The Venice Beach Freak Show came to my attention a couple/few years ago when wandering down The Boardwalk. I immediately went in and befriended the couple who ran it, Todd & Danielle Ray, and did a little article about them opening up at the time ... mainly because I was thrilled that someone was doing something old-time-y feeling, and reveling in the fact that since people call the Venice Boardwalk a Freak Show anyway, there should really be a real one.
Since then, it's only grown bigger and more successful, with an expansion into a bigger space in their building (a reproduction of the former Bath House of old time-y Venice's Pacific Park) on The Boardwalk. It's packed with people on the weekends, with Todd growing hoarse on Mondays after doing his Side Show barking all weekend long outside. They're so packed that there's never time to chat on the weekends, so we sat down yesterday with each other so they could tell me their whole story, while they fed and looked after the various animals that live at the Freak Show. It was one of my favorite conversations in a long time, and I remain thrilled ... first, that such cool people exist in the world, and second, that they share their coolness with an openness and generosity that is increasingly rare in our g0-go-me-me times.
Todd grew up in South Carolina, and Danielle grew up in Brooklyn - and both have the perfect accents to go with each locale. Todd was into magic ever since he was 6 years old, doing tricks to amaze even the adults. An elderly woman whose late husband had been in the Circus knew of Todd's interest in magic and circuses, so gave him a big trailer of her husband's artifacts from his Carny days, beginning what would become a lifelong collection - much of which can be seen today at The Freak Show. When he was 12, he went to a Carnival Side Show in his native South, and saw Otis Jordan, The Human Cigarette Factory (to whom the Venice Freak Show is dedicated, by the way). Mr. Jordan had ossified limbs, so his arms and legs were all curled up, and he really only had the use of his shoulders and face. With only his mouth, chin, and shoulders, the guy would take out a single rolling paper from a pack with his tongue (try that!), lay out a perfect line of tobacco, somehow roll it with his lips and tongue into a PERFECT cigarette ... and THEN get a match out of a matchbox, strike it, and with the match and cigarette both in his mouth (without lighting the whole box of matches aflame), light it, and happily puff away. Todd was simply amazed ... especially when Otis Jordan told him, "You can do anything you can dream of." Well, that stuck with Todd - clearly - and you can sense his and Danielle's joy and wonder just listening to their fascinating stories and super positive outlook on life in general.
As a teen, Todd also got real into music, and soon after starting medical school to be a Doctor, Todd changed his mind and decided he wanted to be a Hip Hop DJ! He moved to New York to follow that dream, and it was there that he met Danielle when he lived next door to the place where her Mom got her hair done. She came over to wait for her Mom and chill, and they've been together ever since that day, and what a wonderful couple they are! They soon married, and after some a bunch of struggles and a few lucky breaks, Todd finally found work producing those Hip Hop beats he was so into. He produced the likes of Nas, Cypress Hill ("Ain't Going Out Like That"), Santana's Supernatural album, etc ... and has three Producing Grammys to show for it.
Rap interests merged into Rock, and Todd began coming to L.A. a lot to work with the likes of Ozomatli and Snot. Driving along the PCH from Malibu to Santa Barbara began to seem a lot more appealing when there was three feet of snow on the ground back in New York - where two kids had come along to Todd and Danielle, a daughter, Asia, and a son, Phoenix - both of whom work with the Family Business today. They made the move. Todd was doing great with music, and the living he made was more than solid, when he started to dislike the direction Corporate labels were going in, and he began to feel like he was working in a factory that made generic music for the masses, with no use of his creativity. He and Danielle came to Venice one weekend, and sat on a bench across from where the Freak Show now resides. There was a space available to rent, and Todd realized that this was his chance to make his childhood dream become a reality. So he did.
They already had a huge collection of crazy stuff, so it was just a matter of creating the space, which the family did together, a complete labor of love. From Day One, Todd will tell you that the place was ALIVE, and full on. As he puts it, "I'd rather show kids a two-headed turtle all day and see the look of wonder on their faces than win a Grammy." Todd stands out front of the space all day on the weekends, urging people to come in and be amazed. And HE is constantly amazed standing out there ... at how robotic people (from everywhere and every ilk) have become ... like they're in Venice, they know they're supposed to be having fun, but they've let the world get at them too much and they just pace along, feeling pressure to be the same. So Todd will say through his microphone, "Look up! See that blue sky, that's the beginning of Outer Space! You can go get your $5 coffee at Starbuck's or you can come inside and $5 will buy you a lifetime memory of Venice Beach!" He's not kidding ... the things you will see inside - and out, like when Todd gets passersby to come up and staple a dollar onto the Man Who Feels No Pain with a staple gun (even a sadistic little suburban blonde girl did it - into the guy's armpit!) - you won't soon forget.
