by Jeff Johnson / photo by Peter Di Antoni

In the last half of the nineteenth century many Wisconsin rural communities gave birth to tiny circuses that found an audience eager to witness daredeviltry, juggling, human oddities, and skillful performances. But what if the Ringling Brothers had founded their circus not on their father’s farm in Baraboo in the late 1800s but in the heart of Milwaukee in 2002? What if instead of a world of farm animals, German agriculture, white frame churches, and wagon makers, they had inhabited a world of raves, tattoos, body piercing, electronic media, and twenty-first century nihilism? What shape would the Greatest Show on Earth then have assumed in its infancy? Riverwest is home to one such urban, post-modern circus. Proclaimed in flyers as the “Scariest Show on Earth,” Milwaukee Brewzerkus quarters in a Booth Street home known by its inhabitants as the “Clown House.” There a front porch spills over with “tall bikes” used for parades; a backyard harbors a car and van festooned like clowns; an attic and basement brim with puppets, stages, and props; living room, kitchen, and bedrooms host costumes, makeup, and poster/stencil making materials. Brewzerkus started as a twenty-first century freakshow. In the tradition of the circus, the freakshow or sideshow appeals to a crowd’s curiosity toward oddities and human abnormality. Sideshows are traveling museums of the grotesque and amazing. Not all people appreciate these sideshows. After seeing P.T. Barnum’s sideshow in 1832, Horace Greeley wrote, “There is a superabundance of ugliness and deformity, which one is obliged to see without running out and nosing it out.” But the circus has never pretended to be as high minded as Greeley and has frankly acknowledged that the vast majority of human beings will stare with a mixture of disgust and compulsive amazement at such spectacle. The Brewzerkus was founded approximately one year ago, but its members have performed in a variety of venues including the now defunct Degenerative Arts Festival. Others have performed with the Know Nothing Family Zirkus and the Circus of Tiny Invisibility. The current ringmaster of Brewzerkus, Eric Thomas, goes by the stage name of Captain Stupid. Thomas, who has performed most of the stunts that appear in the circus, now provides continuity from act to act. As a child growing up in Milwaukee, Thomas wanted to be a fireman, an engineer, or a clown. The clown won. After studying at UWM for a while he performed in a variety of local theatre groups, eventually playing Comedy Sportz in the role of captain. Currently his day job is with a local insulation company, but his passion is the Zerkus. “All entertainment is fleeting,” he explains. “Audiences are always looking for the next thing… that’s why our performances are aimed at the shocking… otherwise they wouldn’t be truly amazing…” In his quest to shock and amaze, Thomas has evolved from stilt walking, to fire eating, to laying on a bed of broken Corona beer bottles, to eating broken glass (usually from light bulbs). “With fire eating you have to be careful that you don’t inhale any of the fuel. I have friends that have wound up with chemical pneumonia while performing that act.” When asked about the dangers of a glass diet he says, “You have to chew really well. It does tend to wear away your enamel.” Other members of the Brewzerkus troupe go by the stage names of Stumps the Clown, Pancakes the Clown, Crash Carnage, Jo Jo Bridges, Miss Claire, Nurse Nasty, and Amy All Day Ass. Stumps, a hobo clown in the tradition of Emmet Kelly, solos by standing on two machetes and juggling. Pancakes, who has “gone clown” by having his clown makeup tattooed onto his face, is a flurry of circus creativity, making puppets that include an elephant and giant chicken, stenciling posters, and creating props from sofa cushions in the form of a giant hammer and dummy clowns. Crash Carnage specializes in laying on a bed of nails, while Jo Jo engages in bicycle jousting with Thomas. Claire is a juggler who also performs in broken glass. Amy performs Poi, a kind of juggling involving swinging weighted objects at the ends of short cords. At night the act is performed with flaming weights that provide a spectacular and dangerous show. Amy also provides musical accompaniment for the performances on keyboards using traditional circus calliope music. At a recent Chicago showing, troupe members offended a mostly vegan crowd by an act that involved eating live worms. “I guess that means we are ‘Banned in Chicago’,” says Thomas. The current climax of the Brewzerkus performance is a controversial act by Thomas and fellow performer, Claire, known as the Human Pin Cushion. Thomas explains that this act is not performed at every venue and is usually reserved for the very end, after the troupe has passed the hat for donations, because it offends many audience members. In the Human Pin Cushion, Thomas and Claire use needles from medical syringes and surgical wire to pierce various body parts including their genitals. “Of course it hurts,” he says, “but we reuse the same spots over and over so that we aren’t creating new wounds… simply opening old ones.” At a recent performance in Chicago an audience member accused Claire of using her body in this act to exploit the audience. “But isn’t that exactly the point?” questions Thomas. Brewzerkus has traveled recently to Chicago, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Indianapolis. They have also given performances for friends and at Thai Joes. Individually members do busking or street performances for tips. The “next thing” the troupe is currently exploring is the traditional traveling medicine show. Thomas suggests that soon Brewzerkus may be offering a home remedy called “Gypsy Fire Cider,” a combination of garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper, and apple cider vinegar that has been buried by the light of the full moon. The Brewzerkus is scheduled to perform at Center Street Celebration September 28. During Art Walk, October 5 and 6, they will set up their show at the Clown House at 2608 N. Booth St. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 9 – October 2002