Two years ago at the annual Pilsen East Artists' Open House, Douglas Grew spent two long afternoons on Halsted Street doing clown routines and passing the hat. Crowds streamed by, strolling in and out of artists' studios, looking for bargains, walking past him with hardly a glance. "In the lobby of the Blue Rider Theatre some artist had his paintings set up, and he made about $3,000," says Grew. "I made 25."
Last year Grew tried to skip the event. He'd just moved into an apartment a stone's throw from the Blue Rider with fellow performance artist Margaret Goddard, and they hoped to hunker down until the whole thing blew over. But as they quickly learned, there's no escaping the Pilsen East Artists' Open House.
"We weren't even home that much during the weekend," Grew says. "But when we were, people were always knocking on the door. And sometimes people just walked right in. One guy came in and said, 'Wow, great place. How much is the rent?'"
"I was like, 'Excuse me, I'm almost out of the shower, and then I'll talk to you for a little while,'" Goddard recalls.
This year they're taking a different tack. "Instead of sitting here and grumbling about the crowds, we thought we'd exploit the situation," Grew says. "We're turning our apartment into a sideshow and our backyard into a circus." He says it's a natural outgrowth of the open house. "There's such a voyeuristic strain to the event, all these people in our homes, gawking. We want to satisfy that need. Look at the geeks and the freaks and the queers!"
The first freak you'll meet at the Backyard Circus and Sideshow is Sirena the Mermaid. She collects your money, then hands you off to the Monkey Girl, who's whipping up banana smoothies at a concession stand. If you're lucky, after peering at the Man With the Longest Nose Hair in the peep show and perusing the Wonder Cabinet full of artfully arranged roadkill in mason jars, you might stumble upon Quadrina, the Four-Legged Woman.
"The whole thing is very Little Rascals," Grew says. "It's all about the backyard aesthetic, a celebration and a burlesque of the circus."
On the makeshift plywood stage out back, the Lonesome Organist will accompany a tap-dance routine, a strong-man act Grew describes as "very Fellini," a snake oil salesman, and Ruby, "the only performing horse in Pilsen."
The informal nature of the event means that some performances will be slicker than others. "But," Grew promises, "all very entertaining." At least two acts are sure to be hits. Monologuist Frank Melcori appears as that renowned magician Melcori the Italian, with his famous disappearing Ping-Pong ball trick. And Midnight Circus veterans Sarah Worthington and Nathan Carver perform as Singer and Saw, doing their hilarious bad-opera shtick. In addition, local avant-garde filmmaker Tom Palazzolo will screen a special cut of stock circus footage.
Goddard will do a little snake handling, while Grew will be clowning--and passing the hat. "And there will be a lot of tasteful huckstering going on," he says. What, precisely, will they be selling? "Oh, it'll be plenty surprising what we're selling."
The Backyard Circus and Sideshow runs Saturday and Sunday at 726 W. 18th, apartment 1R. It's open from 11 to 5, and circus performances are at noon and 3. Donations are "strongly requested." Call 312-678-0555 for more information. --Justin Hayford
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Douglas Grew, Margaret Goddard photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.