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Lady Aye, Sword Swallower. Photo © Rose Callahan

Lady Aye, Sword Swallower. Photo © Rose Callahan

Step right up, the “Sweetheart of the Sideshow” is alive and on the inside at the library! Today at 5pm, sideshow sword swallower and pain-proof girl Ilise “The Lady Aye” Carter is lecturing and performing at The New York Public Library. “Her story exemplifies how overcoming fears can make perceived failures into real opportunities – a skill everyone can benefit from. Live performances of traditional sideshow skills like walking on glass, sword swallowing, and human blockhead make this is a one-of-a-kind experience,” according to the listing.

The free event is at the Tompkins Square Branch of the library at 331 East 10th Street in Manhattan’s East Village.

We’ve attended sideshow performances in art galleries and museums but never in a public library. As far as we know it’s a first.

The Lady Aye, whose writings on sideshow, culture and performance have appeared in many publications, tells ATZ: “I’ve given these talks at places like the Gap and Innovate VA, where I use my experience going from stage-shy financial editor to the ‘Sweetheart of the Sideshow’ and how people can apply these principles of creativity to their own careers. I work with the Alternative Speakers’ Bureau and founder Noah Scalin’s book Unstuck to help people realize these changes.”

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Sword Swallower's Day

Ripley’s Times Square, Sword Swallower’s Day 2013. Photo courtesy of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not

Today at 2:22:14pm local time, sword swallowers at Ripley’s Odditoriums in Times Square, Hollywood and several other locations will simultaneously participate in the annual “Big Swallow” for World Sword Swallower’s Day. The free live show begins at 1:30pm.

“Because sword swallowing is so rare, sword swallowers usually perform solo,” says Dan Meyer, the president of the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI), which co-sponsors the event. “World Sword Swallower’s Day gives us a chance to work together to be part of something bigger.” The annual event promotes this ancient art, honors veteran performers, and raises awareness of the medical contributions sword swallowers have made in the fields of medicine and science.

At the Times Square Ripley’s, performers include Todd Robbins, Kyle Mertz and Jim Stileonis. Last year, Robbins’ 5-year old son, Phineas “Finn” Robbins, a Broadway and television actor who often accompanies his famous Dad to sideshow gigs, cutely performed with a toy sword.

Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show

Sword Swallowing Couple Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill of Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show. Photo Carlo Pizarro. August 3, 2013

Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill of West Virginia-based Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show will perform in Baltimore. The ravishingly beautiful Jill, who is currently 7 months pregnant with the couple’s third child, is billed as “The World’s Only Pregnant Sword Swallower.”

In St Augustine, Florida, 15-year old Haley Hall, “The World’s Youngest Sword Swallower,” will join multiple Guinness World Record holder Dan Meyer. For World Sword Swallower’s Day 2013, Meyer swallowed a sword and used it to pull a 3700 lb car out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not Baltimore.

At Ripley’s in Hollywood, performers include George the Giant, known as “The World’s Tallest Sword Swallower,” and Brett Loudermilk, who posted this artful and hilarious how-to-be-a-sword-swallower-video along with the disclaimer “DO NOT TRY THIS! ALL INSTRUCTIONS ARE FAKE.”

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Sword Swallower Banner attributed to Nieman Eisman. Slotin Folk Art Auction, April 21, 2012

A rare and unusual “Champion Sword Swallower” banner attributed to Nieman Eisman, a master of the Chicago style of banner painting from the 1920s through the mid-1950s, is up for auction this weekend at Slotin Folk Art. The circa 1930s-1940s banner conveys the danger of this sideshow act by depicting the performer downing multiple swords from his arsenal as well as a glowing neon tube. 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 the neon illuminates the performer’s neck and chest, making it convincingly clear that the sword swallower is not up to any tricks.

When ATZ saw Johnny Meah perform this dramatic feat at the Barnum Museum a dozen years ago we were stunned. Fifteen years earlier 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 onto the stage. 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,” Meah told ATZ. Among the Kings and Queens of Swords whose bravura performances with neon we’re fortunate to have seen are Natasha Veruschka (“The World’s Only Sword Swallowing Belly Dancer”), Johnny Fox, Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Circus and The Great Fredini of Coney Island USA.

