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

By Kris Coronado
Sunday, January 30, 2011; W18

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.

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.

Kossa turned the reins over to the Fleets two years ago. Today, they're central to its success -- Jill, 30, books the performers (who put on their shows for free) while Tyler, 34, serves as emcee.

"We've got a dynamite lineup on this stage all weekend long," he announces on the first night. His voice is quick and punctuated; close your eyes, and it's easy to imagine yourself on an early 1900s boardwalk where a pitchman is luring you to see something astounding.

Though the Fleets are on the road much of the year, the Washington area is their home base, and they're not the only ones representing the area at the convention. When his turn comes, teller of tall tales Professor Sprocket (Washington resident John Spitzer), opens a padded leather case and lifts out a 10-inch shrunken body he claims is a fossilized mermaid. The seven-member Cheeky Monkey Sideshow -- most of whose members live in Maryland and the District -- features the "conjoined," ringlet-haired Darwin Sisters who swallow oblong balloons; and Mab, Just Mab, a buxom broad in a bowler hat who presses her face into broken glass.

Offstage, James Taylor stands before his booth of bizarre books while decked out in a safari hat -- an homage to Believe It or Not! founder Robert Ripley. Taylor, a walking encyclopedia of sideshow lore who lives Baltimore, is the publisher of Shocked and Amazed, an annual paperback digest that's something of a trade publication for this crowd. When the magazine debuted 15 years ago, he knew everyone in the business. "Now, I can barely claim I've even heard of all the people working the new sideshow," he says. "It's like the entire world is lousy with the business nowadays. On Facebook alone, there are so many performers ... that I can't friend them all fast enough."

He has been attending since the first Gathering in 2002. "As it's become more of a machine," he says of the now-nine-year-old conference, "it's gotten to be pretty amazing."

This year, the topic causing the most buzz is the closing of Palace of Wonders.

"It's a stone in my heart," Taylor says, shaking his head.

Washington area sideshow devotees found a home for themselves in the vaudeville-themed bar that opened on H Street NE in 2006. Revelers could sip a beer while watching a fire-breathing act or gawk at display cases filled with curious sideshow relics on loan from Taylor's bizarre memorabilia collection. It became a destination for out-of-town entertainers while also providing a hometown stage for fledgling performers. There was just one problem: turning a profit. While weekends were packed, weeknights could be painfully slow.

Original owner Joe Englert -- who had sold the bar in 2007 -- bought it back last March to merge it with the watering hole he owns next door, the Red and the Black. The transformed spot, called the Red Palace, opened in November and bills itself as the best of both clubs -- a venue for hip bands as well as burlesque and sideshow acts. But at the conference, speculation about the new bar is constant. Its stage is bigger, but the stage-to-ceiling space is lower; at nine feet, it limits the tricks that can be performed (sword-swallowing and fire-throwing, for example, are probably out). And some wonder how many acts will get to perform now that bands are also in the mix.

The Fleets, however, are too busy to engage in speculation. Tyler is constantly in motion, introducing acts, ad-libbing bawdy jokes when performers are delayed and troubleshooting problems as they arise. In a rare moment of free time, he plops into a chair beside his wife at their merchandise booth, where Jill has been hawking posters and pasties. He inhales a slice of pizza before he's called away to his next fast-talking session. Jill pushes the pizza aside. Her tastes and cravings are unreliable now that she's pregnant.

***

"We used to do the bed of nails," Jill had explained a week earlier as she was setting the table for dinner at their home in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. "But we put the escape act back in there because of me being pregnant."

On this day, she's six weeks along. It's her third pregnancy in four years; she lost the first two to miscarriages. Lying on a bed of nails as her husband chainsaws in half the pumpkin on her stomach seemed a bit too risky, even for a couple who make a living off their appetite for danger.

With an extensive sideshow skill set, the Fleets have plenty of other options. Tyler eats and breathes fire; Jill dances a sultry burlesque. Both can swallow swords, throw knives, and blockhead -- that is, stick implements ranging from nails to drill guns up a nostril.

When the duo isn't performing, they're usually tucked away in their cozy, chocolate-hued house near the Shenandoah River and the Appalachian Trail. The silver Airstream parked in the driveway is just the first hint that the Fleets aren't typical rustic residents.

"This here is Elvis," says Tyler, gesturing to a black, white and tan hide draped over a chair in the living room. Elvis was his coonhound, put down in 2006 because of poor health. "We had him come back to us in several pieces. You can still sit down in the chair and pet the dog."

