Barry Woods, the bloke who rides in Raglan’s Christmas parade on a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a giant kunekune pig on the back, is attempting to break into the United States market with his quirky Kiwi shearing show.
Barry, a “natural fibre severer technician” by trade (a professional sheep shearer) and who is known to most people as his stage show character, Billy Black, is the master of creative marketing when it comes to business, which for him is all about promoting the “eco qualities of wool”. And he sure can spin a good yarn.
Barry wants to break into the country fair circuit in the US, which he says is huge. “The LA State Fair, a million people go there.”
In January, Barry is taking his Billy Black Woolman Show to the Western Fairs Association’s convention in Los Angeles, where he will put himself forward among hundreds of other acts to try and stand out in the crowd.
Barry’s show captures the heart of the pioneer farmer clearing the land with a cross cut saw, the dangerous job of jigger climbing, blowing up a log to make fence posts and shearing sheep. During his act he hypnotises a sheep and even gets audience members to try and set him on fire with a gas torch to demonstrate the fire-resistant qualities of wool.
“There will be the same old, same old there: clowns, hypnotists, sword swallowers, and then there is me, Crocodile Dundee”, as he is often called because of the bushman’s hat that he wears. “I can put a sheep to sleep, get a lady on stage to set me on fire … and they will be going ‘what, what?’
“To them I am like a martian!”
But there lies the problem with the US market, Barry says. “We take a chance a bit more in New Zealand.
“When you are doing something outside the square everyone looks sideways at you. You really have to work hard to get it over the line.”
But Barry isn’t new to trying to get his unusual ideas over the line.
He owns Woodlyn Park, a motel complex in Waitomo, which has a plane from the Vietnam War, a train carriage, a World War II anti-submarine patrol boat and two Hobbit holes as accommodation. Barry alternates his time between his property in Waitomo and a 15-acre farm block in Te Mata, on which he runs steer and sheep.
“A lot of people rubbished my ideas when I started,” he says, of his unique accommodation venture. But he has had the last laugh because Woodlyn Park, which is currently on the market, went on to win most innovative hotel concept prize at the Worldwide Hospitality Awards in Paris in 2012.
Barry began Billy Black Woolman and Kiwi Culture shows at Woodlyn Park, performing every day for tourists, but now takes only bookings, and performs at schools, conferences and other functions.
Along the way he has dreamed up many ways of capturing his audience’s – and the media’s – attention: Jonah isn’t just a Harley-riding pig – he has his own rugby act where he tackles dummies of English rugby players and scores a try; in 2004, Barry rounded up a trio of hermit sheep to outdo the South Island’s Shrek and held the record for heaviest fleece for about two minutes until a piece of wood was found on the scales; and he had The Hobbit actor James Nesbitt, who explored New Zealand for documentary River Deep, Mountain High: James Nesbitt in New Zealand, set him on fire during one of his shows.
The crazy ideas don’t always pan out as planned, however.
In order to get his foot in the US market, Barry came up with an idea to create a world record for veteran shearers, which he was going to break in America amid mass publicity.
“No-one has done an official one (world record for veteran shearers) because a lot of shearers are out of the game by then, it’s too hard,” says Barry, who in an earlier life took part in a winning world record where 8500 sheep were shorn in one day, his contribution being 675.
“I was thinking of ways to get in the US market … that if at 60 I was shearing a good number of sheep I could use it as a way of marketing my show.”
So recently he went to Australia to get fit for a bid at creating such a record.
“When I got there the contractor asked ‘how many sheep can you shear’; I said ‘I’m not sure I haven’t shorn in 26 years’ … not every day, just in the shows, and he said ‘what?’ I said ‘yeah, but I should be able to do the average’; he said what, 140, 160? I said ‘yeah!’
“First day, a sheep kicked the hand piece in my arm and I had to get it fixed up, six stitches … he was going to replace me and I said ‘no, no, take me back down to the shed’.”
Long story short, Barry worked through a bad infection resulting from the cut and over eight weeks sheared an average of 180-190 merino sheep a day, with his record being 300 two days after his 60th birthday – enough to tick a veteran’s world record off the bucket list at a later try. But then, just before returning to New Zealand, he was knocked over by a sheep and has done “some pretty serious damage” to his knee.
The idea of a veteran’s record is on hold, but he’s still up to the light duties of his Woolman show, and set to make an impression at the fairs convention in the US in January.
“It’s just something I am very passionate about. I grew up on a sheep farm … we did it rough.”