By Michael G. Glab
Before William Darke existed, little Billy Frosch dreamed of him. When Billy was five years old he had a series of dreams that recurred until he was seven. In them, Billy saw a hill in the distance, its peak surrounded by hazy light much like the glow travelers see along the interstate when they approach a town at night.
“I wasn’t myself,” William Darke says now. “I don’t know who I was in the dreams–some third-party observer, I guess. I had to go up the hill. Something was on top of it.
“I saw the hill from different perspectives each time I had the dream. Each night I’d walk up a different side of the hill. As I got closer, I’d see this huge archway all lit up. It had letters on it in sort of a glitzy junkyard style. Reds and greens and yellows, a Technicolor kind of thing. I’d get real close and read them. They said, ‘The William Darke Circus.’
“It wasn’t something I owned or ran. It was just a place for me to go.”
That place was a massive circus tent filled with a wild variety of people. Their attention was focused on something Billy couldn’t see. Occasionally they would crane their necks.
Billy hung around the periphery of the tent. “The people didn’t have any inhibitions,” Darke says. “I never met any of them. I just knew somehow who they were and what they were all about.
“I never went in,” Darke says. “That was going to happen later in life.”
Today Darke is moving toward the center of the tent. He’s been elbowing his way in since he was a kid in grammar school, pulling doves out of a top hat. He’s surrounded by nearly a hundred friends–human oddities and bizarre-skill artists–who compose the William Darke Psycho Circus & Freak Show. Now, with a little son at home, Darke hopes his dream will pay his bills.
“We walk around daily with our eyes closed,” Darke says. “Society says we have to have them closed. It takes something different or even sensational to get us to open them. If there’s a car accident on the side of the road, everybody turns and looks. We ridicule those who turn and look, but we all do it. So I let ’em look at something different.”
Take, for example, a fellow named Scott Sabala. Some ten years ago Sabala learned he had sinus cancer. He went into the hospital for surgery. When he woke up, his right eyeball and half of his upper palate were missing. “He’s my hero,” Darke says. “He came to terms with what happened to him. He’s now living life. He comes out very proudly onstage and he shows people something different. The people love it!”
On this chilly, foggy night, Darke will give them what they love at a place called Dusk, at Wood and Augusta. The room is half full. Many of the men wear leather vests and sport elaborate tattoos on their bare arms. It’s dark in the front bar area, the only illumination being dozens of bar candles that give everyone’s face an eerie reddish glow. In the rear performance area, black lights bring a fluorescent mural of writhing bodies to life. At the bar one man loudly tells his companion of his prodigious drinking. “So when I get too drunk,” he says, “my roommate just takes me and puts me in the cold shower until I snap out of it.”
It’s about 10 PM, still a little early. Four members of the Psycho Circus are scheduled to perform at 11. “Don’t worry,” Darke says. “By 11:30 this place’ll be asshole to elbow with people.”
Right now, Darke’s performers are preparing, each in his or her own way, for the show. Mark “the Knife” Faje sits on a sofa and stares straight ahead, oblivious to the growing crowd, his concentration almost palpable. Dontinion “Dante” Ingram chain-smokes, her glittering ruby red gown reflecting the candles’ flickers, as she checks and rechecks items in her equipment case. Standing at the bar, Scott Sabala, who bills himself as T-2 or the One-Eyed Man, sips from a martini glass and exchanges raucous jokes with his wife and some friends. He hands out promotional photos of himself. “The original living breathing man with a hole in his head” is printed on the back. Darke disappears behind a dark curtain and changes into his performance costume: harem pants tucked inside high, lace-up boots and a puffy shirt, open to the navel–all in dark colors.
When he emerges, he almost bumps into some guys whose manner screams out former college dorm mates. Packed together, they look around nervously, holding bottles of light beer. “These guys look like easy marks,” Darke whispers to me.
It’s a bit past 11 now, showtime. Darke stands at the bar and shouts, “That’s right. Step right up for the William Darke Psycho Circus & Freak Show. Come on down. Gather ’round. Prepare to witness things that will resound in your unborn children’s heads!”
He retreats to the performance area in the rear. The crowd, almost asshole to elbow as he’d predicted, moves glacially toward him. Darke waits a moment and then exhorts them. “Come on, don’t be shy. We’re not gonna hurt you–I hope.” His audience now fills in and he’s ready to go. He reaches up and screws a couple of bare lightbulbs into their sockets. These will serve as the stage lighting for his show. Which is fitting, because the low-tech glare conjures images of cockfights and donkey-and-virgin shows, spectacles you wouldn’t want your mother to know you watch.
Mark the Knife is first up. He carries bullwhips in both hands, snapping them loudly, causing the people in the front rank of the standing audience to blink their eyes. Dante slinks around him as he snaps. She lights a cigarette and stands about ten feet from him. She juts her jaw and leans slightly forward, her cigarette the pointer in her weather vane pose. Faje takes careful aim, then cracks one of the whips in the direction of her face. Her cigarette disappears and she doesn’t even flinch.
Dante then opens a broadsheet newspaper wide in front of her. Faje cracks his whip, shearing the newspaper in successively smaller pieces in her hands until there is nothing left of it.
Now Darke jumps into the center of the performance area. To cleanse items he’ll be inserting into his orifices, he carries a bottle of alcohol and some cotton balls. He begins with a makeshift sword fashioned from a coat hanger. He makes a few gurgling noises as he gently shoves the thing down his throat. Then he sinks a 30-penny nail, a rail spike for my money, into his nostril. He follows that with a Phillips screwdriver, pushing the thing in up to its handle.
Darke asks the audience for a pair of glasses. Someone obliges him. He twirls the glasses in his hand as he rips off joke after lame joke. Some members of the audience notice that he’s rubbing an alcohol-soaked cotton ball on one of the temples of the glasses. They whisper to others. As Darke continues his patter, his sentences are punctuated by sporadic eeuws emanating from the crowd.
Sure enough, Darke shoves the temple of the glasses into his right nostril. Eeuws wash over the room. Darke graciously credits Dextre Tripp, from whom he learned the trick.
Now Darke calls for some volunteers. He spies the dorm mates and drags them up. The four of them stand around looking uncomfortable as Darke pours a huge bucket of broken glass onto the floor. He tears his shirt off and lies down on the glass, then commands them to stand on his chest.
Then he has them sit in a square in folding chairs arranged so they can lean back, each torso supported by the next guy’s knees. Darke and Faje pull the chairs out from under them, leaving them locked in their human truss. The two performers wave good-bye and exit the stage, leaving the four the uncomfortable task of wrestling their way out of their Escher-like mess.
