Ukulele Loki knows a thing or two about what makes a freakshow a freakshow. He's been active in the circus and sideshow arts (yes, that is a thing) for years, honing his craft as a "talented talker" (or what the squares might call a barker, a term he rejects as vulgar) and delving into the history and culture of the carnival sideshow. When he was approached to curate the Freakshow Pavilion at the second annual Denver County Fair, which runs from Friday, August 10 through Sunday, August 12 at the National Western Complex, he accepted on one condition: that it be as authentic as possible.
To find out exactly what that means, and what fairgoers can expect from the Freakshow, we sat down with Loki to talk freaks, sideshow and deformed balloon animals.
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Westword: Let's start with the official name: It's the Freakshow Pavilion? And what is that?
Ukelele Loki: Yes. When they first approached me I heard that they wanted to do things very different than what they did last year. When Andrew Novick approached me, he was interested in me bringing something authentic to the Denver County Fair. Now, I have a pretty big history in sideshow and I was hesitant to even use the term freakshow, because I think they just applied that not knowing the difference between sideshow and freakshow and historically what that meant.
When I said, "Hey you got all this stuff published and printed all this stuff out and it says freakshow, but I do sideshow and you can't call it a freakshow unless you have a freak" and they said, "Oh, well nobody really cares" and I said, "Well I do, this is important. So if we're gonna do this, we need to get a freak."
What exactly is a freak, for the purposes of authenticity?
In the historic terminology, the freak was a revered act through the early part of the 1900s. The freaks were the stars of the side show; they were the main attraction. These were people that were either born freaks -- people born different than you and I -- or made freaks, people like tattooed people. Then you had your gaff freaks, or your fake freaks. The bearded lady that's really a fake bearded lady, or the half-and-half that's half-crossdresser, that kind of stuff.
So I'm thinking, if they really want to get a freak, there are only a handful of performing freaks in the world. The term came under scrutiny in the 1970s when there were lawsuits, and it started to have, right at the same time the term freak was getting a popular connotation with the hippie subculture, it became a negative to point out people who were born different, or were seen as having disabilities. They were seen as being exploited.
Now, fast forward to the 2000s when I was with my former show, the Crispy Family Carnival, we had a performer who would be considered a little person. She called herself a midget and said, "I'm freak, I want to be a sideshow performer, and people want to protect me from this field, but guess what, this is my choice and I want to do this." As a little person, if she wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or whatever that would be fine, but she wanted to be in the circus, that would be taboo. Unfortunately, I was not able to get Miss Firefly out here, but because I performed with her, we brought up [the topic] with the Crispy Family Carnival, a lot of the politics around the use of he word freak and what is a sideshow, and what is historic, and what is authentic.
So, in the search for a freak, Dana Cain said, "Years ago I met the Enigma and I am just a huge fan. I think he's a really neat guy, do you think we could get him?" and I said I think we could. So I got in touch with him, we have some common friends, and having worked in sideshows I kind of knew how to approach him to do a Denver County Fair act. Now, I'm very pleased to announce we have confirmed the Enigma is going to be performing at our freakshow.
What kind of freak is he?
He is what we call a made freak. His form of performance art is really intense, with the modification he's done to his body. It's a permanent alteration of who he is. So he is going to be headlining. [Specifically] it's the Showdevils featuring the Enigma and Serana Rose. It's a two-person show. They'll be performing many of the classic, traditional sideshow stunts. I'm really excited to have him coming out.
Sounds like a great start. What other freaky goodness can we expect?
Wanting to add some legitimacy and authenticity to this freak show, since this is a county fair I knew we needed some artifacts, like a museum. When you'd originally go and see the PT Barnum-type show, you would have the dime museum. You'd have the two-headed baby fetus in a jar, you'd have the disturbing medical curiosities. People would say, "Is this real? Is this something that was created? Is this fake? What's the legitimacy of these?" and that was part of the fun of the carnival in those times. I'm very pleased to say that we also, in addition to having the Show Devils coming out, we are going to have five artifacts, historic artifacts, that are from the Bobby Reynolds collection.
