Circus sideshows originally began as exactly what their name implies: an attraction placed outside of the main tent of touring circuses. First created in the late 1800’s by P.T. Barnum, sideshows were where you would go to see the freaks, menageries, magicians, palm readers, illusions, side dings and blowoff tents with burlesque dancers–the types of attractions that traditional circuses considered themselves above. But in a world where circuses have an endangered species, sideshows are even rarer.
“Before internet, movies and even before radio, sideshows and circuses were the first form of entertainment in America,” says Bryce “the Govna” Graves, founder of the Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Review, which returns to Riot Fest this year for its fifth appearance. “I got into sideshows back in 2004, and there aren’t many of us left,”
Sideshows are presented more close up to the audience than a traditional circus, and can typically be broken down into two different categories: Working Acts (including sword swallowers and other oddball acts) or Human Oddities. Hellzapoppin merges these two together, presenting Graves’s stunts—which can include taking a five inch drill bit to his skull—alongside his partner Short E. Dangerously, a fire-breathing daredevil whose legs were amputated when he was an infant.
Before starting Hellzapoppin, Graves worked primarily in the music industry. “I’ve been touring professionally and full-time since 1998. I’ve developed and managed rock bands, TV personalities, circus performers and even produced TV shows,” he says. Working with bands helped him meet new people, and even put him on the path to starting the revue, including opening for Bob Dylan and touring with Ozzy Osbourne for two years. In addition to live tours, they’re also often featured in music videos, TV, and documentaries.
Hellzapoppin advertises itself to be to be a world renowned theatrical rock-n-roll circus stunt show, mixing deadly stunts, loud rock music, and a live audience. “You’re going to see freaks, wonders and human curiosities, the likes of which you’ve never seen before,” says Graves. “You’re going to see sword swallowers, fire eaters, contortionists, magic, illusions and even a real live half-man walking on broken shards of glass with his bare hands all while on fire–and much more.”
The sideshow’s collaboration with Riot Fest came about in a roundabout–and slightly shady–way.
“I got the gig by accident,” Graves says. “That was because Riot Fest stole my image.”
A friend had called to congratulate Graves on booking the gig to bring the sideshow to the 2013 Riot Fest, but he didn’t know anything about it. He checked out the Riot Fest website, and there he saw his photo all over the posters and marketing. “I emailed Riot Mike, and within 10 minutes, he called,” says Graves. “To his defense, he had no idea that this had happened, because he hired a graphic arts company. They apparently took my image from an internet search.”
It all worked out for the best, though. Instead of paying for the use of his image, Riot Mike booked Hellzapoppin, and for the last five years, Graves and his crew have been giving Riot Fest audiences a taste of old-fashioned freakiness. “[Riot Fest is] our family, and has literally help change our lives,” he says. “They are one of our biggest supporters.”
Keeping the revue fresh is a priority for Graves. “There are only two members of Hellzapoppin, and that’s myself and Short E. Dangerously, the half-man. We tour seven to nine months a year.” With such a heavy touring schedule, they’re bound to have some repeat stops along the way. “We rotate performers every two to six months,” he explains. “We do this for a lot of reasons, and that’s mostly so that the show is always different.”
Graves has some creative ways to find new performers. “I find them through Internet research, referrals, and even watching videos from various TV shows. Ripley’s Believe it or Not and Guinness Book of World Records. Since the industry is so small, Hellzapoppin knows most of the people in the business.
For those coming to Riot Fest, Graves says to be prepared for unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. “I hire the biggest and best performers in the business specifically for Riot Fest,” he said. “I break out all the bells and whistles that I don’t on most of our other shows.” He says he spends about nine months producing the segments of the festival where most of our shows generally take only a few days to produce.
“I guarantee,” he says, “we will show you things that you’ve never imagined humanly possible.”