Darke returns with a display of sphere manipulation. He appears to suspend a fluorescent green ball in midair, then move it rhythmically back and forth with his fingertips. After a few moments he spirits the ball over to Mark the Knife. Faje flips the ball behind his back and catches it on the side of his head, in the depression formed by his temple.
“How can a soft little ball hurt you?” Darke asks the crowd. Then Faje pulls out a billiard ball. He begins tossing it behind his back and catching it on his temple. “If I miss it,” he says, “it’ll be the eight ball in the eye socket!” He rolls the ball on his forehead from side to side without touching it with his hands.
He repeats the trick with a lead ball, after which he asks the crowd, “What’s more dangerous than a lead ball?” “Bowling ball,” comes the response from several audience members. “I’m one step ahead of you,” Mark the Knife says as he reaches into his trunk. He produces a bowling ball and places it on the instep of his right foot. It takes him a few moments to balance the thing. Then he kicks it in the air. He juts his head toward the arc of the ball and takes it away at the last moment, a tease he repeats several times. Finally he catches it on the side of his head as deftly as he did the previous balls. But there is a next level to the stunt. He inserts candles into the finger holes of the ball, lights them, and again catches the ball on his head, without burning himself.
Now Mark the Knife turns emcee. “I’m a jaded fuck,” he says. “I’ve been to 13 countries and I’ve seen a lot of fire-eaters. If this guy isn’t the best, he’s damn sure up there in the top three! William Darke.”
Scott Sabala moves just offstage, smoking a cigarette and watching the action through his one eye. Far from appearing like a freak, Sabala looks almost dashing in his eye patch.
If the crowd’s eager to see T-2, Darke makes it forget him for the moment. He’s worked at this thing since he was an adolescent. He swallows, blows, and manipulates fire as if the little balls of flame in his hands are harmless pet hamsters. The crowd is rapt. When he finishes, then introduces T-2, it’s as though he’s taking them to a place they’ve never dreamed of. T-2 walks onstage carrying a clear bottle of beer. He sticks the bottle in his gaping eye socket and drinks through the orifice. A couple standing near the front of the crowd hold each other close, as if to ensure they won’t keel over. They shut their eyes tightly. “Many people like to enjoy a cigarette with their beer,” Darke says. Whereupon Sabala lights up a Camel, takes a deep drag, and blows the smoke out his eye socket.
Sabala produces a flashlight and sticks it in his mouth. The stage lights go down and he flips the switch. The flashlight beam radiates from his eye socket. “The human jack-o’-lantern!” Darke says.
The stage lights come back on and T-2 raises his fists triumphantly. He bids adieu to the audience, waving good-bye with his tongue, which is visible through–well, what do you think?
Mark the Knife jumps back onstage. He pitches knives at Dante, who is standing against a board. He outlines her body with 13 one-pound blades thrown from ten feet away. He then throws machetes at Dante, and follows that with a display of juggling that incorporates two machetes and a running chain saw. For his finale, Mark balances a running electric mower, the handle on his chin. Darke and Dante throw quarter heads of iceberg lettuce into the whirring blades, creating a shower of clipped greens. “A vegetarian’s delight,” Darke says in his carnival barker’s voice. “The world’s largest salad shooter.”
In the mid-50s a couple of human oddities (that’s the industry term for such people) were big on the sideshow circuit. One, Jeanie Tomaini, was born without legs but learned to roller-skate on her hands. Another, Dickie the Penguin Boy, born with finlike arms and legs, didn’t have any particular skills. Both, though, found homes on the circuit.
“Dickie was accepted where he was,” Darke says. “If he had tried to be a construction worker it wouldn’t have worked out. Most any job in the world wouldn’t accept him the way he was. But in the sideshows he was a financial success and, from what I hear, an internal success. He had a safety zone.”
Jeanie was a member in high standing of the sideshow demimonde. But that world was brought crashing down in the late 1950s by a backlash against sideshow freaks. The furor spread nationwide, inspiring moves in most states to outlaw human-oddity shows.
“Because it became illegal to put a person on display in so many places, Jeanie and Dickie found themselves out of work,” Darke says. He scratches his head, contemplating what happened. “If you’re dancing, if you’re doing magic, aren’t you on display? Don’t get me wrong–I don’t believe in showing somebody just for the sake of showing something different. I want to show something different with skill. If somebody doesn’t have any arms and legs I’m not going to set them on a pillow and say, ‘Come on, look at this person for a dollar.’ Now, if they can roll a cigarette with their tongue, I’d pay to see somebody do that if they had arms and legs!”
So goes the philosophy of the Psycho Circus. If T-2 goes to a McDonald’s not wearing his facial prosthesis and eye patch, he’s going to cause a stir. When he appears onstage in the same condition he’s greeted with wild applause. He’s found a home, according to William Darke.
“The Psycho Circus is a safety zone,” he says. “It’s a soft, satin-lined place for people like me who didn’t fit in. I got ridiculed for being different in high school and my little hometown. I had no choice but to look up to people who wore John Deere hats and chewed tobacco. I never bought into any of that. I tolerated that, but I couldn’t understand why those people couldn’t tolerate me for my artistic views.”
The Frosch family home was in Hillsdale, Michigan, a farm community near the border of that state, Indiana, and Ohio. William was born in 1970. His parents split up when he was five, leaving him and his brother, ten years older, at home with their mother. His father moved a few blocks away. “They never got divorced, even to this day,” Darke says. “No animosity at all.”
Around that time his mother, sensing his nascent passion, took Billy on a special trip on his birthday. “My mother took me over to Colon, Michigan, to Abbott’s Magic,” Darke says. “Colon’s the home of Blackstone and many of the great magicians from the past as well as the magicians’ cemetery. Many, many people in the business are buried there. Abbott’s is the world’s largest magic manufacturing facility. Being there, I got the performance bug. I was thinking of illusions mostly then. And then one morning not too much later, I woke up after the first of those dreams.” That morning, Billy Frosch began to recede and William Darke began to emerge.
Darke made several birthday trips to Colon. On one of them, when he turned 14, something caught his eye. “I saw a picture of Bruno Nolo eating fire and it was all over–I wanted to know how to do it,” he says. Ten months later he met another fire-eater at a performers’ convention in Colon. Darke doesn’t want to reveal the man’s name because that just isn’t done–mentors in the sideshow and magic business keep low profiles. “He took me on, showing me how to put on a fire-eating act. I visited him many times, and whenever I had a question I picked up the phone. He gave me all he could and then I started incorporating my own little features.”
