The magic began in a West Kensington warehouse, between four walls of wire sculpture, littered with menacing-looking tools.
A short trip down dimly lit Arizona Avenue, Frankie Bones was waiting at the door with a permanent marker ready. It was a smooth exchange as he reached for the hand clutching $15, simultaneously exchanging payment for large “X”s on the hands of eager audience members.
Just beyond the doors of Carbon Coalition on Sept. 12, Carnivolution was set to begin. The side-show extravaganza with a wild reputation has a residency at the cooperative metal-art space for its performance season, which draws together an expansive palate of talents every second Friday of the month, from May to October.
Jelly Boy the Clown and Matterz Squidling make up the Squidling Brothers, who pioneered the circus side show in 2004, and have been arranging a bouquet of edgy local artistry ever since. The first nine seasons of Carnivolution took place in the back yard of the Tiberino Museum in West Philadelphia, but was transported to the Carbon Coalition for its 10th season to appeal to a younger crowd in the neighborhood.
“Carnivolution is an ongoing story, so the characters have a lot of history that we know about, but I’m not sure if the audience totally knows about,” Jelly Boy said. “Every show, we add to this ongoing story. So it’s complicated, and is interactive with the audience. We started the story of Carnivolution at the Tiberino Museum, but the concept of combining different acts is a year or two older than that. We started this at the Rotunda on South Street.”
The seasoned show has a little taste of everything; there’s burlesque, aerial dancing, music, puppetry and sideshow.
Acts included Madeleine Bell, a fire eater with sultry dance moves and gypsy attire to Alpha Mouse McDonald, clad in white makeup, a frayed red wig and shoulder pads who downed a hamburger smoothie and proceeded to drink his own urine. Not once, but three consecutive times.
“I like the danger aspect of it, and that you never know what is coming next,” Scarlet Checkers, an attendee and aspiring sideshow artist, said. “Something totally unexpected could happen – you literally could catch on fire at any moment, whether you’re in a side show or not.”
“Apparently even if you’re just a guest,” Checkers said, referring to Helios’s compelling fire juggling act that evoked a collective crowd gasp as his grip slipped and a flaming pole teetered on the edge of the stage, giving the front row a good scare.
Guests took their seats directly on the floor. The transformed space emitted a distinct smell of oil that was only detectable by stained paints and palms, turned a peculiar shade of gray.
“I would recommend Carnivolution to anyone who is easily bored by TV or books, because it is unforgettable,” Checkers said. “Even if you really try to forget, those images are burned into your mind forever. It’s the best kind of crazy; stuff you won’t see anywhere else.”
There was a sense of comraderie among the performer throughout the show. Outsiders may call it a freak show, but they call it a family.
“I was a very big fan for years before I became a member, and Carnivolution is the most amazing show I’ve ever seen,” the Velvet Crayon, a musical performer with the troupe, said. “I had to be a part of it, and I was welcomed with open arms. My childhood self is so happy, because there’s puppets and it’s so fun to be surrounded by family and to make people laugh or throw up, or have sex – which some people do. It’s great to be here.”
“We all spend time together, we cook together, we hang out and joke around and come up with our ideas together,” Jelly Boy said. “You get to be close to people when you are traveling and doing shows together. I think that’s why we’re like a family and we look out for each other.”
Oct. 3 will mark the last collective event the Squidling Brothers will host for the 2014 season, as part of Carnivolution. After the curtain call, Jelly Boy and his friends, Matterz, Madeline Bell, Velvet Crayon and Titano Oddfellow the strongman will embark on a cross-country tour.
In celebration of the Halloween season, the troupe will zig-zag from coast to coast, making stops in California, Colorado, Texas, Kentucky and a few states in between. Upon returning back home, Carnivolution will be seeing a severe cutback in regularity, with plans up in the air to perform every other month, or perhaps only once a season in Philadelphia, Jelly Boy said.
“Get out there,” Jelly Boy said. “It’s important to come out and see live shows. It’s a hell of a lot different from seeing pictures on the Internet, people should come out and experience it live.”
Brianna Spause can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter @briannaspause