Kings and Queens of Swords
"Today we are indeed going to shock and amaze you with some of the old sideshow feats, some of them so dangerous, so bizarre, I hate to even think of them myself!" The electrifying voice and the snappy patter belong to Johnny Meah, "The Czar of the Bizarre."
When I heard that my old friend from the midway was making a special appearance at the Barnum Museum in Connecticut, I was among the sideshow enthusiasts who came from near and far to see this "showman's showman" perform. After every kid in the audience had promised (as I must ask you to do) "I will not, absolutely not, try any of these things at home," Johnny proceeded to eat fire, perform the "blockhead" act (hammer a twenty-penny nail up his nose), and swallow a World War II bayonet. Galumph! Removing the 18-inch blade from his gullet to a big round of applause, the performer emitted a gurgly "Thank you very much." When the laughter had subsided and his voice had returned to normal, he delivered the punch line: "Oh, I see what happened, I forgot to eat breakfast today; I'm down to the 'add' mark."
The audience laughed and applauded in all the right places. They oohed and aahed on cue, since this 30-minute act is the essence of everything Johnny has learned during his 40-year career as a circus clown and sideshow performer. And yet I wonder how many people in the audience – and how many of you – still believe that that the sword folds up into the handle or employs some kind of special effect.
"If you actually did a one-on-one show with one of those people," Johnny tells me, "they would nod in the right places, but when they left and recounted the experience to one of their friends, they'd probably say, 'Well, yeah, it was some kind of a trick, but I couldn't catch the guy doing it.' They could watch the thing as an X-ray and they still wouldn't believe it."
The great irony of the sword swallower's art is that after going through the dangerous and difficult process of learning to suppress the gag reflex and actually getting the sword to go down, the artist has to prove to his audience that he is swallowing a real sword. So what's an entertainer to do?
Johnny Meah picks a "demure-looking lady" from the audience. (At the Barnum show, she also happened to be the New York Times reporter covering the event.) Before doing the "bend-over," which consists of bending at the waist while a sword is down his throat, Johnny gives the woman the following instructions off-mike: "Pull the sword out as slowly or as quickly as you care to – you can't hurt me," though he once got his teeth knocked out by a demure-looking lady who inexplicably pushed instead of pulled on the handle.
Fred Kahl, The Great Fredini, who swallowed a bent coat hanger onstage at Coney Island's sideshow before he ever owned a sword, refers to this prop as "the real prove-it-to-them" one. On the theory that the most experienced sword swallowers make the act look too easy, because the sword just glides down, he still swallows the coat hanger as part of his show. But he admits that "it probably looked more convincing when I was first learning and my body tensed up."
Keith Nelson, the charmingly subversive Mr. Pennygaff with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, "commits a felony" with a pair of gag scissors in an attempt to convince skeptics in the audience that, as he says, "what I'm shoving down my throat is real." Before he downs the scissors, which are considerably oversized, he proves that they are "genuinely sharp" by using them to cut up a dollar bill he cadges from someone in the front row. "A lot of it is just showmanship. You really have to get the audience with you feeling that it's real, and then kind of hold them at the edge," says Keith, who also swallows sabers, corkscrews, door springs, coat hangers, and, in a tribute to good ol' vaudeville, a rod upon which he has set a spinning plate.
Frank Hartman, Coney Island's sword swallower in residence, made his midway debut as a 12-year-old boy wonder with his uncle Bobby Reynolds' sideshow. He performed the blockhead, bed of nails, and iron maiden, which he concedes was "a little bit peculiar, but for me it was normal enough." Today, he can climb a sword ladder barefoot, stand at the top, strike a pose, and swallow a sword. Or swallow a blade that couldn't possibly fold up into the handle because it has no handle. "It's basically a flat bar of steel," explains Frank, who is a whiz at launching the blade straight out of his throat and into the air, or bowing down and flinging it out in a half-rotation. As a coup de grâce, he stabs the stage with it.
