Stepping Off the Cutting Edge 

Sword swallower Molotov and his bull-whipping partner Felicity say they're ready for the mainstream.

Trailer Haven is in a time warp, trapped in the same temporal eddy as the rest of downtown San Leandro. Behind its fading metal and neon sign spread a couple of acres that have changed little since 1964: rows of salmon- and turquoise-trimmed mobile homes interspersed with boxy RVs; landscaping that emphasizes plastic flowers and cement squirrels. It's a place that bespeaks a simpler, kitschier time.

The woman spinning a lariat on the concrete pad in front of a nondescript RV could have been plucked from the set of a Roy Rogers movie. She's got the wavy dark hair and curvy body of a '50s pinup girl and an attitude to match. The way she hops daintily over the spinning rope with a coy smile on her face is pure Dale Evans. The only clues that this is a 21st-century cutie are her white gym shoes and the diamond stud in her upper lip, right where Marilyn Monroe had her mole.

Twirling a 25-foot rope is just one of the skills thirty-year-old Felicity Perez hopes to master this spring. She and her partner, Matthew Bouvier, 34, are devoting themselves to reviving an obscure piece of Americana: sideshow acts. Their stunts range from the difficult (knife-throwing, sword-swallowing, and bull-whipping) to the geek (eating maggots and glass, shoving spikes up the nose, and shooting 2,000 volts of electricity through a scantily-clad Felicity).

Perez and Bouvier call themselves On the Edge Productions. His stage name is Molotov, she goes by Felicity. Their act, like their life, is filled with contradictions: While it's weird, they hope to take the show mainstream. Although it incorporates ascetic practices like lying on a bed of nails, it's pure entertainment; and though it involves piercings, skin suspension, and fire, Bouvier sneers at the Modern Primitive crowd. Bouvier and Perez are themselves pierced, tattooed, and dyed, but they are engaged, live in uncool San Leandro, and travel around with a big mutt in an RV.

Bouvier, surprisingly levelheaded for someone who eats maggots and cold steel for a living, says he and Perez are working to appeal to a wider audience than jaded clubsters by introducing more mainstream elements such as the Wild West stunts. "We try to create a context that the audience can relate to," Bouvier says. "I want the act to be something that can be enjoyed again and again."

The ability to take a sideshow act beyond simple shock value is important, says James Taylor, author of the Shocked and Amazed 'zine series and cofounder of a museum devoted to novelty and variety exhibitions. This is especially true as more and more performers learn to do basic tricks like fire-eating. "The essence of good performance," Taylor says, "is that it doesn't matter what you're doing, it's how you're doing it. Fire as an act will never be passé. What becomes passé is someone doing it the same as everyone else, with no flair for the theatrical and no care for what the audience thinks."

Beyond the performance itself, success, Bouvier says, is "all about getting booked -- and who you're getting booked with." The pair often works with Tim Cridland, aka Zamora the Torture King, whose talents include swallowing string and pulling it out of a hole in his abdomen, and sticking skewers through his arms and throat. "He is a very established act," Bouvier says, "and it helps us to be associated with him."

Cridland even throws the occasional gig to On the Edge, a rarity in this cutthroat milieu, because he knows Perez and Bouvier won't disappoint. "A lot of people don't get it, don't understand the entertainment part of it," says Cridland, who's been performing acts involving pain control since the mid-'80s. "I can tell they're really serious about what they're doing."

Stinky's Peepshow is packed. This semi-basement behind the stage of San Francisco's Justice League is not much bigger than a two-car garage. About forty hipsters are packed shoulder to shoulder, ducking the beams, craning their necks, trying to see the upended piece of plywood jammed into a corner that passes for a stage area. They've each paid an extra $2 more than the cover charge to see "The Penetration of Felicity." It's a naughty title, but Stinky's MC, a burly guy in a Mexican wrestling mask, made sure the audience knew the score. "It's knives, not a male member," he explained, as supersized go-go girls in black latex shimmied behind him.

Now, in the dank and dim basement, the pair is lit only with a video light; a cameraman crouches in front of them, shooting scenes for an On the Edge demo tape. Bouvier wears tuxedo pants, a cummerbund, and a vest. His gaunt chest gleams with sweat. Felicity is in a two-piece burley-cue outfit, all satin, sequins, and fringe.

In traditional sideshow fashion, they work the crowd, trying to shake them down for more money. "This is a dangerous act," Bouvier begins. "Don't do it," someone calls out. "Neither Felicity nor I has any health insurance at all," he continues. "Please, ladies and gentlemen, look into your hearts and contribute to our fund which will go entirely toward providing medical attention should there be any accident." Felicity carries a black sack through the crowd, her bare caramel skin sliding against black leather, corduroy, and denim. Then, her sack a little heavier, she returns to strike a pose against the board.

