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It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday, and a short round woman in a floral skirt is wheeling two battered suitcases along H Street NE. She stops beneath a painting of a happy dog and heaves a deep sigh. Then she pushes through the double doors of the Palace of Wonders and says hi to Brad, the bartender.
“This place is so clean,” she says.
“I’ve had a lot of time to clean,” Brad says.
The woman walks down a narrow hallway to a tiny dressing room separated from a tiny stage by a tiny see-through curtain, deposits her luggage, and then retreats back to H Street for a cigarette. “This place is so important,” she says. “This is my life.”
This is Mab, Just Mab, and the Palace of Wonders is breaking her heart.
For the last four years, Mab and the other members of D.C.’s sideshow scene had a home at the Palace, the only place in town where you could see fire-breathing, glass-walking, razors in mouths, nails in noses, curvy chicks in bowler hats, and white dudes in turbans, as well as James Taylor’s museum of freak memorabilia and some pretty tasty burlesque, four nights a week, sometimes five. Tonight’s show aside, the Palace of Wonders is no more. Thanks to the allure of synergy, D.C.’s home of variety is merging with next-door indie-rock venue the Red and the Black.
When the work permits get straightened out and the dust settles, the two venues will be known collectively as the Red Palace. The Palace of Wonders’ second-floor balcony and museum display are already gone, and the wall between the two venues’ second floor has been knocked down to create a larger performance space, which features a much larger stage than either venue contained pre-demolition. The old Palace’s first-floor stage and dressing room—where Mab, L’il Dutch, Swami Yomahmi, Thrill Kill Jill, Tyler Fyre, and other denizens of D.C.’s sideshow set spent so many nights over the last four years—will become a kitchen.
Technically, the old Palace held its last show on Sept. 30. But construction upstairs is held up in a bureaucratic quagmire. “We’ve had inspections but we just don’t have the appropriate permits from the city,” says Steve Lambert, who books the Red and the Black, in addition to Rock & Roll Hotel and DC9. “We can’t open if we don’t have the right permits.” That means no stage (and a host of cancelled indie-rock shows). And no stage means business at the Palace bar and the Red and the Black has been terrible, so the owners reopened the tiny Palace stage for a few October shows.
Hence all that time to clean.
In attendance tonight: Mab and the cast of the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow minus Calibano, The Beast That Walks Like a Man (a two-legged Chihuahua rescued from a West Virginia puppy mill); Taylor, the owner of the Palace’s oddities collection and founder of the now-defunct American Dime Museum; Palace photographer David Schmid; and a smattering of regulars. The mood is more death-deferred than glorious-reunion, and Schmid is doing his best to improve the group’s spirits with a stuffed orangutan he found at Fell’s Point in Baltimore. Schmid holds the creature in the crook of his arm and activates its noise box. Mab smiles and strokes a tuft of orange fur. The source of the group’s sadness isn’t just change; it’s what the changes will hold for the old Palace’s ecosystem.
Taylor, dressed in a copper-colored three-piece suit with Gen. Ambrose Burnside-inspired facial hair, has no qualms about riding the elephant in the room. After going to see a local man about a two-headed crow, Taylor slips past a velvet rope and up the stairs to explain the problem facing the sideshow performers.
He bounds up the steps of the soon-to-be unveiled stage, whips off his wide-brimmed hat, and leans forward.
“Have you ever seen a sword-swallower?” he asks me.
Then he throws back his head and pantomimes dangling a sword above his face. Just when it seems the sword is hanging perfectly perpendicular to his open maw, Taylor jerks his arm, sending the invisible blade into space.
“Not gonna happen,” he says, his bushy face bunched with concern. “You’ll hit a goddamn rafter.”
He’s right. The ceiling looks too low for sword swallowing. Also out: juggling and fire poi tricks. And forget about aerial work. “You’re not gonna have anything that demands real altitude,” Taylor says.
Which means you’re not going to have a lot of sideshow acts.
According to Mel Afzal, the Palace of Wonders’ booker, burlesque and sideshow currently make up only 5 percent of the new venue’s calendar. For business reasons, indie and national rock acts will get the lion’s share of dates on the new shared stage. “It makes sense to build the reputation with music,” Afzal says.
Between burlesque—you know, pasties and g-strings—and sideshow, burlesque will get most of the dates that don’t belong to bands. Mel says that’s because there are more burlesque groups than sideshow groups, but Taylor attributes the decision to burlesque’s overwhelming popularity. “If there ain’t no burlesque on that stage,” he says, “the audience is not one-fifth as happy as it could be.”
Not everyone feels that the Palace’s merger with the Red and the Black is a raw deal. Brad the bartender says that by moving performances upstairs, his bar no longer has to charge the Palace of Wonders’ $10 ticket price to have a drink or check out Taylor’s oddities collection, which Brad says will soon be liberated from storage. And a kitchen will mean that the Palace can finally serve real food, like just about every other bar on H Street. The bigger stage upstairs will mean more people can watch the variety shows without resorting to the fuzzy camera feed that serves patrons who can’t see the first floor’s tiny stage from the other side of the room.
Mel stresses that just because variety shows will have less time on the stage doesn’t mean they’re going away altogether. “Some performers are really excited about the new stage,” she says. “And all of our people are willing to come along for the ride.”
Taylor, who helped Joe Englert, also the owner of Red and the Black, found the Palace of Wonders in 2006, isn’t worried, either. “It’s gonna work. Any time you open a place, there are problems. There were problems with the Palace in 2006,” he says. “But the audience—these people—they love this shit. If I had had this audience at the American Dime Museum, we wouldn’t have gone under.”
Luckily, when Baltimore’s museum went under, Taylor was able to move a large chunk of his oddity collection to the Palace. Besides, he adds: “Variety performers are willfully bitchy and annoying and a pain in the ass. I love them for it.”
Sure enough, the ground floor of the Palace is standing room only 30 minutes before show time. Brad the bartender is doing brisk business. Mab has changed into a bowler, clown paint, and an eye-popping corset; tonight, she’ll walk on broken glass. At 9:20 p.m., the doors to the Palace close and circus music begins to play. “Do you want to come and play?” a jeering voice asks. At 9:30 p.m., Taylor takes the stage to introduce the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow—and sell the changes to the Palace’s diehard audience.
“I need everyone to close their eyes,” he says. The audience doesn’t blink. Taylor says it again, slower this time, and the two people sitting next to me close their eyes.
“What I need you to do is imagine a stage four times bigger than the one I’m standing on,” Taylor says softly into the mic. “One we can do amazing theatrics on. I need you to imagine a soundboard bigger than you’ve ever seen,” he says, his voice getting louder.
“And I need you to imagine many, many, more bodies in the room!”
The crowd goes wild as Taylor flaps his arms in the air.
Then, without further pomp or circumstance, he introduces the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow’s frontman Swami Yomahmi, who, after providing the audience with a brief history of sideshow in America, hammers a four-inch nail into his left nostril, pulls it out, and sucks it clean.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.