A six-legged, two-headed turtle called Cheech and Chong suns itself on a table outside 909 Ocean Front Walk on California’s Venice Beach.
Showman Todd Ray – armed with a microphone and the gift of the gab – cranks up his pitch in a southern drawl: “Folks, inside we’ve got 60 of the strangest creatures on Earth! We’ve got 10 animals with two heads: alive! You’re gonna see the two-headed chicken, the two-headed pig, and the two-headed snake: alive! Just five dollars!” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Venice Beach Freakshow.
Since the circus had its heyday in the 19th and 20th century, freak shows have been in decline. Political correctness in US culture, which began in the late 1960s, made people feel uncomfortable for staring at freaks, and television removed the need for them to get off the sofa to gawk at weirdos.
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But Todd Ray, with his extra-limbed animals and performers that include a torture-proof man, a contortionist, and a tattooed terror, is bringing back the shock and awe. “Some mothers of the children around here don’t understand the power of wonder,” says Todd. “But we’ve moved and grown as human beings though curiosity.”
Before setting up his show, 43-year-old Todd, from South Carolina, was a top music producer in New York, working with artists such as Mick Jagger, Helmet, Santana and the Beastie Boys. He also discovered Jack Johnson.
But after earning three Grammys during a 20-year career, he became frustrated with record company politics. “I got sick of the business,” he says. And with money in his pocket, it was time to do something else…
The idea for his new venture hit him after he’d moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. He was strolling down Venice Beach when he remembered his childhood love for sideshows. When developer Abbot Kinney established the beach, just over 100 years ago, it was littered with them. “That vibe left Venice and I wanted it back,” Todd explains.
At age six, Todd started doing magic tricks, and never missed a visiting carnival or circus. “I loved it. I had to slide under the tent to see what was there,” he says.
A performer called Otis Jordan, ‘The Human Cigarette Factory’, left the strongest impression. He’d been born with deformed arms and legs, and used his chin and tongue to roll and light cigarettes.
“I didn’t want to leave his tent after the show,” remembers Todd. “When I went to talk to Otis, he said: ‘Remember, anything in life is possible. All dreams can come true. If I can do what I do in my condition, you can do anything you dream of.’ I never forgot him.”
Since Todd’s show got going in 2006, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Murray, and Motley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx and Andy Dick have passed through, helping to turn it into the number one attraction at Venice Beach.
Being a showman has also made Todd feel like more of a freak himself. White guys with dreadlocks trail past the seafront toking on bongs, but all he sees is a sea of sameness. “If I’m a freak,” he said, “it’s because I refuse to be normal, to be the same.”
Wearing a black Venice Beach Freakshow T-shirt, and thick sunscreen on his face, Todd invites passers by to check out Cheech And Chong. Next to them, shaded under a parasol, on a bed of nails, with a dollar bill stapled to his bare belly, Kurt the Pain Proof Man is casually reading Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road.
Todd’s newest recruit, Brianna Belladonna, gobbles down fire in the 27-degree heat, while his 14-year-old son and business partner Phoenix, takes the cash.
Bug-eyed children climb the stairs to the entrance, greeted by Rocky, a five-legged mini Doberman Pinscher, and Todd’s wife, Danielle – affectionately known as ‘Freakshow Mama’.
Rounding out the family’s involvement in the business is Todd’s 17-year-old daughter, Asia. Before her dad opened the Freakshow, she didn’t know what one was. Now, she’s a contortionist named Lady Twist The Rubber Girl, a fire-eater, and Electra The Electric Lady, a human power conductor who lights up bulbs. “I learn my tricks from the other performers,” she says. “It’s a fun job. Most kids just work at the mall, but I’m learning to walk on glass, and I might start swallowing swords.”
Danielle’s proud of the family’s achievements, but she was nervous about Todd’s m (£700,000) venture at first. “I thought he was out of his mind,” she admits. “But now I think he’s a genius. I love working with the whole family. It keeps us tight and we have fun memories.”
