They hammer 5-inch nails into their heads and walk on broken glass. They swing 16-pound bowling balls from their earlobes and lie on beds of nails. They sing, tell jokes, juggle and entertain. They are the Blue Monkey Sideshow, one of Indiana’s most-watched live performance groups.
A portion of the Blue Monkey Sideshow: top left going clockwise, Bart Simpson, Elliot Feltman, Brian Sutherlin and Wild Bill Elliot. The Blue Monkey Sideshow will perform the Indiana State Fair Aug. 15 & 16.
For the last five years, the Blue Monkey Sideshow has kept up a façade of pseudonyms and fictional biographies. According to the group’s Web site, Jeeribaldi was originally an orphan in the Middle East who left himself on Krembo’s doorstep. Now, the Blue Monkeys have agreed to reveal who they really are, what they do outside of the show and how they became freaks (or “prodigies” as they like to call themselves). As it turns out, sometimes the real stories behind the Monkeys are weirder than the fiction. Cultural ambassadors Last year, the Blue Monkey Sideshow performed to more than 1 million people around the country. If you exclude Indiana’s professional sporting teams, that figure makes them one of the state’s biggest live entertainment exports. From rock concerts to nightclubs to corporate events, the Blue Monkeys even played to hundreds of sheet metal workers to stress the importance of on-the-job safety (safety can be important when stomping on broken glass or whacking nails into your head). The Monkeys are currently preparing for two of their most prestigious shows: the Indiana State Fair (Aug. 15-16) and Alaska State Fair (Aug. 21-Sept. 1). Yet some readers may still be unfamiliar with their unique style of performance. “If you haven’t seen the Blue Monkey Sideshow, you should be ashamed,” juggler and frontman Elliot Feltman, aka Krembo, says with a laugh. “It’s a modern vaudeville sideshow,” Sideshow musician Bart Simpson, aka Skanky, adds. “We give the audience a range of reactions. We will shock them, and then relax them with a laugh. Then we take them and shock them again. Some sideshows try to shock you for a whole hour and the audience just gets numb. You have to relax them so they are ready to go higher.” The Blue Monkeys do not use smoke, mirrors or illusion in their acts. Jeeribaldi really does contort himself through the frame of an unstrung tennis racquet and the 16-pound bowling ball Mojo hangs from his enormous earlobes is not made of Styrofoam. “We have chosen to leave magic out,” Simpson says, “because other things we do will be dismissed. We don’t want people to think that [what we do is an illusion] because it belittles the act.” The formation of the Blue Monkey Sideshow began in 1994 when Simpson and some artist friends heard about a regular Beatnik evening in a basement on Vermont Street. After discussing their ideas with the venue manager, they began performing unusual acts onstage. From these humble beginnings the first incarnation of the Blue Monkeys, “Café Angst,” was born. (See sidebar) “We came at it from the professional performance end and moved into sideshow as a genre, rather than, ‘He does weird stuff, I do weird stuff, let’s go stand up and do it in front of people,’ which is where a lot of sideshow stuff comes from,” Simpson says. The men behind the monkeys Bart Simpson aka Skanky - Blue Monkey CEO Yes, his real name is Bart Simpson, and he is the musical talent behind the Blue Monkeys. Originally from “the poor side of Carmel,” Simpson, 43, sports a gruff-voice and an enormous mop of fluffy blond hair. After high school Simpson attended Ball State as a Whitinger Scholar for directing. He followed up his degree with a Morton Brown Fellowship to the University of Texas and graduated with an M.F.A. in directing. “Since I didn’t have student loans I didn’t have to go to work once I finished college,” he laughs. “So I started exploring different ends of the professional theater world. “I was very much in legitimate theater for a long time. I have a great love for Shakespeare, Shaw and Sam Shepherd. I worked as a properties artisan for three years whilst I was directing and designing at other local theaters. Then I moved to Marian College where I taught technical theater and creative dramatics for six years. “It was toward the end of that period when I branched out to become an independent professional artist and when we formed the Blue Monkey Sideshow.” In addition to performing, Simpson has directed numerous shows in Indianapolis, including two seasons of Shakespeare in the Park (King Henry IV Part I, Romeo and Juliet), the two-man show Greater Tuna and Tomfoolery, a collection of Tom Lehrer songs turned into a show. Aside from directing, Simpson builds stage scenery and adult-sized rocking animals through his personal business, Art Thieves. His front room is a menagerie, including an enormous rocking giraffe, leopard and zebra. “I like to do big art that lots of people enjoy experiencing,” he says. “I have been able to do things like the Children’s Museum Haunted House, which is big art. My sideshow work comes from wanting to expand the possible performance experience available in Indianapolis.” His musical