Not long ago, District leaders set out to rebuild the H Street corridor, an area of Northeast DC that had been ravaged by the 1968 riots. They dreamed of upscale stores, trendy restaurants, luxury condos.
No one imagined a bar owned by a burlesque dancer and featuring sword swallowers, fire eaters, and contortionists. The Palace of Wonders opened in 2006 as an alternative to anyone bored with the Adams Morgan and Georgetown scenes.
Housed in a rowhouse with a leaky roof and space for just 100, the Palace is a bar only because it serves drinks. It’s more an outpost for Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
Crammed into display cases and mounted on the walls are more than 500 artifacts from circus and carnival acts. There’s a stuffed carcass of a unicorn that was once part of the Ringling Bros. Circus. And there’s a top worn by Freida Pushnik, a woman with no arms or legs who debuted as a sideshow act at the 1933–34 World’s Fair.
These and the other oddities make up about half the collection of James Taylor, a scholar of carnival sideshows and editor of Shocked and Amazed, a journal chronicling the business and its performers. Until the Palace opened, Taylor housed his treasures in a small museum in Baltimore frequented by musician David Byrne and magicians Penn and Teller.
“You don’t have to be crazy to be in this business,” Taylor says. “But it helps.
Joe Englert, whose edgy bars in the 1990s helped spark the revival of DC’s U Street corridor, first owned the Palace. It later passed into the hands of Priscilla Jerez, who had started there as a bartender. Jerez, 28, since has taken up burlesque—a staple of Palace entertainment—and performs as Prissy Pistol.
“Every girl loves the spotlight,” she says. “Some of us like it more than others.”
Jerez also books the talent for Palace shows—vaudeville acts, aerialists, jugglers, and dancers as well as showstoppers who play with fire or swords.
“You make sure you’re dealing with a professional,” she says. “I’ve seen people light their face on fire. That’s not going to happen here.”
A popular local act is the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow, with husband-and-wife team Tyler and Jill Fleet, who bill themselves as Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill.
Tyler is the veteran. He took a circus-performing course while studying playwriting at New York University, then worked in a Coney Island sideshow, teaching himself the secrets of sword swallowing, fire eating, and other feats.
Jill, who grew up idolizing Elvis impersonators, was booking talent for the Palace when she met Tyler and took up performing.
Some of their tricks require training. Sword swallowing, Jill says, requires lining up the body precisely, head to pelvis, and learning to control gag reflexes. Lying on a bed of nails, however, “is a grin-and-bear-it kind of thing—it never gets any easier.”
Jill says she’s been hurt only once onstage. As part of her act, she belly-dances while “charming” giant snakes wrapped around her. In one performance, a 62-pound boa bit her in the face. The snake drew blood, but Jill carried on.
“She’s a really good snake,” Jill says, “but she didn’t want to perform.”
Tyler and Jill travel much of the year performing at state and county fairs, motorcycle rallies, and the occasional tattoo convention. Says Jill: “We do everything from a five-year-old’s birthday party to nudist rallies.”
But they always come home to the Palace, which Jerez bills as a place for “freaks and the people who love them.”
“It’s one of our favorite crowds,” she says. “Everyone is really into the show.”