Learning to eat fire took a good deal of time. But Darke discovered educating his audience was almost as important as educating himself. “People feel more comfortable believing a sideshow skill presentation is not dangerous. They’re more relaxed watching me eat fire if they can believe there’s some heat deterrent in my mouth or that it’s not real fire. It’s almost as if people want to be fooled. People have said to me, ‘Aw, that’s not real fire.’ I always say, ‘You’re right, it’s the store-bought kind.'”
Darke and other fire-eaters have to convince their audiences the danger of closing their mouths around a burning stick isn’t only singed mucous membranes or blackened teeth. A fire-eater rolls the dice every time he or she does the act. “God forbid you inhale,” Darke says. “It’d be instant death. You’d burn all your alveoli. You’re history, man.”
Darke did a few fire-eating tricks for a private Valentine’s Day party in Logan Square this year. People oohed and aahed and applauded excitedly when, for his finale, he blew out a stream of blue-orange flame. According to Darke, many of them wouldn’t be able to bear the tension if they knew what the stakes were for him at that moment. “It’s the same with sword swallowing,” he says, of a skill he has recently begun to practice. “A lot of people believe the sword folds up somehow. But it actually goes down between my lungs, behind my heart, and straight down to my peptic valve.”
Even though his parents raised Darke in a staid environment, they encouraged him. His father, a shop teacher, built scenery for a theater company in a small town in northern Michigan. He understood Darke’s urge to perform.
Douglas Frosch even helped Darke stage his first show when he was 14 years old. Billy Frosch made his debut in his middle school on a Friday evening. “We rented the auditorium. I did magic, illusions. It really bombed. It was quite the disaster, a logistical nightmare.”
Doug Frosch, a strict man, tried to teach his son what he felt would be a valuable lesson. The opening scene was to feature a zombie ball, an orb that appeared to be floating in thin air. On the stage apron was a pool of water into which Doug Frosch would dip dry ice to create fog. Since they had only so much dry ice, it was agreed that the show would start as soon as he dipped the first chunks into the water. He checked his watch, saw it was seven o’clock, and began to dip the dry ice. “I wasn’t near ready but we went on anyway,” Darke recalls. In the rush he went onstage without even combing his hair, and a couple of the doves he would use in his act were put in the wrong compartment.
“I almost lost a dove,” he says. One of Billy’s tricks was called the dove pan. In it, he would produce a dove from a flaming pan. “Without actually exposing the trick, the dove took a bath in flammable liquid, and when I pulled it out it should have been all energetic and flapping its wings. Instead, it lay in my hands like a corpse. So I was worried to death. There were two more scenes to go. Then my assistant, a friend named Irene, ran out the back exit with the dove. I’d told her to take the dove to my house since I only lived a block away. On her way down the stairs she twisted her ankle. So then I grabbed the dove, saw to it that somebody else was helping her, and then ran to the veterinarian’s house.” Luckily the dove lived. “Everybody else was OK, too,” Darke says. “We all just had a few mental scars.”
Despite the traumas suffered in his first show, Billy began to do little shows all over town. He performed at birthday parties, at Lions Club and Rotary gatherings. He pushed magic out of the act and added skill performances.
A couple of years after Billy started performing, someone in an audience complimented his act. “You’re the darker side of show business,” the fan said, shaking his hand. A lightbulb went off over Billy’s head. At that moment he became William Darke.
Darke entered Hillsdale High School already marked as an outsider. The kid who would bring in the whoopee cushions, he once emptied out a wing of the school with a can of fart spray. He bleached his hair. For a while he hung out with a wild bunch who’d “car surf” for kicks. They rode on the roofs of cars racing down rows of apple orchards. They ducked tree branches and tried to keep from slipping off.
“It seemed like everybody wanted an extra thrill,” Darke remembers. “We didn’t have much to do. So we’d go party in an apple orchard or a gravel pit. I guess you could say I hung around with the wrong crowd. Everybody wanted to be one up.
“A lot of those people I hung out with are now gone,” Darke says. “Some of them got killed driving stupid. Some driving drunk. Some of the older friends we hung out around died of drug overdoses, heavy stuff, prescription drugs. We were a little tamer. We stuck to herb. We liked to smoke our marijuana and drink our coffee and our beer.”
Darke spent his days longing for the night. “School at that time was nothing more to me than an audience I could perform in front of every day,” he says. “I rarely did any work but I had a nice C average.”
Darke’s parents could only hope for the best. “I was like Bart Simpson on LSD,” he says. “They knew they had a black sheep on their hands and they had to let him go graze. I’d love to apologize up and down, a million times around, to my parents for putting up with me. My friends and I would steal from stores. We vandalized. I was a terrible kid, a parent’s nightmare.”
Appropriately, Darke discovered his life’s work during summer vacation. “I fell in love with the fair,” he says. “Not rinky-dink things, like neighborhood carnivals. I wanted to see the big showman attractions.”
The summer he was 16, Darke and a neighborhood friend thumbed through the classifieds for work. “We saw an ad that looked better than general labor,” he says. “We called the number and the person who answered told us to come down to the fairgrounds.” There he met a carnival concessionaire named Jerry Price, whose specialty was french fries soaked in vinegar and salt. Price would become the first of a series of substitute parents for Darke.
“I owe that man so much. He was gold in a pool full of tarnish. He was a good-hearted, spiritual man,” Darke recalls. “That was rare in the carnival world.”
It was a world populated by hard men seeking anonymity for any number of reasons, junkies who bought and sold drugs on the midway, and a slew of less felonious types who didn’t fit into the normal world. Some of the carnival workers would sleep in the “possum bellies” of trucks, small compartments next to the wheels where tools and spare tires normally were stored.
“I slept with one other person in a stock truck,” Darke says. “My entire life revolved around the work. The circuit went from Saginaw, Michigan, to Florida. We’d pull in in the morning to set up the stand, which took about an hour and a half. Then we started the day’s work. Jerry was a very smart man. He wanted to keep a fresh crew on duty all the time. I’d work an hour, jamming, and then I’d take an hour off.
“It got grueling. We worked 12 hours on a typical day. Then on jump night we’d have to clean out the trailer and dismantle it. It might be one or two o’clock in the morning before we got out of a place. We’d drive maybe 300 miles and have to be set up by noon the next day, ready to do it all again.” No one could sleep while they drove because the passengers had to keep the drivers alert. They’d pull into a site in the morning and have to unload 100-pound bags of potatoes after setting up the trailer. “Everybody was wiped out,” Darke recalls.
None of that mattered because Darke was able to spend all his days in a place he loved.
Price’s concession was independent, so they didn’t travel with a single carnival. One day in South Carolina, Darke took in his first sideshow, Ward Hall’s traveling exhibit of human oddities and skill performers. He was transfixed. “I fell in love with the human oddity,” he says. “I didn’t see it as exploitation at all. I got to know the people who ran them.
