Faded seaside towns can be the most desolate places in the world. Bizarre is Stateside in Asbury Park, a rundown city next to the ocean in New Jersey. Ancient casinos with broken windows sit next to arcades filled with decrepit neon signs.
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But next to a boarded-up cinema, there’s a small pocket of sanity to be found. Asbury Lanes is a bowling alley and venue that’s been a part of New Jersey’s seaside tourist trade for many years. Usually it hosts bands, performers and kitsch art shows.
But tonight, the citizens of Asbury Park are in for a surprise. Because the last travelling American freak show has rolled into town. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to meet 999 Eyes!
Showcasing the anomalies that nature forgot, 999 Eyes claim to be the last authentic travelling freak show in the world, with a cabaret featuring “God’s mistakes” live on stage – behold, it’s Lobster Boy! The Human Tripod! The Elephant Man!
A history of shows
The 999 Eyes Freak Show was formed in 2004. Initially, founders Samantha X and h.e.a Burns, aka The Lobster Girl, envisioned a museum charting the history of the freak show. But with the introduction of Ken Pegleg (the modern-day Elephant Man) and Jackie the Tripod (a girl born with one short leg) the project changed direction.
Then musician Dylan M Blackthorn joined and the travelling sideshow was reborn, setting up a permanent base in Austin, Texas. Tonight, the freaks have arrived for one night only in this kitschy bowling alley in New Jersey.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the freak show was a popular form of entertainment. At one point, there were 105 sideshows touring with circuses and carnivals across the United States. They showcased marvels of nature, with personalities such as the dwarf Tom Thumb and four-legged woman Myrtle Corbin commanding armies of fans.
But by the 1950s, the freak show had fallen out of favour. Audiences were no longer comfortable calling people with disabilities ‘freaks’, and it became apparent that many performers – far from being treated as celebrated ‘stars’ – were being exploited because of their condition.
As well as increased moral sensitivity, the rise in popularity of television, cinema-going and other forms of entertainment also killed off the art.
More disturbing were the legal attacks on freak shows. In the 1980s, legendary Coney Island sideshow artist Bobby Reynolds was arrested for exhibiting a pair of ‘pickled punks’ (foetuses of conjoined twins in a jar).
And in 1984, Otis Jordan, aka Frog Boy, was barred from exhibiting himself at the New York State Fair after complaints from disability rights campaigners. “I can’t understand it,” he said at the time. “How can they say I’m being taken advantage of? Hell, what do they want – for me to be on welfare?”
Soon, many performers were out of a job, and it’s still illegal to open freak shows in some US States. But thanks to the efforts of people such as Bobby Reynolds and Dirk D Zigun in Coney Island, some performers found a place to work, and an underground scene emerged. Now 999 Eyes are on a mission to resurrect some of that creepy carny magic, while honouring freak show history.
The odd squad
Before the show, the dimly-lit building is desolate and empty. Then a tall, heavy man lumbers over from the shadows. As he gets closer, his face, scalp and hands are exposed to the light – they’re covered in tiny, ugly lumps and bumps.
One of his bumpy hands is outstretched in greeting. “Hi,” he continues, “I’m Ken Pegleg, the Elephant Man.” Ken has a hearty smile and dark eyes that shine with glee from within his deformed face. “My condition is called neurofibromatosis,” he says. “But don’t worry, I’m not contagious, it’s genetic. You should see me at the beach. I take my shirt off, and the place empties!”
Ken is one of a rotating cast who regularly perform with the 999 Eyes. Other performers include Bizarre favourite Katzen The Tiger Lady, Greg Allan aka The Giant-Handed Man, and Lil’ Miss Firefly, the midget firebreather.
These acts and more choose to tour the country under the 999 Eyes banner, proudly performing and celebrating the quirks that make them different. It makes the 999 Eyes shows an altogether different prospect from the exploitative sideshows of old.
As well as being founder and co-manager of the show, Samantha X is a freak enthusiast, MC and clarinet player in the show’s orchestra, That Damned Band. On stage she introduces the acts and delivers a running commentary about the history of freak shows.
“We define a ‘freak’ as anyone who’s born with a visible genetic anomaly who then chooses to perform,” says Samantha. “We’re reclaiming the word ‘freak’, but we’re not a re-enactment of the shows of the past.”
She explains that the troupe has different aims to the shows that toured in the late 19th century and early 20th century. “We’re not just a money making exercise,” she explains. “Our mission statement makes it clear that by acknowledging carnival sideshow history, we’re out to empower communities with alluring, inventive, and fearless displays of imagination. We human curiosities want a chance to be truly appreciated once again – we want to celebrate real genetic diversity!”
