When she was a kid growing up in Gloucester, Mass., Lauren “Madame Onca” O’Leary’s parents threw a roast-pig-on-a-spit party featuring a belly dancer. It was the sort of moment that defines a person’s life. “There was this woman, Claude the Bod, and I was like: ‘Grown-ups dress up? Grown-ups do outrageous things? … That stuck with me.”
Flash forward to the present day, where along with her colleague and friend Paolo Garbanzo, she enjoys a Dark and Stormy (homemade ginger, blackstrap molasses and lime) at The Admiral in the days before the fifth annual Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival.
ABSFest kicks off Friday, June 3, with a red-carpet gala at the Bebe Theatre on Commerce Street. This she describes as “just the beginning of a three-day-run of debauchery and high art … the theater bus pulls up, the glittering artists disembark, tumbling along the red carpet in a swirl of laughter, and the party starts.”
Garbanzo is drinking a Wedge Witbier. His brown hair is tied back, and he’s carefully groomed a thumb of a beard that’s oddly apt for a professional juggler, not to mention for the only American to ever win the International Jesting Tournament held in Muncaster England.
What did it take to become the official Jester of Muncaster Castle? “You had 20 minutes to impress the crowd. I juggled. I ate fire. I ate an onion. I walked on a walking globe. I did some other stuff. I won … I have worn the last Lord Muncaster’s big Napeolonic hat and epaulettes.”
O’Leary is the sort of person for whom sitting staidly in a chair is clearly an effort. As she listens to Garbanzo, her legs kick up over the side, cross at the ankles, the knees; she swivels gracefully, unfit to stay still. Her copious spray of strawberry blonde dreads is improbably, impressively controlled. The two go back and forth discussing how they got their starts.
Some two decades after the revelation of Claude the Bod, around 1998, O’Leary started taking belly dance lessons in Asheville. Soon she had “swirly eyes” for the art. “You realize you’re staying up late at night thinking belly-dance thoughts.”
Adolescence was crucial to Garbanzo’s evolution into one of the country’s foremost jugglers. “There’s an inverse ratio to how much girls are attracted to you by how much juggling you do. If girls aren’t interested in you, you do more juggling, ‘cause you’ve got more time on your hands… There were parts of high school where I practiced juggling a lot.”
“Now he doesn’t practice at all,” said O’Leary.
Garbanzo smiles, shrugs. “It’s true.”
What else is there?
In 2001, then based out of San Francisco, Garbanzo created the Accidental Circus. Among the Circus’s original roster were numerous sideshow and burlesque luminaries who have performed in ABSFest, including O’Leary herself. Garbanzo, still the self-described “benevolent dictator” of the Circus, now gracefully plays second banana to O’Leary when it comes to ABSFest. He loves it. ABSFest, he says, is a big deal.
“Spin this however you want,” he says, “A lot of people in Asheville have an amazing desire to perform, do … you know … Hula-Hoops, music, whatever, and they’ll be like ‘That’s awesome!’ And then they get really insular and … get stuck in a circle of, ‘Well, I know all the people here and we do cool stuff. But what else is there?’ Well, I’ll show you what else is there. There are international performers from everywhere doing outrageous stuff.”
Big thinking pervades the table. “The point is not just to look pretty and be titillating, but to comment on social values in a way that’s empowering and humorous,” O’Leary says. “I’m a fan of seeing these art forms move into a relevant future, so it’s not just nostalgic, but a question of how can these things continue to be useful for transforming culture.”
And what, exactly, are “these things”? O’Leary and Garbanzo rattle off a few staples of the art including vaudeville,putting things up your nose, walking on glass, straitjacket escape, fire-eating, sword-swallowing, extreme and humorous physical skills, magic, knife-throwing, aerials, Hula-hooping, Belly dancing and gender ambiguity.
Says O’Leary, “There are more and more men and gender-ambiguous people in the burlesque world. Not every producer is fond of that, but I think it’s really important in creating an interesting show, otherwise you could just sit and look at pictures of Bettie Page all day.”
Says Garbanzo, “And I do.”
I want to do this!
On Friday night at the BeBe, Garbanzo will take part in the Oops! Comedy Knife Throwing Show. At the Orange Peel during the Saturday Night Spectacular, he’ll juggle with the local troupe Forty Fingers and a Missing Tooth.
For O’Leary’s part, running things means staying mostly behind the scenes. Which is fine with her, since she spends much of the year touring. She will sing, though. What she’ll sing is a closely guarded secret.
Doing the belly dancing will be Princess Farhana — someone whose navel navel-gazers may recognize from Madonna and Ricky Martin videos. Princess Farhana will also be teaching Introduction to Belly dancing during the workshops Saturday and Sunday at the New Studio of Dance on Commerce Street. On the subject of these workshops, O’Leary’s steady glow of enthusiasm sharpens to the near evangelical.
“It happens every year that someone gets excited at the show, ‘I want to do this! How do I do this?’ Well, we have classes. They can register for Intro to Burlesque, for Belly dancing, General Stage Presence, Juggling Workshops … There are local resources, but not local resources that enable you to work with international artists of such renown. I want to give the average man and woman the opportunity to see themselves in this world.”
“This is what people miss who miss ABSFest,” says Garbanzo. “A formative part of their life.”
Schedule of events:
Friday, June 3: Red Carpet Gala: Opening ceremonies, awards, performances, live music and more. $15. 9 p.m. Bebe Theatre, Commerce Street.
Saturday, June 4: Saturday Night Spectacular: Performances, the Burlesque Bazaar, sidewalk sideshow, live music. $25. 8-11 p.m. The Orange Peel, Biltmore Avenue.
After-party at 11 p.m. $5.
Saturday & Sunday Burlesque, Circus and Arts Business Workshops in the ABSfest Seminary. $20 each or five for $90. 10-5 p.m. New Studio of Dance, Commerce Street, Asheville.
Sunday Sideshow Brunch: Half-price food, drinks and more entertainment with DC's Cheeky Monkey Sideshow. $5. 11-2 p.m. Arcade Asheville, 130 College St.
— Devin Walsh can be reached at
who: ABS Fest
what: Fifth annual Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival
where: Downtown Asheville venues
when: Friday, June 3, to Sunday, June 5 (sideshowburlesque.org)