“Altogether, I’d get quite a bit of time, although not in long stretches, to walk the midway and browse in the merchants’ buildings. I’d go to the ‘back end joints’ where a person would do geek tricks, like shoving a nail in his nose or eating fire. There’d be a rough-looking carny guy going, ‘All right, here’s the man who can put a six-inch nail into his nose!’ He’d herd all the people in the tent, they’d watch the guy do his thing, and then the carny would go, ‘All right, have a good day.’ He’d hustle them out and bring in a new crowd. It was very high volume.”
By fall the circuit brought him to the tip of Florida. In Key West, Darke learned about the street performances on Mallory Square at sunset. “I was in awe,” Darke says. “There were variety acts, performing pigs, sword swallowers, jugglers, wire walkers.” He tried his hand at street performing, eating fire, but hardly made enough money to eat.
The season over, he flew back home to Michigan and his high school classroom, a gloomy prospect for a teenager who’d seen a man stick a six-inch nail up his nose.
“I was bored in high school,” Darke says. So he quit at 17. When he came back to Michigan after his second carnival season, he attended an alternative high school where students were allowed to smoke and call teachers by their first names. He lasted one school year there.
By his third carnival year, Darke was doing so well under Price that the boss named him manager of a lemonade trailer. It was quite an honor, because Price normally had three prerequisites for his managers: they had to be 21 years old, married, and high school graduates. “I got to hire my own crew and do the accounting and all that good stuff,” Darke says. “It was a beautiful thing, a quarter-million-dollar trailer.”
After his third year with Price, Darke was 19 and beginning to wonder about life. That winter he sat on the edge of a lake near his house with a friend named Mike.
“This place was like an inspiration point,” Darke says. “We drove out there and started getting philosophical.”
“Where are we? What’s this place all about?” Darke asked as the two sat on the edge of the wide expanse of water.
“I don’t know,” Mike replied. “Is it the beginning or the end?”
The two sat silently, teenagers pleased with their philosophical insights.
After a few moments Mike spoke. “I gotta get out of this little town,” he said.
“I agree with you,” Darke said
“Let’s go to Hawaii,” Mike said.
“All right,” Darke said. “When do you want to leave?”
So Darke and Mike saved their money for a month. Darke sold his stereo, begged some money, and borrowed some more. They bought tickets and flew to Hawaii.
“We landed and had $1,600 between us, a drop of piss in a bucket. Hawaii at that time had something like a 37 percent higher cost of living than the west coast. We dropped our bags and said, ‘Now what?’ All we’d planned on was getting there–we hadn’t planned on how we were going to live.”
The two made their way into Waikiki, where they met an endless succession of people selling “booze cruises.” These salespeople would corner tourists in bars, in hotel lobbies, and on the street. They’d open up a photo album with snapshots of beautiful people partying on a 300-foot windjammer. Then they’d try to sell tickets to these parties for $25 apiece.
Darke and Mike asked one of the salesmen how they could get that job. The guy told them to meet him later at an out-of-the-way bar.
“We sat down with these guys and it was just like being in a caddy shack,” Darke says. “The whole thing was illegal.” William and his friend learned hawking the tickets was a crime in the same category as prostitution. “I felt like we were joining some fraternity–this was not just a job. We bought our photo albums, copied the photographs, got our vouchers, and hit the beach. We were required to party twice a week on the boat. It was a family boat during the day and at night it was The Devil in Miss Jones. Crazy, man. We got paid to drink and party. It was a booze and sex cruise. We weren’t required to have sex with anybody, but you could always find some real wonderful woman on break from college.”
Darke spent six months selling tickets by day, eating fire, talking up guests, and impressing college women by night. “And then I got really burned out on Hawaii,” he says. “You’ve heard about all the fruit that falls off the trees in Hawaii? I never saw any of it. So I went back to Michigan. Mike stayed for a little while longer.”
By now Darke’s brother had married and moved out, so Darke and his mother shared the family’s three-bedroom house. Soon after Darke got back from Hawaii his mother, Barbara, took a job as a housemother for a fraternity at Hillsdale College.
“She cooked for 40 people twice a day,” Darke says. “They liked her so much they built an addition onto their frat house for her. So I had the three-bedroom house to myself at the age of 19. We had parties, my God! I had an antique pinball machine and an antique slot machine. I put a big mural on the wall and put a black light on the mural so when you turned the lights out it looked like a full moon over the mountains. I was making a few bucks off the parties–illegal as all hell.”
In 1990 a Michigan friend named Rob sat down with Darke one night. The two pondered their future.
“I’m gonna buy a brand-new truck,” Rob said. “Then I’m gonna drive to Las Vegas. Wanna go?”
Darke thought long and hard. “I was really craving performing again,” he says. “I hadn’t performed for a while. I was eating fire on the boat in Hawaii but I wasn’t doing a regular act. I felt pretty empty without it. Hey, I’m a performer. Where better for me to go than the entertainment mecca, Las Vegas?”
So Darke and Rob set off for Nevada. Rob immediately enrolled in slot machine repair school. Darke dealt blackjack for a brief time and did some performing in casino lounges. When times got tight he delivered pizzas and waited tables.
He got a job at Circus Circus eating fire, but he felt lost in the shuffle. “People were there to gamble,” he says. “I felt like a head of cattle in the herd. I wasn’t able to be that black sheep.
“I was going crazy,” he says. “I didn’t have any family. I had one friend, who I lived with. Our apartment got robbed and I lost a bunch of good stuff.” A couple of thousand miles away, Doug Frosch racked his brain trying to figure out how to help his son. He decided to go to Las Vegas and take Darke to an investment seminar. Frosch was and is a steady, respectable conservative Republican. He wanted to help Darke straighten out. “He felt he was doing some good by having me surrounded by millionaires, that by osmosis I might pick success up.”
They looked at food distributorships. Darke’s father seemed particularly interested in one that carried pizza and corn poles–relatives of corn dogs but with cheese injected into the middle. “The next thing I knew,” Darke remembers, “we were up in the penthouse of the Sahara signing contracts.”
Darke’s father provided the money and Darke remained in Las Vegas to operate the franchise, which covered the east side of Vegas. Business, according to Darke, was good. Things went so well he was able to buy out his competitor, who ran the west side of the town and the remainder of the state. His personal life took a turn for the better as well. He became close with a woman and asked her to run his office.
