Palace of Wonders: A Very Strange Brew


Jill Fisher and James Taylor at the Showbar on H Street, a spinoff from
Baltimore’s defunct Dime Museum. (By Nikki Kahn — The Washington Post)

By Adriane Quinlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

“I will bite into a lightbulb and chew into the broken glass,” Robbins said. “That’s what D.C. needs. That’s the one thing missing.”

“Englert always says, ‘James, you give them too much,’ ” Taylor says. “But I just want a place to sit and drink a beer next to the freakiest stuff in the world.”

He is a sideshow purist; he isn’t happy about young people who cast a condescending gaze that reduces vaudeville to an ironic relic. Re-creations of old vaudeville traveling acts like the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus are reviewed in the Village Voice and perform at the Birchmere. . At the 9:30 club, a PG-13 “Burlesque-fest” is backed by the band DeVotchKa, whose polka-rock graces the soundtrack for “Everything Is Illuminated.”

“My contention about this business is that it not be just something to appeal to hipsters,” Taylor says. “I pitch to the widest audience because carnival is family entertainment.”

On Sundays, the place will be open for children, who may enjoy seeing the pickling jar upstairs that houses the 10-inch-high head of a python. There’s a story attached, of course. At Taylor tells it, the snake was infamous for killing its owner– Sailor Katzy, a Florida carnival showman who worked in the 1960s. Katzy’s wife arrived on the scene, saw her strangled husband’s body, saw the snake staring down guiltily from a tree, and called in police, screaming, “Don’t touch that snake, don’t touch that darn snake!” While Sailor Katzy’s act had been steadily failing, his widow toured with the cold-blooded culprit — hawking it as “The Snake That Killed Sailor Katzy.”

“She made a gazillion dollars,” Taylor says, almost choking up.

It’s a lesson in something. Revenge? Reincarnation? Show business?

“I’m gonna make my fortune someday,” Taylor muses. “They’ll be touring me after I’m dead and saying, ‘Here’s the head of the carney who started the Palace of Wonders!'”

But first, he must survive the tough jungle of redevelopment on H Street.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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