Stepping Off the Cutting Edge 

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

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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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