“We are not a historical reenactment. We are a modern freakshow, ” announces Samantha X at the beginning of the second act of the 999 Eyes Authentic Vaudevillian Freakshow. Samantha is right; the show her performers put on at Martyrs could not be mistaken for an old-fashioned carnival sideshow.
In 2004, Samantha Saladino was teaching anatomy and physiology at massage school when her interest in freaks was piqued by the pictures of physical abnormalities she used to teach her classes. “While I was studying the anomalies, I was slightly shocked at the fact that the freakshows had died,” she says. “[The freaks] had been treated like royalty. They had been considered interesting and amazing.” Together with a few freaks she met, Saladino put together a touring show based out of Austin. Its current tour features five freaks as well as Lowrent the Clown and Saladino herself as the ringleader, Samantha X. In its travels the show has performed at churches, conventions, weddings, Burning Man and of course bars and music venues like Martyrs.
As the opening clown act goes up on stage, about twenty-five people mill around in the mostly empty bar. Some of them are clearly performers, some clearly not; many occupy the gray area in between. A devil wearing horns and a black tie rubs shoulders with a guy with spikes for hair; two women dressed in tights, hats and Pierrot makerrup must be in the show, but the man nearby with the bleached mullet and tattoo jacket? Hard to say. During the interval between the opener and the freakshow, the mullet gives his thoughts on freakish abilities (“Eric does have this cool trick. He can jerk off and orgasm without splooging”) and his bout with kidney stones (“The hospital? This is America, who goes to hospitals?”).
The show begins, and Samantha urges the audience to “throw away the word ‘disabled’ and reclaim the word ‘freak!’” The first freak to perform is Jackie ov All Trades, the Human Tripod, a woman with a normal upper body but only one stunted leg below the waist. After a song from Jackie, Samantha X begins a history of freakshows that will continue between musical segments and displays of talents. The elephant man, Ken the Peg-Leg, gives his abbreviated life story: between his speech impediment, his artificial leg and his neurofibromatosis (which causes bumps all over his body), Ken faced nothing but discrimination and prejudice before arriving at the freakshow, which “gave me faith and courage in myself to take off my shirt and show off my beautiful body.” He proceeds to do so with the help of the Lobster Girl and Lil’ Miss Firefly, “the twenty-seven-inch small woman.”
After the show, Jackie’s in the bar. Does she see this as a permanent job? “Everything’s a temporary thing,” she says. She mentions she has an Associates degree. “I wanted to do this instead of a normal office job. I’ll be doing this for a while.” (Sam Feldman)