Bouvier picks up a bayonet and holds it high. With barely six feet between them, he has little room to wind up for the throw. The catcalling continues. "This is a peepshow -- let's see some titty!" The first knife sinks cleanly into the board. Bouvier is focused, intent on the job; it's up to Felicity to provide the sparkle. She works it hard, gallantly mugging as the knives thunk into the board, inches from her arms and legs. She alternates groggy-eyed looks of lust with she-tiger snarls and oomph-girl ooohs. Except when Molotov flings the flaming knives. Suddenly, her winces look genuine, and she scoots away the instant the last Coleman-fuel-drenched blade impales the board.

Then it's time to up the ante again. "How'd you like to see Felicity do the last part of our act topless?" Bouvier asks the audience. They cheer, but it will cost them. Felicity takes the little black bag back into the audience, painstakingly making sure everyone has the opportunity to contribute another dollar. Back at the stage, she turns her back to the crowd, unhooks her black spangled bra with maximum tease, then turns, hands shielding her breasts. Only after Bouvier's last knife thwacks into the plywood does she fling her arms wide as if in triumph, revealing soft natural breasts tipped with black sequined tassels. Yes, she can, and does, twirl them.

But with all their hustling, a night like this brings in a bare $250. Even when you live in a trailer park, that's no kind of living. It's partly the tiny venue, but also the scene. "San Francisco is oversaturated with pretty much everything," Bouvier says. "Sushi bars, microbeer -- and variety acts." Indeed, fire-eaters in the Bay Area are as ubiquitous as golden retrievers, and neo-burlesque and sideshow acts play somewhere nearly every week.

Still, while the nightclub scene may have reached its saturation point for sideshow, it's also responsible for saving it from oblivion. "One reason these shows ceased to exist," says Ward Hall, proprietor of Worlds of Wonder, the last true traveling sideshow in the United States, "was that there were no new attractions coming into the business." Hall credits performer Jim Rose with reviving sideshow acts by bringing his group, Jim Rose Circus, to punk shows and nightclubs. "In the rock 'n' roll venues, he introduced the sideshow type of performance to a whole new generation."

Hall's own show will play as a museum without live acts this season, although his three regulars, a dwarf who handles snakes and eats fire, a 720-pound fat man, and a deaf man who eats fire and lifts weights with hooks stuck in his tongue, will travel along. Hall would love to have enough live material for a traditional "ten-in-one" show -- ten different acts under one tent. But despite the swelling number of performers experimenting with fire, metal, spikes, and whips, putting on 25 shows a day takes a commitment beyond what most artistes can muster. "Last year I had three different groups that worked rock clubs and conventions come on tour with me," Hall says, "and they couldn't cut it on my show. They did a hell of a job while they were there, but they didn't stay."

Besides the physical demands, says Taylor, there's another occupational hazard: boredom. "You're doing the same show fifteen times a day; you don't have time to stretch or move around. It's the most boring form of entertainment to do."

Perez and Bouvier stuck it out, spending six months on the road with Worlds of Wonder. Bouvier hung weights from his tongue and pulled carts attached to his nipple rings, Perez sewed and repaired costumes, and together they helped put up and break down the tent and booths. Their hard work earned them the respect of Hall and his partner, Chris Christ. "Chris liked them because you could see they meant business," Hall says. "They were going somewhere."

Christ is the one who taught Bouvier to throw knives and how to swallow swords without risking a perforated esophagus, mentoring that's extremely hard to come by. Most sideshow performers teach themselves, but it's easy to do things wrong and end up with a gruesome injury.

"The dangers are not what the audience thinks they are," Taylor says. "The apparent dangers play on primordial fears, but the real things to be afraid of are things like getting an infection from swallowing the wrong kind of metal."

This kind of knowledge is the difference between burning out in a year and enjoying a long career. "I didn't realize I was risking my life [by teaching myself to swallow a sword]," Bouvier says. "Chris taught me a way to learn it that was more helpful, and within three weeks I was performing."

Perez and Bouvier plan to expand their act and take it on the road. The big time is Vegas, where hotel-casinos pay top dollar for seasonal bookings. Between Vegas and nightclubs are the fairs. A regional or state fair is a featherbed -- good money and a week to a month in one place.

In January, they made their first attempt, springing for a booth at the Western Fairs Association, where bookers and carnies meet and make deals. Success at the three-day Reno show would have meant a winter working on their act versus tending bar.

But competing with pot-bellied racing pigs and Neil Diamond tribute bands, was tough. The phlegmatic, graying crowd was conservative, looking for the sure thing. "Bookers like to have new blood," Bouvier says, "but they're very wary. It's a hard market to break into."

"It will take a lot of perseverance on our part," Perez adds. "It might take us a couple of years before we get a fair."

In the meantime, Bouvier, having gotten fired from a bartending job, has taken to the streets, performing for spare change near Fisherman's Wharf. Perez juggles three jobs: catering, providing home care for an elderly woman, and performing with another local variety troupe. It's a hardscrabble life that doesn't allow much time or space for honing the act or building new props and sets.

But when it comes down to it, beyond making a living, they do their act for the same reason as any other entertainer: the attention. When Bouvier has twenty-six inches of steel down his throat, when Perez lights a fluorescent tube by touching it with her tongue, the audience response is a rush. "We've had people faint at our shows," Bouvier says, "because it was too intense for them. That's the best -- better than any applause."


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