In the early nineties, Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat was one of the hottest stars in the (then known as) World Wrestling Federation, returning in 1991 from a stint with WCW and NJPW.
The former Intercontinental Champion would be returning and Vince McMahon was looking to make an impression with his dragon gimmick for vignettes marking his return: breathing fire.
Recently Andrew Thompson spoke to Brian LaPalme, the seasoned circus veteran who was tasked with teaching the wrestler to breathe fire, in a parking lot, with only a few days to practice.
LaPalme recalled being contacted by Bruce Prichard, saying:
“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.”
Typically it may have taken students weeks to learn to safely use the fire breathing techniques LaPalme was teaching but according to him, it only took Steamboat two days to get proficient, noting:
“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.”
Although LaPalme and Steamboat didn’t work together in the years that followed, Steamboat’s then-wife Bonnie kept in touch via letters for a few years, bringing their son to visit the circus when it would tour in their home state of North Carolina.
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