Olde City Sideshow co-founder Danny Borneo says sideshows are reasserting themselves.
Olde City, Philadelphia – During intermission, Danny Borneo, co-founder of the Olde City Sideshow, a neo-vaudevillian variety hour, steps outside to smoke a cigarette. The show has returned to Philly, performing at National Mechanics restaurant, housed inside a former bank that was built more than 200 years ago by William Strickland, in his day a pioneer of Greek revivalist architecture. On stage, Borneo and his three cohorts – Candy Mayhem, Reggie Bugmuncher and other show co-founder Martin Ling the Suicide King – had performed a variety of cringe-inducing skits, one of which ended with Borneo extinguishing a cigarette on his tongue, then swallowing the butt.
Now, outside, a woman asks Borneo if he’s going eat the one he’s just lit up.
Everyone laughs, but before he can speak a word, a different woman interjects with the no-brainer question on everybody’s mind.
“What does your shit look like?”
Borneo, leaning against a gothic colonnade, seems put off by the question and, before he can answer, she asks another.
“Do you, like, shit out a pack of Marlbaro’s?”
This is the kind of audience it was – trendy, affluent and drunk.
But as one, we awaited his answer.
Borneo, ever the entertainer, reminds us that he also eats glass, as if suggesting that while his stool may look like a shit ashtray, it’s a shit ashtray that also sparkles. This gastrointestinal creation he later calls “dooky bling.”
Fielding uncomfortable questions from strangers is just a part of showbiz, but one can only take so much. Soon it’s time for the second act. Borneo snuffs out his butt and ducks back inside.
Borneo and Martin Ling began Olde City Sideshow in 2006. Borneo, a musician, and Ling, a performance artist, are old high school chums who ran into each other at a training in sideshow arts. There they hit on the idea of putting together their own sideshow, drawing from classic vaudeville, 20s burlesque and elements of hipster aestheticism. The show has taken off, with the group performing regularly along the east coast and as far west as Minneapolis.
“I think people are tired of watching assholes on Youtube,” Borneo says, when asked why sideshows have enjoyed a revival over the last decade. “Nothing will ever replace live entertainment. It’s a cool revival.”
Veteran burlesque performer Candy Mayhem shows her stuff.
My date and I arrived at National Mechanics around 9 p.m. The restaurant was packed and with a waiting list, but somehow we scored a table right away. After ordering beers, I caught up with Borneo, who introduced me to Reggie Bugmuncher and Candy Mayhem, whom I spoke with while he got into costume. Bugmuncher has performed in all but three shows in the group’s five year history. Mayhem, a veteran burlesque performer, has been with the show for a year.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” she says.
Each performer has their own act, but can perform them all if necessary. Borneo is the blockhead, hammering nails and drilling in his nose. Ling swallows swords and walks on glass. Bugmuncher, as her name suggests, eats bugs. Asked about her role, Mayhem tosses back her mane of ink black hair and says, “I take my clothes off.”
However, she has bad news. Tonight her clothes will stay on. Turns out, because a certain percentage of the restaurant’s sales come from food, nudity is, by law, prohibited. This was disappointing news, indeed. “Next week we’re in Baltimore,” she continues. “I can take my clothes off there.”
Back at our table, dinner was served. Fish and chips and a double chocolate stout. The food was bangin’. After dinner, we tossed back Obama Bombs, which consist of Paddington’s, espresso vodka and tuaca. I must say, the service at National Mechanic was excellent. I can’t remember a waitress ever being so on top of it. When our friends showed up, she went out of her way to relocate the people next to us so that we all could sit together. And, no matter how busy it got, her service remained prompt and she checked in frequently. We left her a fat tip.
Reggie Bugmuncher shares her peculiar diet.
The show began at 10 p.m. with a series of delightfully demented acts. Mayhem MCs the performances with her lively narrations. Borneo extinguishes a torch flame on his tongue. Ling uses his tongue to stop a metal fan blade. Borneo hammers a nail into his nose. Ling re-takes the stage, swallowing straight swords, curved swords and even a neon light.
“Poisonous glass on the outside, poisonous gas on the inside,” Mayhem explains, laying out the stakes.
Ling drops is head back and slides the tube down his throat. He pulls it out just as quickly and bows to audience applause.
In the second act, Bugmuncher slurps up earth worms like they were spaghetti noodles and Borneo makes Balloon Animals of Doom. But my absolute favorite is when Ling fastens hooks to his lower eyelids, after which Mayhem hands him “fifteen pounds of domestic torture.” It’s an iron that he then attaches to the ends of the ropes hanging from his eye lids and proceeds to swing it like a pendulum from his face.
What a spectacle of horrible fun!
Before the show, I ask Ling about injuries, namely has anyone sustained any serious ones? Never, says he who swings a clothing iron from ropes attached by hooks to his eyelids. This sword swallower has never so much as nicked his esophagus on stage or while practicing. “The worst I’ve had is a sore throat.”