I tell him: Take a deep breath now, tilt your head back now. Everything I tell him, he must do, you know? No hesitation’ and he said, ‘Oh no, this guy will commit to doing this and he’ll be excellent. He’ll be a great student’ and I said, ‘Okay’ and I remember, there was no negotiating on the price. I said, ‘This is the amount of money I need’ and he said, ‘Okay’ and he said, ‘We’ll fly, myself –’ Bruce Prichard — ‘and Ricky will fly out to West Palm Beach, Florida’ and that’s where the circus, we were gonna be playing a two-day stand in West Palm Beach and he said, ‘You can do this in two days?’ I said, ‘If the guy is any good and will listen to me and practice, yes. I can certainly teach him in two days so you’ll give me this amount of money and at the end of the two days, he will be able to blow fire.’ I said, ‘Now I don’t need to teach him how to eat fire. You just want him to blow fire, to do a volcano?’ ‘Yes, that’s all we want him to do. He doesn’t need to put a torch in his mouth. He just needs to be able to blow a volcano’ and I said, ‘Yes, absolutely’ so that’s how that happened.
After Brian and Ricky completed their two sessions, they did not see each other again. Brian was able to hear from Ricky at points through Ricky’s then-wife Bonnie Hastings. Bonnie would bring Richie Steamboat to the circus whenever Brian and his co-workers were in North Carolina.
Brian continued speaking about his training of Steamboat and said he gave him no attitude and listened. He said it would’ve taken a few weeks to teach fire breathing to someone else but Ricky was able to pick it up in a short period of time.
Absolutely [Ricky Steamboat & I left an impression on each other] and I remember his [then] wife Bonnie [Hastings] kept in touch with me for a couple of years. She would write letters and I would write letters and after the two days I had in Florida with Ricky, I never saw him again. But Bonnie, Bonnie would come to the shows every year when we would be around North Carolina and she brought her son little Ricky. So this is back in 1991, 1992, 1993 so I did get to see her once a year and she’d bring her little boy with her and she would write me some letters sometimes during the year so I got to stay in touch with Ricky through his lovely wife Bonnie and got to, you know, meet his son. Again, this is in the early 90s so yeah, very nice people. The whole family, very nice and again, Ricky was just wonderful to work with, very bright and whatever I would tell him to do, he did it and at the end of those two days, he was blowing amazing fire volcanoes so, you know, that — you can’t teach someone that won’t learn or someone that has an attitude so, you know, he was someone that did wanna learn and he had no attitude. Even though he was a wrestling star, he showed me no attitude. When I asked him to do something, he did it and because he did, he learned something, you know, that might take me, you know, a few weeks to teach someone else, he was able to learn that dangerous stunt in two days.
Both Steamboat and Bruce Prichard have told stories about the session[s] with Brian LaPalme. Ricky recently appeared on the ‘Stories with Brisco and Bradshaw’ show and said Brian set his own face on fire while demonstrating. Ricky added that LaPalme’s face was rosy red, his eyebrows and scalp were burned and he developed bubble blisters.
Below is an excerpt from Ricky’s recount of what occurred:
You know, Vince [McMahon] wanted me to learn how to blow fire and Bruce [Prichard] was being sent down just, you know, being from the office to oversee it and I found out earlier that they went to Barnum & Bailey and their fire breather rejected it because he didn’t want to give away his secrets. You know, circus, right? So they got a hold of a guy named Brian LaPalme and he had like — it’s like one of those little parking lot carnivals and we’re standing in the parking lot and then the big top, the big tent was not fully put up yet but Brian LaPalme — and he was a fan. He was a wrestling fan. He was so excited to show me and he used Kerosene. Filled his mouth up with Kerosene but he told me, he said, ‘Ricky, if you ever do it outside, hold your torch up and you look at the flames and make sure that the wind is blowing the flames away from you, so that the wind is always at your back.’ So I [said], ‘Okay.’ So he fills his mouth up with Kerosene and just as he takes that torch and he gets ready to blow it, the wind shifted and the wind was blowing in his face so be blew, the Kerosene went into his face and now I see this guy running around the parking lot with his face on fire.
