by: Tristan Risk "Little Miss Risk"
A Taste For Metal or The Sword Swallowing Diet
Sword Swallowing -
Sideshow has always been the fine art of questionable stunts presented in such a way as to showcase their danger, but to also highlight the exceptional abilities of the performers. Feats of strength, endurance, and mind over body are staples on the ballyhoo stages and have captivated people worldwide for decades. We as a species, are always seeking the doers of daring danger, and to be shocked and revolted, stimulated and titalated, and as much as we love the triumph, we are always in anticipation of impending disaster. If you doubt me, then I can refer you to our current global politics, and I think that we can concur that shit is going to hell in a hand basket at a breakneck speed, and that a large proportion of people want to see the world burn.
With the sword of Damocles forever dangling over the head (or in the throats) of many stunt and sideshow performers, it’s never far from anyone’s mind that mischance can be a common bedfellow. While people will whisper along about a performer who has sustained an injury or setback, either fatal or wounding, you have to take into account the law of averages. Any performer worth their salt will be practicing on the regular, and performing (hopefully) as often to match. Given that many of these stunts and tricks has the capacity to fail due to prop, performer, or circumstance, it’s the thrill that perhaps that as a spectator you will bear witness to the truly exceptional: The accident.
I’m writing this as I have recently returned from my first West Coast tour with the amazing Squiggling Brothers circus sideshow out of Philladelphia. These cats have been touring North American, Europe and Japan, delighting folks with the tantalizing thought that misfortune might be sidestepped. The connection that people had when they witnessed these crazy feats live wiped away any Fail Army video that could rival what their eyes were seeing. It’s inspired me to take more changes with my own performances, as with the last name Risk, I’ve got some big balls that need to be swung around in order to make good on it. However, I keenly listened to Jellyboy The Clown and Rush Hicks both recount to me some of the past accidents they’ve come across in their professional careers, and what a keen fledgling sword swallower never truly gets to hear. The Goods.
I’m sharing this, not because I want to make any of these performers seem incapable of their art and craft. They aren’t, and the fact that many of them have suffered some kind of accident in their professional careers, and continue to perform, is highly admirable to me. While anyone can fuck up in their workplace, it’s important to remember the risks that are very real when providing entertainment to a live audience.
John Lilja - Fatal Swallow
Okay, okay… I decided to throw in one warning from the gypsy on the fatality of sword swallowing, though I’ve picked a case that was one I came across in personal research, and not someone who I personally know through either the community or six degrees of separation. John Lilja was a sword swallower performing a standard swallow for a carnival in Melbourne in 1939. The Courier-Mail for Brisbane in 1939 stated that he died of ‘chest complications’ after a sword swallowing demonstration, when the blade cut his throat. Lilja was treated Saturday by a doctor, but following complications sought emergency help the following day in hospital. Given what I know about human anatomy, and the nature of the injury, I would speculate that he likely had some internal bleeding into his lung, and he likely died as a result. However, when I looked further into the incident, it didn’t say, so I can only really guess and can’t say 100%. What we do know, is the article mentioned that this was his first and only accident after a long career.
Tyler Fyre - Swallowing Broken Glass
This is another related bit I uncovered during my research, though I have been lucky enough to meet The amazing Blazing Tyler Fyre and his wife Thrill Kill Jill at the Burlesque Hall Of Fame Weekend. They live, eat, and breath sideshow, and have idols of mine for some time. When I first met them was in 2007, and since then they’ve gone on to expand their brand with adorable children who are daredevils in training. I wanted to bring up this incident, as it is one that is highly cringe-worthy, and not from a standard swallow. I keep referring to the ‘standard swallow’ but to give some clarity, I want to explain - I consider a standard swallow to be the swallowing of a single, metal sword. What makes this accident cause me to quiver was that a glass sword broke in his body, while in the middle of a swallow. In a 2009 NYU Alumni Magazine interview explains his accident:
“On a Sunday at Coney Island, with just eight people in the audience, he swallowed a brand-new glass sword and heard a crack, which, he says, felt akin to hitting your teeth with a hammer. As he pulled the sword back up, the broken glass dragged along both sides of his throat. It took him weeks of drinking aloe vera juice and whiskey on ice to recover.” Thankfully, Fyre recovered, and has since continued to swallow steel, and entertain audiences. But for anyone who has accident tread on a shard of glass will likely appreciate the shudder factor in picturing this happening to them.
Betty Bloomers - Just The Tip
I’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting Betty Bloomers, yet I feel like I have already met her. The folks of sideshow who I’ve spoken to have always had high praise for one of Coney Island’s queens who can balance a sword on her head while standing on a bed of nails, and drop a sword down into the pit of her stomach. While it looks like most swords all make ladle in the stomachs of sword swallowers, in order to swallow certain large swords, the awareness of one’s anatomy is key. Betty, in addition to being a seasoned sword swallower, is also an accomplished belly dancer, and is able to maneuver her hips in a way to accommodate swords that look like they belong in Final Fantasy. But, she has’t been immune to disaster, and in both of the tails of peril I’ve heard of her experiences was purely environment and not professionalism or skill.
