The Venice Beach Freakshow celebrates a bizarre universe

 By Tyler Davidson

Jessa the Bearded Lady stands at the entrance of the Venice Beach Freakshow.  Photo by Ted Soqui.

Jessa the Bearded Lady stands at the entrance of the Venice Beach Freakshow.
Photo by Ted Soqui.

It’s as if Todd Ray has just stepped out of a time machine.

“Folks, you don’t want to miss it! There’s 60 amazing creatures inside. Ten two-headed animals that are alive,” he calls to Venice boardwalk passersby with the vigor and twang of a Dust Bowl-era carnival barker. “There’s the bearded lady and the dog with two noses. There’s the wolf boy. You’re going to see it all. The littlest lady in L.A. The human blockhead is here. Five dollars to see it all. Next show’s about to begin — just pay this lovely lady up here …”

At Ray’s feet, two-foot-six Gabriel Pimental, “the Smallest Man in America,” rides a tiny red tricycle. On the cement stairs above, Jessa the Bearded Lady sits petting a dog with two noses.

Welcome to the Venice Beach Freakshow, an oddity among a parade of oddities, founded by Ray in 2006 and quite possibly the Westside’s most unusual family business.

Off microphone, the South Carolina native and former record producer speaks in broad, flowery terms. We don’t just live in a world, but rather a universe; people aren’t simply men and women, they’re “magical beings,” he says.

“When we started doing the show, we really wanted to get it across to people what it is that we represent — a bigger view of the world as a whole,” says Ray, 48. “The whole universe, really, in that it’s a real place of wonder, as opposed to taking the time just to make everyone try to be normal. … We declared the word ‘freak’ as a call to more freedom, an idea of saying: I am one of a kind. I am a living miracle.”

Head up the stairs and through the question mark-riddled curtain and you’ll first bear witness to a startlingly large collection of malformed animals, a specialty of sorts for Ray. In one tank, a pale two-headed snake remains still, prompting onlookers to doubt its authenticity right up until it slithers against the Plexiglas. In another, a two-headed turtle.

Further inside, the “freaks” themselves take center stage. As visitors settle into church pews, four-foot-two “Wee Matt” McCarthy — the show’s hype man, bedecked in a gaudy green hat with matching glasses and the show’s signature T-shirt (displaying the word “normal” in a circle with a line through it) — speaks excitedly in a voice that rivals Tom Waits’ in its gravelly consistency.

McCarthy’s infectious energy readies the crowd for Morgue, a pale Goth with long platinum hair and a wry sense of humor.

“Sit back and watch me hurt myself,” he deadpans to the crowd, barely flinching as he inserts the bit from a power drill deep into his nasal cavity. He leaves it there until his big closer: shoving a meat hook into his nose, amid gasps from the crowd, and twisting it just so until the pointy end emerges from his mouth.

To his side is Sunshine, the Electric Lady — a classic beauty dressed in a simple black corset and striped tights. She sits stoically atop an electric chair, letting Morgue do the talking as he throws a switch and touches a fluorescent light tube to her skin, illuminating an otherwise darkened interior.

“It really is something. You never know who’s going to come through that door,” Jessa the Bearded Lady, a 29-year-old jewelry maker who a couple of years ago stopped shaving the red facial hair that sprouted during puberty, says of the show’s-ever changing audience.

It’s a reminder that strange is in the eye of the beholder.

“You come to Venice because it’s a freak show. It’s wonderful,” she says. “Everyone has their beard in life. It’s just a matter of how you wear it. If you have something weird about you, celebrate it. Don’t hide it.”

A family affair

A lifelong sideshow enthusiast, Ray excitedly recounts a childhood tale of meeting Otis Jordan, an ossified man who performed as the “Human Cigarette Factory.” Unable to effectively use his limbs, Jordan would use the rest of his torso to pack, roll, light and smoke a cigarette in short order, a performance that mystified and awed the young boy.

“Later, I saw him [and said], ‘Mr. Jordan, that was incredible. I’m a young magician, I’m really into this, but honestly, I don’t think I can do what I saw you do,’” Ray remembers. “And this is what he said to me: ‘Son, let me tell you something: If I can do what you just saw me do in my condition, a young man like you can do anything you ever dream of.’ And for whatever reason, that moment, it was magical.”

It also led to a hobby that bordered on obsession — a collection of bygone and contemporary sideshow paraphernalia, including morbidities of all sorts in jars that sit on shelves like candles might in another home.

Vast as the collection grew to be, it took a backseat to a successful music career with album credits including Cypress Hill, Helmet and even Ozomatli’s Grammy Award-winning “Street Signs.” Years later, however, frustration would begin to set in as Ray found himself trapped in a purgatory between the creative and corporate sides of the music industry.

“I was rich in money but poor in happiness,” he says. “When I wasn’t feeling creatively happy with the music and the business side of what I was having to do, I thought of Otis Jordan [and thought], ‘Why not find a place where I can bring what I love about our world to one place?”

It may have been Ray’s personal fixation that led to its creation, but these days the Venice Beach Freak Show is a full-on family affair. Ray acts as co-owner with his 18-year-old son Phoenix, who at 9 years old began collecting admission
from patrons.

Where other fathers and sons might go fishing to bond, Ray tells of a road trip to Seattle that found them in a bidding war with Ripley’s Believe It or Not! over a two-headed cow: “[Ripley’s] ended up getting it, but that’s the kind of stuff me and my son have done since he was a little kid.”

His wife Danielle, the “Freakshow Mama,” operates a counter while also toting around Ricky, the family’s five-legged miniature pinscher.

Daughter Asia, 22, got involved as a performer of classic sideshow stunts like eating fire. The Rays’ very first bed of nails was, in fact, a father-daughter project.

“We put 600 steel spikes in this big bed of wood, nailed them all. And eventually, she took me aside and said, ‘Hey, I wanna lay on that.’” Ray recalls.

The show must go on

A few years ago, Ray began pitching his unique attraction to cable networks. AMC shared his vision, and February 2013 marked the premiere of “Freakshow,” a reality show that chronicled everything from Ray scouring the country for new talent to Danielle approving her son’s dates and doling out advice.

“My goal from day one was to create an entertaining show that everyone can watch and enjoy, but also a historical document to put Venice Beach and what we represent down in the history books,” Ray says.

The show ran for two 12-episode seasons until earlier this month, when AMC announced it would halt production on nearly all unscripted programming to focus on scripted dramas such as cash cows “The Walking Dead” and “Mad Men.”

“It’s been one of the greatest things that we’ve done,” Ray says of the show. “Everything we dreamed of actually happened with that.”

Asking Ray what he’d like people to take away from a visit to the live show is like putting a coin into an old nickelodeon. He begins speaking louder and with more conviction, launching back into full-on barker mode.

“The key is, what you see at our show can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. It’s a part of history,” he says, cadence rising. “It’s a piece of a lost art that only survives at Venice Beach …

“When you walk out, you’ll almost be insulted that someone would have the audacity to call this magical world, this universe, this planet and this unbelievable vast creation that we live in ‘normal.’ You will actually walk out, maybe, calling yourself a freak.”

There’s a long pause broken by a dry chuckle.

“Can I get an amen?”

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