Palace of Wonders: A Very Strange Brew
Friday, July 7, 2006
With his mutton-chop sideburns and red bolo tie, James Taylor, the impresario behind the Showbar Palace of Wonders -- a brick townhouse in Northeast that houses a vaudeville stage, a museum of oddities and a full bar -- looks like a 19th-century carnival barker. But his pitch is crafted for our modern age:
"See the world's largest example of obsessive-compulsive disorder!" he booms, waving his hand toward a bank of glass cabinets stuffed with vintage sideshow props -- miniature mummies, a stuffed unicorn, the remains of mermaids and a teensy village carved of human bones. "See mania run riot! See a glo-o-o-orious mess!"
Partner, bartender and sideshow alum Jill Fisher, her arms covered in tattoos, scrambles to tack labels on the midway oddities Taylor has amassed here at 1210 H St. NE, in preparation for tonight's grand opening. Though the display upstairs hasn't yet opened to the public, for just over two weeks the long pine bar downstairs has welcomed a steady trickle of the curious, who come for the booze and stay for the corn dogs, old-fashioned organ, sword-swallowing bartender and two-headed cow stuffed and mounted on the back wall.
On a stage nearby, chocolate-brown velvet curtains hang ready to be pushed aside by tonight's lineup -- which includes burlesque. But this isn't the strip-club stuff seen at the other Show Bar in town, on M Street NW; here it's a retro-chic display of mild sexuality that is more about hip vintage costumes and clunky tricks on roller-skates than exposed skin.
The bar's buttery soft light and raw-brick walls, cluttered like a freakshow TGI Friday's, make the Palace of Wonders feel like grandmother's attic. An orange tabby cat paws the upstairs door that leads out onto a smokers' porch painted like a circus tent.
"You can't have a museum," Taylor claims, "without cats."
The American Dime Museum, up in Baltimore, was the first public venue for Taylor's immense collection of vaudeville props-- hundreds of "see-it-here-only-folks" items including voodoo dolls, cursed necklaces, the severed trigger finger of Pancho Villa and the purported "Head of Mozart as a Child." After financial difficulties and squabbles with his founding partner, Taylor, 55, left that museum, stashed the collection at his Baltimore home, and hooked up with developer-impresario Joe Englert, who helped revitalize the U Street nightlife scene and now is steadily gentrifying the H Street strip ravaged by the 1968 riots. The Showbar is one of a string of themed watering holes, including the Argonaut (nautical), the Beehive (Mexican), and the Red and the Black (Cajun), wedged between check-cashing spots and liquor stores.
"If only I had a dollar every time I heard someone say, 'We're creating a new bohemian culture here,' " says Fisher, who helped convert a gutted hair salon into the Showbar, down to the last sprinkle of gold glitter dusting the floor. "We get all kinds of people here -- not just hipsters from Northwest or people from the neighborhood . . . I'll be tending bar and I'll be like, 'Who is that?' and there will be a lady at the end with a bandanna and a mustache."
"This is a state fair plopped inside a bar, 365 days per year," Englert says, jesting that he should go so far as to pump in the scent of fried food, because "everyone loves fried dough." (There is no kitchen; corn dogs are microwaved.)
The museum hopes to succeed where the Dime failed by adding alcohol to oddity. "It's the blood, but not the heart," Taylor said. "We're following the success formula that for 105 years was how Barnum made his money. It's a hell of a lot of ballyhoo and tons of chutzpah."
In that tradition, the opening ceremony demands a stiff cover ($15) for a peek at a burlesque dancing duo called Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey, who will do the act that won them the Best Burlesque Duo at the Miss Exotica 2006 competition. Trixie dances almost innocently while her lumbering, hairy-chested male friend (in monkey ears and a glittery vest) unleashes a series of fiendish tricks.
Also on view will be a woman who swallows swords; a bullwhip-wielding guy who calls himself "the reincarnation of Buffalo Bill"; Professor "Otto KnowBetter," who is said to be the only human known to chew dry ice; and Todd Robbins, dean of the Coney Island Sideshow School, who will emcee and also perform.