Staple guns through shoulders and nails through nostrils: A glimpse into the strange sideshow world of Octo Claw’s Bizarre Bazaar

So, there’s this drag queen onstage. Her name is Sofawnda Peters. She done up to the nines, her face stamped, and her outfit looking tight. She’s singing in a mirror, lip synching to Lady Gaga’s “Bloody Mary.” Of course, the mirror is just a frame. On the other side of the frame is Stevie Dicks, another drag queen, also done to the nines. As the song progresses, Dicks climbs through the mirror, attacks Peters, dances with her, then vomits blood all over her.

I clap and cheer with childlike glee.

As the mirror act ends, Octo Claw, the ringmaster, comes on stage to work the mic and buy time while the stage kitten, Amy Pedigo, frantically rolls up the tarp onto which most of the blood splashed.

(Hint: whenever they start by putting down a tarp, shit is gonna get weird.)

It’s taking too long for the next act to get ready, so Claw has to stall. He reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out a shiny chrome staple gun.

It’s time for the human pin cushion.

Welcome to Octo Claw’s Bizarre Bazaar.

Let’s Set the Stage

We’ll meet Octo Claw more formally in a second. But first, let’s set the stage.

Octo Claw’s Bizarre Bazaar came to my attention about a year and a half ago, when they were operating under the name “Bluegrass Bizarre Bazaar.” I stumbled across them while researching an article about drag queens and kings in Louisville. I found a drag king named Artemisia de la Miel, who also did this sideshow stuff — fire eating and burlesque.

When I started working on this story, Miel, a member of the Bizarre Bazaar collective, was my first point of contact, and suggested I try kittening for one of their shows, and fold that into the story.

A stage kitten is essentially a stage hand, or an assistant. The job entails different things in different shows, but the basics are that you clear the stage after each act, and set things up for the next performer.

A fire act requires that you bring out the kerosene pot, and stay ready to put any fires out. A burlesque act requires that you clean up the gloves, skirts, bras and panties left over after the big reveals.

The show I agreed to kitten for was a small one — a little thing that some members of the Bizarre were putting together to support an out-of-town headliner, a burlesque dancer from St Louis named Blyra Cpanx. It would feature a little sideshow and a little burlesque and end with some karaoke. Bringing these small scale touring acts  — Cpanx is traveling with just one other person, a poet/stand up comedian named Nathaniel Kelley —  is part of the Bizarre’s vision for Louisville. “What we want is to bring more of these weird acts to Louisville, [acts] that might not have had a platform before,” said Miel. “And we wanna make their stay here profitable and worth it.”

This was all happening at the Bizarre’s home base, The Cure Lounge in Germantown. The Cure’s back room is slowly turning into the place in town to catch weird acts, from comedy, to sideshow and to arm wrestling. It’s the home of The Dark Market, and it has a great stage for bands. There’s nothing official on its website or Facebook, but it’s clear The Cure Lounge wants to be a counterculture home for weird shit.

It even lets the Bizarre use the back room for rehearsals sometimes, which is huge. Anybody in a performing group will tell you that finding rehearsal space is key.

To kitten for the Cpanx show, Miel needed me to just show up for one rehearsal, the night before.

I showed up a couple minutes too early, and walked into the big empty space in the back of The Cure.

(For the Halloween show —when I saw the Bloody Mary act— the area was packed, to the point of being almost claustrophobic. There was a palpable feeling of weirdness in the air. The group managed to do that thing great shows do, where they completely transported the audience to some incredible place.)

But, when it’s empty and cold, you see it for what it is — it’s just a blank room. In hindsight, it’s obvious — it’s only bizarre when The Bizarre is there.

Stevie Dicks (photo by Larry Green)
Stevie Dicks (photo by Larry Green)

“There came this rare opportunity”

“I think Doctor Baron Von Awesome said it best,” prefaced Octo Claw, the titular leader of Octo Claw’s Bizarre Bazaar. Always the weirdo ringmaster even when offstage, Claw was talking about why he loves sideshow. Without stopping to congratulate himself on what had immediately become my favorite sentence of the year, Claw continued: “We were camping out on tour in Florida, we’re sitting around a campfire and he said, ‘You know, when we were kids, we used to do gross stuff to freak people out. And now, we’re adults, who get paid to do gross and freak people out.’”