talents cover writing and performing porch music or “hip billy” as he calls it. “It’s modern folk music,” he says. “You can always tell it is hip billy music because it speeds up.” Elliot Feltman aka krembo - Blue Monkey president Elliot Feltman, 41, is the frontman who cracks jokes, tells tales, juggles and helps keep the audience attentive. A college-junkie, Feltman holds a degree in anthropology, a degree in psychology and a master’s in occupational therapy. He started college life at 16, majored in biochemistry and learned to juggle at the State University of New York in Albany. After leaving his home in the Bronx, Feltman traveled to Berkeley, Calif., where he managed a Mrs. Fields cookie store. Not content with selling cookies, Feltman tried his hand at selling rodeo calendars over the phone. The world beckoned and Feltman went to Israel to live and work in a Kibbutz (a collective farm). Here he studied Hebrew and began street performing in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “I used to make balloon animals dressed in a pink flamingo outfit,” he laughs. “I used to stand in Tel Aviv on a Saturday afternoon with feathers hanging down under my arms and make balloon animals for kids.” On one occasion, Feltman was performing to a large crowd at the entrance to the Old City in Jerusalem, the Jaffa Gate. “I was juggling fire when some soldiers came running out pointing Uzis at me and screaming,” he says. “I don’t think they appreciated me juggling fire near the Old City. I didn’t even get the chance to pass the hat around.” A man of a thousand stories, Feltman also worked in the Jerusalem zoo feeding the carnivores. The slightly dangerous conditions and a pay-rate of $1.25 per hour were enough to encourage him to move on. Before he left Israel, Feltman fell in love with an Australian named Barbara, his future wife. Feltman traveled around Europe for six months, performing everywhere he visited. Upon arriving in the U.S., Feltman and his wife returned to the Bronx where he worked as a substitute teacher. His efforts were not unrewarded; in 1989 he was named Bronx Rookie Teacher of the Year. In 1991, Feltman and his family moved to Indianapolis, where he began studies towards his master’s at IU. He worked as an occupational therapist at Pike Township School for several years and used his juggling skills to assist with the therapy of his students. During this time Feltman met up with members of the Blue Monkey troupe and reignited his love for performing. Despite enjoying his full-time work immensely, Feltman quit his therapist job to concentrate on the Blue Monkeys. “The response to our show is what led me to leave my job,” he says. “I honestly feel that no matter where we go from here, for me this has been, is and probably will be the best performance I have been involved in all my life. “I had to leave my job. This opportunity will not be here again. I grew up in New York, but I didn’t meet all these freaks until I came to Indiana!” Rick Northam aka jeeribaldi - Blue Monkey treasurer From an early age, Rick Northam discovered how flexible he was. “I always knew I was extremely limber,” he says. “I don’t reach down to touch my toes; I stand on a staircase and reach down to touch the next step below.” Northam, 39, is the principle contortionist in the troupe. Among his acts are the triple arm-twist and squeezing his torso through an unstrung tennis racquet. He also performs many of the more squeamish acts such as the human blockhead and piercing various parts of his body. How does someone suddenly decide to stick nails up their nostrils? For Northam, it was a matter of reading about it in a book and trying it for himself. “I knew I had a horribly deviated septum so I just tried it and found out it works,” he says. “The worse damage I have done to myself is when I have done the human pincushion act. I will periodically catch the viscera around my jaw muscles when I am going for a cheek-to-cheek piercing. I will get some blood under the skin for about two days, but I keep manipulating it and it goes away.” For his body-piercing acts, Northam has three favorite areas: his left elbow, his left pectoral and his face. “I don’t do the eyebrow anymore because I bleed like a stuck pig,” he says. “Personally, I would prefer not to bleed but a little bit of blood makes the show that much more exciting. I will give them a small trickle and get screams out of that. If I have a gusher going there are still screams involved but I am the one drowning them out!” With a background in theater and performance, Northam studied acting at IUPUI, which gave him “some nice training in Shakespeare and period work.” He later worked as a stuntman where he learned to ride bareback, fall off buildings and to act like he was shot. An actor at heart, Northam has toured with the Midland Marionette Company of Kansas City, the Stage Children’s Theatre in Louisville, Ky., and the Indianapolis Shakespeare Festival to name but a few. Working in children’s theater has also been an important part of Northam’s career. He worked for eight years at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum as a performer. “I have done a lot of ‘problem