Now, back when I was was running my own sideshow, I used to go to this event called the sideshow gathering in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania . I had the opportunity to meet Bobby Reynolds twice. He's something of a sideshow legend. He has been producing and promoting sideshow for years and he has an amazing collection of these sort of oddities. Included in our exhibit, we are going to have a chupacabra, we're going to have a fiji mermaid. I believe we have a furry piranha and two other artifacts. So there will be some surprises for people to see when they come, and see these actual historic artifacts that would have traveled in carnival and sideshow circuits. [These are] amazing and unusual sideshow artifacts from Bobby Reynolds sideshow collection that the public can wonder, gawk and marvel at. They are impressive. They are going to be spooky and curious.
Will there be any local talent represented in the Freakshow?
Yes. This is a Denver County Fair, and one of the things that neat about the Denver County Fair is we're an urban county. We're a hip county, we're a weird county, we have interesting, local, unusual artists. So I wanted to include the really inventive artwork of a local artist, Dave Seiler. He's a very talented local artist, he's prolific. He is also very involved in the modern art, contemporary art scene around Denver. He did, several years ago, a show that I had been looking for a avenue for for years, called Dr. DB Zeiler's Circus of More: Step Right Up.
What they've created is taking a nod from the idea of old sideshow and carnival games, artifacts and even back from the old days of nickelodeons where you drop in a nickel and turn the crank and see an early form of animation or an early film. He's created these artifacts that look historic, but they are modern and contemporary art pieces. They have very much kind of turn of the century, up into the late '20s and '30s looks. For instance, there's a box of two wooden clowns and you turn the crank and they sort of box and wiggle around. It's just a really neat art piece. They're not carnival games, per se. They're something a little more special than that, because they're fine art pieces. they sell for thousands of dollars, they're real art pieces that he displays in galleries, but I want to bring them to our freakshow. So those will also be on display. And if someone is an art connoisseur, maybe some of them will get sold. But we're going to have them there for people to interact with.
With your extensive background in sideshow arts, is it safe to assume you'll be doing something as well?
I just confirmed today, and am really pleased to announce, is this will mark the first time I have performed with my old colleague Crispy, from Denver's own Crispy Family Carnival, which I left back in I think 2006 or 2007, when Crispy moved back to Oklahoma. This will mark the ten year anniversary of the founding of Crispy Family Carnival, which was originally a local sideshow that I co-founded with Crispy. So we're bringing the Crispy family sideshow back out and I'm just really pleased to say that they're coming back to Denver for a reunion. It's gonna be jam packed with a lot of exciting acts and big names and I think important historical Denver figures. It's going to be great.
Crispy does a lot of the traditional fakir acts. I'm sure a lot of the acts he performs are similar to acts the Enigma performs, because a lot of these are traditional sideshow stunts. They're different than tricks, because tricks would be a magician doing something like fake swallowing a sword. But a sideshow stunt, you're actually swallowing a sword. If you're going to stick a nail up your nose, you really stick a nail up your nose. I know they have some different takes on how they present these acts and I believe that they're going to be presenting different material as well. For instance I know Crispy will be doing knife throwing and bull whipping [and] he'll have a blade box. Enigma and Serana, they do a trademark chainsaw and apple stunt, that is very disturbing, and loud, and dangerous. The Show Devils bill themselves as the world's most dangerous show.
Isn't that part of the appeal? The feeling that you're watching something that could go off the rails at any moment, resulting in a horrendous injury that could scar you for life?
That's a great way to say it: it could result in a horrendous injury or go off the rails at any moment. These folks are trained, and we always make it eminently clear that these are the sort of things you do not try at home. I do know that there is a real chance of injury with these types of performance. It's all about risk management. You are putting your body through the paces and going to the extremes of comfort and safety for entertainment. And the entertainment factor for the side show, of course, is watching that danger and that thrill you get.
Is there anything else people need to know about that we haven't covered yet?
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There is one more thing. We are going to be featuring deformed balloon animals. I met a lady who is a balloon twister, named Brenna, and she makes creepy and freaky and gothic and strange balloon animals. She does a two-headed turtle. She has a rabid rabbit, which is a rabbit that is frothing at the mouth. She has a vulture, she does a cockroach ... it's sort of this spooky and strange take on balloon animals, like if Edward Gorey were to make a balloon animal, this is what they would be. Under the inspiration of that, I've written a bizarre children's book and we'll have some illustrations from that and some of the poetry from the book. It's called Twisted Twisting: Deformed Balloon Animals for Maladjusted Children of All Ages.