Finger paintings, glitter gowns, hula girls, and yellow-haired angels. Handmade rugs and electric-tape frames. Colorized photographs, round-eyed saints, oils, crayons, and mud-based paints. It's all folk art and it's in abundance at the Hollywood apartment known as the Entertainment Complex.
The walls offer a kaleidoscope of artistic endeavors by such folk talents as Jimmy Lee Sudath, Panorama Ray, the Glitter Girl, and nationally renowned folk artist Howard Finster. The rest of the complex is a whirling centrifuge of pop culture. Books like The Penguin Guide to Jazz, The Best of Abbie Hoffman, and Charles Bukowski's Septuagenarian Stew fringe a red leather and chrome dinette set. A larger-than-coffin-size phone booth stands sentinel in the alcove; the coin slot is disconnected, but the rest of the booth is fully operational. Across from the phone booth is the toy collection. A talking-action Darth Vader, a complete set of Pee-Wee's Playhouse figurines, and a Martin Luther King doll (with speeches on cassette!) are a few of the diversions that vie for shelf space. Wedged in a corner, a balloon-muscled Tick Man menaces visitors entering the living room, where stuffed Ren and Stimpy dolls have assumed permanent residence on the velour theater seats acquired from an out-of-business Miami Beach movie house.
Not surprisingly, the man who presides over the Entertainment Complex is known to denizens of the local music scene as Mr. Entertainment, a.k.a. Steve Toth. And his creative endeavors are as colorful and diverse as his decor. In addition to collecting instruments, art, and pop culture artifacts, the 33-year-old Toth is the kinetic frontman of the musical collective known as Faberge Dildo.
While Toth spends most days working as a 411 operator for the phone company, on any given night he can be found setting up for impromptu jam sessions with the various musical characters who populate the complex. Always close at hand is a jumble of instruments, including a vintage Sears Silvertone guitar, a banjo, a bass, a harmonium, a toy piano, and something Toth calls a Dr. Seussophone, an as-yet unidentifiable Indian horn. Here in the living room is where Faberge Dildo hones material for its semiregular gigs at Churchill's Hideaway.
As chief songwriter, Toth is reluctant to pigeonhole the quintet's musical style. "We play goofy music," he says. Many of Faberge's songs do have a freewheeling carnival feel that stems from Toth's long-time interest in the circus and circus freaks. The first ditty he ever penned, four years ago, was called "Circus Man Suits." Most of his current compositions are character sketches of some sort, often with an ironic twist.
Take "El Torero," for example. Its troubadour rhythms and staccato horns call to mind the Technicolor matador movies of the Fifties: crushed velvet, gold tassels, dark-eyed senoritas fluttering eyelashes from behind lacy fans. The only thing that seems out of place is that Toth is rooting for the bull. Although he scoffs at being labeled an activist for animals -- "I just don't eat them" -- he cops to writing the song, in part, to voice his disgust for the blood sport. "Why are [they] so proud of Joey Testosterone forking the bull?"
Then there's "Coca-Cola," Toth's take on soda addiction. "People are all sort of given these addictive traits and some people handle them differently. I think it's funny how we look down on people who are junkies when they're just in another position in life," Toth says. "If I was addicted to Coca-Cola and looked at a guy who was addicted to heroin, I would sympathize with him and not think he's a dirtbag."
Faberge Dildo's sound matches the eclecticism of Toth's compositions. On-stage the group weaves a sonic tapestry composed of Toth's carnival-barking vocals and rhythm guitar, Brandon Sandahl's arm-snapping drum work, the groaning haunt of Dave Johnson's baritone sax, cellist Janine Jones's stoic bows, and the twangy plucking of movie critic/lead guitarist Todd Anthony. The band's unique handle was coined by Johnson. He just threw it out one day and it, uh, stuck. "The name works," Toth says, "because the music is a little bit painful, but pleasant."
Faberge opened for the Moe Tucker Band in March and recently kicked off a showcase of local talent known as the Midsummer Ratfest. Both gigs were at Churchill's, which Toth describes as an ideal venue "because they let us play."
The lanky singer says he prefers to keep performances loose. He considers them hootenannies as much as anything else and remains unfazed by the occasional absence of a band member. "We're still tuning up," Toth says. "The last couple of times we've played we've been close. My friends come to see the shows and it's almost like everyone is part of the songs. We're all evolving around the music."
His low-key, fun-first approach has not gone unnoticed. Like most other local musicians, Rob Elba, vocalist for the Holy Terrors, lauds Toth's boundless energy. "He's an old huckster type, like a snake oil salesman," Elba says. "I like his songs and his attitude. Even if all the strings on his guitar were broken, he'd still get out there and play."
