Last Monday afternoon–his day off–Rush Pearson pulled a wad of dirty dollar bills from his pocket and offered to buy his friend a beer. “It was a good weekend,” he said. “I made out all right.” The bartender hesitated a moment before he picked up the bills. On one, George Washington’s face was smeared with a gob of dirt. This sort of thing happens to Pearson a lot; he earns his money eating mud.

Pearson has been a mud eater for over a decade now. He is a mud beggar, part of a troupe that entertains at Renaissance fairs across the country. Weekends from April to November, Pearson and his gang visit the fairgrounds of America, persuading crowds that, for a few dollars, they will gobble up the local mud. There is no sleight of hand. These are real men who eat real mud. And they are proud to point out that people pay a lot of real money to watch.

Pearson is a nomad on weekends, but weekdays he calls Evanston home. He came here in the late 70s to study theater at Northwestern, and after graduation, he and a small group of friends founded the Practical Theatre Company. Stuffed in a storefront space on Howard Street, they indulged their warped wit and presented whatever resulted onstage. Eventually, success came to some members, who lit out to both coasts in pursuit of a union-scale wage. But not Pearson.

Instead, he and a few other members of the group stepped up their careers as Renaissance-fair beggars. In the summer of 1979, they had been hired to perform at the nascent King Richard’s Faire (now the Bristol Renaissance Faire). Bedecked in approximations of 16th-century peasant attire, they named themselves the Sturdy Beggars and wandered through the fairgrounds, doing their best to re-create some of the more sordid aspects of Renaissance life. In their best Liverpool accents. (like many fair workers, they seem to have learned their English affectations from the Beatles) they cajoled and harassed the fairgoers, collecting a quarter or two from an occasional cowering spectator.

Then one stormy day the beggars, left with a sparse crowd and slim pickings, decided to amuse themselves by sliding and sloshing through the mud puddles. “One onlooker offered a dollar to any beggar who would put his face in the mud,” recalls Pearson. “We all fought for the chance.” A group of fledgling mud eaters emerged from the puddle.

As they divvied up the money that night, they discovered their dallies in the mud had resulted in their most profitable day yet. When the sun shone brightly the following day, one of them suggested they hose down the grounds themselves. In Minnesota, the next stop on the Renaissance circuit, they refined their act. They stomped and romped through the mud, learning to hold out on eating the mud until enough fervor and cash had been drummed up. By the time they reached the last stop of the season, Texas, the promoters were waiting for them with a big raise and a schedule that had them eating mud seven times a day. They quickly gained a reputation on the Renaissance-fair circuit for both causing a lot of trouble and raking in a lot of money, and most places invited them to perform again the next year–with a big raise if they kept out of trouble–and promoted them as satyrs.

By the end of the second year, they had developed the structure of the show they still use today. Pearson claims the show embodies the values that Americans cherish the most–“mainly, the joy of seeing the other guy lose.” Their shtick goes like this: A beggar gathers in a crowd, hawking to the milling masses a show that “could actually bring about world peace in our lifetime.” Once that fails, he promises dangerous and disgusting antics. With that, the crowd usually begins to fill the benches around the pit.

From there, one of the beggars claims to detect a peculiar scent coming from part of the crowd. Another beggar claims the odor emanates from the other side, and soon the two have set the crowd against itself like the two sides of the stadium at a college football game. The crowds chant and cheer for their respective beggars as the two wrestle in the mud, while a third beggar stands as judge over the competition. Finally, a contest is held to see which side can give their beggar the most money, the loser promising to eat mud.

As the beggars scurry through the crowd, every imaginable type, from children to sweet grandmothers to surly bikers, waves madly for a beggar to take his or her dollar bill. (Even Jimmy Carter once gave a Sturdy Beggar a dollar.) Once the money is collected, and the judge’s decision has been rendered and subsequently challenged, the loser eats mud and the crowd roars its approval. Pearson then chastises the crowd for its willing acquiescence to acts of greed and avarice and attempts to lead it in a spirited sing-along of “Kumbayah.”

Through the years, Pearson has become the elder statesman of the Mud Show tribe. He’s been working a full load of fairs since 1984 when, returning to Chicago after a dismal showing of a Practical Theatre revue in New York, he found himself with a hefty debt and without a home. This year his schedule includes fairs in Atlanta, Tennessee, Chicago, Maryland, and Texas.

With only weekends to work, mud beggars are left with a goodly amount of time to ponder their trade, and Pearson has come up with a host of reasons why the Mud Show is so popular. “I think it might have to do with some primordial desire to return to the muck and mire,” he says. “Every kid has been threatened with a spanking if he doesn’t stay out of the mud. So maybe we are just enacting those wishes that have been repressed since childhood.”

The event’s appeal could also be its competitive nature–“They’re tossing dollars at us to win,” says Pearson–or its sexual basis. “One beggar came up with the notion that what we were doing was actually the opposite of the maypole rite. With the maypole, you have a gaggle of promising young virgins prancing around the phallic pole, right? Well, in the Mud Show, you have a bunch of randy old men jumping headlong back into mother earth.” He gasps for breath and continues. “Or,” he admits, “the whole thing may be nothing more than another instance of folks rubbernecking at the scene of an accident. We do have the look of an accident at times.” Pearson sighs. The mud begging business is a young man’s game, and it’s hard to keep up the grueling pace year after year. But as long as he continues to enjoy doing the show, he doesn’t envision giving up on his life in the pit. “There are many ex-mud eaters leading respectable lives these days,” he says. “Amongst our mud alumni, we have a banker, a lawyer, there’s even one who now writes for television. But the way I see, at least I’m still eating the real thing. I would think that swallowing metaphorical dirt is far, far worse than what I do.”

Over the years, corporate machinations have seeped into the workings of the fairs, too. What was once a family atmosphere of entertainers and craftsmen has now given way to the more professional manners of a profit-making enterprise. Enter a Renaissance fair today, and the first sight you encounter is not the bucolic setting of 16th-century England but a large banner touting the products of corporate sponsors. These days there’s even an official beer of the Renaissance. Pearson acknowledges that this is the price to be paid for all those raises. Still, he laments over “the sad fact that it’s now necessary for a mud beggar to hire a lawyer.”

A number of imitators–mud beggar replicas who copy the show and then offer themselves up to promoters as a cheaper alternative–have prompted Pearson and his colleagues to copyright the show and trademark the titles. The terms Sturdy Beggars, Bedlam Beggars, and Mud Show cannot be used by any would-be usurpers, under penalty of law. “When I began my mud begging career, I thought, well, at least I found something with job security. I mean, who else would want to eat mud for a living? I suppose I miscalculated.”

Despite this, Pearson continues to revel in the mud and relishes the time he spends entertaining the crowds. “The mud pit is one of the few places I know where grandmothers, bikers, presidents, and little children can sit in close proximity of each other and all laugh at the same joke.” He pauses to scrub the mud off a dollar bill. “Hell,” he says, “I can think of a million much slimier ways to make a buck these days.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.