Darke ran his franchise like a kid who secretly wanted to run away and join the circus. He spent money like water on cars, hotel rooms, and toys. Occasionally, he’d dip into petty cash for walking-around money. When he wanted to buy something big he wrote a check against the corporate account, knowing tomorrow’s revenues would cover it. “I figured that would be OK,” Darke says. “But I didn’t count on anybody else taking any money.” Darke made a disturbing discovery one day as his father was flying in for a visit. Darke’s pizza manufacturer called to say a check had bounced, which seemed improbable. He stopped in at the office. His girlfriend wasn’t in, but his bank statement had just arrived. His balance was so low he could only conclude that his girlfriend had helped herself. Darke raced to the Olympia Palm Resort, where he and she shared a penthouse suite. “Magically,” he says, “she was nowhere to be found. The furniture, the jewelry, was all gone.”
Dazed, Darke drove back to the office. His father had arrived and was staring at the bank statement.
“Where’s all the money?” Doug Frosch asked.
Darke only remembers that he began to shake. Somehow he got home and sat in a barber chair, another of his toys, staring at Las Vegas. “I sat in that chair for a couple of days eating nothing but sunflower seeds,” he says. “My tongue turned into a raisin from all the salt.”
Darke ditched the penthouse and moved in with a friend for a short time. Then he split mecca entirely. “I started having a nervous breakdown. I walked out of Las Vegas on foot and started to hitchhike,” he says.
“I got out to Arizona and threw this really expensive watch I had into a canyon. I was freed all of a sudden. I had absolutely nothing but the clothes on my back and my fire-eating equipment.” He decided to make his way to Indianapolis, where he could stay with a friend.
He hitched a ride to the Greyhound bus station in Flagstaff. He reached it that night. “It was colder than a well-digger’s ass,” Darke says. “I went into the bus station to warm up. They closed the station at 3 AM. Everybody who was inside had to go out. I was just coming from Vegas, man. I didn’t have a big parka or anything. There were two other people outside with me, a black girl and a white guy. They were huddling up close to the building. I was leaning up against a cold cinder block wall. Nobody spoke a word but by six o’clock we were all together. Our will to survive just kicked in and we huddled up.”
The next day, a reporter for the local newspaper asked to interview him. Darke didn’t even bother to ask why he was being interviewed. His only concern was that the reporter had offered to buy him lunch. “We sat in the grass and ate Jack in the Box,” he says.
On a stretch of highway near Holbrook, Arizona, Darke had an experience that he describes as finding God. He came to some conclusions. “I can do business,” he said to himself. “But performing is where I want to be.”
Walking along the shoulder of the road, he began hearing voices. He stopped and listened. Fortunately for his sanity, the voices were coming from live human beings. They emanated from a wash below the guardrail. “I climbed over the guardrail and started going down, and sure enough there was this little cave that two guys having sandwiches were sitting in. They offered me one, which I gladly accepted. I was hungry as hell. I had maybe two dollars in my pocket.”
The men pointed Darke toward a Shell truck stop some five miles up the road. There, they said, he could find a ride to wherever he was going. So he began walking in that direction and by nightfall reached the Shell. He spent one of his dollars on french fries so he could sit in the place.
Darke hitched a ride with a couple of Native American brothers in a broken-down ’57 Chevy. “One of the guys, the driver, looked like the chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The other looked just like Cheech Marin,” Darke says. “They had a turntable on the console between them! They had it hooked up to speakers in the car. Great ingenuity. They were spinning Motown, man.” When the brothers dropped him off they gave him $5. “I don’t think that they could really afford it. When I got out of the car, the driver, Chief, said, ‘Good luck, my friend.’ Those were the first words he said the entire ride. It just gave me this power to go on.”
After a week on the road, Darke made it to Indianapolis. The last ride he got took him right to the front door of his friend’s house. He went back to street performing, putting his hat down on a sidewalk in a nearby suburb. He wore a costume now (Balinese balloon pants, curly-toed slippers, and a vest with fire lotuses on it) and refined his interactions with the public. His act was becoming more entertaining. When he’d started street performing all he did was a technical show. Now he was becoming a showman. “As a street performer, you have to interrupt people’s schedules, keep them entertained for a half hour, and then sell them their tickets after the show,” Darke says. He earned enough to eat and even was able to save a couple of dollars.
Darke had another epiphany. He attended a lecture by Carl Sagan in a small college town north of Indianapolis. “There again I saw the presence of God,” he says. Sagan spoke of how observers from another planet might view the earth. Darke gave himself over to the conceit fully. “I saw the earth as plentiful,” Darke says. “Everything I needed was here. Nothing was going to stop me. After the lecture he scooted to the front of the auditorium and spoke with Sagan.
“He said, ‘Go for it, Darke! Do what you’re preprogrammed to do.’ I don’t get starstruck by anybody, but I just felt in awe. He gave me inspiration. I just wanted to perform. All these voices of the past saying ‘You won’t be successful unless you have a million dollars’ just vanished. The dream of the sideshow kicked in.”
He stayed in Indianapolis for months, selling meat door-to-door, working as a waiter, and performing on the streets on weekends, knowing his time would come. Then he went back home to Hillsdale for a week before setting off with his backpack. His destination: Key West. “All I knew was that’s where I was supposed to go,” he says.
On his way to Key West, Darke caught a ride into Atlanta. Hungry and homeless, he dropped in on the Little Five Points neighborhood. “It was really cool,” Darke says. “The artists, the gays, the lesbians, the hippies, the homeopaths, the psychopaths–everybody was there. It was definitely a spot where I could throw down my stuff and make some money. But I was really, really hungry. Before I could consider performing I first needed food, and I was entirely out of money.”
Darke came upon a man playing a recorder in the park. “This guy couldn’t play it worth shit. He couldn’t carry a tune,” Darke says. Nevertheless, he was collecting a fair amount of change in his hat. He told passersby he was collecting money to feed the hungry. Darke had heard this before. Such Samaritans often took their hatfuls of money and walked into the nearest liquor store. So Darke followed the man after he gathered up his things. “This guy went into the store and brought out a couple of grocery bags,” Darke says. The man returned to the park, laid out a blanket, opened his containers of food, and said, “Anybody that’s hungry, come on over and eat.”
Darke didn’t have to be asked twice. He walked toward the man’s blanket. “Then I had another magical moment,” he says. “I was approaching the blanket from the north. This other guy was approaching from the south. He looked like Jesus in blond dreads. He had juggling clubs and a crystal ball. So I knew there was going to be a cool connection.”
After they’d eaten, Darke and the blond Jesus chatted. His name was Kevin. As he conversed, he rolled his crystal ball along his hands and arms, a skill called sphere manipulation that had fascinated Darke since he’d seen David Bowie do it in the movie Labyrinth.
