Brian LaPalme recalls Ricky Steamboat's WWE rebranding in 1991.
Ricky Steamboat was known as The Dragon throughout the majority of his time in WWE but in 1991, he returned to the promotion and embraced the character even further as he was, for a brief period of time, known only as The Dragon.
As part of this rebranding, Ricky Steamboat began to breathe fire during his entrance to the ring, an added layer of sports entertainment for one of the best bell-to-bell athletes to ever grace a WWE ring.
In order to teach Ricky how to do this, WWE contacted circus performer, Brian LaPalme. Now, Brian is speaking about the experience and crediting Ricky Steamboat for how fast he learned how to perform the fire breathing act.
Speaking with Andrew Thompson of POST Wrestling, Brian recalls being contacted by Bruce Prichard in early 1991 in order to teach Ricky Steamboat the fire breathing technique.
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? 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? Alright, 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?’"
LaPalme continued, “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, '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?’ 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.”
Brian recalled an incident where he was burned himself.
“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.”
Ricky, ever the consummate professional, learned the technique within two days according to Brian.
“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.”
Ricky would only be in the WWE a handful of months for that run which ended up being his final full-time run in WWE. Ricky would spend the rest of his full-time career in WCW, retiring just before the start of the Monday Night Wars.
You can read more of the interview here or watch the interview embedded in the video above.