Carl Crew is mugging for the cameras. His North Hollywood performance space and oddities museum, the California Institute of Abnormalarts (CIA for short), is getting featured on 1st Look, a late-night NBC travel show.
The show’s host, former The Hills star Audrina Patridge, smiles tensely, looking confused and slightly terrified as Crew, decked out in a top hat and red ringmaster’s jacket, introduces her to one of the venue’s regular performers: a fire-eater named Vincent Wolf, who’s about to teach Patridge how to swallow fire.
“I’m going to leave you in his hot little hands,” Crew says, with a mischievous grin.
In fact, nearly everything Crew does could have the world “mischievous” appended to it. When another performer approaches between takes to ask the 1st Look field producer for a release form, Crew interrupts: “Did you give them a urine sample yet?”
The CIA celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, but even after two decades, Crew still has a hard time explaining the place to the normals. Earlier, while Patridge was off grabbing lunch (not, one assumes, a Carl's Jr. burger), he addressed the 1st Look cameras directly and declared, in a rare moment of seriousness, “We’re a multi-dimensional venue that specializes in maximalism.” The NBC camera crew exchanged glances, nonplussed.
Over the years, the CIA has hosted magicians, puppeteers, burlesque shows, avant-garde theater and B-movie horror screenings. But it’s mainly known for two things: eccentric, costumed rock bands, and freak shows.
It all started out of necessity. Originally, Crew and his partner, Robert Ferguson, rented the windowless one-story building on Burbank Boulevard to house their film distribution company. When that business failed, they started throwing parties to pay the bills.
In the ‘90s, the venue operated speakeasy-style, with no liquor or performance licenses and a secret entrance. Finally, one night, the cops shut it down.
“We had 300 people that came out of the club and were taunting the police,” Crew remembers. He laughs as he recalls overhearing one cop say to another, “This is highly organized,” because in those early days, the CIA was anything but.
In 2001, Crew and Ferguson reopened the club with all the necessary permits, including a beer and wine license. They also decked it out in its current, circus-themed incarnation, with a brightly painted red and yellow stage, modeled after the sideshow stages of traveling circuses and carnivals of yore.
The venue’s narrow, wraparound courtyard became home to Crew’s extensive collection of freak show treasures: a two-headed baby floating in a jar, the severed arm of a French nobleman that supposedly grants wishes, and his prize possession, the embalmed corpse of a 100-year-old dead French clown, preserved under glass in full makeup.
Crew loves such freak show ephemera because “there’s still mystery in it.” “In the sideshow, there are still things that are unexplainable. I love that. I feast on that.”
When Crew discusses his collection, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s bogus; he has a carnival barker’s tendency to embellish the truth. But a majority of the relics, including the clown, he insists are authentic. “They’re pre-1925 human remains, so we don’t need a permit,” Crew tells the 1st Look people at one point.
Crew’s mini-museum has helped make the CIA a favorite venue of circus and freak show acts from all over Southern California and beyond.
“I’ve performed at probably 50 different places since I’ve been out here,” says Dangerous D, a recent Los Angeles transplant whose act includes swallowing glass and letting audience members attach dollar bills to him with an industrial staple gun. “And this is my favorite venue, hands down. There’s always killer acts, something that you’re not gonna see somewhere else. I try to perform here as much as I can.”
Many bands express similar loyalty. Aaron Cohen estimates that his Orange County-based punk band, The Radioactive Chicken Heads, has played the CIA “over 100 times” since 2000. Earlier, the Chicken Heads played a brief set for the NBC cameras, dressed in their trademark giant, cylindrical chicken masks. Everyone, that is, except Cohen, the lead singer, who dresses up like a punk-rock carrot, in sunglasses, spiked wristbands and a sleeveless denim jacket.
“Carl Crew is like a brother from another monster rock ‘n’ roll mother,” says Gruesome Gereg, singer-guitarist for another CIA regular, The Rhythm Coffin, a graveyard-themed retro-rock group that performs in skeleton jumpsuits and corpse paint. (Full disclosure: The author of this article once booked a show at the CIA that featured both The Rhythm Coffin and The Radioactive Chicken Heads.)
Other bands that have performed there over the years include the Black Flag/Circle Jerks side project Midget Handjob, recently reunited horror punks Haunted Garage, and cult favorites The Kids of Widney High, made up of actual high school students with cognitive disabilities.
Taking a break from the 1st Look cameras, Crew finds a shady spot in the courtyard to relax. He’s shed the top hat and ringmaster’s jacket and now looks more like a punk-rock roadie, in a black T-shirt and red pants, with a mop of bleached blond hair and a rangy, broad-shouldered build. He’s of indeterminate age, with a fortysomething’s creased face that looks younger when he flashes his impish smile, which is often.
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To celebrate the CIA’s 20th anniversary, Crew and Ferguson are redecorating the courtyard with a theme Crew calls “ancient Chinese secret.” Fresh red paint, still tacky to the touch, covers nearly every surface. When finished, the back wall of the courtyard will feature a mural depicting San Francisco’s Chinatown. There will also be a smoke-breathing dragon’s head over the entrance and the latest addition to Crew’s sideshow collection, still in transit from its previous owner: a mummified Chinese magician from San Francisco named Madame Wong.
“She is a bejeweled midget that is probably dead for 60, 70 years.” Crew claims she would perform for wealthy tourists in the nightclubs of Chinatown and use her magician’s sleight-of-hand tricks to rob them blind—hence the jewels. As usual, it’s hard to tell how much of the story is true, but there’s no denying the enthusiasm with which Crew tells it. "She's the most incredible thing," he gushes. "I can't wait to get her here."