I HAD A REVELATION recently: I am no longer afraid of clowns. It happened last week at Powell's, while I sat on the floor on a rainy, cold, ghoulish night and read Henry Miller's "clown biography," The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. Halfway through the book, I suddenly realized that—after years of toeing the Modern Sarcastic American party line that clowns and circuses are "creepy"—I'm over it. And I'm hearing this kinda thing a lot lately, that the collective "we" who have hated the circus for so long, have come out the other side and are now comfortable with the chaos. The circus is coming to Portland, too. But it's not the Barnum and Bailey big-bucks family fest. The backstory, here, begins with Harold Von Killian, sideshow impresario.
"Harold Von Killian is from lower Slovovia—which strangely is north of upper Slovovia," says Scott Magee, drummer for Portland's shit-hot Heroes and Villains, the headlining act in Von Killian's No-Ring Sideshow and Traveling Spectacular. For years now, Von Killian has traveled the globe searching for musicians and artists to perform in his sideshows. He contacted Heroes and Villains after his second cousin Dietrich saw them play a basement show in Northeast. After that, he kept in correspondence with the band, advising them on gathering "appropriate" acts to complete the bill for his Portland debut.
Magee says this show will blur the lines between rock 'n' roll, theater, and vaudeville. "The lineup is New Mexican Revolution then Myshkin's Ruby Warblers followed by Pepto Dizmal and the Feral Clowns. After that HandV take the stage and interspersed in our set will be members of MarchFourth Marching Band joining on some of our tunes, plus an acrobalancing act, an opera diva, unicyclists, and dancers. Finally MarchFourth will tear it up with a sort of after-show rock-the-end-of-the-night set/dance party."
The band encourages the audience to dress up in traditional circus garb ("Bright colors, clown costumes, makeup, stripes, skimpy clothing") and suggests a little research beforehand: "There is nothing like Harold Von Killian's Traveling Sideshow," says Magee. "However, watching movies like Something Wicked This Way Comes, Big Top Pee-Wee, and Werner Herzog's Even Dwarves Started Small gives you kind of an idea."
The music, too, will be circusized. Says Magee, "We are choosing the most circus-like songs from our own rep (our waltzy, jazzy stuff), and also doing three or four really cool covers that work in the same way. Ali will play lots of accordion and we will use a mellotron quite a bit as well. Also more of the other band members will be doing lead vocals as well as some guests singing with us."
But above all, it's the entire package that drives the vibe home, the combination of sights and sounds, costumes and freakery—with Von Killian hosting and acting as ringmaster. Heroes and Villains singer Adam Raitano says the appeal is very much old timey: "You know, like the good old days. He blows into town, sets up shop, entertains the town, and is gone the next day leaving nothing but a few windswept handbills in his wake."