Memories of sideshows past haunt the Freakshow’s displays, and it’s like a museum inside. Handcrafted cabinets show off multi-limbed, multi-headed, and one-eyed specimens preserved in jars. Todd has bargained with retired showmen, and scoured eBay for his sideshow memorabilia, which spans 150 years.
But before visitors get the chance to look at the collection, they’re treated to a live performance. Red and yellow carnival lights zip across the walls, heralding Digger The Sadu Hobo, from Tain in Scotland. Dressed in a raggedy kilt, he kicks things off by hammering through one of his nostrils – which he soon follows with a power drill.
Brianna Belladonna steps up next – diving barefoot off a stool into shards of broken glass, grinning. Then it’s time for fun with a staple gun. Digger asks the audience to attach a dollar bill to his stomach, or a twenty to his forehead. But there are no high rollers.
There are 20 shows a day, each lasting for 15 minutes. In the early 1990s, Jim Rose shocked audiences by bringing new twists to old stunts at rock’n’roll shows – capturing a young audience that’d never seen anything like it. Since then, both self-made freaks like the Lizardman – who has scales tattooed all over his body and a forked tongue – and born freaks like the one-legged acrobat Jackie The Human Tripod, have found success touring with a handful of shows at state fairs and nightclubs.
Todd doesn’t have any trouble getting new acts in. “So far I’ve just met the right people who’ve been into it,” he says. “If anything, it’s like the universe just lined us up.”
But swimming, slithering attractions, don’t just land in his lap, and Todd’s travelled the world to amass his collection of curious creatures, which he keeps in a circus wagon created by a set designer for Tim Burton.
Todd’s two-headed Arizona King snake, Laverne and Shirley, is a showstopper, but he’s most excited about his conjoined-twin turtles. One – which came from an exotic dealer in Florida – is named after the human twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who toured the vaudeville circuit in the 1930s. The turtle’s stomachs are connected, and they have two shells and eight legs. “Don’t they float beautifully?” Todd marvels, as they paddle along on their side, craning their necks to stay above water.
Most of Todd’s curiosities were found on internet forums, then flown on animal-friendly planes, but his prize turtle – Myrtle, Squirtle, and Thirdle – was flown from Peru in a container on his lap, hidden from the cabin crew. Possibly the only living triple-headed creature in the world, fully-formed Myrtle and Squirtle eat enough to support the underdeveloped Thirdle. They’re living longer than expected, “but you gotta know how to take care of an animal like this,” he explains.
Taster attraction Cheech and Chong are difficult to keep because they have strong individual identities. “They have different personalities and want to go in separate ways,” he explains. “Quite often, they end up in a battle over where to go, flip over, and then can’t flip themselves back.”
But the toughest animal Todd’s had to deal with is Rocky, the five-legged pooch. After being adopted from a Mississippi dog pound, Rocky was so vicious that he sunk his teeth into most of the family in violent attacks. Desperate to tame him, Todd turned to Cesar Millan, better known as ‘The Dog Whisperer’ on the National Geographic channel. The program was filming in the area, so Todd tracked down the producers to share his story. Cesar isn’t told about the animals before he works with them, so meeting his first five-legged friend, and all of his two-headed companions, was a shock. Todd doesn’t know what Cesar whispered into Rocky’s ear, but it worked. “He’s been a great dog since and hasn’t bitten anyone – he hasn’t even tried,” he claims.
Todd’s hunt for special animals continues, and his most coveted creature is a two-headed pit bull – there’s a brand new Range Rover for the person who can deliver one. “It’s gotta be alive,” Todd says. “That’s my ultimate dream – to stand in front of the Freakshow, say nothing, but have a two-headed, fully-grown pit bull on a chain.”
We hope his wish comes true. The Freakshow is a passion and an obsession Todd wouldn’t give up for anything. “I stood on stage when Santana won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1999, but that feeling is nothing compared to the look in a child’s eye when I show them a two-headed animal,” he says. “Their eyes open so big and their smile widens. That’s the magic.”