Neon sword

Swallowing a Neon Sword, Detail of Sword Swallower Banner attributed to Nieman Eisman. Slotin Folk Art Auction, April 21, 2012

Although this banner was not painted for a specific performer, it reminds us of the story of Prince Neon– William Knoll — 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 neon 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, Knoll “put himself out of business” with neon as we say on the midway. “A Daring Exhibition” indeed.

vintage sideshow banner

Detail of Sword Swallower Banner attributed to Nieman Eisman. Slotin Folk Art Auction, Aptil 21, 2012

According to the auction catalog, the banner was rescued from oblivion by the consignor in the 1970s and later attributed to Nieman Eisman by sword swallower and banner painter Johnny Meah and banner dealer Teddy Varndell:

In late 2003, the consignor contacted banner artist, as well as technical adviser on the HBO series “Carnivale,” Johnny Meah by email, and it was his opinion that Nieman Eisman was the artist of my banner. He later forwarded the materials to Edward “Teddy” Varndell, banner dealer and co-author of Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway. Mr. Varndell also believed my banner to be by Eisman.

In the early 1970’s the consignor worked at a TV station in production. In the prop room behind the studio, he found this “carny” banner, back-side up, covering a pile of stacked lumber. With the station manager’s OK, he replaced it with another tarp and he has had the banner since then. During early days at the TV station, traveling carnivals or circuses would bring performers, props and animals to the TV studio for promotions (back when productions were “live”). This banner was apparently left behind during one of these shows. Johnny Meah said circus banners in the ’50s and ’60s were considered so disposable they were often used under circus trucks to sop up oil leaks.

The pre-sale estimate is $3,000 – $4,000. This weekend’s folk art auction consists of 1,500 lots, with the sideshow banner set to be auctioned on Saturday. Slotin Folk Art’s live auction will be held at Historic Buford Hall in Buford, Georgia on April 21 and 22. Absentee, phone and online bidding are also available on auction days.

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If you’re one of those skeptics who thinks a sword swallower’s sword folds up into the handle or employs some kind of special effect, February 25th’s big swallow should set you straight.

Today, in celebration of the 6th annual World Sword Swallowers Day, more than 30 performers are expected to “drop swords” at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditoriums in New York, London, San Francisco, Hollywood, and Orlando, among other places. Los Angeles sword swallower Brett Loudermilk made these videos three years ago on International Sword Swallowers Day in New York City. One of 10 featured sword swallowers at Ripley’s in Times Square in 2009, this year Loudermilk will be at Ripley’s Hollywood.

In New York, today’s free show at Ripley’s begins at 1:30 pm and ends with the big swallow at 2:25 pm. Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and the Lady Aye will be among the Kings and Queens of Swords.

“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 that edge,” Nelson tells ATZ. In an attempt to convince skeptics in the audience that, as he says, “what I’m shoving down my throat is real,” the Bindlestiff’s charmingly subversive Mr. Pennygaff has also swallowed oversize scissors, sabers, corkscrews, door springs, coat hangers and, in a tribute to good ol’ vaudeville, a rod upon which he has set a spinning plate!

The February 25th celebration was started by the Sword Swallowers Association International to promote this ancient art, honor veteran performers, and raise awareness of the medical contributions sword swallowers have made in the fields of medicine and science, according to SSAI founder and multiple Guinness World Record holder Dan Meyer.

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Queen of Swords Natasha Versuchka on stage at new Luna Park, Coney Island. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i

Queen of Swords Natasha Versuchka on stage at new Luna Park, Coney Island. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i

On Saturday night in Luna Park, we caught the first sideshow performance of the season on the park’s free stage. Emcee and host Todd Robbins aka “Coney Island Todd” did the blockhead act (hammering a nail up one’s nose) and a bit of fire eating before introducing his guests. As previously reported in “Will Coney Island Host a Trio of Rival Sideshows?” (ATZ, May 17), Robbins has booked sideshow luminaries like Erik “The Lizardman” Sprague and Natasha Veruschka, the world’s only sword swallowing belly-dancer.

Saturday’s show featured MelissaMarie Wilhelm from Cirque-tacular and Queen of Swords Natasha Veruschka. We first wrote about Natasha a decade ago when this modern-day Scheherazade was entertaining high rollers in Las Vegas with a cabaret act torn from the pages of A Thousand and One Nights. “I always looked different from the other belly dancers. I performed differently,” Natasha 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.

At Luna Park, Natasha swallowed seven 22-inch swords at once. The medallion around her beautiful throat is inscribed “Guinness World Record.” Her sixth and current Guinness World Record is for swallowing seventeen 22-inch swords at once!

Todd Robbins Performing at Luna Park Preview Event. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i

Todd Robbins Performing at Luna Park Preview Event. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i

Other acts on Luna Park’s summer schedule include Chris McDaniel, Champion Bullwhip & Trick Roper; Ravi the Scorpion Mystic, Contortionist; and sideshow legends Johnny Fox and Harley Newman. The free sideshows are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and 10:15 pm, beginning June 11.

Luna Park Coney Island, 1000 Surf Avenue, Coney Island, 718-373-LUNA (5862)

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