California Institute of Abnormal Arts punk rock venue closes after 30 years

The jewel in LA’s crown of hair-raising oddities came to an 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, each night, the stage performance was secondary to the venue itself. The 5,000 square foot space was decorated from front to back like a kaleidoscopic carnival and served primarily as a museum of strange oddities. Outside, a courtyard housed a life-size movie screen, showing one of many vintage B-horror movie clips.

The gallery of curiosities alone was well worth the price of admission on a Friday or Saturday night. Human fetuses in jars, a preserved severed arm, Fiji mermaids (that thing where the top half of a dead 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 body of French circus performer Achile Chatouilleu lay with his hands clasped in a hermetically sealed glass display case in the aisle leading to the venue. According to Ripleys Believe it or Not, Chatouilleu’s last wish when he passed away over 100 years ago was for his corpse to be displayed forever in his favorite clown makeup and Shriner outfit.

The body of Achile Chatouilleu.

(Courtesy of Carl Crew)

At the center of it all was the character who orchestrated this Technicolor madness. One with an unexpected twist – the horror dog of the unconventional, obsessed with serial killers and the grotesque is probably the nicest person you’ll ever meet.

Carl Crew, the head of the CIA, speaks with a charming smile and the natural ease of a born salesman who is finally ready to move on from his longtime vocation of maintaining this unique place.

“Frankly, it’s a huge weight on my shoulders!” he’s laughing.

Crew has one of the hottest resumes in Hollywood. In the early 1980s, he worked as an embalmer in Marin County, where he would meet his future business partner, Robert Ferguson. The two quit embalming to open an antique store in Haight-Ashbury.

In 1987, he starred in the cult classic, “Blood Diner,” and his IMDb page displays his semi-regular work as an actor, writer, and producer. But for the past 30 years, his true calling has been the modern-day carnival barker, affectionately known by his nickname, “The Barnum of Burbank.”

Crew’s life was steeped in weirdness from the start. His uncle, Jerry Crew, was the man who introduced the Bigfoot myth to American popular culture in 1958, “discovering” and making plaster casts of the now famous mud footprints in Del Norte County.

Born and raised in San Francisco, he developed his addiction to the limelight early on, performing in a traveling repertory theater troupe at the age of 9.

“My father worked as a surgeon but my parents had a gospel quartet. My brother is Mark ‘Sterling’ Crew. He performed Live Aid with Carlos Santana. I played in a repertoire band from age 9 to age 20. It wasn’t national or anything, but we did a lot of stuff on the road, through California.

“When I was a kid, I had to go to Playland, this creepy old amusement park near Ocean Beach. There was a funhouse with this mechanical lady, ‘Laffing Sal.’ Her laughter came through the speakers. She scared you when you were little! But it changed my life. Then, of course, my dad snuck me out to see some R-rated movies the school nights, which implanted the love of cinema.

In a carnival environment, a man in a glittery top and jacket waves to the camera.

Carl Crew at the CIA

(Courtesy of Carl Crew)

Carl took his first steps in the rarities business when he opened the Haight-Ashbury Antique Shop with Ferguson.

“We sold slot machines, jukeboxes, publicity stuff, neon clocks. …I was a freak for neon! I would hunt every store for that. At one point, we had two 6-foot-tall rubber half-bottles of Coca-Cola from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The shop was really successful; we had many private collectors to whom we regularly sold.

In his mid-twenties, Crew decided he wanted to make movies, so he told Ferguson he was quitting the antique business and moving to Los Angeles.

“I used to collect and restore old cars and limos, and production companies would rent them out for movies. After about six months, I started finding the casting director on the film sets and just supporting them and making friends. That’s how I got the role 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 handle the sales of his recent movies. He asked his frequent collaborator for help. He says of Ferguson:

“This guy is a brilliant artist. I do things for the production, like let’s go! But when he does something, he is meticulous. Most of the interior design of the CIA was him. He pieced together all the clips we played on the projector outside. He edited Herschell Gordon Lewis music videos, bizarre vintage videos, etc. together. He’s the real unsung hero, I’m just the loudmouth, ha!

After being convinced, Ferguson moved to Los Angeles to set up shop with Crew.

“I called him and told him that I wanted to set up a distribution company. We got the place in 94. The rent was so cheap back then; it was easy to stay open. We just used it as a warehouse for the first two years. We opened it as a secret club in 1996.”

“The entrance was a hinged 20ft rubber brick wall and a fake ‘Brady Bunch’ chimney, and the way they were set up – there was this big shadow between them and if you walked through it it looked like you were walking right into a wall. It was the secret CIA entrance. We kept it open for about a year.

A guy wearing a lion head mask stands at the bar of a red-lit club.

In the CIA bar.

(Courtesy of Carl Crew)

The place became very popular until someone complained about it and the city came to 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-secret entrance has become much more visible: a large wooden door painted with circus stripes swings open, revealing a 15-foot half-face/half-skull serving as the box office. Usually, Crew himself stood inside the prop when it opened, handing out tickets to onlookers through the giant nasal cavity.

“This skull cost $10,000 to make! I got it from Nickelodeon,” Crew said. “It was from a show about the inside of the body. It was amazing.

For the next 22 years, the CIA remained Los Angeles’ premier haven for weirdos.

“We were mostly doing variety shows and monster shows. “Girly Freak Show” with Slymenstra Hymen from Gwar, “Circus World”, “Squidling Brothers”. … We had the weirdest puppeteers we could get, including ‘Team America’ lead puppeteer Scott Land,” Crew said. “At one point, the prop maker from ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ came in and regularly hung out with us for a few months to get the aesthetic for that movie. Then there were all kinds of punk shows We loved bands like the Radioactive Chicken Heads. Fully costumed, totally crazy.

But despite the zeal of LA’s most depraved underground, keeping the doors open was an exhausting effort.

A skeleton on display at the CIA.

A skeleton on display at the CIA.

(Courtesy of Carl Crew)

“When it was good it was absolutely brilliant, but when it was bad it was awful. People have no idea what it’s like to own a club. People think you’re rich, but most of those years were tough, we tried everything to stay open.

Finally, pandemic restrictions put the final nail in the brightly colored coffin. Now, piece by piece, what’s left of the CIA is being quickly swept away as eager customers walk away with furniture, lights and sound equipment for meager handfuls of cash. Shortly before the start of the sale, a private buyer bought most of the collectible treasures, including the famous corpse of Achile Chatouilleu. The creepy cache’s new owner asked to remain anonymous, but according to Crew, he was a very wealthy and eccentric personal friend.

Alligator Boy’s body was sold and moved to David Copperfield’s museum in Las Vegas. All that remains at the end of the purge is a two-headed baby in a tank and a plaster cast of the bones of Joseph Merrick, “the Elephant Man”.

Ultimately, the CIA will over time become like one of the various mysterious legends that call it home. “Is it true that there was once a Carnival House of Horrors on Burbank Boulevard?” (The narrator smiles and pats his nose).

Diana J. Carleton