However, tonight’s show is disappointing for the 999 crew. Poor acoustics and an apathetic Asbury crowd leave the cast feeling dejected. Samantha X tries to rally the troops. She takes That Damned Band into the bar at the bowling alley where they play unplugged folk music and high energy waltzes for hours, powered by whisky. At the end of the night the gang are chirpy again, and ready to roll on to New York.
The New York show is taking place at the House Of Yes Aerial School, in a hip region of Brooklyn. The show opens with the atmospheric music of That Damned Band. The musicians are a vital part of the show, and brew up a heady mix of sea shanties, jug band and klezmer (Jewish folk music). Throughout the show the band’s crazy effects and rousing mutant melodies punctuate the acts.
Draped around the stage are huge, colourful banners depicting current and previous performers. These are by resident 999 artist and freak historian Elizabeth Anderson, and coupled with the minimal stage lighting that’s as close to candlelight as possible, the stage looks like a sideshow from days long gone.
The hour-and-a-half show moves quickly. First up on stage is one of only a handful of female sword swallowers left in the world – 38 Special. She draws in the crowd with an odd twist on the traditional sword swallower’s act as she necks a bent coat hanger.
Then things get even wilder and funnier. The masked Black Scorpion – a claw-handed ‘lobster boy’ – comes on stage. His running joke about only being able to count to six using his fingers eventually hits the mark with the hip Williamsburg crowd – who at first seem stunned into silence by the whole affair. But they swiftly warm to his humour and realise they’re being let in on the joke.
Blundering through the evening is the endearingly neurotic Lowrent The Clown, who helps Samantha X host the show and later gamely takes a hotdog in the face, fired from a hydraulic cannon.
Zenobia is a self-described “woman with a beard” (she says every woman has the potential to grow facial hair) and performs a hilarious drunken machete juggling act that has the management reaching for its insurance policy.
Then Ken Pegleg takes to the stage to tell his life story. It’s filled with prejudice and fear – much of his life seems to have involved explaining to people what ‘genetic’ and ‘not contagious’ means. Once he was even thrown out of the Oakland Public Library because of his looks – despite his suggestion that the head librarian should consult some books to research Ken’s condition to see it’s not infectious. Ken takes his shirt off to unveil his huge collection of tumours to the crowd.
Bizarre favourite Nik Sin (AKA Mini Marilyn Manson) steps up for the finale. Wrapped in a custom-made straitjacket, he prepares to amaze the audience as a miniature escape artist. He’s then gamely suspended above the ground on a winch, before wriggling free to a huge round of applause. The cast take their final bow – and the show is over for another night.
Weirdo world tour
Life on the road for this genetically unique cast brings its own difficulties and peculiarities. After all, this isn’t a group of young indie kids crashing on people’s floors after a gig. Some people in 999 Eyes are in their 50s, and even some of the younger members have medical conditions that require monitoring and an extensive drug regime. Some of the performers need to be carried, and others use wheelchairs. And Erik the Gentle Giant needs two dozen eggs for breakfast, not to mention a damn big bed.
On the whole, the tour runs smoothly – and the disparate group has a genuine sense of family, which isn’t surprising considering many of them live close to each other around Austin, Texas. “The Elephant Man has moved down,” says Samantha X, “now he spends every holiday with us. And Lobster Girl hangs out with my family and kids.”
Not that it’s all child-friendly japes with this mob. They know how to party. Nik Sin tells me about his first show with the troupe in New Orleans. “I didn’t know the bars stayed open all night there. I don’t remember much more than still being at the bar at the next morning when everyone else was going to work.”
Samantha also tells us about an infamous frat house show they did in 2006, “They oversold the party and everyone showed up drunk. The night got out of control and there was a riot. We locked ourselves in the basement of the house until a SWAT team showed up and rescued us.”
There are also many unexpected advantages to having a team of freaks on the road – Ken Pegleg has been known to clear a crowded hot spring by taking off his prosthetic limb and flopping his stump into the water.
“This isn’t just a performance for me,” says the Black Scorpion. I really put myself out there every time I get on stage. The difference between me and most sideshow performers is that if they just have a funny moustache, they can shave it off and go and use their college degree for some other job. But I can’t. I can put my hands in my pockets, but that’s it.”
The 999 Eyes freak show will keep touring the country, and hopefully continue to educate audiences to see the beauty of being different. At the same time, it will enable those who’ve had to overcome a lifetime of resentment and prejudice to stand up and be counted. To display themselves to the ten-fingered, ten-toed public, warts, claws, stumps and all.