Phantom Mobsters Nightclub Clowns and Yugos, The World that is Wild Bill’s

By Laurencia Ciprus/Photos by Jeffery Lilly

WIld-Bills-Howdy-Doody-ClownDavid Lynch smudges behind the brick silo, its steeple a majestic fiberglass clown head. Sidestepping the dungeon in the basement, he mutters a riff from “Clown Crazy Time” then disappears. The heated sky is a bruised promise – not a threat – throwing down slashes of lightning and dirty dishwater between neat sets of thunder. Rising steam jettisons dust devils past the bars of rusty lion cages, on and into a fleet of inverted Yugos aimed straight toward to Middle Earth and Hades.  Don’t blink: a fiberglass Marilyn in suspended animation is hostess to the ghost of Sinatra. Your imagination, or, are faint echoes of Wise guys telegraphing from the concrete footing of the ancient stage? Old mobsters with raised eyebrows advise you to sit tight on demolition, hinting at the double crossers entombed beneath.  It could happen: in Vegas, or Reno or, better still, in a manic dystopia off a by-road in mid-state Connecticut. It could happen in a maniacally dark yet cheerfully sacred place; where half eaten dreams are shadowed by the spirits of mobsters, kind anacondas, carnies and cadres of clowns. Always watch out for the clowns.

Jump cut the film backward to July 6th 1944 and The Hartford Circus Fire: the big top a gas and paraffin soaked inferno. The knife wielding Barnum and Bailey clown is a hero, gashing through the flaming canvas saving scores of lives and risking his own. It was “The Day the Clowns Cried” and this clown was your grandfather.  You’re “Wild Bill” Ziegler hippie genius, and merchant of happiness. You wear a red rubber nose and an air of dark joy to honor your legacy. Honing your business skills with the State of Connecticut, you jump the tracks of black and white convention and into a Technicolor netherworld and feverishly amass truckloads of the impractically practical stuff of fantasy, dreams and unsettling wonderment. A Heidelberg Press, 8,000 sport jackets, unopened bobble head dolls and Barbies; hippie gear, a rare dismantled boardwalk dark ride and priceless carnival collectibles colonize a personal tribute to joyful materialism along with, of course, more clowns. You buy a dairy farm that’s gone cold and the Club Vasques – an abandoned 1940’s mob club – with ample ghost stories and 40 acres of real estate to extend the odyssey you now share with your daughter Heather Z. Page.

“Wild Bill’s” Nostalgia Center hangs on the outer margins of Middletown, CT as an oasis for an expanding artistic universe. “ We’re just far enough out-of-town, you have to want to come here,” Zeigler states. Like the pilgrims drawn to Mecca, the righteous, off-kilter and irreverent shamble in. Creative geniuses and carnie madmen; indie filmmakers and Comic Con junkies; hippies parched for nostalgia and hipster college students in classic rewind are all attracted to this magnetic anti-pole to soak up the delirious dark juju of “Wild Bill’s”.  The creative output is overwhelming and you need to check the coordinates to not be confused with a surrealist desert in a parallel universe.

The cherry on top of the grain silo in our opening dream sequence is courtesy of artists Chris Hausbeck and assistant Dawn Exton. (Hausbeck is the metal artist and slightly twisted eye that transformed 1,000 bear traps into the chilling hunting scene in the rear of the main building.) This isn’t kid stuff, children. “Keeshan Delight Number 9” is a mechanized 600-pound gaping nightmare of glee rising up against the night sky from the silo and counterbalanced by a twisted mass of scrap metal with a side order of animal parts. The head is an upended restoration of an enormous Clarabelle the clown, who was Howdy Doody’s sidekick in 1950’s pop culture. The head was custom built for Bob Keeshan, who played the original Carrabelle, and was later known as Captain Kangaroo. Hausbeck and Exton resurrected the head with nods to Stephen King’s “It” and “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” and a quantum amount of fiberglass. Not coulrophobic, you scoff?  Okay then…let’s not forget the place is haunted, with first-hand accounts and injuries backing up the claims.