Now, that story isn’t much of a story really. The guys were sitting around a fire, and somebody said something cool. But man, when Claw said it, it sounded like the best thing ever.

It didn’t hurt that he was already in full costume, wearing a torn and jaunty top hat, and standing next to his beat up old pickup truck. The back is full of strange implements, and the front has a gator skull hood ornament secured with leathers straps and adorned with feathers.

But, it’s not all about the setting — it’s also how he talks and tells stories. That’s really the meat of Claw’s job with The Bizarre. He’s a raconteur, a storyteller and a bullshitter. In between all the fire spinning, burlesque, juggling, glass eating and drag, Claw has to keep the audience entertained while the acts come and go.

Now, he has plenty of his own schtick. After he got started as a ringmaster, working with a group called Blue Moon Circus, Claw started accruing more skills to put in his bag of tricks. “I learned things like block head, and human pin cushion … a whip act, the blade poi, and also flow items like fire stuff. I’m happy to walk on glass. I can do all the basic side show stuff.” Sometimes Claw comes out and does a full act, but most of this stuff is what he keeps in his back pocket, ready if there’s a snag backstage, or the timing on something is off. He can jump in and keep the audience happy.

Claw didn’t start circus until about three years ago, but it’s been a part of his life since he was a kid: “I followed sideshow my whole life. I grew up in Florida, where there happened to be lot of circus performers that would go there for the winter time. So I’d see jugglers, and I’d see trapeze artists.”

But he didn’t get serious about performing until his early 20s. “There came this rare opportunity…” he said, describing a time he answered a Craigslist ad and worked in schools with a mad scientist show for awhile. Pretty cool I guess, but it sounds 10 times cooler when he gives it that Octo Claw spin.

I shouldn’t downplay Claw’s other skills. While they are a bit de rigueur for sideshow, there’s a reason that they are standbys in the profession. They look amazing on stage.

For instance, human blockhead. Claw takes these nails, big nasty looking things that are 3 or 4 inches long, and he nails them into his face, into his nose.

The basics of this trick involve finding the right empty space in your sinus cavity, and driving the nails into that spot. Go ahead and stick your finger up in your nose and push — those membranes and tissues are all delicate as hell, with about a zillion nerve endings. Now, imagine driving a nail into it.

I’ve seen Claw do blockhead a couple of times, and, for me, the squick factor has worn off just a touch, but it still makes my skin crawl a little when he does human pincushion.

“We can make a queer, DIY, punk, vaudeville scene”

It’s worth noting that while his name is in the title, Claw isn’t really in charge of The Bizarre. “Non-hierarchal collective,” is the term Miel uses to describe the group’s working structure. They make decisions together, and performers are free to come and go.

For the show on which I kittened, Dicks, Peters and several other performers from the Halloween Spectacular weren’t able to participate, though I got Dicks on the phone briefly to talk about her goals. Dicks wants to broaden the scope of Louisville’s drag scene, and shift it away from the pageant and glamour style drag. “[I want] to freak people out, and make people think, and make people think about what drag really is. Not just the one way they’ve seen it. And that’s what the [Bizarre] is about: Everybody has their own sense of weird.”

Backstage, during rehearsal, I get a taste of the decision-making process, that comes from that sense of weird.

Several of the performers don’t realize I’m a reporter until I tell them — they just assume I’m another weirdo who wandered up and stayed. As a kitten, I’m given equal voice. I quickly inform them I’m a reporter, but they are just as open with me — I’m still immediately a part of the gang.

We started working on an act by Doctor Dangerlegs, a comedic burlesque dancer. She’s done sexy Kermit the Frog dances, and her first number for the collective was a pig-faced sexy nurse based on the Twilight Zone episode, “Eye of The Beholder.”

Doctor Dangerlegs’ number for the Cpanx show involves her getting smashed to Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You.” The joke is that all she wants for Christmas is… “booze.” She drinks heavily, and then desperately tries to escape her clothing before flat passing out on stage. It’s incredibly deadpan, and actually my favorite piece of the entire show.

We’re trying to figure out how to get her offstage when her number is over, and I offer to just pick her up and carry her off. To me, it just made sense, the person responsible for clearing the stage after acts would be in charge of cleaning up the sloshed Doctor. My suggestion is immediately accepted, though there’s a quick discussion on how to make sure there aren’t some screwed-up date-rape implications to the action. We decide together that the key is just me selling being upset by having to move this drunk person out of the way. Anybody who’s ever worked in a bar knows that feeling.

