Unless you live on this quiet, narrow street in Lavapiés, there’s almost no reason for you to walk down it – that is, unless you’re going to the Duck Church. Nestled into the ground floor of a centenarian building lives a tiny temple devoted to the rubber duck, and its priest is Leo Bassi, a 66-year-old clown who was born on tour.
LEO BASSI’S STORY
Leo Bassi, the pensioner behind the Duck priest, arrived onto the stage of life in 1952, born to two circus performers while they were on tour in America. Staying close to his parents, Leo trained as a traditional clown and later joined them as one third of the Bassi Trio.
His 19th-century performance skills such as juggling with his feet are a portal to the days of his ancestors. Leo comes from a long line of circus performers: his great-grandfather Giorgio Bassi was even filmed by the Lumière brothers, and the family tradition stands uninterrupted for 170 years, although Leo has broken the mould slightly and embarked on a new style of performance.
Leo Bassi went solo, travelling from Europe to Japan through Pakistan and Thailand. He abandoned the theatre and took to the streets – a platform where he was able to explore performance techniques much truer to his character.
It wasn’t always easy, however…
While performing in Philadelphia, I was attacked by a group of men and had to go to hospital, but I quickly picked myself up, dusted myself off and got back on stage – back onto the streets.”
The highlight of Leo Bassi’s career came in 2005, when he was invited to Gdansk to perform at the very theatre that his great-grandfather had performed at 120 years earlier.
Leo Bassi continues to be a professional clown with one ultimate goal: to turn that frown upside down, and that’s just what he does every Sunday in Lavapiés…
Mass begins at 1 pm, and the six, red velvet pews fill up fast for this eccentric 45-minute extravaganza involving a toilet brush and a fabulous pair of shoulder pads.
Just as any priest does during mass, Leo Bassi reflects on current goings-on to aid his congregation’s own personal contemplation of the world. This week, it’s gay pride, but absolutely anything can be discussed. He’s not averse to talking about controversial topics, and it’s no coincidence that these reflect his open-minded views. But he also brings hope and humour into his artistic sermon, guiding us with a fluorescent light through what may be an uncomfortable reality.
And then he performs the ultimate magic trick, turning water into wine: “The only useful thing Jesus ever did!” Bassi downs a glass of it, almost in one, and carries on dancing to a soundtrack of upbeat pop.
EXPLORE THE CHURCH
The Duck Church is also open on Friday and Saturday evenings, which is when I encourage you to go and explore. I’ve been in several times and had the place to myself – a perfect moment to appreciate the detail and eccentricity of the tiny space.
The first room you walk into is the congregation area, where Leo Bassi holds Duck Mass. Below, we can see one of the main shrines, which is also home to a small fire pit containing a charred rubber duck.
Below, you can see Leo Bassi’s pulpit, where he performs his weekly Duck Mass.
Go through the right-hand doorway at the back, past the sexton, to find a dark sanctuary that also doubles up as a cinema. Take a seat on the red velvet throne and watch a secret seven-minute film of Bassi’s great-grandfather performing some of his earliest tricks. This 121-year-old footage has never been shown anywhere else – this really is the only place in the world where you can see it.
A LOCAL LIVING LEGEND
The more I learn about Leo Bassi, the more I’m in awe of him. He’s a brilliant rebel who could have achieved untouchable fame, but he shuns that elitist world and stays true to the ordinary folk: his devoted audience.
Leo is a natural performer with clown’s blood pumping through his veins but, through all of the laughter, he has a clear message to convey: be conscious of the world around you and do what you can to make it a happy place.