Since Todd Ray was a youngster growing up in South Carolina, he has been fascinated by freak shows and the strange creatures and oddities he saw inside.
And finally, after 25 years in the music business as a record producer, he decided to bring that same curiosity and wonder he had as a child to other kids with the Venice Beach Freakshow, which he opened in December on Ocean Front Walk in Venice.
Ray, 41, runs the establishment with his wife Danielle, daughter Asia, 14, and son Phoenix, 11.
“I’m trying to give children a real sense of wonder and really stir that in them and let them know that the world is full of mysteries and curiosities,” Ray said. “Even Mother Nature creates things that we don’t consider normal. This universe is special.”
But Ray is also trying to re-create the atmosphere of the early days of Venice and its founder, Abbot Kinney, “like when there was a freak show, a haunted house, a fun house,” says Ray. “Now it’s more shops and stuff, so I just decided to open up a place to re-create the vibe of the early days of Venice.”
The freak show features “over 60 strange creatures, oddities and attractions,” including eight-month-old “Myrtle and Squirtle, the two-headed turtle” from Peru, who is alive and well — and possibly Venice Beach Freakshow’s most popular attraction.
“It eats so much,” says Ray’s wife Danielle of the two-headed female turtle, whose shell is smaller than the palm of an adult’s hand.
“Both heads eat and they sometimes both want to eat at the same time and their heads go in different directions and they end up going nowhere,” Ray says.
Other strange creatures, dead and preserved, include a two-headed pig with five legs that lived for one day, a two-headed cow that lived for five days, a two-headed raccoon, a two-headed chicken, a Black Mamba “the world’s most poisonous snake”), a giant Alaskan king crab, unidentified sea creatures and shrunken human heads.
“These are the most honest and beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen,” Ray says. “This is stuff you’re never gonna see again.”
Ray’s interest in oddities began with visiting carnival sideshows when he was a kid growing up in the South.
“Every time the carnival would come to town, there would be a sideshow and I would go to it,” Ray said. “Back then, they actually had people in there that had deformities.”
One of these people, who had a heavy influence on Ray when he was younger, was “the human cigarette factory,” a man whose arms and legs didn’t work properly, yet he could make and light cigarettes using his mouth and tongue, a can of tobacco, rolling paper and matches.
“After his performance, I talked to him,” Ray said. “And he said, ‘Remember son, you can do anything in life.'”
Ray has taken that statement with him throughout the years.
“I literally believe he’s a modern-day [Robert] Ripley” [who created the Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon], says Danielle Ray of her husband. “He has an obsession that he can’t stop. We’ve had a lot of fun with it. I find it really interesting.”
Daughter Asia says she thinks it’s “cool.”
“I like helping out performing,” she says. “I lie on the bed of nails and do contortions.”
Son Phoenix hopes to someday take over the family business. Currently, he’s the co-owner.
“I like when we get new stuff and I learn about it, because I tell all my friends and they want to see it,” he says. “They love it.”
Ray says, “All the kids in the neighborhood — when we get something new — it spreads like wildfire and they all come over. We’ve had days when 20 kids are at my door.”
Even when Ray worked with Santana, the Beastie Boys, Korn, Audioslave, Nas and others as a record producer, he was collecting creatures and oddities in his house on the side.
“My house got totally full, I mean, packed from the top floor to the bottom floor — from front to back,” Ray said. “My wife was like, ‘You gotta do something; it’s getting crazy in here.'”
And Ray did just that by opening the Venice Beach Freakshow.
“It’s definitely for kids of all ages,” Ray says of the show, pointing out that adults “turn into little kids” once they set foot inside.
Ray also brings in guest performers, including fire-eaters, sword swallowers and belly dancers.
“George The Giant,” who stands seven-feet-three — a sword-swallower who walks on glass, eats fire and lies on beds of nails, among other things — comes by sometimes to perform.
He has the world’s record for most brick weight broken on the chest while lying on a bed of nails and is also unofficially the swallower of the longest sword — 33 inches.
“Lil’ Miss Firefly,” who stands just 28 inches “short,” also comes by to perform.
“She eats fire and breathes fire and dances on glass and she’s the smallest woman in the world,” says Ray.
Ray also performs magic and lies on a bed of 750 nails that sits just outside the entrance to the freak show.
“Two or three men stand on me and jump on me,” he says. “We bring them from the audience.”
And the freak show is no stranger to celebrities.
Leonardo DiCaprio and comedians Andy Dick and Bill Murray have visited the freak show, among others, Ray says.
“Bill Murray came through and acted as if he were a human freak in the freak show,” Ray said. “The thing is, this cuts across all cultures.
“It’s not a race thing. It’s not a man, woman thing. It’s not an age thing — because we’re all curious. We all want to know.”
The Venice Beach Freakshow is at 909 Ocean Front Walk on theVenice Boardwalk.
Hours are 1 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $3.