Palace of Wonders
1210 H St., NE
Sunday 12-4 pm
Every day 7 pm-2 am (bar
|Fans of carnival sideshows and the grand tradition
of American dime museums have a mecca of sorts in DC, where they can have
a beer with Fivey the Five-legged Dog as the World's Only Living Unicorn
looks over their shoulder, and a live burlesque show plays on the
stage downstairs. This palace of eye-boggling, mind-spinning (and sometimes
even stomach churning) wonders is simply enough known as the Palace of
Wonders. It combines a bar, performance stage and museum under one roof.
While you hold up the bar, your bartender might be persuaded to swallow
a three-foot long lightstick. Stage shows run from burlesque to touring
sideshows to sword swallowers and fire dancers. Special events include
female arm wrestling contests, and Dr. Sketchy's drawing lessons, where
the aspiring artist can sketch a live model as she performs her burlesque
But it's the museum that really sets the Palace of Wonders
apart. It houses over 500 artifacts, including carnival sideshow memorabilia,
a feejee mermaid and a Samoan sea wurm, a Cyclops fetus skull, the petrified
devil man, and a taxidermied menagerie that includes fuzzy mutant ducklings,
an albino raccoon, a fur bearing trout and "Spider Billy" the eight-legged
baby goat. And a hyena skull. And the head of a Wooly Booger. And a fossilized
fairy. And more wonders beyond that!
If you happen to be a sideshow aficionado and some of
these amazements look familiar, that�s not surprising. Many of these artifacts
once called Baltimore's American Dime Museum home. That was before that
museum�s partnership of Dick Horne and James Taylor dissolved in a rather
messy dispute that caused Taylor to relocate his artifacts in his own archive.
Horne carried on for a while, until financial woes caused him to shutter
the Dime Museum's doors for good. Taylor soldiered on as publisher of the
premier magazine of old-time sideshow history and culture, Shocked
and Amazed. Meanwhile, an archivist helping catalog Taylor's vast
collection put him in touch with a DC trio planning a sideshow themed bar.
Taylor agreed to house nearly a third of his collection in the custom-made
wooden cases commissioned by the bar; most these line one wall on the second
floor. Others (the ones holding the life-sized Elephant Man) are attached
to the wall above the main doors. A two-headed cow and a giant sideshow
banner painted by contemporary artist Mark Frierson grace the stage area.
Sweetening the deal for Taylor, that same archivist, Charon Henning, would
be performing, tending bar, and watching over the valuables at the new
Also known as "The Most Dangerous Beauty Alive," Charon
swallows swords on stage and behind the bar. On my inaugural visit to this
sideshow shrine, she gave me a command performance of her signature stunt:
swallowing those three-foot long glow sticks. It was indeed illuminating.
And quite spectacular. More than that, Charon knows the museum's artifacts
intimately, and recites their colorful history and provenance with macabre
glee. Anyone familiar with Baltimore's Dime Museum will already know that
many of the old-time sideshow artifacts were gaffs, or skillful fakes designed
to shock and amaze audiences, and further, that the Taylor collection is
comprised of real items, genuine historical sideshow fakes, and replicas
of genuine historical sideshow fakes. That is, it's up to you to decide
what's real, what's historical, and what's a fake fake. Sometimes it's
easy, sometimes not. As Charon notes, "If you drop it on your foot and
it hurts, it's real." But they don't try too hard to keep any secrets.
She's perfectly willing to let you know when you're looking at a modern
replica or gaffed freak. Like those little fuzzy ducklings with two bodies
and extra legs, which were manufactured in the taxidermy process fairly
recently. Or the principle behind determining if Spider Billy was really
born like that: generally if a freak is too symmetrical, too "perfect,"
it's not "real." In Fivey's case, his owner loved him so much, despite
his deformities, that he had the dog taxidermied. Don't be too surprised
if one of the stuffed animals moves; it's just Al, the bar's resident cat,
who likes sneaking into the display case and napping next to the taxidermied
You can count on the genuineness of those photos and artifacts
from professional sideshow performers that line the walls and fill one
of the display cases, like Jeanie "The World�s Only Living Half Girl" Tomiani's
wedding dress, or Human Blockhead Melvin Burkhart's stage costume, souvenir
tokens from Tom Thumb, Thurston the magician, and Chang the Great Chinese
Giant. No need to list all the wonders here, as the Palace website does
it for us. Besides, lists are the palest of imitations, words are cheap,
and seeing is believing. Even when you're gazing at the Samoan Sea Worm
and the ultimate proof of it�s shipboard capture: the tip of the ship cat's
tail it left after consuming the feline. Shocking? Amazing? You decide.
Step right up!