Best Place to Find a Dead Clown

(Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan)

{mosimage}You can almost hear the rattle of the wooden roller coaster, the calliope music from the carousel, as you enter the California Institute of Abnormalarts. They will terrify and amaze you. Bright circus colors and tiny twinkling lights. Something to see in all directions: the skeleton of a fairy from Cornwall, England; the severed arm of Claude DeLorraine, from Lorraine, France, protected by a family curse; banners and advertisements for “Pumpkin Head — He has seeds for brains!”; the 650-pound girl; the Fiji Mermaid. Then you turn the corner and there he is — the Dead Clown — in full costume and makeup, perfectly embalmed with mercury and arsenic, lying peacefully in his glass-topped coffin.

Carl Crew, one of the founders of the CIA, grew up in the theater. At 18, he turned his talents to another kind of show and became a mortician. He knows the ins and outs of preservation. He says that if the Clown’s glass ever breaks, run like hell, because the mercury fumes will kill you. Co-founder Robert Ferguson was also a mortician once upon a time. Does it all begin to make sense? A stuffed Pighuahua — half pig, half Chihuahua. A two-headed baby in a jar. A haunted painting — which was stolen on Halloween and returned two weeks later with a note, “F— this!” And the remarkable mummified Alligator Boy, which Carl, as a mortician, swears is not a fake. “It’s the mystery of the sideshow,” says Carl. “The mystery of deformed people. We want to stare. We want to know what makes them different.”

These pickled and petrified oddities, in the entrance, the bar, the outdoor garden, are but an overture to the performances held on the main stage. Slymenstra and the nationally toured Girlie Freak Show are regulars. Barely clad beauties who pose seductively on beds of nails, the Girlie Freak Show performers hit themselves with hammers and walk on glass. Later this year, Matt Scott, master puppeteer of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, is doing an entire show of puppet freaks. We can also look forward to Freak Show of the Damned, real midgets and handicapped performers who swallow fire, juggle, do magic. “It’s not that Jim Rose stuff,” Carl assures us. “It’s not disgusting. It’s amazing.” Most incredible of all is Shaye Saint John. An accident left her without arms or legs or face, but — wearing blatantly artificial prosthetics and a wig mask — she sings, acts and entertains in her own special way. She has found a perfect home in the CIA. Come one, come all, come just as you are.

CIA 11334 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 506-6353 or

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