Obsession leads to Odditorium and entertainment sideshow becomes main event
Walking on shards of glass, laying on a bed of razor blades, climbing a ladder of swords — these are the kinds of sights that cause the most freakouts at a typical visit to The Odditorium, the burlesque and sideshow event that returns Friday to the Central Square YMCA Theater.
To Zehara Nachash, though, it’s all in a day’s work.
She’s the one walking around with the snakes.
As the proprietor of The Odditorium, which premiered at the theater in March and has occasional dates scheduled through May, she is inspired to bring back the weird and wondrous sights more typical of the heydays of Vaudeville and Coney Island. Not that she’s old enough to remember those days.
“I’ve always been kind of odd and geeky myself,” said Nachash, 27, from her Roslindale home, recalling an obsession with old sideshows fanned by trips to the circus with her parents and entwined with childhood dance lessons and pet reptiles. She started belly dancing in 2003 and added snakes to the act — she now has eight of the unusual dance partners — in 2005. “Belly dancing is kind of snaky and sinuous anyway,” she noted.
Hooking up with the Boston Babydolls burlesque troupe put Nachash in touch with all sorts of exotic performers (and added fire eating to her skills). “I started to realize Boston and New England are full of cool people who do things that had never really been seen by the general public,” she said.
Those are the things that can freak people out, of course —walking, laying and climbing on sharp things, for instance, catching bullets fired from a gun and a profusion of other things. “Even simple things like contortionists freak people out, or when I walk around with snakes,” she said. But those are also the kinds of things people enjoy seeing during wars and depressions. At least they did last time sideshows and Vaudeville were big, and there is further evidence in the fact the first Odditorium sold out. (Which is good: The performers, sometimes coming from as far as Maine and New York for an event, rely in part on a cut from ticket sales.)
There will be a confounding variety of acts at the Odditorium, everything from the gloriously decadent music of Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys to burlesque dancers and a separate, limited-audience séance. Many of the performers know each other and complement each other well, said Edrie, of the Army of Broken Toys, a bad whose theatrical presentation makes it a natural for association with the circus-art set. Some of the burlesque dancers have asked that the band do the music for their performances.
“We definitely do a lot of these kinds of shows. We like the sort of collaborative feel they bring,” Edrie said Sunday, rested from Saturday’s late-night horror-themed Coolidge Corner show with burlesque dancers and a screening of “Return of the Living Dead.”
Boston has plenty of competition as a circus-arts mecca — New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but also Vermont and western Massachusetts — so shows such as The Odditorium help assure local performers they don’t have to leave the area to do what they love.
“In New York City, probably every night of the week there are performances you can go to and make a living,” said Ol’ Scratch, director of the Boston Babydolls, while the local scene has lost smaller venues despite a built-in audience of college-age people looking to try new things. Greater Boston is not yet a circus-arts mecca. “We’ve certainly been trying very hard to make it that.”
There have been suggestions that The Odditorium go on the road, but Nachash resists.
“The YMCA has that old, Victorian, 19th century feel to it. I really want to keep it there because it fits the feel I’m looking for,” Nachash said of the theater space, which was built in 1897 and refurbished eight years ago. “I’ve kind of dubbed the YMCA the home of The Odditorium.”
“The Odditorium” will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, 2009, at the YMCA Theater, 820 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge. Tickets are $15 at the door. To avoid enflaming juvenile libidos or encouraging amateur sword swallowing, the event is 18-plus, but the range is broad anyway, drawing fans into their 70s and 80s. For information, click here or call (617) 780-6407.