Elvis's head is mounted above the fireplace.

The mantle is speckled with mechanized carnival scenes: There's a miniature Ferris wheel, duck pin gallery and kissing booth. A leg lamp sits on a nearby dresser, dressed in black fishnet stockings and framed by a pink shade with black tassels. A four-tier glass case displays jars filled with snake eggs and baby sharks.

The decor suits them. But while their macabre tastes are well matched, the Fleets came to the sideshow life through different directions.

Tyler grew up in Georgia and New England. While studying playwriting at New York University in 1997, he took an elective on the circus and learned basic tricks like juggling and walking a wire. He honed his fire-eating skills in a summer job performing in Raleigh, N.C. After graduating, he landed a gig at Coney Island as an outside talker and spent seven years developing his craft.

Tyler was emcee of a burlesque show that stopped at the Birchmere on Valentine's Day 2006. Jill was there, too, on a mission to meet him.

After coming across sideshow acts through her job -- selling gruesome paraphernalia at horror movie and tattoo conventions -- Jill was hooked. The Northern Virginia native got a new gig booking performers for the newly opened Palace of Wonders. She was at the Birchmere that night with the intention of recruiting Tyler to perform there.

"After the show, I went to the bar to get a drink, and I see Jill wearing a red dress," Tyler remembers. "I was dumbstruck by her beauty."

The pair started dating, but Tyler continued traveling with sideshow troupes. While his tour bus headed to the next venue, he'd hop a plane back to Washington to visit Jill before jetting off to his next gig. "I was in love with being on the road, but I was more and more in love with being with Jill," he says.

The couple wed in Vegas exactly a year after they met; the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow was launched a few days later, when they performed their first show as a married couple at an Alabama club (the profits footed the bill for their honeymoon in Key West).

The show inevitably became their full-time gig, and it has evolved. Jill mostly performed burlesque before she met Tyler; her husband taught her how to swallow swords. ("It took me about three months to learn," she says proudly. "Tyler took three years.")

Their act will continue to evolve once the baby is born. They see sideshow as the family business and plan to make a place in their performance for the child. "I want to have twins so bad," Jill says. "Twins are money in show business." If the Fleets have a daughter, they've already thought through the creative possibilities. "She'd have a little ball python and a belly dance costume," Jill says. "It would be so awesome."

***

For now, Jill does her snake-charming solo. She returns to the stage at the convention in a black-and-gold bikini lined with metal jangles. Swaying in a sen-suous rhythm, she lifts a black veil from her face and with a flick of her foot kicks away the top of a basket set before her.

She reaches inside and pulls out two Burmese pythons. The green and brown one is an eight-foot female named Fang, while the 10-foot yellow and white is the albino male called Evel.

Jill coils the snakes around her waist, arms and neck. During a 2007 performance, this feat went awry. Her first snake, Taker, sank her teeth into Jill's forehead. There was blood but no scarring; Taker has since retired. Today's show goes smoothly. Jill kisses Evel and Fang, then simultaneously puts both snakes' heads in her mouth.

The audience cheers and claps when Jill pulls them safely from her lips. With that, she bundles the pythons in her arms and takes a quick bow.

The Fleets' hour-long show keeps the room mesmerized. Both swallow steel swords easily ("Down the hatch without a scratch," as Tyler puts it) and escape from straitjackets in minutes. Jill exits a "cabinet of death" unscathed after her husband sticks 19 steel blades through it. They move smoothly from one act to the next, their choreography tight.

Still, they're genuinely surprised when the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow is selected by a panel of judges as the Gathering's Act of the Year. Jill's eyes brim with tears, Tyler -- whose fast-talking mouth has been running at full speed all weekend -- is suddenly speechless.

It's a boost of confidence that's well timed: Five festivals for which the Fleets were scheduled in 2010 fell victim to the recession and were canceled, costing the couple an anticipated $15,000 in revenue. To make up for that, Tyler took a job as a cable technician in Chantilly. In February, the couple will move in with Jill's parents in Herndon as they hunt for a home in Northern Virginia and Tyler searches for a job as an English teacher. In the spring, they'll move into their Airstream -- snakes, baby and all -- until they find the right place to call home.

"We believe we lead normal lives," Tyler says. "We have our job, we have our home, we have our animals, our own hopes and dreams."

Kris Coronado is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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