Story by Ben Williams
The burgundy Ford E-350 hurtles down I-95,the main vein of the east coast, on its way to Brooklyn. Erminio Pinque grips the wheel like a mad scientist at the controls of his laboratory, hyper-focused on the road before him. His curly hair forms two messy tufts on either side of his head, soft glints of grey revealed by the sun as it passes between the clouds. His arched eyebrows rise above his reflective sunglasses, which sit atop his prominent nose. A goatee spreads like a grimace beneath his lower lip.
Water bottles and coffee cups litter the floor of the van. Between the front seats, a dog-eared copy of The New York City Cab Driver’s Joke Book juts out of the debris. In the trunk, fifteen hockey bags filled with foam monster costumes block the view of the rear window.
The journey feels a bit like a school field trip gone awry, or perhaps an experimental bank heist. But this is no school trip. The Big Nazo Intergalactic Creature Band has hit the road for The Cantina at the End of the Universe, an annual Star Wars-themed show at a secret loft in the Gowanus district of Brooklyn. They’ll entertain a crowd of costumed Star Wars enthusiasts with their mixture of funky blues and extraterrestrial theatrics.
Big Nazo, entering its thirtieth year, performs as a combined street theater troupe and costumed rock band. A mixture of puppetry, improvisational humor, and commedia dell’arte, their variety makes them hard to pin down, but that’s the idea.
In the passenger seat sits Green-Face Girl, her head covered in a swamp green ski mask to hide her true identity. In a matter of hours, she’ll be transformed into the loudmouthed heckler Anita Crackinstuff. Before and after shows, she is picked up and dropped off at an undisclosed, yet public, location, often to the confusion of passersby.
Harry Stewart, Pinque’s second-in-command, sleeps beneath the brim of his paisley cricket hat in the back seat next to Chris, a DJ and animator, who’s bent over his laptop, frantically putting the finishing touches on his space age opening set.
In front of him, 60-year old bassist Mibbit Threats recounts stories of a bygone era, from playing with Marvin Gaye to studio work with Quincy Jones. His raspy, yet authoritative voice fills the space of the van. His stitched blazer hangs loosely on his towering frame. He looks the part of an old-school jazz musician, which makes it even harder to believe that he could be wearing a giant squid costume later in the evening.
Erminio Pinque, the son of working class Italian immigrants, started Big Nazo 29 years ago, back in 1986. Fresh out of the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied illustration, Pinque travelled to Europe as a one-man show, performing on the streets of London, at Notre Dame in Paris, and around various plazas in his parents’ native Italy. It was there that he became known affectionately to eccentric locals as “Big Nazo” for his character’s prominent nose.
“It was that whole young person’s solo journey into the unknown,” he recollects. After five months of travel, he settled back in Providence, Rhode Island to immerse himself in the budding arts scene and pay off accumulated parking fees.
“Providence in the late 80’s was a very different kind of city. It was physically, at night, dark and spooky and mysterious,” recalls Pinque in his eerie, hushed voice, “There was a lot of kind of beauty and horror mixed in. There was a lot of underground activity.”
It was in this post-industrial atmosphere that Pinque united a motley troupe of Lovecraftian characters to form Big Nazo. He built from his experiences as a RISD student, fabricating costumes for theater productions at Brown University, as well as his apprenticeship under Marc Kohler at The Puppet Workshop, where he invented his method of painting foam puppets with acrylic paint cut with latex.
“Marc gave us the keys to the kingdom,” says Garland Farwell, who worked alongside Pinque at the workshop. Pinque and Farwell often stayed late into the night at Kohler’s studio, testing their artistic techniques and exploring darker forms of puppetry. These late night experiments turned into the foundation for Big Nazo, which became an unmistakable fixture of the city’s art scene.
Stewart, 27, who grew up in Providence at the same time as a young Erminio Pinque was putting Big Nazo together, notes how the arts scene has changed: “Everyone’s an artist now. Before you were treated like you were a weirdo, but now we’re the cool ones. But we’re still weirdos.”
“Without Big Nazo, what would the art community here be?” he adds.
At the far end of the hustle and bustle of Kennedy Plaza stands Providence City Hall, a regal granite building with a Mansard roof lined by greened copper. If you turn the corner onto Fulton Street, you’ll end up staring up at windows full of foam creatures, just feet away from the mayor’s office. The monsters form a mottled assortment of purplish-green porous skin, bulbous blue noses, and ogling eyes. A green awning juts out, declaring “Big Nazo Lab.” The door is open.