From his collection of Circus memorabilia and Pitch Cards (kind of like baseball cards, Freak Show performers used to sell their photo cards with their stories on the back, to give you more a sense of the HUMANITY involved behind it all) - of which his collection is the largest in the world - Todd began to accept live animals into the mix. Once he saw his first real LIVE two-headed turtle (after amassing a bunch of taxidermied specimens - e.g., The Cyclops Chihuahua!), he was hooked by the again, MAGIC, of it all. That "Life is a magical thing, a two-headed thing is magic. It has two souls and one heart, and is a magical animal. Myrtle/Squirtle the Turtle is actually a symbol of the mystery of life!" He would approach farmers, vets, breeders, pet hospitals, Youtube, whomever he thought would come across these rare animals - who would often be killed due to their "deformities" - and get them to give them to the Rays to care for. Which they do, beautifully. Their dog, Rocky, has five legs and had been in a cage pretty much its whole life, so was real mean. They took him on "The Dog Whisperer", and Danielle now counts him as another of her babies.
From the animals, Todd naturally has expanded to human beings that have their own special talents ... like Mr. No Pain (Digger), Brett the Sword Swallower (who the Rays took in as a kindred spirit, a guy who wanted to swallow swords since he was 8, and found Todd on a Magician's website - they took him in and now he's living his dream at the Freak Show each weekend), The Tree Man, The Bed of Nails Guy that lets tourists stand on him atop a bed of nails, Little Miss Firefly ("27 inches small!"), among a bunch of others in the rotating cast, and even their daughter, Asia, is now in on the act, doing contortion acts ("The Rubber Girl!"), acting as a current in an Electric Chair, and more recently, Fire Swallowing. Phoenix is a co-owner, and helps work the door, and is also becoming quite a proficient juggler. The Rays sometimes put on a more intense evening show (The Super Freak Side Show & Revue!) that features old school burlesque and a guy that impales himself with needles so gnarly that people faint.
But the Venice Beach Freak Show is a family affair, not only for the Rays, but for everyone that walks by. "If there's anything that we represent here, it's that 'normal' is an illusion", says Todd. "We want to be a symbol of the future, born from the past." Which is why they want to keep alive that moment in time that you can see in old black and white books on Venice, when it was an Amusement Park atmosphere and Abbot Kinney created a sense of place from his own dreams. Now days, Todd feels they are conjuring up that same feeling. They get messages from all over the world with various questions; one woman waited to save up her vacation just to come to Venice to the Freak Show; another flew from Virginia to see Rocky after watching him on "The Dog Whisperer"; an old man on what Todd says may have been his LAST day, as he was in a wheelchair, half out of it, with extra-labored breathing, but when Todd showed him the two-headed turtle, his eyes flew open wide and Todd saw the 5 year old boy he'd once been. And as Danielle cracked me up with, "Do you know how many Flat Stanley's have come through here?!"
"There's nothing curious anymore. We're here to create a sense of wonder again, and we're very serious about it", Todd proclaimed, and added, "We're celebrating the beauty and the majesty of creation." From the beauty of the beach that the Freak Show looks out on, to the willingness to applaud our differences, inside and out ... Venice is the perfect place for them to be.
They think so too. I can just keep quoting Todd, because he puts things into such wondrous perspective, like when he said, "People come here (Venice) wanting it to be something magical. This is where the Freak Show needed to be. We're all alive, but it's up to us to realize it ... Are you your body or your soul? ... This is LIVING Art!" Again, what Venice was conceived to be all about. Todd knows that the term "Freak Show" causes discomfort to some, and he tries to ease them past that word, and flip the thinking from "Abuse of the needy" feelings, to "A re-teaching of the so-called 'normal'." When you witness the way the Rays' eyes light up when telling of rescuing an animal or helping a person make a living out of what some might deem a handicap, and their excitement of future possibilities (perhaps a Magic School for Kids, where they can perform on the Freak Show stage!), you know that their own hearts and souls are in the most kind, positive and generous place.
The Rays have built a Museum of Oddities that I hope will long be a part of the Venice Community. Artists and Performers on The Boardwalk all know the Rays well, even sending their kids down to Danielle to watch and show them any new arrivals to the Freak Show. Danielle said she loves that she can stroll down to get pupusas at Lidia's and have everyone wave and shout out like on "Cheers", calling her "Freak Show Mama". The artistry and camaraderie of the Boardwalk performers and vendors make them feel at home, which the Rays in turn do for any and all comers ... anyone who is willing to step inside and suspend the outside world for a moment, to realize that life itself is Wild! Weird! ... and absolutely WONDERFUL!
The Venice Beach Freak Show
909 Ocean Front Walk
(open every weekend)