Monday, June 04, 2007

The Coney Island Sideshow School

Saturday's New York Times had a piece on the Coney Island Sideshow School, in which reporter Harry Hurt III (which is not a stage name) learns to eat fire and shove a 16 penny nail into his nose.

Professor Todd Robbins, the self-proclaimed "Postmodern Master of the Sideshow" teaches people these essential skills and more for a mere $600. "Students leave with the ability to perform these acts including sword swallowing and sticking foreign objects up their noses," says the school's website.

Hurt describes the Master demonstrating sword-swallowing:
Todd Robbins, 43, dean of the school, bounded onto the stage. Six feet four inches tall with blond hair, a black vest and a mischievous grin, he was wielding a 100-year-old Moroccan sword. “Most people think sword swallowing is fake, but it’s the most dangerous act in the sideshow,” he declared. “People have died trying to do this. I myself once ended up in the emergency room in Wichita, Kan., at 3 a.m.”
This all reminds me of something I once read in Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women -- specifically a list of techniques from a Victorian-era pamphlet called A Text Book on the Art of Sword Swallowing Explaining How to do it Sixteen Different Ways. It was written, Jay says, "to confound and amuse the public."

Here are eight of the ways, as summarized by Jay:
1. Learn to swallow swords by hypnosis. "Van" as tghe author refers to himself, relates the sad story of his friend "punkrot Smith," who "had a mouth like a catfish and a neck like a crane." Through hypnosis Smith became an outstanding student until he accepted a wager to swallow an umbrella in Showbegan, Maine. He was succesful until the "new-fangled press-the-string-and-it-flies-up sort of rain catcher" opened unexpectedly. "It was a sad funeral," said Van, "and I was broke up for weeks afterward, for Punk had been my most apt pupil and have not the slightest doubt that had he lived he would have proved a marvel."

2. Learn from a professional; start by swallowing a sterling silver chain.

3. Use a peacock feather dipped in oil to tickle the throat, which helps you become familiar with the sensation.

4. Secretly swallow a rubber tube before the performance -- when the sword is later swallowed, it will be encased in the tube.

5. A similar method but using a metal scabbard.

6. The Chinese way, by first eating opium to dull the sense of touch so the sword will not be felt; this "should never be tried by any other than those of the Mongol race."

7. An herb solution "used by the Llamas of Thibet" to combat the retching reaction.

8. "Placing an article down the throat regardless of consequences and acquiring further ease of habit by force of will." ("From three to five years' practice in this manner will usually prove sufficient.")
For a more serious and modern take on the art of sword swallowing, see Swordswallow.com, including a frequently asked questions section and x-rays proving that it's real. "There is no trick," says Swordswallow.com. "There are no smoke and mirrors. Sword swallowers really do swallow real swords -- that's why we've been called 'sword swallowers' for thousands of years."

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