Darke learned Kevin could juggle eight clubs at once. They decided to perform together that afternoon in the park. They made $75 apiece. They performed together a few more days and even met a drummer who joined the act. It was Darke’s first taste of putting a troupe together.
Kevin told Darke about a “rainbow gathering” in a national forest in Georgia. A rainbow gathering’s a word-of-mouth congregation of hundreds of people in a commune setting for a few weeks at a time. “It was like going to an underground rave party out in the woods,” Darke says. Participants pitched in to gather food and wood and set up shelters. There’d be social areas and medicine areas and tea areas, little stations spread here and there throughout the camp.
“This was straight out of the 60s,” Darke says. “I just went back in time. We pulled up into the parking area, known as bus village, and people started waving at us saying, ‘Welcome home!'”
Darke and Kevin set up shop in the performance area. Darke met skill performers from all over the region. In the midst of conversations with them an idea hit him that he shared. What would you think, he asked, about joining a traveling circus troupe? Those around him reacted positively. One in particular, a fellow named Clint, was ready to act on it. Clint owned an ancient Bluebird bus. After the Georgia rainbow gathering, Clint, Darke, and five other performers as well as some hangers-on climbed aboard the bus and headed back to Little Five Points to earn some money as the William Darke Psychedelic Circus. There was Red, a balancing artist, Eileen, a contortionist, Skip and Irwin, a couple of jugglers, and Kevin. “There was a pickpocket on board too,” Darke says. “We called him Slick. He didn’t steal from us, but every time we got back on the bus after performing he’d have something new with him and he didn’t have a dime in his pocket.” The troupe hoped to earn enough money to finance a bus tour of the country.
In Little Five Points the Psychedelic Circus made a few dollars and added a few more performers. Soon they had enough money to visit more rainbow gatherings. The troupe traveled the southeast for a time, stopping only to repair the bus when it broke down. By the time they’d appeared at a rainbow gathering in Ocala National Forest in Florida, Darke was becoming fairly well-known on the circuit. He was christened with a rainbow name–“Fire.”
“For the first time in my life, I belonged somewhere,” he says.
Darke met Jiva, who ran the Rainbow Gypsy Theater, at the Ocala gathering. They hit it off. Jiva’s troupe specialized in dance, primitive drumming, and fire walking. The two agreed to hook up at a Vero Beach Renaissance fest later in the summer. Darke and his troupe then returned to Little Five Points to finance further travels.
Just outside of Atlanta, the bus collapsed. The only replacement parts to be found were in Texas. Darke and Clint hitched a ride out that way with a trucker while the rest of the troupe remained with the bus.
On the way back east they had to eat at soup kitchens, and once they got a change of clothes from a shelter. On their way back to the highway, they stopped near a railroad crossing. “We stared at those railroad tracks and wondered where the train went,” Darke says. Each told the other he’d always dreamed of hopping a freight. They waited until one came by. It passed them slowly. Neither summoned the courage to leap on. “That’s one of my great regrets in life,” Darke says.
The return trip took much longer than expected. When they reached the bus it was empty. “There was a little note on everybody’s footlocker,” Darke says. “They had taken off at separate times. Most of them went back to Ocala, where the rainbow gathering was still going on. I haven’t seen any one of them since.”
Now without a troupe, Clint took a job at a local body shop and Darke got work waiting tables. Clint made enough to buy a bus ticket to his home in Alabama. Darke earned enough for a bus ticket to Florida to meet the Gypsies. He performed with Jiva in Vero Beach and lived in the troupe’s big circus tent. After the Renaissance fair, he and Jiva made plans to rendezvous later in the summer at a rainbow gathering in Wyoming. He then set out for Key West.
Being rent poor, Darke squatted on Wisteria Island, lush with Australian pines and known locally as Christmas Tree Island. “I had crab traps for bookshelves, a tarp to put over me like a tent, my sleeping bag, my hammock, and a mosquito net,” Darke says. On the island he spent five hours a day walking along a beach littered with broken coral (he thought he was toughening his feet but in reality was setting himself up for a severe infection) and practicing manipulating a sphere. He’d found his own crystal ball in Tallahassee on his way down to Key West. “After a couple of months I was getting pretty damned good,” Darke says.
He was performing at sunset but not making too much money. His fire-eating act was still primarily technical, without patter or artifice. That would come. But at the time Darke was just about dead broke.
One morning Darke was walking the perimeter of the island, rolling his crystal ball from the palm to the back of one hand. Only one thought was on his mind. “I was picturing a pair of shoes just coming up in the tide,” he says.
He took a few more steps and found a rare scallop shell that he deduced had traveled all the way from Africa on an ocean current. He took the find as a good omen. A few steps down, he found another African scallop.
As he bent over to pick it up, he spoke out loud: “This is my lucky day. Now all I’ve got to do is find shoes.” Darke continued to walk, manipulating his sphere, the shells clanging in the pocket of his pants. He crossed over some shallow water and walked on a sandbar. There he found a sandal. He walked another 20 yards and found the sandal’s mate. “These are my shoes,” he said as he strapped them on.
“When I was putting them on I realized that we’re all in control of our lives,” he says. “We don’t have to buy into other people’s ideas of success. The secret is simply doing good and thinking good, and when you do that good things happen to you. Moreover, the dominating thoughts in our minds will manifest themselves into physical reality. I was seeing God again, you know? I promised myself from that moment on I would be more specific about what I was thinking, to try to eliminate negative thinking because that will manifest itself.”
About this time Darke dumped the “Fire” moniker and decided to bill himself strictly as William Darke. (Today Darke plans to change his name legally. “I’m not rushing to do it because I have to get my mother used to the idea,” he says.)
Alone on the island, Darke pondered why he ended up there. One night he remembered watching Gilligan’s Island as a kid and concluding that that would be the perfect life. He’d even dreamed when he was young of marrying a mermaid.
Darke met a teenager named Randall who’d moved to Key West with his family from Phoenix. They struck up a friendship. Randall told Darke he could shower at his house. Darke met Randall’s parents and adopted them.
“They became my parents, Sue and Harry,” he says. “They were my Key West parents. We had such a bond. Still do. I talk to them every other week. We even have a resemblance.”
Sue and Harry appeared at the right time for a young man away from home. “They showed me moderation,” he says. “They’re real protective on drugs–coffee, sugar, cocaine, morphine. A drug is a drug is a drug is a drug.”
Sue, an intensive care nurse, took one look at his feet and told him he was in trouble. “I don’t think I’d worn shoes since Las Vegas–it was always sandals,” Darke says. Having no money or health coverage, Darke visited a local woman who prescribed a poultice, made from the leaves of an indigenous tree, that he was to rub on the infected areas.
