It's a bit of a circus at the Venice Beach "Freakshow."
You're probably thinking we're referring to the chaotic boardwalk, but we're actually talking about the long-standing show taking place amidst it all.
"That's funny, but we are the freak show," said Todd Ray.
Television viewers may know all about Ray, his family and his eclectic circle of friends from the AMC series "Freakshow," but the Saturday and Sunday night performances just off the Pacific Ocean actually predate the series (10 p.m. Tuesdays), which premiered in 2013. The series has been renewed and crowds flock to Venice Beach for up-close-and-personal experiences, after all, it's not called the "Strangest Show on Earth" for nothing.
The sideshow staple has for years attracted big crowds eager to meet Ray's challenge - he dares pedestrians outside the theater to come have a look at what's inside.
But "Freakshow" isn't about shock-and-awe for Ray. Instead, it's about a celebration of differences, diversity and quirkiness.
"The show is for everyone of all ages. It helps unify us all because all of us are curious about what's on the other side of the curtain," he said. "Is it shocking? No. Is it scary? I don't think so. It's all about reopening minds to the childish wonder when we were kids. There is a power in wonder and curiosity. There really is magic in the world and, for us, it's Venice Beach."
Venice Beach is home to everyone from chainsaw-juggling daredevils to mimes and breakdancers. The town has a long history of showmanship: It was once referred to as the Coney Island of the Pacific, according to Ray. Today, that history continues with Ray's show.
Along with street acts, visitors can meet Wolf Boy, the Electric Lady, the Bearded Lady, along with other "Freakshow" cast members. But it's Ray the crowds encounter first, usually with a tub containing two turtles, both with two heads.
Admission - $5 per person - gains visitors entrance to a room full of preserved and alive animals that were born with certain oddities like the turtles, and then to the show.
Before Ray created the freak show, he was actually a successful music producer who earned three Grammys for his work with a variety of artists, including Carlos Santana. But after years of a successful career, he wasn't happy. Instead, he kept remembering a chance visit to a circus sideshow in Charlotte, N.C., when he was 12 years old, which started a lifetime hobby of collecting everything a little bit different.
"That sideshow changed my life. That's where I met Otis Jordon, who was a man who didn't have the use of his limbs. He was like stone," Ray said. "They carried him onto a stage where he took a can of tobacco and paper and, using his mouth and body, rolled a perfect cigarette. Then he struck a match and lit it."
They called him the "human cigarette factory," but all Ray saw was wonder.
"I was a budding magician so Otis Jordon said to me if he could do that, I could do anything I ever dreamed of," he said. "I was making money in the music business but I was poor in happiness."
One gets the sense his happiness quota is much higher these days.
"I took all the things I collected and saw this small space in Venice and thought, if we opened a sideshow there it would happen. We've expanded twice," he said. It's a family affair, too, at the "Freakshow." Along with Ray, there's his wife Danielle, daughter Asia, and son Phoenix. They're joined by Jessa the Bearded Lady, Morgue, and Amazing Ali and Wee Matt McCarthy.
Asia Ray was just 13 years old when "Freakshow" opened its doors and she saw a contortionist her dad had hired to perform.
"I've always been very flexible since I was a little girl, so I was like, 'Hey, Dad, I can do that and I can bend really far," said Asia, who recently celebrated her 21st birthday.
She performs as The Rubber Girl, twisting her body into mind-boggling shapes; The Electric Lady, where she lights bulbs and torches with the electricity coursing through her; and also has a fire-eating and sword-swallowing act.
"I'm fascinated by the female performers in early sideshows," she said. "They had such style and grace. To be a woman that can dress and behave with class, but also do extremely badass, crazy stunts - that's what I'm striving toward. I love to surprise people."
She once considered being a teacher - she spent a brief time as a student teacher in a preschool and loved it because she identifies with a child's sense of wonder. But her home is at the "Freakshow."
"I like expressing myself and pushing myself both physically and mentally and I like waking people up," she said.
Asia hasn't had to overcome physical differences in her life like many of her fellow performers, but she's never been what society would call "normal."
"I've embraced being different. I don't feel I need to be accepted by anyone else and when you do that life becomes a lot more free," she said. "The Freakshow is my family, too, and we all have each other's backs. It's very special, and it's definitely different than the average job."
Although the "Freakshow" - both the TV show and the live show - offers a different view of life, Ray said it's about challenging perceptions of what's normal.
"When you come to a show you can meet the performers, talk with them. You can ask direct questions and you'll get direct answers," Todd Ray said.
"I think some people who come to the show may walk in with misconceptions, but they walk out with a new outlook. We remind people of the wonder of the world because the world, this planet, is a mystery. I think the idea of what is normal is a sin, a curse. Why would anyone want to be normal? I say, say 'no' to normal. Normal is dead."