The good Doctor is zany and loquacious, but there’s this weird shy, insecure edge to her, as well. When I start recording my interview with her, she whispers, “Ahhhhh, should I use my real name?”

She gives her real name in hushed tones, but suddenly gets louder when she gives me her stage name. It’s the moment of hesitation that reveals the truth a lot of extroverts already know: We’re not loud because we have self-confidence. We’re loud because our anxiety and awkwardness won’t let us shut up.

Despite the discipline obvious in her act, she drunkenly takes her clothes off the exact same way both times I see her run through the piece, down to the errant flick of her ankle that tosses off her sparkly skirt.

Dangerlegs is a fairly new member of the collective, and she started out with kittening, as did Dicks.

Kittening seems to be the sort of gateway drug for this group. Come hang out, pick up some panties, clean up some blood and see if you like what’s going on.

“It’s a very open community” said Dangerlegs. “You talk to somebody and they’re like, come do this with us.”

That’s how Lady Rama — another member of the collective who’s performing in the Cpanx show — got involved as well. She saw performances, both of Blue Moon Circus and the Bluegrass Bizarre-era of the collective, and just asked if she could participate. Rama’s acts incorporate belly dancing and heavy, heavy metal. She talked a lot about the confidence boost she get from doing burlesque: “Like many people, I’ve struggled with self confidence. And I (saw) them onstage, and they are so confident, and having so much fun, and it seemed like a great way to become more comfortable with oneself.”

While the collective’s big into being friendly and open, they’re also hell raisers.

It’s all part of the same ethos, according to Miel: “If there’s a way to use art for the greater good — and we’re going to need that in the next couple of years — and if we can make a queer, DIY, punk, vaudeville scene, then I’m happy to.”

Blyra Cpanx (photo by Larry Green)

“That Guy is a Stupid Weirdo”

I talk a lot about found families, in my work. I openly admit that I’m a sucker for the idea that we choose our true kin. I’ve heard a lot of people while reporting a lot of stories describe their group as a sort of “family.”

But no one has made me believe it quite as much as Octo Claw did.

“I’ve been alone for 26 years,” he said, a hint of desperation leaking into his stage-like bravado, as we talked next to his beat up truck. “And no one gets me, and no one understands me, and they’re like, that guy is a stupid weirdo.”

But in the Bizarre, he feels at home: “I found my people. I finally found my tribe.”

This quote is what’s running through my mind the night of the show. I guess it just resonated. My obsession with found families and groups of weirdos no doubt goes back to my own childhood, and feeling like everyone thought I was a stupid weirdo.

The night of the show, I’m picking up panties, ready to put out fires and carrying people off stage. It’s gone fairly smoothly. But, it’s taking Cpanx too long to clean up the chicken grease from her first act and get ready for her Pikachu strip tease. So Claw is stalling.

It’s time for the human pincushion.

Claw’s iteration of this act involves a staple gun, and an open offer to the audience. Anyone with cash money is welcome to come staple the cash to his body. The bigger the bill, the juicier the spot. A one goes into his shoulder, a five into the fleshy part of his pec. If you have an Andrew Jackson you are willing to part with, you can staple that genocidal fucker right into Claw’s ass cheek. Obviously, Claw keeps the cash.

So, the staple is going into real flesh, but you try to make sure it doesn’t damage anything important.

“You just gotta know where to place the stapler, not through the muscle, and missing veins,” Claw had explained earlier.

So Claw is running through this schtick, offering the crowd the pleasure of piercing his flesh, and no one is biting.

It’s a moment that seems to key into that universal law that no one wants to be the first one in a crowd to do something. It’s why you never put out an empty tip jar, and why you always plant one question in the audience when you do public speaking.

“My job here is clear,” I think. I just happen to have a couple of ones in my pocket.

I run out on stage, and excitedly wave my dollar bill. If no one in the audience wants to go first, I will.

The staple gun is cold in my hand, and it’s weird how hard I have to squeeze the handle to fire the mechanism, but as I drive a quarter inch of steel into Claw’s arm I think, “Maybe you are some kind of weirdo, but you’re all my kind of weirdos.”