LA’s crown jewel of hair-raising oddities came to a quiet, untimely end last month. The California Institute of Abnormal Arts in North Hollywood — CIA for short — closed its doors to the public on June 19 after a two-day sale of its entire inventory.
For the past 30 years, the CIA has maintained its status as the only live forum where the stage performance on any given night was secondary to the venue itself. Decorated front to back like a kaleidoscopic carnival, the 5,000-square-foot space served primarily as a museum of ghastly oddities. Outside, in a courtyard, was a full-size cinema screen showing one of an endless selection of clips from old B-horror movies.
The curio gallery alone was worth the price of admission on a Friday or Saturday night. Human fetuses in jars, a preserved severed arm, Fijian mermaids (the thing where the top half of a deceased baby monkey is sewn to the bottom half of a big fish). The main attraction of the tour was a dead clown displayed in a transparent coffin. Yes, a real dead clown.
The corpse of French circus performer Achile Chatouilleu lay with folded hands in a hermetically sealed glass case directly in the aisle of the venue. According to Ripley’s Believe it or not, Chatouilleu’s dying wish when he died over 100 years ago was that his corpse be forever displayed in his favorite clown makeup and Shriner outfit.
The focus was on the character who orchestrated this Technicolor madness. One with an unexpected twist – the horror dog of unconventionality, obsessed with serial killers and the grotesque, is quite possibly the nicest person you’ll ever meet.
Carl Crew, the CIA’s ringleader, speaks with a charming smile and the natural ease of a born salesman finally ready to leave behind his longtime calling of running the unique venue.
“Honestly, it’s a huge load off my shoulders!” he laughs.
Crew has one of the most interesting resumes in Hollywood. In the early 1980’s he worked as an embalmer in Marin County, where he met future business partner Robert Ferguson. The two gave up embalming to open an antique shop in Haight-Ashbury.
In 1987 he starred in the cult classic Blood Diner and his IMDb page details his semi-annual work as an actor, writer and producer. But for the last 30 years, his true calling has been the modern day carnival hooter, affectionately known by his nickname “The Barnum of Burbank”.
The life of the crew was riddled with oddities from the start. His uncle, Jerry Crew, is the man who brought the Bigfoot myth into American popular culture in 1958 by “discovering” the now-famous mud prints in Del Norte County and making plaster molds.
Born and raised in San Francisco, he developed his addiction to the limelight at an early age when, at age 9, he performed in a touring repertory theater company.
“My father was a surgeon, but my parents had a gospel quartet. My brother is Mark ‘Sterling’ Crew. He played Live Aid with Carlos Santana. I played in a repertory group from 9 to 20. It wasn’t national or anything, but we did a lot of on-the-road stuff all over California.”
“When I was a kid, I went to Playland, that creepy old amusement park on Ocean Beach. There was a fun house with this mechanical woman, “Laffing Sal”. Her laugh came through the speakers. She scared you to death as a kid! But it changed my life. Then of course, when my dad would smuggle me out on school nights to see R-rated movies, that instilled a love for movies in me.”
Carl got his first experience dealing in rarities when he opened the Haight-Ashbury antique shop with Ferguson.
“We sold slot machines, jukeboxes, promotional material and neon clocks. … I was a freak for neon! I would hunt all stores for it. At one point we had two 6 foot high rubber Coca-Cola half bottles from World’s Fair ’39 in New York. The shop was really successful; We had many private collectors that we sold to regularly.”
In his mid-20s, Crew decided to do films, so he told Ferguson he was quitting the antique business and moving to LA
“I used to collect and restore old cars and limousines and rent them to production companies for films. After about six months I started finding the casting director on the sets and I just stood by them and made friends. That’s how I got the part in ‘Blood Diner’.”
After producing and starring in his own passion projects, the now infamous The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer and Gross Out, Crew needed a warehouse to manage the sales of his recent films. He enlisted the help of his frequent collaborator. He says of Ferguson:
“This guy is a brilliant artist. I do things for production, like Let’s get it done! But when he does something, he’s meticulous. He did most of the CIA’s interior design. He put together all the clips that we played on the projector outside. He would cut together Herschell Gordon Lewis clips, weird vintage videos, etc. He’s the real unsung hero, I’m just the loudmouth ha!”
After some persuasion, Ferguson moved to LA to open a store with Crew.
“I called him and told him I wanted to start a distribution company. We got the seat in ’94. The rent was so cheap then; it was easy to keep an open mind. We only used it as a warehouse for the first few years. We secretly opened it as a club in 1996.”
“The entrance was a 20 foot rubber wall with hinges and a fake ‘Brady Bunch’ chimney and the way they were set up – there was this big shadow between them and when you walked through it it looked, like walking right into a wall. That was the secret entrance to the CIA. We kept it open for about a year.”
The venue became very popular until someone complained about it and the city came and shut it down, Crew says. It took a few years to get all the licenses, and the CIA officially reopened in 2000.
In recent years, the once-covert entrance has become noticeably more conspicuous: A large wooden gate painted with circus stripes opened to reveal a 15-foot half-face/half-skull that served as the till. Usually, when the prop opened, the crew would stand in and hand out tickets to event-goers through the huge nasal cavity.
“This skull cost $10,000 to make! I got it from Nickelodeon,” Crew said. “It was from a show that was about getting into the body. It was amazing.”
For the next 22 years, the CIA remained the perfect LA haven for the bizarre.
“We mainly did variety shows and freak shows. “Girly Freak Show” with Slymenstra Hymen by Gwar, “Circus World”, “Squidling Brothers”. … We have the craziest puppeteers we could get, including Scott Land, lead puppeteer on ‘Team America,'” Crew said. “Eventually the prop maker from House of 1000 Corpses stopped by and stayed with us regularly for a few months to get the aesthetic for this film. Then there were all kinds of punk shows. We loved bands like Radioactive Chicken Heads. Fully costumed, totally crazy.”
But despite the zeal of LA’s most depraved underground, it’s been a strenuous effort to keep the doors open.
“When it was good it was absolutely brilliant, but when it was bad it was terrible. People have no idea what it’s like to own a club. People think you’re rich, but most of those years have been a struggle. We tried everything to stay open.”
Finally, pandemic restrictions put the final nail in the colorful coffin. Now, piece by piece, the remnants of the CIA are being swiftly cleared away while eager patrons walk away with furniture, lights, and sound equipment for a meager handful of cash. Just before the auction started, a private buyer acquired most of the collector’s treasures, including the famous corpse of Achile Chatouilleu. The new owner of the creepy cache asked to remain anonymous, but according to the crew, it was a very wealthy and eccentric personal friend.
Alligator Boy’s body was sold and moved to the David Copperfield Museum in Las Vegas. All that remains at the end of the purge is a two-headed baby in a shell and a plaster cast of the bones of Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man”.
Ultimately, over time, the CIA becomes one of the various mysterious legends that have taken up residence there. “Is it true there used to be a Mardi Gras-esque haunted house on Burbank Boulevard?” (narrator grins and taps his nose).
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-22/farewell-to-california-institute-of-abnormal-arts Punk rock venue California Institute of Abnormal Arts shuts its doors after 30 years