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'Tiger King' uncaged: Behind-the-scenes live touring show debuting in Cedar Rapids

The trials and tribulations of zoo owner Joe Exotic played out last spring on the Netflix true-crime docuseries #x201c;T
The trials and tribulations of zoo owner Joe Exotic played out last spring on the Netflix true-crime docuseries “Tiger King.” Eastern Iowa-based USA Entertainment is debuting a live touring show of cast members Friday at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids. The event will look behind the scene of the pop-culture phenomenon, through videos, photos and firsthand accounts, plus a Q&A with the panel. (Netflix)
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When entertainment entrepreneur Jeff Johnson of Fairfax decided to mount a live show based on the wildly popular “Tiger King” Netflix docuseries, he knew he wanted to launch the tour in Cedar Rapids, home base for his USA Entertainment Agency.

Cedar Rapids has been good to him over the years. It’s where he founded Penguins Comedy Club in 1989, the intimate venue where he kicked-off tours for the wildly popular Impractical Jokers in 2012 and Michael Carbonaro in 2015.

“Uncaged: The Untold Stories from the Cast of Tiger King,” is a multimedia show designed for larger rooms, so Johnson, 59, is bringing it to the Paramount Theatre on Friday night. Tickets are being sold in physically distanced pods of varying sizes, and meet-and-greet upgrades are available.

“I love the Paramount, and I love Cedar Rapids,” Johnson said when announcing this latest project. “I knew the Paramount was doing things safely. And even though it’s reduced capacity, it’s really not about making money on this show. For me, it’s about getting the cast together and putting the show on.”

The docuseries, subtitled “Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” premiered last March and April. According to the Nielsen Ratings, it reeled in 34 million U.S. viewers in its first 10 days, who watched the drama unfold in what Netflix describes as “the underworld of big cat breeding.”

The major player is Oklahoma zoo owner Joe Exotic, who in 2019 was sentenced to 22 years in prison for 17 federal animal abuse charges, as well as for plotting the failed murder-for-hire of animal welfare activist Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue near Tampa, Fla.

The show swirls around Joe Exotic’s own wild life as it peels back the layers of his feud with Baskin, his various husbands, and other players in the big cat and exotic animal realm.

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“How could it not be popular,” said Barbara Fisher of Ames, who appeared on the Netflix show to give the perspective of a former apprentice at Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. “It’s a den of psychopaths with murderous, crazy, flamboyant personalities that we’ve been unaware of ’til now.”

For the “Uncaged” live touring show, Johnson has gathered up four voices from “Tiger King” episodes, including Joe Exotic’s zoo manager, John Reinke, and zookeeper, Kelci “Saff” Saffery; Joshua Dial, who led Joe Exotic’s failed 2018 run for governor of Oklahoma; and Fisher, the only one not affiliated with the Oklahoma operation.

The stage production will feature behind-the-scenes stories, videos and photos, as well as a Q&A with the cast members.

The Gazette recently caught up with Fisher and Reinke.

Barbara Fisher

The Ames native, now 40 and a married mother of three boys, is enrolled at Iowa State University. She said she wasn’t ready for that path after high school, and instead, “ran away with the circus.” Little did show know what kind of circus that would become, working from 1999 to 2007 as an apprentice for Antle’s safari, a tour through his 50-acre wildlife preserve known as The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), in South Carolina.

Saying she “wasn’t the best student,” she found herself in a “moment of free fall” after graduation, when all of her friends were going to college. She didn’t want to go to college and she didn’t want work full-time. She just wanted to “do something crazy.”

“I happened to stumble upon (Antle’s) website and two weeks later, I was there.”

Instead of a dream job, she found a cult, where work days could run from 8 a.m. one day to 1 a.m. the next, seven days a week, with no days off — and no documentation or end date in sight. Still, she stayed for eight years, helping to raise tiger cubs and posing them for photos. That part, she enjoyed.

“We worked every single day,” she said, “so when you’re pouring in every ounce of yourself, all of your time, all of your commitment, it’s painful, it’s debasing, it’s hard work. You don’t want to just walk away from that and have nothing to show. That’s a real reason why people stay. They think they’re going to somehow recoup what they’ve put in, and they’ll never recoup it.”

She credits the support of her family and friends with her decision to leave in 2007.

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“I’m lucky to have people who never gave up on me,” she said. Among them was her future husband, a hometown guy she never really knew in high school, but met at her grandfather’s funeral in Ames. They married in 2008, and are raising their sons, ages 12, 10 and 7, in their hometown. The oldest one watched the Netflix show.

“He’s grown up knowing a little bit about a bunch of this stuff — I don’t think he knew about all the murder stuff — just one more way that his mom is weird, I guess,” she said with a laugh.

John Reinke

Texas native Reinke, 54, spent about 14 years working at Joe Exotic’s G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Okla., beginning early in 2006.

He had stopped there on a family vacation, and “fell in love” with a grizzly bear. He asked if the bear needed anything, and Joe Exotic said the animal needed a water tank. So he bought one and took it there the next weekend. Warned that the bear would tear it up, it lasted about three days. So Reinke and some friends built a sturdier one.

And that’s how his odyssey with the zoo began. As park manager, Reinke was in charge of the zoo when Joe Exotic wasn’t around. The work was “exhausting,” he said, with a minimum of 12-hour days, every day. He took care of the animals and “babysat” the staff.

“It was fulfilling, actually, because I got to deal with all these exotic animals. Not everybody could say that they’ve done that.”

Before coming to the zoo, he had a dog, “and that was about it.”

“Everything that I know today I’ve learned from my veterinarian up there and from Joe. There’s no college that could teach me what I’ve learned over the 14 years,” he said, including how to be a good leader and how to tolerate challenging people.

But when the drama of Joe Exotic’s world got to be too much, he moved back to Burkburnett, Texas, where he’s following another passion as a mechanic — and “babysitting” big cats when their owners go on vacation.

The Netflix exposure means he “can’t go anywhere” without someone wanting an autograph or selfie with him. His grown sons visited him at the zoo, so they knew about the goings-on before the show came out. But in the wake of its success, people have called them, trying to go through them to reach their dad.

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“They think it’s pretty crazy that their dad is famous,” Reinke said. “I still can’t believe it myself. I’m just a normal guy. I still go to work every day.”

At a glance

• What: “Uncaged: The Untold Stories from the Cast of Tiger King”

• Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 7 p.m. Friday

• Featuring: John Reinke, Kelci “Saff” Saffery, Josh Dial, Barbara Fisher, with moderator Todd McComas, a standup comedian and retired police detective

• Tickets: $35.50 to $107 with meet-and-greet add-ons available, up to $170.50; buyers must purchase all tickets within a selected pod at Creventslive.com/events/2020/uncagedl-the-untold-stories-from-the-cast-of-tiger-king

• Safety measures: Face coverings required when not in your seat; physical distancing from other groups; details at Creventslive.com/returntolive

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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