Somewhere on the edges of Bushwick is a home filled with all manner of platform shoes, more than one book on Weimar-era cabaret, homo-erotic wall embroidery, and at least one jacket made entirely out of gloves. There you will find the singular man and performance artist Eric Schmalenberger, creator and curator of the Blunderland Variety Show.
To describe Schmalenberger would be to describe a character outside of the day-to-day. It would be to describe a man who prefers to travel with at least one other clown and who continues to abide by the artistic advise of his mentor, East Village performance artist Kembra Pfahler, who once told him: “If you don’t show your audience something new they should kill you.”
Schmalenberger—alternatively Schmaltzy, or Grandma to friends—began his artistic life as the son of a cabaret singer who gave up the art when she started a family.
“Not begrudgingly,” Schmalenberger noted. “Well, that’s what she says to me. Whether I believe her or not I don’t know.” Schmalenberger paused for a beat before adding, “No, I do believe her, my mother is lovely.”
Schmalenberger began as a musical theater student in high school before attending NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing.
“I would roll around naked on the floor with my friends in class,” Schmalenberger said. “Once, my teachers took us to the woods and we screamed as loud as we could under lilac trees. It was really a lovely time in my life.”
After graduating Schmalenberger began working at Deitch Projects with longtime art world-er Jeffrey Deitch who left an impression on the young creator.
“Jeffrey was always interested in the places where artistic mediums met,” Schmalenberger said. “He was interested in how nightlife influenced fashion and how performers influenced visual artists. That has stayed with me my entire life.”
It was around this time that Schmalenberger started working with performance troupes like the Citizen’s Band, where he picked up an interest in cabaret, burlesque, and circus while getting deeper into the variety show community. It was a scene that was occurring in the city in spaces like Dixon Place, LaMaMa, PS 122, and the now-defunct Galapagos, Red Lotus Room, and the old Slipper Room.
Soon Schmalenberger began the performance series BANZAI with fellow performance artist and nightlife personality Muffinhead. The event featured visual artists, performance artists, and installation artists.
After about 10 of these shows, Schmalenberger’s friend and House of Yes co-founder Anya Sapozhnikova literally dared him to start his own show. And just like that Blunderland was born on Dec. 7, 2011.
“I just thought it was going to be a really dumb one-off,” Schmalenberger said. “And then I wanted to do it again. And then I wanted to do it a couple more times. And then it became my main thing.”
Schmalenberg calls Blunderland a variety show meant to surprise people with a distinct turn away from themes and continuity and with an appreciation for showing audiences something they haven’t seen before.
“I think it’s good to have a healthy level of respect for your audience,” Schmalenberger said. “I think a lot of people try too hard to shock their audiences or they worry something will be too shocking for their audiences. I think that audiences can take a lot more than you can give them credit for.”
Blunderland features performers from New York City and beyond who create shows that Schmalenberger hopes will never bore himself — or his audiences.
Schmalenberger has an exciting method for finding new acts: he is open and ready for everything, as long as it catches his eye. While looking for new talent, he seeks charisma, stage presence, and something unique in every performer.
“I don’t care if it’s blood and gutsy and I don’t care if it’s sideshow,” he said. “I don’t give a shit what it is that you do but if the concept is good it looks cool and you’re charismatic then I’m there. I will put you on my stage.”
Although currently running twice monthly at House of Yes, the show has already been on the road to New Orleans and will enjoy its international premiere in London on April 25.
Schmalenberger takes pride in his work without being boastful. He claims he has been lucky, while also being good at his job. With those aside, he gives the claim to fame to his assertive nature, “And I’m pushy. A lot of people maybe aren’t pushy. Im pretty fucking pushy.”
So what’s next for Blunderland? The artist hopes to keep finding new performers, and to continue expanding the show with interesting talent. Now with London under his belt, he hopes the next stops are Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Lisbon, Reykjavik, “I want to see what other cities think of the insides of my brain.”
As for what they’ll think of the shocking content in any variety of locales is yet to be seen.
“Some places will say ‘well, that’s going too far,’” Schmalenberger said. “I say ‘that’s just charming.’”
All images courtesy of Eric Schmalenberger.
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