The greasy smell of gasoline rises from the stage and floats above the floor, clinging to hair and clothing. The rumbling of several chain saws, now somewhat familiar-sounding thanks to Tom Comet the Rocket Man and his multiple-saw juggling act, becomes menacing in the pitch blackness. Squeals and shouts ring out from the crowd as the deadly tools begin to move audibly about the room.
"If they get too close," Rose bellows, "just scream! They'll back up ... most of the time."
The roar reaches a fever pitch, and the front of the house erupts into hollers and jittery movement. Several spectators make a break for it, running into the lobby only to be chased down by the chain-saw-toting Enigma, a fully tattooed "monster" whose earlier feats included consuming live grubs and French-kissing a massive, squirming scorpion. Cornering his startled victim, Enigma strikes a Leatherface pose, growling and slobbering while the blades whir viciously in his outstretched arms. A small light attached to his pith helmet blinds the startled paying customer, who affects a look of mock(?) horror.
With a Lollapalooza tour, a few TV appearances, and the new book Freak Like Me (Dell Trade) under his belt, Jim Rose and his entourage have emerged from the comfortable womb of the underground to explore the growing world of sideshow acceptance. Even the San Francisco crowd, which includes teen-age surfers as well as a 50-ish real estate broker and a 27-year-old dominatrix, underscores the point.
"Long before anyone else knew who the fuck we were," Rose says nostalgically, "San Francisco came out en masse to support us."
Although most of the spectators respond with the desired shudder and groan as the Enigma eats glass and the Rubber Man has cinder blocks smashed on his chest while he lies on a bed of swords, some of the Sideshow's longtime fans are not impressed.
"I've always liked Rose," says a fan named Nick, "but I think he's lost a bit of his flair. He's not as intense and manic. The evangelical quality is missing." Some old-timers chalk this up to Rose "going big-time," while others just think people are getting used to the shtick.
"When the Circus first came to town," says Jen, a jet-haired woman in leopard skin, "the stuff they were doing was really crazy. No one knew what to expect. People passed out. The only person that passed out tonight was hyperglycemic. It's all the videos and the write-ups -- it's just like 'been there, done that.' "
Taking a lazy drag off her cigarette, she turns back to the stage, where Mr. Lifto swings two irons from his nipple rings. "I like the leather jacket hung from his nose better," she says over her shoulder. As if on cue, Mr. Lifto pushes a wire hanger through his septum.
Still, if all the gasps and squirming are any indication, no amount of preparation can take the cringe out of seeing Mr. Lifto carry a suitcase with his tongue piercing or keep folks from holding their breath as the Rocket Man balances a Molotov cocktail, then a lawn mower on his chin. Or stop the guffaws when the glass-crunching Enigma breaks into an honestly beautiful rendition of "Helpless" while Jim Rose the Cock Contortionist performs "organ origami."
"Hey look, it's an oyster in a half-shell! An atomic mushroom! A swollen thumb! Oooh, it hurts!" he exclaims.
"[You need] a voluntary suspension of disbelief," argues a three-time Jim Rose spectator and ever-enamored fan. "You can get a lot of boom for your buck if you just settle in and let yourself have fun. Eating slugs is disgusting no matter how many times you've seen it. Dangling weights off your dick still looks like it fucking hurts! Some people in this town seem to work at being jaded."
Well, not everyone.
By Silke Tudor