Ghost hunter Adam Shefts and his crew from HPIS investigated the site for paranormal activity.  Ascending the old Club Vasque stage they saw an apparition of Russo – a poor sap from the Club’s 1940’s glitter days reportedly buried in the concrete face down and pointing west, mob style.  Shefts’ audio team caught a muffled voice calling out, “ We want our bill”.  Hopefully, it was just a request to settle an ancient bar tab and not a hit order on William Zeigler. The crew was unwelcomed by the spirits the swiftly and violently thrown off the stage by unseen forces. One guy sustained deep scratches and another withstood a severe knot on the back of his neck as if assaulted by a two-by-four. Its just business as usual at “Wild Bill’s” with the lore added texture to the shadowy fabric.

The current deep focus is restoration work on the multiple Fun Houses sprawling the property by an intrepid swat team of creative pros.  A classic Laff-in-the-Dark complete with a rare Pretzel Ride and salvaged from Beachland Amusements in Staten Island waits for reassembly. Plans are getting closer to finish to reassemble the classic 1950’s Dark Ride which will be mounted on tracks to lead captives through a dark terror with adrenaline pumping hysteria. A walk-through Fun House is a faithful replica of a classic with elaborate exterior murals by the expert artists’ collective. Don’t mistake the intention as a cheerful replica of Disney. Beyond the “No Trespassing signs” lurk ghouls, clowns, and cadavers poised to terrorize. Rusting large animal cages from the long defunct Emerson Wild Animal Park will provide a diabolical layer of sheer terror once the Dark Ride is back up on the rails.  But before the macabre materializes for public consumption, there is earthly business to attend to. Funds are needed for a required $100K sprinkler system and artists Joe McCarthy, and Peter Albano along with teammate Alex Alvadian continue the surrealist vision: converting the Fun House into a pop-up retailer with an infinite collection of vinyl records, books, vintage games, and composite concert posters with a global demand hot off Bill’s Heidelberg Press, plus a screening room for cult classics.

Joe McCarthy and Peter Albano are part of the ad hoc artists-in-residence at “Wild Bill’s”. McCarthy, with additional chops as a photographer and filmmaker, first arrived to shoot photos of the place and never left. He went on to set up his dream studio on the property then brought Peter into the time warp.  The spirit energy is encouraged to run free range at ‘The Nostalgia Center” and as they wandered the property, the pair discovered the abandoned carcasses of a trio of  ‘80’s Yugo autos. In homage to Stanley Marsh’s epochal car art “Cadillac Ranch” – where the artist half-enshrined 10 Caddies along I40 in Amarillo – McCarthy and Albano created “I’d Go Where Yugo, Stanley Marsh 3”. The upended imports balanced are on handcrafted fiberglass balls and poised toward the Netherworld as yet another example of this boundlessly creative incubator.

Newington native Lisa Schinelli Caserta is “Wild Bill’s” Ringmistress of Entertainment, who brings along her own singularly exotic saga. Her late partner, Henry Hill was the infamous ex-mobster and FBI informant who inspired Ray Liotta’s character in “Goodfella’s”. Hill joined  Caserta during a visit back home to Connecticut detouring to “Wild Bill’s” for take a step back to his Vasque Club days to commune with a few ghosts. Caserta who had a long career in various segments of Hollywood, became another boundless creative who came to visit, stuck around and now fueling the fire on a growing roster of music festivals, painting parties, happenings and events that keeps things unsettling and provocative on the property.

The Heidelberg hums and cranks out an order of posters for a collector in Tokyo or Temecula. Tourists from New Zealand briefly ponder the Pee Wee bikes suspended from the ceiling in the Center then refocus on a “Barbie Star Traveler Motor Home” and the likelihood of the Russian Barbie traveling across the Steppes in one.  Wild Bill is busy through all of the banter. The simmering sun returns in full wattage, and Clarabelle follows Bill as he passes through the gathering steam and across the muddy lot to check on the Astro Turf installation in the bookstore. When your grandfather was a clown, your guardian angel wears a red nose.

Wild Bill’s Nostalgia Center is located at 1003 Newfield St, Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 635-1226. For further information on upcoming events visit: www.wildbillsonline.com