Posters line the walls from past events: Bright Night, Providence’s art-driven New Years’ celebration, as well as Necronomicon, an international conference for the city’s native son, H.P. Lovecraft. Buckets of latex sit in the corner next to piles of creased masks and robot arms. A giant silver dragon costume is perched next to a table where Stewart gently applies a coat of orangey paint to a fat suit, a commissioned project for a hospital’s bariatric clinic. In his paint-splattered lab coat, he looks half art student, half mad scientist. He offers a cheerful smile as Pinque welcomes you in.
The Big Nazo Lab’s open door policy allows strangers off the street to explore the Lab’s otherworldly space. “Where else do you find that?” asks Stewart, Pinque’s protégé, now in his second year with Big Nazo. Members of the Barnum & Bailey Circus have even stopped by the Lab to learn about Pinque’s craft. Local artists come in from time to time to discuss ideas with Pinque, whose electric mind brings even the most banal details to life.
He sees your leather briefcase. “What if that was given to you by a homeless businessman? Maybe he was like, ‘Uhh, I don’t need this anymore. You can have it.’ Wouldn’t that be great?” he imagines quizzically, saddening his voice to create the character.
In a pollen-yellow cushioned chair, the limp body of a white-collared old man slumps. His eyes stare lifelessly upward through black-framed glasses. Pinque sticks his hand into the back of his head, bringing him to life for a moment.
Pinque no longer speaks in the measured tones of a playwright: “You know, I was a reporter back in the day,” croaks the wrinkled puppet through his flapping mouth, “I used to report on toxic waste sites, y’know. Didn’t wear a HAZMAT suit or nothing. It had an effect on my skin…”
Pinque pulls his hand from the puppet and it falls limply backwards, returning to its prior lifeless state. “Isn’t this guy great?” he asks, taking the reddened, crinkled skin of the gaunt mask in his experienced hands. “The masks kind of age, like real people. They look better that way, I think. When they’re new, they look less authentic,” he adds.
Pinque has aged too, as has the city around him. The underground arts scene has reached the Earth’s surface, forming a complex web of nonprofit community arts centers and tightknit social circles. Some of the audience members at shows can recall seeing the group perform as children. Their intense involvement in the Providence community makes many people forget that they aren’t just a local act—Big Nazo has performed in Japan and Indonesia.
“He’s getting to the point in his age where he wants to be there, to make it,” says Mibbit Threats, “He’s been around a long time.”
It was Pinque’s ambition that drew a professional musician like Threats to join the Big Nazo band. “The reason why I’m here is that he has a vision,” says Threats, who joined in 2002, “I know these are puppets, but we can still be puppets with killer music.”
Musicians and performers have circulated through the group, bringing their experiences with Big Nazo to other avenues and opening space for a new generation of eccentrics. Pinque speculates of his group, “This is probably the weirdest collection of brains you could find.”
Indeed, Big Nazo has a knack for attracting people from all walks of life. As former mentor Marc Kohler puts it, “One of the keys to what he’s done is he’s created a cult following.” Part of that is Big Nazo’s mystique, though Pinque’s ability to connect with people from various backgrounds is certainly a major factor.
There’s Nico, who runs a tastemaker blog, Jesse, a talented photographer, and Joseph, an encyclopedia of little-known rock bands from decades past. And of course there’s Harry Stewart, who works with the Rhode Island for Community and Justice when he isn’t skateboarding or working at the Lab.
“Erminio is the force that binds us and holds us together,” Harry says, “He gives people that belief in themselves that they really need.”
Before joining Big Nazo, Stewart struggled to find his place as a young artist. He had interned at the Lab as a student at the MET School, but missed opportunities to join Big Nazo in a greater capacity despite Pinque’s frequent invitations. Mixed up after the death of his father, family trouble held him back from committing to the group.
“If I wasn’t here, I’m not sure where else I would be,” Stewart says, “This is sort of my blessing. It’s given me my life.”
Big Nazo has performed at many festivals, from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to PRONK, the annual brass band celebration in Providence. Every so often, the troupe organizes an impromptu street invasion, marching down Thayer Street on College Hill or walking into the crowds of Times Square.
“I’m trying to get us into a situation where we’re able to perform more on stage, not because I think it’s the only way to go. It’s just because we need that storytelling platform in order to be the artists that we want to be,” Pinque says back at the lab, surrounded by his creatures, “At this point, I fear not having enough of the stage work. That’s my concern.”
As arts funding has disappeared, venues are offering less for bands. Larger festivals, however, tend to have the funding, forcing Big Nazo into more interactive strolls and joint appearances.