And I looked at Prichard and I said, ‘Now Brian LaPalme told me that he’s been doing this circus act for ten years.’ I said, ‘You see that ten-year veteran running around with his face on fire?’ I said, ‘You call Vince up right now and tell him I ain’t doing it. I’m not doing this,’ and so Brian, he came back and his face was rosy red and he said, ‘No, no, no, everything’s okay. It’s just like a real bad sunburn. It’s just superficial. Real bad sunburn’ and he said, ‘I wanna teach you.’ So we started off with little shot glasses and then we ended up — and we finished that day, I came back the next day and then I started doing cupfuls inside the tent because the big top was finished and learning how to blow fire that way but there was a moment to where I was watching a ten-year veteran fire breather running around with his — his eyebrows were gone, his scalp was burnt halfway back to the middle of his head. The next morning we showed up for round number two and he was living in like one of those little Scotty Trailers that you towed behind your car with a little trailer so I knocked on his door and he showed up. He had all these huge water bubble blisters on his face and he started popping ‘em and he was laughing. He said, ‘Oh I just saved it so I could show you. I just wanted to get a laugh out of you’ and you know, all these big water bubble blisters.
He [Bruce Prichard] didn’t say anything. His mouth was down to his — his jaw dropped down to his knees when he saw the guy running around with his face [on fire]. Came back with no eyebrows and half his scalp burned off.
Brian responded by saying none of that happened. He did let the fire blow back near his face but that was to show Steamboat what could happen if he was not paying attention to the direction that the fire was blowing in.
LaPalme stated that Ricky is a performer and it makes the story sound more interesting if the details are exaggerated but there were no burns and he was not running around the lot with his face on fire.
You know, Ricky [Steamboat] had to do interviews in his life because he was a performer, you know? Wrestler and performer so, that interview that you read, that sounds like a fun interview and that sounds like, you know, what you would put in a movie. ‘Oh my gosh and this guy who has been doing this for 20 years, all of a sudden he burned up and I turned to Bruce and said oh no, you call Vince. This guy — I’m not doing — this guy’s been doing this forever’ but, I have no recollection of that [accidentally setting myself on fire] at all. I have no recollection of — you know, again, I’d been doing that since 1976, two times a day for eight months of every year. So you know, I showed him about the wind and I said, ‘This is what can happen if the wind is not at your back.’ I turned, the wind blew the fire towards me and then I corrected my position. So no burns, no pink and definitely, definitely, Brian LaPalme was not running around in a parking lot with his face on fire. In fact I have never — the only time — you know, I had one little accident in 2011 because someone gave me the wrong fluid and I had an accident in a rehearsal and that was the only time I’d ever, you know, had any accident. But, and yeah, I can realize as a performer, you need to make your interviews sound fun. You need to make the interviews catch the audience’s attention so to be able to say, ‘Well oh, we finally found a guy that’s been doing this forever and I get there and he sets himself on fire.’ You know, so that sounds like a fun interview but in fact, that never happened at all. Don’t you love my Christian honesty?
And it sounds fun and that’s what — Ricky’s been doing interviews forever because he’s a performer so yes, it — how you read it to me, it sounds exactly like what would be in a movie, it does and, ‘Then I turned to Prichard and said this guy’s an expert? Well you call Vince right now and tell him no, I’m not doing –’ yes, I mean that sounds like if they were making the Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat movie and yet, my recollection is Brian LaPalme had been doing this since 1976, twice a day, eight months out of the year and this was now 1991 and no, I was not running around a parking lot with my face on fire. No, I’ve never gotten a burn until 2011 and I was showing about position and yet, all of that, what you said, it sounds like what you would say in an interview because we all exaggerate the truth a little to make our interviews I guess sound exciting and that certainly sounded exciting; what you read to me.
Okay, and you know what? And all of that [Ricky saying that Brian had bubble blisters along with his eyebrows and scalp being burned] and you know because I am a Christian and honesty is so important, you know, just because I’m a Christian, that, you know — that is all exaggeration. It makes for good press, it makes for a fun interview for him to be able to say, ‘And I say this guy who’s supposed to be an expert’ and what’d you say? ‘He was running around the parking lot on fire and I said no, I’m not doing it and then I sucked it up and I said okay.’ So I mean that sounds like a fun interview but, in fact, none of that happened.