Raising the Bar on Bizarre


Every sensory cue indicates that this is not an ordinary gallery. Just inside the door, avant-garde art installations stand alongside sideshow oddities. A grotto encases a dead fairy ringed by candles and flowers. Nearby rests the preserved--and purportedly cursed--arm of some unlucky chap named Claude de Lorraine. Down the hall, a patio-turned-theater runs a pastiche of B-movie trailers and bizarre videos clips.

Welcome to the California Institute of the Abnormal Arts, where the name just about says it all.

CIA (they prefer this acronym to CIAA) is a colorful sore thumb that sticks out in North Hollywood's warehouse and auto repair district. Oversize props peek out of its fenced entrance like a demented circus fun house.

CIA began six years ago as a weekly private party where underground artists and performers could meet like minds. Beer, wine and champagne flowed. Revelers explored a haunted house-style maze with a punk-rock soundtrack full of disorienting nooks and unsettling exhibits. Over two years, CIA earned a reputation as one of the coolest nightspots in town.

Police raided the party in 1997 and slapped promoters Carl Crew and Robert Ferguson with a list of code violations, from operating without a liquor license to not having proper fire exits. CIA shut down for three years while Crew and Ferguson made renovations.

Dry for Now, but With the Same Old Spirit

The new law-abiding CIA reopened late last year. While the owners are still waiting for their liquor license, their art gallery has begun its new life. In addition to hosting the exhibits, CIA serves as a venue for eccentric performance artists and musicians.

The idea for CIA has been clear since the beginning: to provide "a multidimensional art venue where you could go in, get overloaded, and escape into a cartoon," Crew says.

Crew, a former mortician and theater art director, put his unique touch on the remodeling. The lounge at the venue's center, for instance, is more disquieting than relaxing. Displays include animatronic dolls straight out of horror movies, a mounted sasquatch head, and the preserved remains of Fish Boy and Octopus Girl. A pickled two-headed baby is framed nicely on the wall, and the petrified corpse of the Figi Mermaid is draped across the mantle.

Crews frequently can be spotted giving patrons a guided tour of the artwork and talking up new acts he has booked for the coming weeks. The promoter is finally able to relax in his sanctuary for misfit artistic expression.

The club/gallery now offers regular Friday and Saturday night shows featuring an eclectic mix of performers, such as banjo-plucking punker Bitsy Lee, glam metal throwbacks Revlon Red, and a band comprised of little people and the handicapped known as the Ebola Music Orchestra. Tuesday nights belong to punk promoter Tequila Mockingbird, who stages rock shows under the banner Catholic School. Crew plans to hand over booking duties to various promoters on other nights.

The venue's outre vibe is particularly unexpected, given its location "over the hill" from the nightclub mecca. CIA isn't drawing its crowd from the Valley, though, but from Silver Lake and Hollywood. And that's fine by Crew, who feels that those who make an effort to go the distance are more likely to appreciate CIA's offbeat sensibility.

Meanwhile, the collection of unusual memorabilia throughout the venue continues to grow. Upcoming arrivals include an encased body of a clown from the 1920s. Plans are also in the works to use the lot behind CIA for a real live circus sideshow, complete with ticket booth and Alligator Boy. Believe it? Or not.

* CIA, 11334 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Tonight: Paul Ill's Psychotronic, Bal Cyberjazz, Oscillator Paul, R. Marshall On Theremin. Friday: Rollerball, Art of Flying, French Silk, Dang Head, Karl @ Bass. Saturday: The Livingstons, Blind Five, Buzzmeg, Singlehanded. $6 cover. (818) 506-6353.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday February 24, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction Musician's name--The last name of musician Don Bolles was misspelled in a photo caption accompanying a story about the California Institute of the Abnormal Arts in Thursday's Calendar Weekend.
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