LOS ANGELES — “You didn’t come to Venice to miss the freakshow. You came to Venice because it is a freakshow,” chirps Todd Ray from his perch on the boardwalk of Venice Beach. The local business owner stands proudly in front of his celebrated sideshow, clutching a microphone and showing off a living two-headed turtle. “The show’s about to get started” — the Venice Beach Freakshow, that is.
For Southern California tourists, Venice Beach is a must see. Thousands flock to the tourist-filled beach for its eclectic vendors, peculiar street performers, and a chance to catch a glimpse of an international body builder pumping iron at Muscle Beach. While a stroll down the boardwalk will place you in front of some truly California characters, it’s behind closed doors where the real “freaks” hang out.
After years of success in the music industry, producing projects for the likes of Mick Jagger, Nas, Jack Johnson, and The Beastie Boys, Ray decided he had a true calling. The Grammy-winning producer gathered his home collection of circus paraphernalia and enlisted his family to open up his very own freak show. Eight years later, the show has evolved into the most eccentric hot spot on the Venice Boardwalk and has garnered its own show on AMC, “Freakshow,” which is currently in its second season.
Often referred to as “the modern-day Ripley,” Ray is determined to preserve the art of the famed 19th-century sideshows. He travels the world to find the strangest creatures possible, filling his museum of oddities with two-headed animals, taxidermy treasures, and show-stopping performers as part of his quest to celebrate the abnormal.
We caught up with the ringmaster, who told us what exactly we will find behind the show’s question-mark-adorned curtains.
Q. What inspired your fascination with the sideshow world?
A. When I was 12, I went to a carnival with my family and I saw this guy, Otis Jordan. He was ossified and his limbs were curled into his body so all he could really move were his shoulders, lips, and tongue. His act was amazing! He used his shoulder to grab a tin can of tobacco, pop it open, and pour a line onto cigarette paper. With his mouth, he picked up the paper, sucked it in, and out came a perfectly rolled cigarette. He struck a match with his tongue, lit the cigarette, took a couple of puffs and said, “Folks, now you know why they call me the human cigarette factory.” That was a big transformative moment for me as a kid. I went and talked to him after the show and said, “Mr. Jordan. I’m a young magician. What you did, I could never do.” He said to me, “Son, if I can do what you saw me do in my condition, a young man like you can do anything you ever dream of.”
Q. Where do you find your freakshow paraphernalia?
A. I go all over the world, anywhere I can. I say I look for the strangest creatures on earth — the living wonders of the world and the most amazing people on the planet. This is their home. This is the place for those that don’t fit into the so-called normal world. Not only do they fit in, but they are stars.
Q. Tell us about some of the performers that people may see hanging around at the freakshow.
A. We have Jessa, the bearded lady. She now has the record for the longest beard on a woman in history, 11.5 inches. It comes all the way down to her stomach. There is George Bell, the tallest man in America; the littlest married couple, Matt and Ali; and Gabriel, the smallest man in America. We also have Larry the Wolf Boy who is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the hairiest man alive. He’s covered with hair like a werewolf, but I always remind the kids, “He’s so nice, you’re going to want to hug him like a teddy bear.” There is also Morgue, our resident shock artist, and my daughter Asia, who is the rubber girl, a fire eater, and the electric lady. We keep our core family but we’ll have other guests pop in from time to time. For instance, we’ve brought out Matt Gone, who has 99 percent of his body tattooed, as an occasional guest.
Q. What can visitors expect during the live shows?
A. You’ll typically see Morgue put a meat hook through his head. He spent a couple of years stretching the cartilage in his skull so he could do it! He’ll also do things like hammer a nail up his nose, centimeters away from his brain as well as sword swallowing. My daughter Asia contorts her body as “the rubber girl,” eats fire, and serves as the “electric lady.” During the show, she sits in an electric chair that runs at close to 150,000 volts. The electricity flows through her body so she’ll grab a fluorescent light bulb and it will turn on. She will also stick her finger and tongue next to a kerosene-soaked torch and a spark will jump from her body to light it on fire.
Q. What oddities will people find inside the show’s museum room?
A. We have over 60 strange creatures. We have 10 two-headed animals that are alive: Myrtle and Squirtle, the two-headed turtle; two-headed snake, Laverne and Shirley; Rocky the five-legged dog; Freddie, a frog with five legs; and Tony the two-tailed iguana. We also have lots of taxidermy and strange things preserved in jars.
Q. What are some of your favorite attractions?
A. We have “One-Eyed Jack,” the Cyclops Chihuahua. I tell kids out front, “You gotta meet One-Eyed Jack, the Cyclops Chihuahua. He’s only got one eyeball, and it’s big and it’s right in the middle. You’re gonna see him with your own eyes, and he’s going to see you with his eye.” We have a two-faced calf from Kansas. The cool thing about that particular taxidermy is we have the outside of the animal preserved and the skeleton articulated so you can see the inside and the outside. We have preserved devil fish, which look alien. These fish have lips and the faces on them are human-like. I also like the two-headed pig with five legs, a puppy that was born with one head and two bodies, and “Itty and Bitty, the two-headed kitty.”
Q. Last year, AMC began filming your daily antics for a reality show. What has that experience been like?
A. The thing that is very exciting about the TV show is that people that haven’t been able to visit yet but have seen it on TV are so connected. They love it so much. We had a grandmother call us just the other day and say, “I’m bringing my grandkids to California. It’s been my dream to take them to Disney Land but they don’t want to go to Disney Land. They want to come to the freakshow.” That’s pretty amazing that the culture that we are giving life to again is touching all people, and especially young people! To use the old circus terminology, our show is “for children of all ages.” People sometimes say, “Well, how much is it to come in?” and I say, “It’s $5 to come in. That’s the children’s price because everyone that goes into the freakshow feels like a child.”
Q. What do you want people to take away from their freakshow experience?
A. This isn’t a freakshow in the sense that we want to freak you out. This is a freakshow where we want to open your mind. We want to show you the wonders of the world, and that includes yourself. We use the word “freak” like the way it was invented. It was not a derogatory term; it actually was created to define something as different from the usual but through the years, people have used it and defined it as a bad term. We’ve redefined it. What we keep saying is, “Everyone’s a freak, and that’s what makes us special. Everyone is different, unique.” What I really try to communicate to people is that every one of us is a living wonder. Each one of us is a strange creature and each one of us is more magical than we realize.
Q. What’s been the most rewarding part about running the freakshow?
A. Society has created this sense of normality, a standard that they believe we are all supposed to be judged against. If you don’t fit that standard, you are considered outside. If you have six toes on your feet, it’s considered weird instead of amazing. We celebrate those differences and try to get others to do the same. We get so many e-mails, fan letters, Facebook messages, and phone calls where people say, “I never felt good about myself until I saw your show. Now I feel like what’s different about me is what makes me beautiful.”Interview was edited and condensed. Nicole Pajer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.