“The infection started to spread,” Darke says. “I went up to Daytona to visit some people that I knew. One of them also was a nurse.”
“Sweetheart,” she said, “you have to get serious medical attention. You can’t do the holistic approach on this. You have cross-infections in both your feet. You’re going to lose them in a couple of weeks if you don’t do anything about it!'”
The nurse brought some brushes and ointments from the hospital and worked on his feet. Soon the infections began to recede. As his health improved so did his act. Darke was perfecting his street performance by this time. Soon, Key West would be exhausted for him.
About this time he met a woman named Annette who’d been in a horrible motorcycle accident a few years before. She’d had massive head trauma, lost a leg, and been declared clinically dead. Annette had recovered fairly well after limb reattachment surgery. She told Darke about another rainbow gathering in the region and they went.
“On the way back to Daytona Beach, we decided to take a trip across the United States,” Darke says. Annette was to finance the trip for the most part. Darke would stop every so often to perform in the streets and hold up his end of the deal. They made it as far as San Antonio. Across the street from the Alamo Darke realized that Annette probably had an eating disorder. “It was pretty severe,” he says. “I was caring for this person because I thought I could save the world.” They had an emotional stay in San Antonio and then returned to Daytona. They made plans to move in together but Darke got cold feet. “I didn’t want to live in one place. I wanted to travel.” Annette said she wanted to travel as well so the two bought a mobile home.
It was June, time for Darke to head back west to meet the Gypsies at a national rainbow gathering in Wyoming. Darke and Annette stopped off in Boulder, Colorado, where Darke could earn some money street-performing. “My show was pretty solid by this time and I was making about 250 bucks a day,” he says.
Darke and Annette met the Gypsies coming through Boulder. But by now the relationship was reaching a breaking point. The effects of her eating disorder were threatening to overwhelm both of them.
At a crucial juncture, Darke said to Annette, “This is your thing. You better deal with it. I can’t do it for you.” Annette blew up, they fought, and then she called a friend in Canada who swung down to Boulder. Annette and the friend climbed into the RV and headed back to Florida. Darke stood in a parking lot surrounded by all his worldly goods. For a brief moment he thought of running to a pay phone to call one of his Gypsy friends. Then he thought better of it. “It’s not easy to get to a pay phone when you have to watch your shit. But eventually one of the Gypsies passed by and rescued me. We went on.”
After Wyoming the Gypsy troupe headed for Arizona, where they were to play the World Unity Festival in Phoenix. They were scheduled to appear between Richie Havens and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Just before they pulled into town, the university on whose campus the festival was to be held canceled the event because it was not equipped to handle the type of crowd that was coming in. “It was like Woodstock,” Darke says. “I think they were scared of the freaks.” So the troupe pushed on to Flagstaff to play another festival. Again, just as they were about to arrive they learned of a change in plans. The site for the festival had been changed to an Indian reservation.
“It was kind of freaky because white people weren’t supposed to go there,” Darke says. “We drove over washes, mountains, the rocky ridge region. We were in a place with no telephones, no running water, it was badlands. The people had been relocated to what the U.S. government obviously considered junk land. The food was running out. The money was running out. But for the next couple of days we had some of the most magical times.”
Darke and the Gypsies stayed on land owned by a Native American woman named Pauline Whitesinger.
“We sat at her feet listening to these wonderful stories about their lifestyle. She’d stayed on the land when the washes weren’t dry, when there weren’t any dams upstream, the rivers were free-flowing, and they had water.”
The woman brought them to a place where they could view a sun dance from a distance. In it, a man submitted to an excruciating ritual while his wife was giving birth. The man had hooks dug into his chest, a scene reminiscent of the movie A Man Called Horse. The man was lifted into the air by the hooks in his chest. He wished to share in his wife’s pain.
“When the baby came out of the womb,” Darke says, “he was bounced hard enough so the hooks ripped out of his skin.”
After a week a rumor swept through the area that a big mining company had discovered a huge vein of coal and some uranium under the land. Soon the FBI contacted Whitesinger and demanded that the Gypsies leave. According to Darke, the FBI wanted to make sure “peace would be kept.” But he didn’t see any threat to the peace. Darke concluded the powers that be didn’t want to have to deal with reasonably educated whites as preparations were being made to evict the indigenous people.
“The FBI was trying to get these people off the land so they could rape it again,” Darke says. “The government was concerned that these mainstream kids would learn things.”
The festival moved to the Kaibab National Forest in northern Arizona. Darke then returned to Key West and squatted once again on Christmas Tree Island. He did sunset performances in Mallory Square. Later, to supplement his income, he waited tables at a noted local hangout called Barefoot Bob’s.
He was performing, eating enough, and living in a reasonably comfortable place, having made enough money to be able to rent an apartment. But there was a problem. “Things were getting too normal, too mundane,” he says. “I always need a little bit of adventure.”
The adventure was Africa. That was the name of a friend who’d picked up and traveled to Puerto Rico, where she hoped to make a few dollars as a stripper. Darke and Africa’s boyfriend, Joseph, went to Puerto Rico for a surprise visit. Joseph had a vague recollection of the name of one of the places where Africa’d said she’d planned to dance.
“We took off with round-trip plane tickets,” Darke says. “We landed in Puerto Rico and, again, just like when I went to Hawaii with a friend, we got off the plane, looked at each other, and said, ‘Now what?'”
They searched the strip clubs surrounding a U.S. military base and couldn’t find Africa. They took a bus into Old San Juan, where they stayed for a week and a half with an entrenched San Juan family.
Darke went into the town square to street-perform for a few days. A local TV station did a feature on him. “But,” he says, “there just wasn’t enough money to keep me afloat.”
So Darke and Joseph went on looking for Africa. Just as their money was running out they found her. She let them stay in her car while she performed and then brought them into her dormitory where they could shower. They went for a hike through the rainforest, where they took LSD and got soaked in a series of rain showers. At the end of the day Africa gave Joseph a little money. Darke and Joseph made their way back to San Juan and flew back to Florida. Darke returned to Christmas Tree Island.
“I felt like I was glowing when I got back to the island,” Darke says. “I had a stronger show.”
He met a college student named Tanya while he was waiting tables one night at Barefoot Bob’s. Tanya and some of her friends squatted on Christmas Tree Island over the Christmas holidays. Tanya stayed on after her friends left. She got herself a job as a waitress in Key West.
