By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Bundles of colorful balloons mark the entrance to Big Top 23, a dusty circus midway nestled in the heart of an industrial, waterside district alongside the Islais Creek Channel. From the street the grounds present a tranquil and wholesome picture: Multicolored tents and booths offer an assortment of games, fortunetellers, and food; vivid banners flutter as a slight breeze comes in off the bay; clowns speed around on bicycles laughing and grinning the way clowns do; wooden placards promise untold wonders and amazement; tuxedoed barkers invite folks to check out the sideshows housed inside the surrounding live-in warehouse spaces. "A safe place for the family," the flier read, and sure enough a number of children can be seen racing through the fairgrounds with hot dogs clutched in their hands. But then again, this is the same site that has hosted such underground events as T.V. Homicide and CORE's Entertainment for the Apocalypse, and it is guaranteed to offer something more than just the bright, shiny side of circus life.
"The only twirling hoops on the midway!" shouts a tall, heavily tattooed man in a basketball jersey. He and his brother, an equally tall man from Tucson (note the lack of tattoos), wander about beneath their game, a spinning wheel of basketball hoops that presents a deceptively easy target. "Win quality toy prizes!" one of them laughs, taking a large swig off of his beer.
At the next booth, the barker, a bespectacled man in a top hat, tails, and cutoff Bens, demurely plucks a ukulele and studies sheet music. Not to be outdone, he snaps to attention. "Get home in traffic!" he shouts for attention. He adjusts his glasses and wags a finger at his game, a small model of San Francisco that customers are supposed to knock croquet balls through. "Win coloring books or even a Z-Bot," he teases with a wink. Two customers approach, tickets in hand, to try for the coveted Z-Bots, but fail miserably.
"I know it's possible," says the barker sarcastically. "A little kid won only a few minutes ago."
In a nearby warehouse, the Monkey Thump Puppet Collective's presentation of Chapter One -- a multimedia puppet show involving large insects with musical instruments as body parts -- comes to a close. Within moments the fairgrounds are crawling with the creme de la creme of S.F.'s industrial chic. Elaborate headwear and big boots are the call of the day, mixed in with a little snake-handling and gypsy yodeling. While the open-air main stage is readied for the upcoming acts, the revelers head for the booths. Several determined, aggressive-looking types make a beeline for the "Potato Launcher," where they take careful, thoughtful aim at a larger-than-life picture of former Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith.
"Come on, honey, take her head clean off," growls a customer with face paint and grease-monkey coveralls. His companion, a dreadlocked little number in baggy cutoffs and a halter top made of clear plastic, sticks her tongue out in concentration, but only manages to lodge a misguided spud into Smith's stuffed scarecrow body.
At the "New Identity Photo Booth" the Rudnickis, a sweet couple who'd look more at home in Noe Valley than at Burning Man, stand with their three small children contemplating their backdrop options: the standard he-man-and-a-babe, the running-boy-getting-crushed-by-Bigfoot, the ever-popular demon-from-hell-sitting-backward-on-a-pig. The children opt for the three-little-maggots-in-an-old-chicken-leg template because there is a space for each of them.
A trumpet call beckons everyone to the stage, where a sign offers things both "revolting and intriguing." Big Top 23 organizer Scabby Biscuits, a scary clown with green hair and green Docs with gold stars, collects tickets at the barricade; Captain Rick begins the show by balancing a running power lawn mower on his face as heads of lettuce are tossed his way. The Rudnickis take a front-row seat, clapping appreciatively each time they are showered with shreds of lettuce. Circusgoers not wanting to sit on the gravelly ground perch themselves on parked motorcycles or inside the grounded boats that line the site. Captain Rick's bed of nails is followed by a lovely young contortionist who leaves several men in the crowd visibly uncomfortable.
At the show's end Brother Bob, a self-appointed preacher wearing a dilapidated cowboy hat and a powder-blue polyester leisure suit, marries 23-year-old Wednesday Livingston and 24-year-old Rochelle Williams in a touching ceremony. The happy newlyweds are showered with wedding presents in the form of circus tickets before they move to Madame Majesta's tent for a honeymoon tarot reading. Having everyone's attention, Brother Bob offers to save souls for a buck fifty but gets no takers, so he moves into the dunking booth and begins taunting the crowd with shouts of, "Come on pagan-boy, show me what you got!" Although several passers-by are provoked, it takes 5-year-old Alex Rudnicki to finally send the man of God plunging into the cold tank of water below (the Bible was saved). A pro at preacher baptism, Alex sends Bob swimming a second time and gives careful instruction to his baby sister while his proud mother looks on.
Eric McFadden tunes up his mandolin in a nearby driveway; a psycho clown wearing sickly yellow face paint and baby doll heads draws a crowd by splitting flaming boards with his head. This feat is followed by a less spectacular one, where Scabby Biscuits balances a glass of water on his head, and the psycho clown delivers karate kicks to his crown until the glass falls off.