Dead Man’s Carnival
Photos by Kat Berger + Lynn Allen (Black Sheep Photography)
The circus has a long, romantic history in Wisconsin. The seven dashing Ringling brothers held their first circus in Baraboo in 1884, and the town remained their headquarters and wintering grounds until 1917. The site is now the Circus World Museum. Fast forward to 2008: the circus arts are dead, replaced with Nintendo Wii and flat screen TVs. Right? Wrong!
Who is carrying on this ancient art? Bing! You win a cigar, kiddo. It’s Dead Man’s Carnival, a daring and different group of performers who shake together the old and the new, ultimately rendering classic Americana: a beautiful jazz siren with a nose ring, throwing flames.
“A lot of these skits are a hundred years old,” says member Gypsy Geoff. “We just put our own spin on it.”
A LIGHT BULB FOR ZERO THE CLOWN
Gene – Zero the Clown – stands on the stage, wrapped in heavy chains. Erik Bang approaches with a wicked-looking tazer and applies it to the metal links. Gene thrashes, and Erik sticks a light bulb in his mouth. It lights up, and the audience cheers.
Last summer, Gene and his friend Ryan Aschebrook started booking sexy circus shows at Club ? called “Karnal:Ville.” The saucy show mixed traditional circus acts with sex toys and burlesque. The group gained a following, mostly because they were offering something different to do on a Saturday night. After a few shows, Aschebrook moved on. The group changed their name to Dead Man’s Carnival and Gene took on much of the scheduling and stage managing for the group.
I ask him what the appeal of the circus is for him. He wears a suit coat over a gray button-up shirt; his clothes and posture give him the character of a magician.
“It’s a medium that pursues a mixture of arts you wouldn’t necessarily get in another framework. It’s very flexible for doing everything your heart desires. That and the stripes. The striped clothing appeals to me.” He also cites the audience reaction as one of his favorite parts of performance – and there is a reaction.
At a recent show I witnessed laughter, cheering, wolf-whistling, hooting, eyes covered in pain and even a few protests and disgusted mutterings.
Gene (Zero the Clown)
THE SURREAL YARD SALE
In May, two of the carnival’s performers, Pinky and Erik Bang, had a rummage sale. It wasn’t your typical knickknacks, toasters and old dishes. The spread included juggling pins, swords for swallowing, eccentric suits, a bucket of raccoon bones and stilts. I bought a mummified bat – I’m still not quite sure what I’m going to do with it, but it seemed like a steal at fifteen bucks.
Pinky, who legally changed his name to Sir Pinkerton Xyloma, is trying to raise enough money to buy a used school bus. He is converting it so it will run on peanut oil and making it into a home. Some carnival members will use it for a tour of midsized Midwestern cities this summer, where they’re performing at festivals, street parties and whatever other venues they can find. For many of these small towns, it will be an eye-popping experience, the first time they’ve seen anything quite like it.
“I lived in a small town, so I know how boring it can be – and how exciting it is when something different rolls in,” Pinky says. Pinky adopts a devilish persona on stage: he wears a rubber head piece with pointy devil ears and horns and paints his entire body red. He says this was inspired by old cartoons where the devil is sort of “a tragic character. A pool shark, con man, failed Casanova, and often times just sort of a clown.” Pinky’s influences include early blues and jazz and the myths and tall tales that go with them. The devil is often part of this mythology. Pinky has assembled a small house band, The Magnificents, which in addition to music does some magic and clowning.
Erik Bang has worked with several groups, including the local Brewzerkus and the Big Bang Circus of Portland. He has perfected a number of circus acts, including fire breathing, stilt walking, juggling and escape acts, and he builds props and devices like double-decker bikes.
Erik will move to Tucson, Arizona in August, and hopes to start a similar group there.
GYPSY GEOFF JUGGLES JOBS
Gypsy Geoff enters Bremen Café wearing a red mask with a long, pointy nose that he hand-made from leather. He sits down and tells me how he got his start in a kitchen, working as a chef. During his down time, he taught himself how to juggle, using limes. He also began to learn prestidigitation– sleight of hand.
“It’s important to read your audience,” he says. He loves “obtaining millions of reactions from people. I can open an act making people laugh, then get them dazed and confused, maybe fearful, make them ask ‘How did you do that?’”
Geoff works part-time at Art Smart’s Dart Mart and Juggling Emporium. He performs at all the major summer festivals, then travels the south for winter. Next year he hopes to travel in Europe.
He had a job for a while at a real circus, the Big Apple Circus of New York. He found the environment stifling and expresses how great it is to have creative freedom. He ended up quitting Big Apple and hitting the road.
“I did the opposite. I ran away from the circus.”
CHASSY TO THE STAGE, PLEASE!
Chassy Dee Lux, the core group’s sole female member, was recently performing with Karnal:Ville at Club ?, but there was a problem: when she was called to the stage, she was in the midst of a major wardrobe malfunction. She was topless and couldn’t fasten her girdle, so Geoff and Erik had to escort her to the men’s bathroom and fasten her up.
“That really brought down a lot of barriers,” she laughs. Chassy brings a burlesque element to the group, doing a striptease and skits, many with Geoff.
In 2004, Chassy helped form a short-lived burlesque troupe called Brew City Burlesque. She enjoyed performing and was glad to get back onstage. “I really enjoy it a lot. The guys have been supportive and it’s a fun group to work with. There’s no bullshit drama.”
At some point it occurs to me that these people are at home in their characters, not really characters at all. They don’t change clothes, punch a time clock and go to a sports bar after the show. To them, the world is one big circus tent.
TRIAL BY FIRE
In addition to these core members, Carnival frequently collaborates with local bands and variety shows like the neo-vaudeville group Eat The Mystery, new burlesque group Alley Cat Revue and Arson Etiquette.
Shawn and Susie, who organize Arson Etiquette, spoke to me in their studio. Their friend KT (Katie Tesch) started Arson Etiquette and taught them how to fire dance using staffs and swinging chains called poi. KT and other founding members moved on, and Shawn and Susie reconstructed the group. It now includes Gene, Erik and Geoff.
I ask if this is a dangerous craft, with all the fire whizzing around. Shawn admits he once put his hand in the wrong place and burned his palm.
Susie is quick to offer reassurance. “I’ve not seen a fire performer seriously hurt themselves.”
“You learn methods to stay safe,” adds Shawn. “Most accidents are preventable. We have insurance, but we don’t want to have to use it.”
Chassy Dee Lux
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
While so many of America’s greatest forms of public entertainment wither away – the traveling circus not the least among them – plans are being laid to keep the proverbial fires of sideshow spectacle burning. Arson Etiquette plans to restart fire dancing workshops at Bucketworks soon. Geoff has had worked with Milwaukee Public Theater to co-found a program called Rainbow Cirqus School, whose mission is to teach Milwaukee Public School students circus arts. Through circus performance, the students learn that “they are not alone and nothing is impossible,” according to Geoff. “[There is] constant encouragement and focused, consistent support.”
With a little luck and a lot of grease paint, Dead Man’s Carnival may yet infuse starry-eyed children and sane-minded grownups alike with that age-old desire to run away and join the circus. VS
Dead Man’s Carnival performs August 9 at Stonefly and September 27 at Turner Hall. Check them out on MySpace. Interested in fire dancing workshops? Email email@example.com for more information.