“How many clowns does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five: One to screw it in and four to tell him he's not screwing it silly.” To the audible groans coming from his tour group, Crimebo the Clown snarls, “What did you expect? I'm a chopped-liver clown, I'm giving chopped-liver jokes. Get it? I'm a cut-up.”
That's one way to describe Crimebo, especially since you get the feeling this is a clown who might actually cut you up. But unlike Chucky in Child's Play or the antagonists in Stephen King's IT (not to mention the clowns who recently freaked out commuters in both Staten Island and Northampton, England), Crimebo is charming in spite of his deliberately sinister appearance and cynical shtick. That's a big part of the success of his weekly tours, a downtown walking one and the Crimebo's Urban Legends van tour.
Crimebo is the brainchild of 47-year-old Michael Perrick, a third-generation Angeleno. Perrick spent a bohemian childhood bouncing across the city from Pacific Palisades to Leimert Park (his dad worked for the DWP, as a used-car salesman and as a taxi driver, while mom was a florist and interior designer).
Today, Perrick and his wife have settled in Silver Lake, where he works as an artist and actor, as well as an Apple technician with his own Macintosh repair business. He was on Moesha and Life With Zombies and has appeared in three of Margaret Cho's music videos, as well as an estimated 50 to 60 low-budget horror films, which he himself has never seen.
But his passion is Crimebo the Clown.
Before Crimebo, Perrick had another clown alter ego: Fucko. Fucko's growing popularity with the pranksters in the Los Angeles Cacophony Society even convinced Perrick to copyright the name — which still didn't stop a kid in San Francisco from adopting the same epithet and agreeing to fight Perrick for it in a wrestling match. With an extreme number of holes in his earlobes, a goatee and a big, bald head, Perrick's real-life look is arguably more intimidating than his makeup, which is what eventually convinced the skinny kid to back out of the fight and relinquish any claim on Fucko's name.
But after nearly a decade of portraying Fucko in events like the Cacophony Society's haunted houses (where he boasts of making a 6-foot-5-inch-tall man cry and a grown woman wet her pants), Perrick learned that a porn actor had started using the name as well. He decided to retire the character for good.
Enter Crimebo. Perrick first created him in 2004 at the behest of Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, whose Esotouric true-crime tours have drawn a following for their stories about L.A. history. They needed a clown for one tour, and Perrick designed Crimebo's look — including his red visage, with black, banditlike circles around his eyes — all in one evening. He started with a stepped-on old fedora he'd found while spelunking by the L.A. River, and added a patterned shirt, plaid tie and oversized yellow blazer, complete with a giant fake yellow daisy in his breast pocket because, well, clown.
“I really wanted him to look like a 1930s bank robber,” Perrick says.
Crimebo's popularity on the tour soon inspired Perrick, with Esotouric's encouragement, to begin leading his own urban expeditions. He tested the waters during the Downtown Art Walk, often bringing 30 to 50 people into galleries, where the owners and even some artists usually appreciated Crimebo's good-natured yet often insulting brand of art criticism.
Eventually, Perrick decided to distance himself from the increasingly chaotic and less tolerant Art Walk scene. Now, in addition to his own tours, Crimebo has officiated two weddings and hosted a singles mingle, at which two strangers met and got married within the year. He also offers bachelorette-party appearances and an Internet-dating chaperone service, through which he successfully foiled a man's catfishing attempt. According to Perrick, a woman hired Crimebo to show up during her first real-life encounter with a man she met online, thinking her date would appreciate the clown's surprise appearance. His profile, after all, reflected a passion for pranks, flash mobs and other stunts.
“He freaked out,” Perrick says. “This guy was nothing like what he described. It turns out he used someone else's profile to get to know this girl.”
Crimebo's weekly expeditions, though, have become his steadiest gigs. People find him through word-of-mouth and his website, crimebo.com, paying $50 per head for the van tour or $30 for the walking one.
“I'm getting to the point where some of my pores are permanently black and red,” he says.
The Urban Legends Tour begins with Crimebo handing out elaborately twisted balloons as he launches into a gruesome recitation of the horrible crimes, mysterious deaths and other macabre events that happened on a given day in history. After the group climbs into a surprisingly clean van, Crimebo drives everybody around the secret tunnels, maintenance yards and World War II–era housing projects on downtown's outskirts.
“And another one commits suicide!” Crimebo occasionally bellows as balloons pop. They sometimes detonate on their own, sometimes in people's hands, and sometimes in the van when everyone is outside and there's no one there to pop them — often, inexplicably, at the climax of one of Crimebo's terrifying tales about dead junkies, entombed mummies, mutant cockroaches and other deranged and discarnate demons in the City of Angels.
The tours effectively transport guests into a bygone era with Crimebo as the guide, not unlike Virgil in Dante's Inferno. Only in this case, the guide isn't a poet stuck in limbo but a wisecracking clown — and hell is Los Angeles. The stories on their own are worth the cost of the tours, with Crimebo's smart-ass delivery and old-timey vibe just an added bonus. As to the veracity of his accounts? Well, they don't call them “urban legends” for nothing.
From the beginning, Perrick believed his tours should follow a narrative format, with Crimebo and his gang of victims immersing themselves in L.A.'s seedy underbelly, rather than the classic tour setup, with an interchangeable guide delivering a bunch of facts. Perrick becomes his clown persona and gets everyone wrapped up in the character's world as well, never dropping his endearingly affected gravelly voice or amusingly hard-boiled demeanor until he washes off his greasepaint at the end of the night (it takes four different makeup removers).
“I wanted to do a tour from the point of view of a fictional character,” Perrick says. “I didn't want it to be 100 percent factual. I didn't want it to be a literary-type tour. I wanted it to be a mix of facts and fun.”
And, just like the sound of a gunshot, another balloon pops.
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