If you've seen Killer Klowns From Outer Space, especially that scene in which they drink human blood through cotton-candy cocoons, you know there's something inherently freaky about clowns. No offense to the clowns of the world: Honestly, we know you gotta make a buck. But c'mon. The excessive makeup? The baggy, multicolored clothing? The canoe-sized shoes and red-ball noses? The weird gimmicks and inhuman amounts of energy? Clowns are just an uncomfortable social violation.
Unreliable sources tell me that coulrophobia is the fear of clowns, and you know what my prescribed remedy is? Beer, of course. And at the Circus Bar, I may have found a remedy for clowns, no matter how many squirting plastic flowers they have.
Ambiance: The Circus Bar is situated in a quiet industrial area, with creepy, old-fashioned, circus-style lettering, blacked-out windows, and a vault-like front door. Not sure whether to expect a mob of circus rejects or a mafia of cutthroat criminals, I mustered up the courage, dragged the heavy door open, and stood blinking in the low-lit, smoky doorway. To the right, an open space with pool tables. To the left and center, a thick, trapezoid-shaped bar. My companion led me over to a spot on the far right side of the bar, beside a dusty DJ booth and slightly elevated stage with a stripper pole, which had been decorated and labeled "The North Pole" for Christmas. On the walls, faded, curling posters chronicle the rise of circuses, from Buffalo Bill to Barnum & Bailey. Photos and paintings depict a motley assortment of circus freaks. Photos and paintings of clowns cover every wall. Chipped wooden clown masks and clown dolls hide amid beer posters. It didn't take me long to realize that this bar is Bozo's bitch.
Basically, this bar is the bastard child of a horror movie and an antiques store. I shifted on my barstool and tried not to look at the creepy painting staring right at me: In old-fashioned paint strokes, a clown was depicted dancing near a rainbow. A nearby orange-and-white stained-glass picture of a mime-like clown twice distracted me from conversation. He was the absolute vision of a perfect nightmare: His intent to cause bloodshed by way of balloon animals was all too apparent. I decided to keep an eye on him.
To make things even more unnerving, between all the white-faced clowns were more caricatures of strangers than you could shake a flying trapeze at, staring out from the walls with their big heads and exaggerated teeth.
With Barry White playing in the background and The Simpsons and sports flashing intermittently across the flat-screen TVs surrounding the bar, I began to relax a little. What I really needed to do was get a beverage from the ringmaster of sorts and find out more about this little hole in the wall. I felt like I'd wandered into some time-warp or late great-aunt's clown collection.
Bartender: Sara wore a T-shirt that said "99% nice, 1% naughty" and a fringed skirt that was slightly too short in the back. She was pleasant and warm, and when I hesitantly asked about the place, she delivered a rapid-fire burst of information: The bar is 30 years old, has both pool and dart leagues, and it's one of the oldest bars that no one's ever heard of. She also told me that they host "Kill the Keg" nights (all the draft you can drink for $7) — certainly guaranteed to be better than watching a man put his head in a lion's mouth.
She paused to deliver me a Beck's.
"At any given time, most of the people in here are regulars," she told me. "I've been hanging out here for about ten years. I've heard some people say it's like a black hole in here."
I pointed upward toward the names and phone numbers that adorned the ceiling and asked, "What are these advertisements doing on the ceiling?"
"Oh, those have been here for years," she said. "The panel over the DJ booth actually was an ad for the guy who used to be our DJ."
" 'Mark Luis Mortgage,' " I read aloud.
"The psychologist's panel is over where he used to sit at the bar," she continued. How endearing — just like Frasier Crane but with a clown theme.
Patrons: Sara passed me around the bar like a half-smoked joint. First she introduced me to Torrence, who was broad with a booming voice, and Carlos, who was slight and straight-backed and wore a green polo. Dara, Torrence's dainty wife, wore purple stone jewelry and sat silently, absorbed in a mystery novel.
"You'll see all kinds of people in here," Torrence said. He pointed at an elderly gentleman who had just wandered in. "That guy's rich. And last week, we had the guy in here who owns all the jukeboxes in the bars around here."
"Wow," I said. "Why do you come here?"
"We followed Sara here," Torrence said, indicating the bartender.
"Where'd she work before here?" I asked.
"Doesn't matter. It's shit without her," he said.
I believed it: Just then, Sara came by with shots for all. Torrence and I swigged down Crackhouse shots — cranberry juice and Blackhouse — while Carlos had a Jäger shot.
"You know, back when Swap Shop had a circus, someone called up here asking if this was the Swap Shop circus," Carlos said. "The bartender had to tell them, 'Uh, no. This is a bar.' "
Clowns: Glowing with a sugar-sweet buzz, I turned to Dara. "How does anyone get over all these pictures of the clowns?" I asked. "They make me never wanna come back here."
"I almost didn't," Dara looked up from her book. "I hate them. But that's why they keep the lights low in here. Besides, you have a few more of those Crackhouse shots and you won't even see the clowns."
"I'm going to need a lot more shots before I don't notice those creepy bastards," I said.
"You know, they did a contest here once: count the clowns," Dara said. "People counted 200-something clowns on the wall."
Holy shit. That's a creepy curio-cabinet nightmare come true.
"Which is the creepiest clown here?" I asked.
"That one," Dara pointed immediately in the direction of my companion. Fortunately, she wasn't talking about him: Rather, the clown over his shoulder. The same orange, stained-glass abomination I'd noticed earlier. I shuddered in response.
"Still, though, they're not so bad," Dara said thoughtfully. "You come here on a Friday night, you'll see the real clowns. At least the ones on the wall don't talk."
Clown shoes: Dara was damned right. The bar had its fair share of really cool folks who made the clowns completely tolerable. But it had enough clowns that I wondered where they'd parked their tiny car.
As I stood in the pool area, gawking at a photograph taken of no fewer than ten Technicolor-headed, white-faced, creepy-ass clowns, I was interrupted by James, the bar's owner. He introduced me to Louie, a short, dark-haired man who had worked at the bar many years ago.
"Oh, you work for New Times, eh? What would you like to know about this place?" By now, Carlos had wandered over to listen.
"What about these caricatures?" I asked. "Where'd they come from?"
"The old owner, Phil, was friends with an artist," Louie said. "The guy would come once a week and draw all the regulars." Wow. Now that's a friendly neighborhood bar.
He was soon distracted by Garth Brooks' "Low Places," playing loudly from the bar's speakers.
"I hate this song," Carlos said.
"Everything's all right," Louie sang, putting his arm around Carlos. "Your asshole is tight/And I'll show myself to the do-o-or."
Since I know better than to interrupt clowns during a mating call, I turned and tried to walk away. I was pursued by a strange and severely inebriated gentleman, and when my face gave away my annoyance, Sara came to my aid. "Stop scaring the new people!" she shouted.
Now that's a respectable ringmaster who keeps her clowns in line. After a brief conversation with Sara (not only does she boss around clowns and tend the Circus bar but she also sings opera!), I bade a hasty farewell to the clowns — both two- and three-dimensional — all of whom the alcohol had made slightly more tolerable. Though I still don't like clowns, I liked the rusty nostalgia of the Circus Bar and its regular cast of characters. I guess I could get used to a couple of harmless clown pictures, right?