Freaks and geeks: Squidling Brothers brings new era of sideshow to Ottawa Tavern.Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Magic is fake. Sideshow skills are real. When you have a fire-eater or a sword-swallower, what it looks like they’re doing — they’re really doing. When you eat fire, you really do get burned. … When you swallow a sword, you really do gag, and you really do choke, because you’re sticking metal right down your throat. I tell you this, because when you watch a sideshow performer, you shouldn’t think about how we’re doing this. You should think about why.”
— Penn Jillette
“Why do we do what we do?” Jelly Boy the Clown said, repeating the question he had just been asked. He was sitting in a diner with his fellow performers during an interview for Toledo Free Press Star. Jelly Boy turned to the other current members of The Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow — a group that included a contortionist, a fire dancer and a strongman — and asked all of them. “Hey guys, why do we do what we do?”
There was a pause. Jelly Boy — self-described “Living Cartoon and Natural-Born Weirdo” — came back on the line. “Because we can’t not do it. And the audience can’t unsee it. It’s part of the compulsion, it’s a lifestyle choice. We always want to be on the road, freaking new people out every town. And we do it for the kids, you know? We do it for the kids inside of you.”
For the past few years, Jelly Boy and his brother Matterz Squidling have toured throughout the United States and Europe with their new vision of the classic traveling sideshow, featuring feats that stretch the limits of human abilities — not to mention turning some stomachs. Blending comedy with the classic squeamish thrills that seeing such old-school acts can bring, this latest Squidling Brothers tour will stop by Toledo at 10 p.m. Oct. 23 for a show at the Ottawa Tavern, 1817 Adams St.
“A Squidling Brothers show is a hilarious stunt show with freaks and show people doing amazing feats that boggle the mind,” Matterz said. “We do sword-swallowing, beds of nails, broken glass. This time we’re traveling with an Illustrated Strongman who drives spikes into boards, a natural born freak who stretches his skin and an amazing aerialist/fire artist.”
Hear ye, hear ye
The sideshow — a secondary attraction promoted by a carnival barker who would encourage passersby to pony up a few coins to see extraordinary feats and people born with unusual deformities — has long since disappeared from the “family friendly” circuses and fairs that continue to be organized the world over. Changing societal attitudes and the advent of television made paying cash to see such acts less attractive to the casual audience.
In recent years, spurred on by the success of the Jim Rose Circus, which attained fame at 1992’s Lollapalooza, the sideshow has seen a revival in popularity, with numerous outfits ready to scratch the itch of those wanting to witness such remarkable feats. What sets the Squidlings apart, Jelly Boy argued, is the sense of humor which they bring to the enterprise.
“A Squidling Brothers show is a surreal collection of characters. And I think it’s our approach to comedy, along with the grotesque and the extreme,” he said. “It’s a bit of a light-hearted approach to some very hardcore acts.”
“We like to add this comedy element to the show, and we like to push the limits of the different types of traditional stunts,” Matterz added. “We’re always trying to do new and strange things, taking the old ideas and making them new.”
Step right up
Matterz and Jelly Boy are, indeed, legitimately brothers — though one is hard-pressed to believe “Jelly Boy the Clown” is his legal name. Though the rest of the cast differs for each tour, the two brothers are constant — no Squidling Brothers tour has ever performed without both brothers onstage. The pair has been training and participating in sideshow stunts together since 2004, though the specific gimmick they now bring to the stage didn’t take shape until a few years later.
“The Squidling Brothers name, I think, we came up with in 2008,” Matterz said. “We started touring in 2009, and we’ve been touring in the U.S. and Europe ever since.”
“We have a rotating cast of characters,” Jelly Boy said. “Because not everybody can just leave their life all the time and just go on the road. We do a lot of traveling, so we meet a lot of very interesting people all around the country — all around the world.
“And we try and bring those people with us whenever we can. So we have a kind of collection of very strange and unique friends that we pull from.
“And this particular tour, we have a new cast of characters. We have a strongman, Titano, from Milwaukee. We’ve got the Rubber Man — he’s born with a condition that makes his skin stretch ridiculously, and his bones are also rubber, so he can bend back his hand all the way, and twist his arm more than 360 degrees around. And there’s a lady traveling with us named Madeleine Belle, who’s an aerialist and a great fire dancer.”
The ever-shifting makeup of the show is key to its ongoing success, Jelly Boy noted. “We got to really try and change it up, because we hit a lot of the same spots, and we want to keep our show different so people keep coming back.
“We come up with new ideas as we go along, and we try different stunts out to try and fit the character of the group,” he said. “For instance, there’s one act we’re working on right now where the strongman ties a mechanical claw to his testicles.
“And I have a remote control, and it’s like one of those machines you see in Walmart where the mechanical claw is trying to pick up the stuffed animals.”
Feast your eyes
Just the description of some of these acts is enough to make a listener slack-jawed with disbelief, maybe a little uneasy — but they can also put a wry smile on their face. There is the sense that they shouldn’t look, but they can’t look away. It’s that basic instinct that both brothers say is key to the appeal of their work — and maybe, in some way, it’s a bit therapeutic, as well.
“There’s a long list of things that make people squirm, and everybody’s different,” Jelly Boy said. “We try to find every angle of every phobia that people might have, and just try to run, like, a psychotherapy session. And by the end of the show, a lot of people who were afraid of clowns, or a lot of people who were afraid of needles, or fire, giant guys with tattoos on their faces — they start to feel a little bit differently about it. And they actually confront their fears and laugh about it.”
“I love doing the sideshow and thrilling people every night. It’s definitely about the crowd response,” Matterz said. “I can’t really think of anything else I’d rather do. I just enjoy the thrill of being on the road, going to different places and … finding places to go to where people may have never seen a sideshow, or heard of a sideshow and had never seen it before.”
The act of performance proved healing for Jelly Boy, as well. Two years ago, he was staying at a friend’s place prior to a show in New York City. He awoke to find the apartment in flames. Saved by the FDNY, he was in intensive care for weeks with severe burns all over his body and lungs. But within two months, the Clown was back on the road with his family — his real-life brother, and his brothers and sisters in performance.
“It was really therapeutic for me, because I wasn’t done healing completely when I got back on the road. I ended up healing a lot on the road. Because I’d rather be out there doing something than sitting at home in a hospital bed, feeling sorry for myself. And we condition ourselves to deal with a lot of pain or to look at pain differently, and just to live, function with it. And it definitely helped me to go out and really forget about my troubles.”
Tell your friends
This latest version of the Squidlings’ extravaganza has only been on the road a few weeks. It’s still growing and coming into its own, as all their shows do during the early days. But Matterz noted how this tour is also, in many ways, a return to basics for the brothers.
“It’s actually kind of back to one of our original formats that we had, with a strongman and a natural-born and a female performer with Jelly and I. With this particular tour, as I just said, it’s just a really amazing dynamic with the personalities. Everyone is just really, really funny — not just onstage but offstage.”
Asked what attendees can expect at the Tavern on Oct. 23, Jelly Boy paused once more. When he spoke, you could hear the grin in his voice.
“They can expect to leave with a very strange smile on their face, and have a lot of stories to tell their friends.”
Tickets to the performance are $5.
Tags: FDNY, Jelly Boy the Clown, Jim Rose Circus, Living Cartoon, Madeleine Belle, Matterz Squidling, Milwaukee, Natura-Born-Weirdo, Ottawa Tavern, Penn Jillette, Rubber Man, Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow, Titano, Walmart