Todd Ray is yelling into a microphone on the Venice Boardwalk. “Last show of the night!” he hollers, as the sun casts a purple-orange glow across the sand. “Come in while you still can!”
It's 7:00 p.m., and behind Ray, a man with hair covering his entire face hovers menacingly. A pretty 20-something girl with long dark hair, ivory skin and an ethereal smile entices stares from tourists. A woman standing under four feet tall, wearing a tiny red corset and tights, beckons to passersby.
In front of Ray, whose buzzed silver hair, black t-shirt and jeans make him the most normal-looking of the bunch, two turtles crawl around in a plastic tub.
Each has two heads. ]
This is the entrance to the Venice Beach Freakshow, a collection of sideshow acts that perform at a small beachside theater throughout the day on Saturdays and Sundays. Since opening in 2006, the show has become the subject of the AMC reality series Freakshow, which began its second season this month and follows the cast as they devote their lives to showcasing the odd, the mystical and the strange.
The Venice Beach Freakshow has nearly a dozen performers, but there's no doubt that it's Ray's baby. Since he quit his job as a music producer in 2002 to begin creating the show, he's convinced his entire family to work with him. His daughter, the young woman standing outside with the dark hair, eats fire and swallows swords. His wife greets customers as they enter the theater. And his son, Phoenix, is an 18-year-old version of Ray, collecting cash at the door and moving through the world with the sauntering confidence of someone twice his age.
But Ray, a born showman whose languorous South Carolina accent conjures up low-hanging willow trees and long, hot afternoons sipping sweet tea, insists that the goal of the Freakshow isn't to garner attention. Instead, he says, the show is about challenging perceptions of what's normal.
“There's things that are impossible to understand,” he says, throwing his arm over the back of a chair after the last show on a recent Sunday. “It's those things that bring you wonder, and expand the things you think are possible. People came up with these standards [of normal] so they can feel safe. But we're all freaks and one of a kind. We're all freaks on planet earth.”
Raised by a single mom, Todd Ray spent his South Carolina childhood moving around from place to place. His mother taught him how to make money by building furniture out of wicker, and he spent his time at school observing other kids.
But Ray wasn't the type to keep to himself. Instead, he used his oversized personality to win over his classmates and become student body president. After moving to New York and taking a shot at a DJing career, he wound up in the music business as a producer, deftly applying his boisterous charm and natural talent to eventually win three Grammys for his work with Carlos Santana, among others.
In his down time, though, Ray was nurturing something of an obsession. He had started collecting old sideshow pitch cards – promotional flyers the size of postcards that advertised sideshow acts dating back to the 1800s, of which he now has the largest collection in the world, he says – and rare animals, like the myriad two-headed turtles he keeps as pets. HIs obsession grew, and soon, he found that his day job wasn't making him happy the way his amassed oddities were.
To hear Ray tell it, his decision to end his music career happened abruptly. “I was making a lot of money,” he says, “but I wasn't happy. So I said, 'This is what really makes me happy. I'm quitting the music business and starting a freak show.'”
Like every other endeavor, Ray threw himself into it. He devoted all his free time to finding acts to add to his cadre of performers. By the time they put on their first show, over 400 people showed up. “That's when I realized people still had a desire to see this kind of entertainment,” he says. “They really wanted to see this like it had been shown in the past.”
Not content to let the Freakshow just be a theatrical performance, Ray decided to approach Hollywood with the idea for a reality show after several years of performing. Most networks, he says, wanted to portray him as an evil, mustache-twirling villain who benefitted from others' misfortunes. But AMC understood what he wanted to do with the show, and so he decided to sign on with them.
Now, the Freakshow acts have grown. Asia, Ray's daughter, swallows fire and tolerates currents of electricity being shot through her body. Morgue, a wisp-thin young man with a shock of bleached-blond hair, shoves a drill inside his nose. And Jessa, a bearded lady, has facial hair that has grown to among the longest in the world.
“This is still a place where wonder is alive,” says Ray. “Everything is possible.”
In his living room on a Friday afternoon, Ray swats at an errant fly and sips iced tea. On the walls are old sideshow signs advertising “Snake Girl” and “Sideshow Acts.” Jars of embalmed creatures – including a pig with its brains on the outside, and a stillborn human child with one eye in the center of its forehead which Ray says is hundreds of years old – line the shelves in the kitchen and living room. The dining room table is awash in pitch cards, the skull of an alligator peering out through the clutter.
Ray's obsession has bled into his day-to-day life. But his family supports him; Danielle, his wife, still sits in awe as he spins tales about growing up poor in the South, and Asia and Phoenix participate in the show as only true believers can. But that's because Ray himself is fully immersed in the curiousness of it all.
“What we do, it's a lot bigger than people realize,” he says. “It's more magical. What we do is connect to the mystery of the world.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled Phoenix Ray's name. We regret the error.
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