One day Tanya decided to play matchmaker. “She told me about this new girl on the island,” Darke says. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard about the new girl. “A lot of my friends had told me about this great-looking girl. I started hearing about her a week before Christmas. But I’d never seen her. It got to the point where I almost didn’t believe she existed. I’d go into Barefoot Bob’s and see Tanya and she’d say, ‘Oh, you just missed her.'”
One night Darke was headed into Barefoot Bob’s. Tanya, from across the street, yelled out his name and that of the new girl, Stacey. By chance, Darke and Stacey were standing next to each other.
“A chill went through my body when I met her,” Darke says. “Never before in my life have I felt magic go through my body. I walked her home but I didn’t kiss her. I knew it was there, though. That feeling was there. It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. When you want something and don’t take it until later, that makes it that much more special.”
And then it was New Year’s Eve. Darke’s birthday. A little after 11 o’clock, he walked into Barefoot Bob’s and saw Stacey across the room. He elbowed his way through the crowd to be near her. Because so many people grabbed him by the arm to talk with him, it took the better part of an hour to get to her. Finally, at the stroke of midnight, they stood face-to-face.
“We kissed each other and that was it, man,” Darke says. “That was totally it!”
Stacey even had a mermaid tattooed on her waist. She was right out of the dream he’d had as a kid.
Stacey got a job waiting tables at Barefoot Bob’s, giving the two plenty of time to be near each other. They fell in love. Between them, Darke and Stacey started making some good money. In addition to waiting tables and street-performing in Mallory Square, Darke was appearing in a theater revue called Key West Unzipped along with a Divine-like character, an escape artist, a ventriloquist, and a Nat King Cole imitator.
Now a couple, Darke and Stacey began to make plans to move on. “The scene started to get stale,” Darke says. Stacey wanted to move to Chicago to be nearer to her family in Lansing, Illinois. Darke shuddered at the thought of living in the midwest’s cold again. But Stacey seemed certain so he rationalized. “If we move there in the spring…” he said. They moved to Chicago two years ago. Darke decided to put a promotional package together and professionalize his show.
Not long after coming here, Stacey became pregnant. Grappling with the possible repercussions of having a child strained their relationship. Under that stress, far from Key West and not performing much, Darke turned moody. He refused to leave the house. One night, after hearing that a Grateful Dead cover band was appearing in Chicago, Stacey insisted that Darke pick himself up and go out.
Stacey’s powers of persuasion must have been high. Darke gathered his crystal balls and went to the show. He camped out in a corner of the auditorium and began to manipulate his spheres.
“Only a couple of people sitting at a table could see me,” Darke says.
One of those people seemed genuinely interested in Darke’s skill. “Here’s my card,” he said. The fellow, who organized and promoted street fairs, wanted Darke to perform for him. “I bet you’re a hell of an entertainer,” he said. “I’m not shitting you. I want to do some work with you.”
Darke called him and wound up performing at his events that summer. He didn’t charge the man a fee but did gather some money in his hat at each performance. A little later Darke scored his first Chicago-area paying gig, eating fire, manipulating his spheres, and shoving items into his nose at the Custer Street fair in Evanston.
Any happiness he felt performing was tempered by his troubles with Stacey. Darke had moved out of their home. By midsummer, he hadn’t spoken to her in weeks.
One weekend afternoon Darke was performing at Taste of Lincoln Avenue. He looked out in the audience and saw Stacey, who’d come to see him. Stacey suggested they go out for a bite to eat. Over dinner, Darke asked her out on a date to see a stage production of Hair.
“We started courting again,” Darke says. “We fell back in love. I moved back in. Now we have a nice solid relationship and a wonderful son, River Jade. It’s phenomenal. I can’t think of anything better.”
That winter Darke took a series of odd jobs to hold him over until the next carnival season. In the summer he played the same events he’d done the previous year, but this time he took home paychecks. He plans to play the same venues again this coming summer.
That first summer in Chicago, Darke met Bobby Shea, events coordinator of KBA Marketing, a big local company. Shea was thinking of putting together a nationwide tour that would include circus sideshow acts and a rock band. He indicated interest in having Darke put together the sideshow aspect. Darke was elated.
“I rushed around and contacted all these characters who through my travels I’d met,” Darke says. “I got everybody together and put in a proposal.”
He waited a few weeks and didn’t hear back from Shea. He called KBA and Shea told him he’d call him right back. He didn’t. Darke seethed.
“I saw him on the street about a month later,” Darke says. “I had a child and I wasn’t in too good a financial situation. So I wasn’t the most pleasant guy. I figured I had nothing to lose so I spoke my mind.”
Darke stood face-to-face with Shea and demanded to know why he’d never called back. To Darke’s surprise, Shea apologized and promised to call Darke back that week. To his even greater surprise, Shea did. Shea invited Darke down to his office, where Darke submitted another proposal. In short order Shea got back to Darke and told him the proposal had been approved. KBA paired the William Darke Psycho Circus & Freak Show with a band named 13 Mg. Darke’s troupe included Mark “the Knife” Faje, balancing artist Dextre Tripp, yo-yo artist Steve Brown–“a great guy,” Darke says. “He’s got a bald head, a big thick chain around his neck, a big tattoo on his back, and the word ‘Skinhead’ tattooed on his chest”–and several others. The two acts appeared in 30 cities last summer.
Darke has parlayed that break into a full schedule of appearances. He has a weekly date at Dusk and will appear at more than a dozen local street fairs and carnivals over the summer. In February he played a private party for David Copperfield after the illusionist’s Rosemont Horizon show. He did a few gigs at Illusions, Dennis Rodman’s River North nightclub, over the winter. To keep his skills sharp between shows, Darke occasionally goes back to his roots, laying his hat on the ground and street-performing, most often in front of the Lincoln Park Conservatory. He hopes to line up sponsors for a second summer tour (KBA’s tour last year was a one-shot deal).
Darke’s freaks will always be open to ridicule and criticism. As Jay Leno cracked on the Tonight Show a few years back, there’s nothing like entertainment fresh from the Middle Ages. But strange as it may seem, the Psycho Circus is part of a current rage. It got a huge boost when recent Nine Inch Nails and Lollopalooza tours featured Jim Rose’s circus and sideshow troupe as an opening act.
Darke, doing his part to move this medieval sensation into the next century, is working on plans for a Web site and a cable access television show.
So the high school dropout who hitchhiked away from the business world isn’t making a million dollars like the voices told him he must, but he is a success. “I’m an entertainer,” he says. “It’s what I do.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Darke cover photo by Marc PoKempner; Scott Sabala, right with Darke photo by David V. Kamba; performance photo by Marc PoKempner; Dontinoin “Dante” Ingramand Dark photo by Marc PoKempner; performance photo by Marc PoKempner.