The first story I had heard about one of her mishaps, was during a wedding reception. It had gotten to that point of the evening where everyone was a little drunk, having some fun, and the kids of the event were getting a ripping good game of tag going. I’ve found of much personal performing experience that performing for audiences that are, how shall we say, um, ‘lubricated’, can be a lot more fun that trying to perform for a bunch of stoney-faced folks who are waiting for the open bar to be open season. But when inhibitions relax, sometimes childminders may slack off, and the young ‘uns get a little rambunctious. So picture, if you will, the lovely Betty Bloomers, blade deep in her belly, and the kids playing tag knock into her… While I don’t have an extensive list of the damage that she sustained from that accident, I can safely say that she took a break afterwards.
The second story of Betty in danger was an all-too typical story of one drunk twit trying to be funny. While doing a swallow in a cabaret show, Betty had a drunk patron try to tip her. I have never been a fan of the putting a tip in the garterbelt school of thinking. I much prefer to have either a tip bucket, a hat line, or at the very least, leave it on the stage and do not disturb the performer. However, like anything else in life, all it takes is one drunk twat-waffle to ruin the whole experience for everyone, and in this case, cause harm to the performer. With the hilt of the sword hovering above her teeth, a patron came over and tried to tip Betty, by tucking a bill in her bra. I wasn’t present, so I can’t account for what the show’s security was doing, but it wasn’t clobbering this clod before he did his damage. The natural reaction when you are looking up, and concentrating, and
someone touches you (especially if you are a woman, and especially if it happens to be our tits) is to look up. Looking up suddenly with a mouthful of steel is a bad idea, and had her out of the game healing for a while. Again, I wasn’t present, but I truly well and hope that some of the more socially maladjusted performers took this miscreant out back and had a lengthy and physical conversation about why that is inappropriate at a live performance. I wonder if he was stuffed in a crab trap off the east coast and consumed by crabs, and shall ponder this thought whenever I now order a California roll at sushi.
Rush Hicks - If It Don’t Fit Don’t Force It
One of the many insanely talented people it’s
been my privilege to meet on this last tour was Rush Hicks. The bendy, maschoistic stand-up comedian was the height of hospitality, and imparted a story about his own blade imbibing. While during a performance, part of his act was to swallow a bayonet. Most sword swallowers will soften the edges of their swords, so not to completely slice open their throats and esophagus during the performance. Rush, bless his heart, wanted to make sure he didn’t disrespect the origin of the blade (and the contributions of our veterans) but dulling the blade any. One of my first lessons in learning to swill the steel is that with our biology, we’ve our gag reflex at the top of our throats, our Upper Esophageal Sphincter (UES) and the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES). The first thing everyone has imparted to me is if it doesn’t want to go down on it’s own, don’t force it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you’ve ever had or tried anal sex, you will also agree that it is better not to force something where it doesn’t want to go. Be that as it may, Rush, being the consummate showman that he is, did the opposite of that, and pushed the blade down. The blade went down - and out of the side of his neck. He pulled it out, and put pressure on and then -get this - as he was nearly bleeding to death was trying to insist on going out to finish his act.
Sense came to him when the other performers insisted that he visit the hospital, to ensure that he wouldn’t meet the same fate as the aforementioned Mr. Lilja. While in the hospital, it was discovered that this accident had caused a further complication that had damaged his lung, and surgery was required for his continued existence. Thankfully, despite his making peace with the fact that he might not have worked up after the surgery, he dodged the reaper, and made a recovery - sans a portion of his lung. Despite damage sustained, he still continues to delight and revolt audiences in equal measure.
Vivianne Oblivion - The Lunch Break Practice
This ends with neither calamity or death. I just happened to think that it was funny. Vivianne Oblivion - my own inspiration to start my journey into the world of blade consumption - related to me her own ‘this really goes down that far’ experience. One afternoon, after lunch, she was diligently practicing her craft, and upon removing the sword from her body, saw a strange brown substance on the end of her sword. My immediate response would be to think that I had potentially damaged my intestine in some fabulous Chuck Palahniuk-type disaster, but Vivianne dashed my optimism for biological catastrophe by mentioning that she had eaten a peanut butter sandwich prior to practice. Not a gory note to end on, but hopefully to show even when disaster doesn’t occur, it’s shadow is always present.
Again, I want to mention that none of these stories I brought because I wanted to call into question anyone’s professionalism or skill. Rather the opposite that I hope that it shows the risk that they take every show, the wonder and marvel that they impart, and the inspiration that they give me, as well as encourage people to see these acts live. As we increasingly enlist in the Fail Army, don’t forget that most of these stunts you see online are far more impressive in person, and that one should always season their nostrils for the scent and thrill of danger in the air.