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When weird is wonderful: A sideshow husband-and-wife team on and off-stage

For sideshow artists Jill and Tyler Fleet, the offbeat has its charms.

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By Kris Coronado
Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thrill Kill Jill smiles coyly and arches her back against the wooden board behind her. Her raven hair tumbles down alabaster shoulders and a silvery fringe bikini. She raises her tattoo-adorned arms overhead and directs her gaze across the stage.

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There stands Tyler Fyre, dressed in red pants, suspenders and a black tank top, with a dagger in his right palm.

Before them mill about 150 people, including men in top hats and girls on roller skates. The colorful crowd is here for the Sideshow Gathering, a convention for performers whose many talents include sword-swallowing and sticking nails up their noses.

"Here we go!" calls Tyler, letting the first dagger fly. Thwack! It jabs into the board by Jill's left shoulder. Thwack! A second knife settles by her left thigh. Thwack! The third blade hits to the right of her waist. Thwack! A flash of metal grazes by her right hip.

For the fifth and final dagger, Tyler turns his back toward Jill. With a deep breath, he takes aim and hurls the weapon with a firm underhand pitch.

Thwack!

The blade hits its mark between Jill's ankles. The crowd roars.

***

Marriages, of course, are based on trust. Which for Jill and Tyler Fleet means not accidentally stabbing your spouse.

The Fleets -- also known as Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill of the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow -- are "with it," an expression in carnival circles meaning they're members of a scene that harks back to the early days of Barnum & Bailey and Coney Island, where side acts accompanied the high tops and lured rubes to spend more cash to watch astounding feats, bearded ladies and snake charmers.

Though sideshows' popularity waned after the early 20th century, a small but steady revival has been growing over the past decade. It started with pop culture's renewed interest in burlesque (see: Von Teese, Dita) and expanded to include a host of strange and dangerous acts (see: pretty much everyone on "America's Got Talent"). Now the three-day Sideshow Gathering -- part expo, part reunion -- draws almost 3,000 people.

A steady electric hum hovers over the brightly lighted hotel space in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., a soundtrack provided by the 30-plus booths of tattoo artists sharing the hall for the annual Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convention. Almost a decade ago, organizer Franco Kossa was looking for novelty acts to add to the body-art conference -- sideshows and tattoos, after all, have historically gone hand in hand -- and the Sideshow Gathering was born.


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