Johnny Fox, who is a living legend for having accomplished the major feat of swallowing a "sandwich" of 16 swords, begins his act with the word "relax." He says it three times, as if it were an incantation to put his audience at ease. "I want you to know I'm not going to hurt myself," he tells them. "For those of you who don't know what's happening, I'm in control of the muscles of the throat (the pharynx and epiglottis) as well as the muscles below the esophagus. The longer swords are going to be going further down into the other areas, like the Fallopian tubes, I guess, I don't know…" After pretending to swallow "a real trick sword" with a collapsible blade, so that the audience will be able to tell the difference between a trick sword and real one, he hauls out the heavy metal: a corkscrew that makes his Adam's apple go up and down; a lethal-looking medical diagnostic tool; and his latest experiment in the art of eating dangerously, a giant spoon. After swallowing the spoon, he cracks an egg into its bowl, then takes a blowtorch and fries the egg while the spoon is down his throat!
Are you convinced? If not, some performers may add the pièce de résistance to their bill of fare – a sword constructed of neon tubing. While sword swallowing is an ancient art, electricity is a potent symbol of the modern age. As soon as the neon tube was invented in 1936, neon-tube swallowing became a sideshow craze. When the stage is darkened, the eerie glow of neon illuminates the performer's neck and chest, making it convincingly clear that the sword swallower is not a mere trickster.
When I saw Johnny Meah perform this dramatic feat at the Barnum Museum, I was stunned. Fifteen years ago in a carnival sideshow, a neon tube exploded inside him. When someone tried to wrench it out of his throat, shards of glass cut his windpipe; blood gushed from his mouth and onto the stage. I've seen press clips about Prince Neon (William Kroll), who claimed to be the world's first neon-tube swallower. He was also presumably among the first to be injured when, in July of 1936, a two-foot long tube broke inside him just before the electricity was turned on. SWORD SWALLOWER DOES IT TOO WELL… SURGEONS TAKE FOOT OF GLASS TUBING FROM STOMACH was the headline of an item that flashed across the wire. Later on, Kroll "put himself out of business" with neon, as we say on the midway. And there would be many more. Johnny was one of the lucky ones; he recovered from his injuries and was back on the road the next season, doing just about everything except neon. I wondered how he got up the nerve to do it again, and why he would take such a risk. The real question is, why in the world would anybody take up this line of work?
One answer can be found in Dan Mannix's Memoirs of A Sword Swallower, the true-life adventures of a young man who ran away with a carnival sideshow in the 1930s, transforming himself into a fire-eater and a sword and neon-tube swallower. "If you can be a success in sideshows, it may be the beginning of a career," wrote Mannix, citing Harry Houdini, W.C. Fields, and Robert Ripley as examples of "famous men who were able to embody the strange blend of humor, magic and grotesqueness that is the spirit of carnival life."
When Johnny Meah first took up sword swallowing as a teenager back in the '50s, there were about 250 carnivals on Billboard's route list and almost every one of them featured a sideshow with a king or queen of swords. "Professor Meah" added to his earnings as the show's inside lecturer and expanded his repertoire by learning to swallow a sword. "It was just a little one- or two-minute snippet en route to doing other things," explains Meah, who was also the show's fire-eater and magician, as well as a freelance banner painter.
By the 1980s, the sideshow had come to be regarded as a vanishing slice of Americana, and the art of sword swallowing was on the verge of becoming a dying art. According to an article in Circus Report, a weekly trade paper, there were only 16 sword swallowers working in the United States at the time. Johnny Meah had returned to an earlier vocation, circus clowning. But he kept one hand in the blade biz by occasionally rejoining one of the last touring shows, Hall and Christ's World of Wonders, which appeared at state fairs as well as at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival. Johnny Fox, then a street performer in his twenties, combined the "oral forms of entertainment," such as fire-eating and swallowing burning cigarettes and swords, with comedy, magic and storytelling. Born too late to run away with a carnival sideshow, but old enough to have fallen under its spell as a boy, he told his audience, "Someone has to carry these things on. Kids will grow up and say, 'Sword swallowing? Yeah, right.'"
Today, the popularity of body play, the circus arts, and extreme sports has created a surge of interest in the sideshow's most popular working acts: fire-eating, blockheading, and sword swallowing. "There has been an explosion of people wanting to do these acts. Every time someone starts one of these goofy sideshow troupes, they've got a sword swallower," says James Taylor, cofounder of the American Dime Museum, a new exhibition and research center in Baltimore devoted to novelty and variety acts. Taylor, who has been publishing the sideshow journal Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway since 1995, estimates that there are 18 new sideshow troupes, and more than two dozen sword swallowers, working in the United States today. "The only problem is they come and go. They ebb and flow," he says.