Indeed Toth, a veteran street performer who has busked many a South Florida sidewalk, appears immune to convention. Take, for example, his marriage. Eight years ago, Toth eloped with Tina (a.k.a. -- you guessed it -- Mrs. Entertainment), to be married on the Georgia farm of renowned folk artist Howard Finster. The two were joined in holy matrimony by Finster, who is also an ordained minister. A neighbor and two dogs served as witnesses.
Last fall Toth launched his first-ever Living Room Tour. Armed with his Silvertone guitar (complete with an amplifier inside the case), a microphone, and a suitcase full of props, Toth hit venues in Tampa, Tallahassee, New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta. Venues that were, well, living rooms.
Toth says he decided to present his musical shtick in private homes for a simple reason: "Everyone has a short attention span. People don't like to leave their houses. I realized that if I went and played for fifteen to twenty minutes in their living rooms, I could do my own tour."
Given his dizzying variety of pursuits, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Entertainment is an expert juggler. "I started juggling as a kid, with my parents' pool balls on the terrazzo floor," Toth notes. "Because juggling has a rhythmic pattern, it taught me time."
Along with juggling, the young Toth also cultivated an interest in the music of Alice Cooper and Kiss. "My parents were really cool and not very religious. I had my Kiss posters up on the wall and my black light and strobe light and all that." Although Toth is quick to point out that these theatrical rockers have no influence on his music now, it's easy to see the connection between the performance aesthetics of Cooper and Kiss and the importance Toth places on keeping the crowd entertained.
Oddly, until recently Toth was strictly a fan. "I always had an interest in music [but] nobody around me played until 1990." That's when he met local musicians Hal Spector and Pete Moss, of the band Boise and Moss, and Dick Royale, lead singer of the One-Eyed Kings. These friendships led Toth to his first on-stage performance. "I went out to see Boise and Moss play at the Talkhouse. They did some benefits after Hurricane Andrew. They did a song called 'I Want to Be on the Same Label As Elvis,' and someone had to yell 'Elvis!' That was me. I'd sit on-stage the whole time and do nothing, maybe read a newspaper, until that song."
At the same time Toth was performing his one-word bit, Dick Royale was forming the One-Eyed Kings. After sitting in with the Kings for an impromptu session, Toth joined the band and juggled oranges, cantaloupe, and bananas; he stood on his head, played Mousetrap, and made popcorn on-stage. The Kings were Toth's kind of band: they had fun, boasted a loyal following, and believed in freedom above all other principles. So much so that they performed some of their gigs au naturel, à la the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Often the Kings wore only guitars, fezzes, and shoes. Oh, yeah. And a sock.
"We'd give away Ben and Jerry's ice-cream bars. People thought we were handing out drugs." Toth laughs. "We'd always have one character following us around. For a while it was Red Hot Mama, this 65-year-old Latin lady who had three pistachio teeth and danced to all our songs."
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After the Kings dissolved, Toth picked up a guitar and started playing. Because of his and his wife's interest in self-taught artists, Toth decided against lessons. "I realized it would be better for me to just play what comes out rather than learn all those notes and make myself confused," he says.
Ironically, it was Toth's regular gig as a 411 operator that helped provide him with the chance to play with local noise band the Laundry Room Squelchers. In his ten years as an operator, Toth has given out countless phone numbers, fielded questions from kids refining their crank-call skills, even reported Lotto numbers. It was during a routine assistance call that he met Mindy Hertzon, a player with the Squelchers. Hertzon was calling to get the number to Churchill's. Toth was already a Churchill's regular. ("Some of my best friends will never get out of that neighborhood," Toth says, "so I have to go visit them.") The two struck up a brief conversation. Before long, Toth and his Dr. Seussophone joined the Squelchers' weekly romp at Churchill's.
It was Toth's Living Room Tour, however, that convinced him he was ready to start his own band. He wrote a number of songs while on the tour and arrived back in Miami raring to play. A solo gig at Tobacco Road brought him to the attention of Todd Anthony, who took over lead guitar duties. Sandahl and Johnson, alums of the One-Eyed Kings, signed on next. Then came Janine Jones, another Churchill's habitue, who longed to play cello in a rock band. "Mr. E. was the only one who would play with me," Jones says.
Toth is taking a Zen-like approach when it comes to Faberge's future: "I'm just hoping we play again. I'd like to try and record. This is the year I have to make a record because I'm 33. You see, 331U3 is the speed that records travel. I've only got a few months left.