Hellzapoppin Circus brings power cords and swords

The intense beat of punk rock songs like “Killing Strangers,” “Shut Me Up” and “Black Betty” filled Summit Music Hall at a level that vibrated the floor and coursed through the body. The music amped the scenes on stage as one performer slid a 37-inch sword down her throat and another devoured a handful of razor blades one by one, followed by a string, and then pulled a string of razor blades from his mouth in one smooth motion.


Half-man performer Short E. Dangerously finds balance during his performance at Hellzapoppin. Photos by Montana Martin | mmart427@msudenver.edu

Just a taste of the extreme performances experienced at the Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue on Aug. 13. The show featured entertainers that exposed their bodies to brutal treatment by props that got longer, sharper and more dangerous with each act.

“There aren’t too many sideshows that tour anymore,” said magician and illusionist Dan Sperry. “It’s not just a show for gross out. It’s very cool, just bizarre things that you don’t get to see. Even at a stupid frat party when someone’s drunk enough to try something they saw on YouTube.”

Bryce “The Govna” Graves created the show in 2008. Prior to Hellzapoppin, Graves managed rock groups, TV personalities and an authentic old style freak show.

“I fell in love with it the second I set eyes on it,” Graves said of the freak show. “I knew I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.”

Graves said the show toured with Ozzy Osbourne in 2006 when their show was accompanied by Gavioli organ. But he wanted the freak show to have the same energy the rock bands received.  

“The only way to get that energy was to change up the music, change up the costumes, change up the performers,” he said.

The only consistent performers are Graves and his partner, Aaron Wollins, also known as Short E. Dangerously. Wollins is a half man performer and co-hosts the show with Graves. Wollin’s stunts Sunday night included a hand balancing act on unstable bowling balls and walking with his hands on broken glass that was set on fire. All to the heavy beats of metal and rock music.

Bryce “The Govna” Graves blows the audience away with his fire tricks during the opening act of Hellzapoppin.

“We want our fans to feel like they’ve been to a Pantera, Avatar, Motorhead concert,” Wollins said. “Because of Riot Fest we’ve got a fairly decent sized fan base. And we always get more fans after the show.”

Hellzapoppin usually consists of five or six people that put on a 90 minute show. Graves said they work with over 30 sideshow performers that they rotate out every couple of months.

Sperry refers to his part of the show as weird strange magic tricks. Before swallowing a handful of razors, Sperry allowed audience members in the front row to touch and authenticate them. As he swallowed a woman yelled, “Don’t do it!” and another shouted, “You’re crazy!”

Ryan Stock’s stunts had some audience members covering their eyes and turning their heads as he swallowed curved swords and 3 foot long rotating drill bits.

“I do comedy mixed with stupid shit,” Stock said. “You get hurt all the time but nothing serious. The show is blood-free when everything goes right.”

Vivianne Oblivion started performing with Hellzapoppin in 2010. She made swords, saws and coat hangers disappear as she devoured them.

“I was really into human anatomy,” Oblivion said, remembering how she started. “I studied it for three years. I came across an article about sword swallowing and thought that it was really cool.”

Ryan Stock stretches the audience’s limits with the support of Vivianne Oblivion. 

After she graduated she wanted to learn sword swallowing. She researched the subject and talked to different people about it. Oblivion said to warm up for an act she will drops a few swords beforehand to loosen things up.

For the final act Oblivion was put into a box that Graves fills with squared saw blades. He puts them through the box at different angles, and manages to avoid slicing through Oblivion. The audience is then allowed on stage to make sure she’s still in there.

“Come with an open mind,” Oblivion said for anyone wanting to check out Hellzapoppin. “Forget everything you thought you knew about what you can do and can’t do. But don’t try any of this stuff at home.”

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