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Originally published June 3, 2012 at 7:02 PM | Page modified June 4, 2012 at 10:30 AM

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Variety performers seek solace together after Cafe Racer shooting

The underground arts milieu from which shooting victims Drew Keriakedes and Joe "Vito" Albanese sprang encompasses performers of circus arts, burlesque, music and more. They turned to each other for comfort this week.

Seattle Times arts critic

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Thank you for a great, great article. Seattle is such a special place for so many... MORE
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Blessings to the patrons,artists and musicians of Cafe Racer and to it's reopening. MORE

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Not long after variety comedian Bill Robison heard about the Cafe Racer slayings Wednesday, he found himself standing in line at the Canterbury restaurant on Capitol Hill. Robison had spent three hours weeping that afternoon — Drew Keriakedes, one of the victims, was a colleague from the Moisture Festival — but Robison still felt like he needed to talk. As it happened, so did the woman in front of him.

"She turned around and just introduced herself," he said. "So I said, 'How was your day today?' She said, 'It's not a good day at all. Haven't you heard?' 'Yes. Did you know any of them?' 'Yes, I knew Drew.'

"Then she said, 'I know I'm a total stranger, but can I get a hug?' So for three long minutes, we had this hug at the Canterbury."

Robison and his unnamed acquaintance summed up the grief that swept through Seattle last week like a sudden flood. The unselfconscious eruption of public emotion was typical of folks in the performing-arts milieu from which Keriakedes and his musical partner, Joe "Vito" Albanese, sprang. (Three others lost their lives in the violence that day, as well.)

Some call that milieu "underground variety" — a loosely connected web that takes in vaudeville, circus arts, trapeze, cabaret, sideshows, burlesque, alternative music, clowning, juggling and elaborate physical comedy. It's a huge Seattle network, possibly involving as many as 3,000 artists.

You've probably glimpsed it at the Northwest Folklife Festival — where Keriakedes and Albanese performed last weekend — or at Bumbershoot and the Pike Place Market. If you've delved more deeply, you've encountered these artists at the Moisture Festival, Teatro ZinZanni, Honk Fest, the burlesque shows at the Triple Door and, indeed, at Cafe Racer itself, where Keriakedes and Albanese played every fourth Thursday and curated the other three.

Underground variety has deep Seattle roots, traceable to the '60s. But in the past five or 10 years, particularly with trapeze and burlesque, our city has become a national hot spot.

As members of the quirky band God's Favorite Beefcake (named facetiously for a Mormon fundraising calendar featuring buff guys) and the now-defunct but highly respected group Circus Contraption, Keriakedes and Albanese bridged several sectors of this burgeoning world. Keriakedes — aka "Shmootzi the Clod" — was a highly respected singer-songwriter who learned circus arts such as sword-swallowing. His appearance at Conor Byrne's annual Tom Waits night was highly anticipated.

"He'd do an a cappella version of 'Innocent When You Dream,' " said Eric Ray Anderson, who plays ukulele with Miss Mamie Lavona the Exotic Mulatta and her White Boy Band. "Then he'd stuff a fork up his nose."

One of Albanese's former bandmates said he was such a good bass player "it was an outright distraction."

Both worked with Circus Contraption, a kind of "grass-roots Cirque de Soleil," says Erin Brindley, who was the troupe's managing director. The circus played sold-out shows in New York and also toured Portugal, before dissolving a couple of years ago.

God's Favorite Beefcake served as the house band at the Moisture Festival, Seattle's annual spring extravaganza celebrating underground variety. At the Moisture Festival, you're likely to see contemporary clowning, goofy music, acrobats, juggling, burlesque, contortionists and physical comedy.

"We're talking about a woman who stands on her hands and shoots an arrow with her feet," says Robison.

Variety has found fertile ground in Seattle because of pioneers like Norman Langill, whose One Reel Vaudeville Show runs Bumbershoot, where whimsy and medicine-show hokum have always had a home. One Reel was part of a hippie revival of the vaudeville arts in the West, along with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, the Pickle Family Circus and the Oregon Country Fair. It was the fair, in fact, says Ron W. Bailey, that inspired him and some of the Karamazovs to start the Moisture Festival in 2004. Langill's Teatro ZinZanni, begun in 1998, was also an inspiration.

Of all the underground variety arts, Seattle has gained the strongest reputation for its aerialists. There are three trapeze schools here: Georgetown's School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA); Emerald City Trapeze, in Sodo; and Versatile Arts, in Phinney Ridge. SANCA has 800 students.

Seattle's burlesque artists may be even more high profile. Miss Indigo Blue, who heads up Seattle's Academy of Burlesque, was recently crowned Miss Exotic World, in Las Vegas, a contest in which another Seattle burlesque queen, Lily Verlaine, placed third. After the tragedy, a gargantuan outpouring on Facebook made it evident that everybody — like Robison and the random woman he met standing in line — seemed to know everybody else in all these circles, whether they perform burlesque, variety, aerial arts or music.

"For years, it seemed the various Seattle arts and cultural scenes were pretty much atomized, with little interconnection," wrote John Boylan, who volunteers at the Moisture Festival and used to edit the visual-art magazine Reflex. "But the outpouring of response to yesterday's events is part of a wonderful stitching together of groups, scenes, organizations and venues."

At a party at the Canoe Social Club on Thursday, Boylan added, "the way Seattle is now is that it all interconnects."

Sadly, this week, the pipes that link these artists are choked with grief.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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