Sword swallowers are buskers in city parks and at Renaissance festivals. They are self-declared freaks and geeks who have reinvented the sideshow as performance art in clubs, bars, and theatrical venues. They are comedians, magicians, new vaudevillians, and circus performers who have brought classic sideshow acts from the midway into the mainstream.
Brad Byers, a former circus juggler and chin balancer currently in the Guinness Book of World Records for most swords swallowed, taught himself the act because he was looking for "something off-the-wall" that he could perform in casinos and on TV shows. In his most recent appearance on Guinness World Records: Primetime, he swallowed ten 27-inch swords, one by one, and rotated them inside his throat, a method that he developed. "I don't do a sword sandwich," he says, referring to the traditional method of swallowing multiple swords, a category that Guinness retired in 1991 after Edward "Count Desmond" Benjamin injured himself swallowing a sandwich of thirteen 23-inch blades.
Today, Dick Zigun's not-for-profit Coney Island USA is the only place in America where you can see ten classic sideshow acts presented in a traditional "ten-in-one" format. It is also the only place I know where you can find a sword swallower performing 15 shows a day, at 45-minute intervals. "The best sideshow acts are the visceral acts that force you to laugh or scream, avert your eyes, or gag. Sword swallowing, even if people wonder about its authenticity, provokes that visceral effect," says Zigun, a Yale Drama school grad who has been producing plays, parades, and off-beat cultural events at Coney Island for the past 21 years. "I think the skepticism might come after the fact, but sword swallowing remains what it has been for centuries: an impressive performance that affects people."
Back in 1986, Dick Zigun teamed up with sideshow entrepreneur and talker extraordinaire John Bradshaw to bring Coney Island its first sideshow in 30 years. Bradshaw's Circus World of Curiosities featured old-timers Melvin Burkhart, The Original Human Blockhead, and Otis Jordan, The Human Cigarette Factory. It nurtured a new generation of sideshow stars. More than a half-dozen sword swallowers have performed here over the years, including the beautiful young Lady Diana, who was billed as "The Only Female Sword Swallower in North America."
Frank Hartman's predecessor at Coney Island, Fred Kahl, was a street performer who started out as a magician and went on to become The Great Fredini – a sword swallower, blockhead pro, and comic ventriloquist. Fred's seven-year stint climaxed with his marriage to The Incombustible Kiva, the show's sensational fire-eater. In a ceremony that recalled the zany publicity stunts from the sideshow's glory days, the flamboyant couple cut their wedding cake with a sword that Fred had just swallowed and removed, a scene they were invited to reenact for Jay Leno and his Tonight Show audience.
Although there is no Coney Island School of Sword Swallowing, there are at least two schools of thought on the subject of how to go about learning this arcane art. There is what Fred Kahl describes as "the brute force school," which essentially means forcing the blade down until one gradually overcomes the gag reflex and smooths the passageway for the swords. But Fred, along with fellow sword swallowers Johnny Fox and Keith Nelson, favors a more holistic, yoga-based approach. "It's all about relaxing, just kind of opening up," says Fred, who studied Hatha yoga for a year in preparation for swallowing the bent coat hanger. "Over the winter, I'd pull the hanger out of the closet and choke on it once a month," he remembers. When he brought the prop with him to Coney Island in the spring with the intention of practicing backstage, it instantly went down, and he performed the feat onstage that day.
"Sword swallowing is something you can talk a person through, up to a point," says Johnny Meah, "and then they're on their own." But he won't talk with anyone who isn't already a professional entertainer. He tells me about a woman in New York who is a belly dancer and a sword swallower. "She wanted a neon prop, and I steadfastly refused to have one made for her, because it's very, very dangerous," Johnny explains. After a great deal of persistence on her part and a lot of soul-searching on his, he told her how the prop was constructed, and she found someone in New York who would make it. "She sent me a card yesterday saying that she had broken two props, fortunately not inside of her, and that she is becoming very frustrated with it. As I pointed out to her, It's something you have to just put away for awhile, go back to what you normally do and then – a lot of it, as I've told you before – a lot of it is cerebral."
Natasha Veruschka, the world's only female sword-swallowing belly dancer, has a tantalizing cabaret act torn from the pages of A Thousand and One Nights. After making her debut at the Blue Angel in New York, this modern-day Scheherazade now entertains high rollers in Las Vegas. "Sword swallowing is a very, very old art form. Older than belly dancing," says Natasha, whose childhood memory of staring mesmerized into the shiny, mirrorlike surface of a butter knife makes her wonder if she was trying to catch a glimpse of another time – a past life – with swords.
