By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Anola learned to live with him. He was working for their future. He quit smoking, drinking and consuming meat. She quit cooking for him when he began eating only about once a day, sometimes nothing more than a can of Ultra Slimfast to ward off hypoglycemia. It was important to be empty when he stretched. The body is like a balloon, he realized: You don't want to twist it when it's full.
Holding most of the poses, he was also playing the fiddle, which took his mind off the pain. His fiddling technique improved. It took a year and a half before he could pull a leg over his head. After two years, he got both of them over. Then, as though he had reached a summit, he took a deep breath -- and popped.
Hemorrhoids, the occupational hazard.
He tore muscles in his neck, back and legs, too. His practice of yoga was so intense that he saw himself as Bruce Lee, fighting through it. To balance action with grace, he also fancied himself as Fred Astaire. He began adding tap dancing to his daily routine, and the clickety-clacking could be heard as he stepped off any carpet. Gerland's, he discovered, had the best dance floor in town. Away he went dancing through the store, with kids following behind "like leaves on a windy day."
And five years went by. Yoga, whose literal meaning is "to join," gradually closed the divides in Richard Baird. Redneck was merged with hippie. Athlete was united with musician. "I am a limber son of a gun," he announced, and when he could hang between two chairs with legs parallel to the floor, Richard felt he was ready for his debut. A yogi was born.
There is divided opinion now on the wisdom of Yogi's struggle.
Bill Parish, a one-man band who has collaborated with the contortionist fiddler, says every star must have a gimmick. Elvis swiveled his hips. Tom Jones wore tight pants. Yogi plays the fiddle with his head between his legs. "It's solid entertainment value for your entertainment dollar," Parish says.
But in the purist community, it is generally felt that Yogi's contortions detract from the music. Howard Kalish, a fiddler for the Don Walser Band, says Yogi truly is a good fiddler. Where would he be without contortions? "Well," Kalish answers, "where is he with contortions?"
Says Yogi's mother, "He wanted to be a star, and so far as I'm concerned, he is."
His first contortionist gig came in 1983 with eight belly dancers and a band. Yogi upstaged them all. Things began happening for him very quickly, just as he had hoped. When a photographer spotted him contorting in a park, Yogi's picture appeared in newspapers all over the country. He was soon invited to appear on That's Incredible!. Yogi flew away on an airplane and appeared on national television, hanging between two chairs, fiddling away.
Strangers suddenly wanted Yogi's picture and autograph. He'd throw a leg over his neck and smile for the camera. When his family went into a restaurant, his children would plead, "Daddy, don't do nothing, okay?" But it was hard to get through a meal without at least doing a split. Anola got used to it, but the children were mortified.
Yogi thought the television show would lead to a contract of some sort, but it didn't. He returned to the honky-tonks wearing bandannas and sequins and boots painted to suit his mood -- usually red. He wanted people to say, "That guy ain't ordinary. He's got to do something." And Yogi satisfied their desire for something strange, and he passed the hat. When you make people laugh, they give you money, he says, "and this old hat has been filled with money."
He went to Nashville once. Johnny Paycheck offered him a fiddling job, sans contortions, he says. Yogi thought he was about to be a star in his own right and turned Johnny Paycheck down.
He went to Las Vegas. He ran into an agent who wanted 25 percent of Yogi's earnings if he got Yogi a show at the Gold Nugget. Yogi thought the man was greedy and turned him down, too.
In Branson, Missouri, Yogi built himself an open-air stage in a flea market, and then city officials told him open-air stages weren't allowed in Branson. Such constructions were odd, and he was odd, and according to country music, America was beautiful.
Yogi was mentioned in Ripley's Believe It or Not!. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Pat Sajak spent nine full minutes with him. Yogi thought each of these was his big break, but no one ever invited Yogi back or called with a record deal. The career he imagined at the Grand Ol' Opry or in Hollywood became instead a succession of Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, elementary schools, nursing homes and honky-tonks. Every now and then, he would be called in for another television show, laughed at and sent home.
It was as though people considered Yogi a one-gag act and didn't know he could play his fiddle in 19 different positions. He grew frustrated. Red meat no longer tempted Yogi, but he resumed drinking and smoking. Eventually, he broadened his notion of show business and made an appearance at La Bare as an exotic dancer. This was a dismal failure. Yogi couldn't tug his clothes off before his song ended. The ladies were not impressed.