“The strolls are like exercises or bonding experiments,” says Pinque. These events allow new members of the troupe to get a feel for the costumes and practice audience interaction. But they don’t involve the complexity and artistic mastery of a stage show.
Pinque remembers starting out as an artist after RISD, “I looked at the world and saw that a lot of the traps and a lot of the problems with organizations were that they were structured in a way that tradition can be overbearing to the exploration aspects.”
As a full-time manager, performer, puppet maker, and more, Pinque keeps his hands full and molds every facet of Big Nazo, exploring new opportunities and maintaining a creative sense of fluidity. Above all, he remains an artist, translating his sketches into fleshed-out illustrations, and eventually physical costumes.
Within these costumes, each character gradually gains an identity and incorporates stories from past performances. Sometimes, different masks are mixed with different appendages, creating entirely new creatures. This is where tradition and exploration coexist for Big Nazo.
Part of being a member of the troupe involves anonymity and secrecy, in order to maintain the myth of the performances. Removing your mask is a major taboo. After shows, the troupe can walk through the crowd and hear what people have to say.
“It’s not about the person inside the suit. It’s about the thing people are seeing,” says Stewart.
In Gowanus, Brooklyn, the band unloads, dragging the hockey bags through the metal door, up the narrow stairway, and to the low-ceiling loft above. A laughing moon hangs on the brick wall, cast in soft yellow light. Patterned curtains shut out the remaining sun from the windows. In the corner, the bartender prepares drinks as the organizers direct Pinque and his crew to the roof outside, where they’ve set up a makeshift changing room.
Various characters trickle in as the time for the show nears: a Darth Vader, two people in Ghostbusters jumpsuits, and a suited Dr. Who with a red velvet fez. They talk calmly until a few creatures join the fray, first a Star-Slug, then a green troll.
At 11:00 p.m., the Intergalactic Creature Band takes the stage. A bug-eyed creature straps on a guitar. The bassist’s tentacle-covered squid head almost touches the ceiling. Tremendanus, a white anorak-wearing mad scientist, announces the show.
“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” he murmurs eerily, adopting a nasal tone “We are the Big Nazo Intergalactic Creature Band.”
After the brief, spooky introduction, the band bursts into a space-themed ballad, “Space is Your Home.” The crowd pushes toward the stage, gazing up at Tremendanus, whose mirrored goggles reflect back. He sings soulfully, promising the audience solace from the real world if they join him in space.
The squid plucks the bass, producing a thick groove, despite the difficulty of communicating with the helmeted drummer. Psychedelic guitar solos trade off with Tremendanus’s haunting wails.
Over the course of the night, Tremendanus transforms into Glorbo, Dr. Bhugg, the one-eyed Commander Glort, and finally, Quasimodo, the original hump-backed, tuft-haired character that inspired Big Nazo’s name. Each costume channels its character’s unique identity.
Anita Crackinstuff steals the stage for a moment, clothed in her floral print dress and oversized red sunglasses. Her voice could grate cheese. She introduces her husband Duane, a potato-headed version of Providence’s notorious former mayor, Buddy Cianci. At another point, a stuffy scientist interrupts the performance, claiming Big Nazo and Star Wars aren’t real science. His proclamations are met with a chorus of boos.
Big Nazo’s shows are filled with vaudeville-style interruptions, creating onstage drama and allowing the show to poke fun at itself.
“Everyone loves to hate this guy,” smiles Pinque. He grimaces and assumes the voice of the neighborhood curmudgeon: “Look at you unwashed, disgusting, you need a job. What is music anyway, you can’t make a living doing it. All of you are wasting your time!”
These were complaints the entire audience had heard from landlords, parents and politicians. People get riled up. And when the puppeteer throws the character into the audience, his body usually comes back dismembered.
When Big Nazo retakes the stage, the crowd cheers, as the band erupts in another funky melody. The singer dances around, jolting with exaggerated movements.
“We have a spaceship to catch,” Quasimodo insists as the show comes to a close. The band exits the stage to whispers of amazement.
The band undresses behind a screen, stuffing the costumes back in the worn-down hockey bags. They carry them to the edge of the roof and toss them over to the sidewalk below with a thud, where Chris and Harry stack them into the burgundy van. The entire crew jumps in. It’s 2:00 a.m. and they have a 4-hour drive back to Providence, followed by an 11:00 a.m. appearance at a parade in Newport.
“Everybody ready?” Pinque asks from behind the front wheel. He turns the keys and hits the accelerator, carrying the van back onto the dimly lit Brooklyn street.