orientated’ children’s theater where shows are about conflict resolution or parents divorcing,” he says. “I got into the Sideshow because I get to do children’s theater for adults.” Aside from his contortionism and performance art, Northam designs Web pages, tutors in computer operation and has worked as a substitute teacher. Although Northam has devoted the last few years almost exclusively to the Sideshow, he says he plans to commit more time to his job at the Rock Bottom Brewery where he works as a waiter. “I’m looking at moving into management or bartending,” he says. “Unfortunately, the Sideshow has got to take a back seat for me. I will still do shows with them but I will not request as much time off [from Rock Bottom]. I want to commit as much time to Rock Bottom as possible so I can move up the ranks. “That’s why I wait tables — I get to get up onstage for every table I come up to. Being onstage is the time where I feel myself most alive. Give me an audience and I am a happy camper.” Other cast members The Blue Monkey Sideshow has included an ever-changing cast of performers. Originally, the Monkeys consisted of five core members — Bart Simpson, Elliot Feltman, Rick Northam, Tara Mead and Alex Kensington. Mead, aka Aratina The Princess of Pain, was a glass-walker. Kensington, whose stage name is The Professor, swallowed fluorescent tubes that glowed inside him when the lights were turned out. Despite leaving the everyday operations of the Monkeys, Kensington still makes the effort to perform at the occasional show. In the meantime, the Monkeys have adopted several new performers whose unique talents add more variety to the mix. These include: • Alan Rice • Onstage, he is known as Mojo, the Human Freak. Rice lifts weights with enormous earlobes that he has painstakingly enlarged with earrings. One of his favorite tricks is to use his earlobes to drag a member of the audience along the stage in a wheelchair. • Brian Sutherlin • The Swami B’mon is the Monkeys’ new glass-walker. After seeing the show several years ago, Sutherlin fell in love with the Sideshow and volunteered to become their bouncer, ticket-taker and general assistant. He learned the art of lying on a bed of nails and glass-walking, and became part of the onstage act. “I walked away from a $30,000 a year job in an office to concentrate on the Sideshow,” Sutherlin says. “It was my big decision. I’m tired of working for somebody else, I am tired of jobs that I am enjoying but not loving. Now I think, ‘Cool, I get to go to work!’” Like other alternative acts such as Blue Man Group and Stomp, the Blue Monkeys are looking to train a B-Troupe. Two promising performers are working with the Monkeys — Alan Mercer, aka Sideshow Alan, who performs the human blockhead, and Bill Elliot, aka The Mighty Billium, who lifts weights with his nipples. The Blue Monkeys are currently looking for more people to join their act. “We always believe that there is one empty chair in the Blue Monkey Sideshow group,” Feltman says. “It’s much better to enjoy this world as a group rather than alone.” The Monkeys are also looking for an agent to help them take the next step to national and international stardom. “Right now we are all doing whatever we can in between shows to try and make a living,” Feltman says. “This is where our business plan is lacking. “We truly believe we have a million-dollar company. We are rich and famous except that we have no money and nobody knows us. All we need are more shows and that comes down to contacts.” Taking their show overseas is also in the pipeline. “What we do transcends international borders,” Feltman says. “If Swami is standing barefoot in front of a pile of broken glass people know that he is going to walk into it. You don’t have to understand me saying, ‘He’s going to walk into the glass!’ “It’s one thing to see it on Guinness and Ripley’s, it’s another to watch Mojo as he hangs a bowling ball from his earlobes and swings it in the air. You can watch all you want on television but you are distant, you are passive. When you are watching the Sideshow, you are a part of it.”
Incarnations of the Blue Monkey Sideshow
1994: Café Angst. Performers included whoever bothered to turn up and they were unpaid. The evening was similar to an “open-mic” night where experimentation was actively encouraged. 1995-’96: Secret Cabaret at the Melody Inn on West 38th and Illinois streets. The Monkeys expanded their areas of performance and invited newcomers to the stage. 1996: Die Circus Die, Fountain Square Theatre Originally titled Die, Clown, Die, Die, Circus, Die was the first serious production put on by the Monkeys. The format was similar to Blue Monkey shows but slightly less organized. 1997: Circus Mondo Although Circus Mondo continued on in the vein of Die, Circus, Die, the performance was more adult orientated. The show featured a maniacal clown who killed people onstage. 1998–Present: Blue Monkey Sideshow The performance that you see today. “The acts that now make up a Blue Monkey Sideshow performance are the result of years of trial and error,” Feltman says. “This is truly not something that was put together by people who bite the heads off chickens.” —MW