One thing is certain: Natasha Veruschka, whose real name is Natasha Shands, is a woman in the process of reinventing herself through her art. "I always looked different from the other belly dancers. I performed differently," she says The first time she danced with a balanced sword, it felt so natural that the idea of incorporating sword swallowing into her act began to crystallize in her mind. Now she believes that swallowing neon will change her life. "You either let stuff get you down or you go beyond it. Especially now, with neon, it's so important to manage your mind, to be able to have a strong enough mind to get the tube down," she says, echoing what Johnny Meah has already made clear to me: Despite the physical hazards of the profession and the potentially fatal effects of neon, the art of sword swallowing is "not totally physical. In fact, very little of it is physical."
Though Natasha has never performed in a sideshow, she learned sword swallowing from John Bradshaw of Bradshaw's Circus World of Curiosities fame. Responding to an ad she'd placed in Circus Report, he sold her a couple of blades at a fair price and gave her free lessons. "The most unusual thing is that I've never met the lady. We did this through mail and telephone," Bradshaw says. Some people take as long as two years to get the knack of it. Natasha learned in six months' time. But when she read Memoirs of a Sword Swallower and became entranced with the idea of swallowing neon, Bradshaw told her, "Don't. Just don't. I'd feel guilty if you killed yourself."
Natasha, who describes herself as "determined, but not pushy," called every sword swallower that she knew, or knew of, in her quest for a neon sword. After Johnny Meah finally told her what she needed to know, she went on to persuade the owner of a neon company (whose signs light up Broadway and give Times Square its razzle dazzle) to make her what she wanted: three "neon babies" in her colors, violet and bright pink. Though she hasn't yet transformed herself into the queen of neon by swallowing these babies with the electricity turned on, Natasha is triumphant: "Tell Johnny I did it," she says to me the day after she manages to get a tube down. "It's a gift – a very strange gift. Just to be given the knowledge that you can do it."
I wonder if there is a certain type of personality that predisposes a person to become a swallower of swords. John Bradshaw, who does magic and fire and also knows how to swallow swords (though he never did it professionally) comes close enough to giving me an answer. He describes the people who were drawn to the sideshow's working acts as "those of us that were inwardly unusual and had a desire to be different, and to do something that was more or less wonderful, but in the same breath, kind of bizarre."
Johnny Fox's Freakatorium, a storefront museum on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is crammed with the proprietor's 20-year collection of memorabilia from the golden age of the sideshow. Posters touting The Homeliest Man on Earth – He Swallows His Own Nose, The Medusa Child, and other midway marvels paper the walls and ceiling. A genuine Jivaro shrunken head from Ecuador and a replica of a Feejee Mermaid vie for my attention. Johnny Fox opens an album containing autographed photos of celebrated sword swallowers: Ricky Ricchiardi, Estelline Pike, Sandra Reed, Captain Don Leslie…
Who is the sword swallower from the past that he most admires? "Kar-mi," he says, unrolling a turn-of-the-century poster that depicts the Great Kar-mi performing an array of spectacular stunts: shooting a gun barrel while it's down his throat, holding up a Springfield rifle by swallowing its bayonet, swallowing a table leg with the table still attached. But my eyes are drawn to a cartouche at the bottom in which Miss Victorina – Kar-mi's wife – can be seen performing a feat that strikes me as a precursor to swallowing neon: "The most weird and startling exhibition before the public. Miss Victorina swallows an electric light and it shines through the flesh, making her body transparent to the astounded beholder."
Later that evening, the charismatic Johnny Fox performs in a club on Avenue A. He swallows a serpentine kriss, a sword with a golden bat on its hilt, and more. Then he brings out the pièce de résistance: a state-of-the-art neon sword. In its latest incarnation, the sword has been forged of the both the brightest and the dimmest shades of neon. The cobalt blue handle bathes the performer's face in a minimal amount of light. When he swallows the blade, which has an orange hue, the brightest, purest form of neon shines through his flesh, making his throat appear transparent to this astounded beholder.
In my travels from the Barnum Museum to Coney Island to the Freaktorium and more than a few clubs along the way, I have been shocked and truly amazed by the wonderfully bizarre, death-defying feats that I have witnessed with my own eyes. I have been royally entertained by five kings and one queen of swords.