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Carny geeksmanship with Subterranean Cirqus
EIGHTY-FIVE MILLION YEARS OF NATURAL SEL-ection have produced in human beings a powerful desire to avoid pain, danger and the tendency to put oneself in harm’s way—but for Lazarus Hellgate and Pinkie, The Princess of Pain, it’s just another day at the office.
The husband-and-wife team has been performing their unique circus sideshow act for seven years now, in which time they have thrilled, shocked and occasionally had a slightly more emetic effect on audiences across the country. When spectating their complicated and genuinely dangerous panoply of stunts (there are no fake props or sleight of hand here, the risk is very real) one is fairly overwhelmed by the question, “How did they do that?” It is only afterwards during the sensory hangover that one begins to contemplate the more basic question, “Why did they do that?”
In Hellgate’s case the seed was planted early. As a wee lad of six or seven (sans trademark goatee, one presumes) he was fascinated with magic. Stage magic, street magic, cards and coins; the art of misdirection enthralled the young potential snake oil salesman, and to this day his knowledge of the subject is impressive. If he had a crush on magic, then he fell head-over-heels in love the day his father took him to the county fair, where he saw a real-life sword swallower and fire-eater for the first time. In his own words:
“I was really into comic books at the time and these guys, it was like they had superpowers. I mean they really did swallow swords and they really did eat fire. It wasn’t an illusion the way magic is, it was something tangible and I was hooked.”
Hellgate would spend his teenage years promoting various clubs, bands, DJs and other performers. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the carny acts would resurface in his life. By this time, he had already met wife-to-be Pinkie, and they discovered in those pre-YouTube days that they could supplement their income nicely by videotaping themselves performing various stunts and selling them online. In all fairness, many of these stunts more closely resembled the “geek” acts of antiquity than the highly polished physical feats they are known for today, but it was a start, and for a time it was good. The rise of social media more or less closed this particular revenue stream—and it was then that Hellgate first conceived of assembling a show that could be taken on the road.
He fell easily into the role of manager, barker and ringmaster, while Pinkie quickly found her place in the center spotlight. To this day, Hellgate insists that Pinkie is the star of the show as well as his demented muse, and it’s easy to see why. Hellgate’s performance pieces tend to be traditional: walking on glass, eating glass, spending an inordinate amount of time in the restroom after eating glass and other classic carny fare—but Pinkie is a child of the new millennium, a neo-traditionalist who makes the word “extreme” look rather puny. The black eyes she occasionally suffers from suspending an empty beer keg from hooks set in her eye sockets are par for the course for the Princess of Pain who specializes in body modification, manipulation, pain tolerance and fire. Lots and lots of fire. Pinkie has become so adept at eating and breathing fire that she has been forced to invent new and …unexpected…ways of producing fire from her person. Suffice it to say that there are few, if any, who can lay a more substantial claim to the title of “hot mama.”
Over the years many people have assumed that working together the way the couple does might put considerably more strain on their relationship than the typical husband-and-wife team. Nothing could be further from the truth. The profound trust and understanding shared between the two gives them an almost preternatural ability to perform stunts others wouldn’t dare. A prime example of this is an act in which Pinkie holds an apple in her mouth while Hellgate carves his initials in to it with a fully functioning chainsaw. There are no modifications to the machinery; there is no trick. Nerves, steady hands and trust are all that stand between an impressive display and disaster.
Amazingly enough, most of the injuries they have sustained over the years haven’t been from the actual performances but from the mundane tasks associated with setting up the stunts. At an outdoor venue Pinkie was moving supplies from point A to point B in preparation for a little fire-breathing when she stepped into a gopher hole, snapping her ankle. The fire-breathing still went off flawlessly.
There is one notable exception to their otherwise impeccable safety record. Several years back, Hellgate was performing a variation of his glass-walking stunt in which he did a sort of “angry gorilla stomp,” leaping several feet in to the air before grinding his bare feet into the box of broken glass (his vague resemblance to a certain hairy, mythical inhabitant of the Pacific Northwest makes this a visually stunning feat). On this particular occasion, an errant two-inch-long piece of glass embedded itself deep in the big man’s heel, resulting in a great deal of blood and a wound that shoould have received stitches.
Ever a “glass is half full” kind of performer, Hellgate remarks on the occurrence: “I can’t say as I enjoyed it but it did prove once and for all that what we do is genuinely dangerous We aren’t faking anything—so I guess it was worth it.”
The popularity and success of the Subterranean Cirqus has opened a number of doors for the couple, including a warm and long-standing friendship with Troma Entertainment founder Lloyd Kaufman (“Toxic Avenger,” anyone?) and a stint working with several veterans of the Jim Rose Sideshow. Hellgate recalls one of his favorite encounters as the time he and Pinkie met veteran horror actor John Dugan (Grandpa Sawyer from the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) who having just witnessed their performance admitted, “You kids scare the hell out of me. That was terrifying.”
The macabre duo was once offered a shot at their own reality television series. In the end, it was an offer they decided to decline, refusing to give up creative control of their act. A principled move to be sure—but also a shrewd one. They are respected members of the sideshow community, earning the trust and advice of old-timers and veterans and the demand for their act has never been higher. Although they are frequently joined on stage by longtime friend and fellow performer Leroy “The Irish Strongman” Lewis, whose signature move is driving nails with his forehead, it is clear that Lazarus Hellgate and Pinkie, the Princess of Pain, don’t need any help achieving fame. They just need a liitle help burying the bodies.
To find out where Subterranean Cirqus is performing, visit them at facebook.com/subterraneancirqus