There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
– Excerpt from “The Men That Don’t Fit In” By Robert W. Service
The New Orleans French Quarter is one of the few places in the United States that attracts and welcomes artists and performers who would otherwise be considered misfits in most parts of the country. It’s a place that nurtures artistic freedom and has consistently provided a haven for artists since the city began 300 years ago. On any given day you can walk through Jackson Square and meet painters, musicians, and street performers from all over the world busking for cash.
Eric Odditorium is a professional sword swallower who has been performing in Jackson Square for about two years. Eric loves performing and knows how to draw a crowd. He’s also befriended many other artists in the Quarter despite his short history in New Orleans.
NCM: You’re the first performance artist we’ve interviewed for this magazine. Where do originally come from?
Eric: I’m originally from California, but I moved here from Austin, Texas.
NCM: Does anyone else in your family perform in side shows or carnivals?
Eric: No, I’m the only one. And I’ve been a professional sword swallower for twenty six years.
NCM: What made you choose sword swallowing as a profession?
Eric: I always wanted to swallow swords. I first saw a sword swallower when I was five or six years old and I wanted to be one ever since. I learned side show first. I’ve been a human block-head, I can eat broken glass, I’ve learned to eat and breathe fire. I met another sword swallower in the carnival and asked him to teach me. It took me two years to learn to do it properly.
NCM: When did you first join the carnival?
Eric: When I turned eighteen years old. As soon as I legally could.
NCM: Where else have you lived with the carnival?
Eric: Initially I would tour three to four months out of the year and then move back to California. I’ve lived up and down the coast of California. Then the cost of living in California became crazy. I was earning decent money, but housing became unaffordable. I started looking at cities that were more affordable where I could earn a decent living. That’s when I moved to Austin, Texas, and started working at a place called the Museum of the Weird on 6th Street, which is basically an oddities museum with a theatre in the back. I also did a fair amount of street performing. Eventually gentrification pushed me out of Austin.
NCM: Gentrification is effecting artists here too.
Eric: Yes, in certain sections. Originally I lived in the St. Roch neighborhood and my rent more than doubled in the course of a year. But I moved a few streets over into the 9th Ward and my rent went back down.
NCM: A lot of artists live in the 9th Ward.
Eric: Yes, it’s filled with great artists and musicians. I recently went to Fats Domino’s second line parade. Fats never left the 9th ward.
NCM: Whose work has influenced you or inspired you?
Eric: A man by the name of Johnny Fox who used to own a museum in NY called the Freakatorium. It was an oddities museum when he performed. I used to write him letters and he would write me back on the backs of the letters I wrote him. So I have our whole correspondence in a scrap book.
NCM: Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
Eric: I did! I met him twice in person. I was very sorry to see him go. He died this past year. But he lived the life that he wanted to live and died a happy man.
Todd Robbins also influenced me. Although my performance is nothing like his. He does various things. He had an off-Broadway play called “Play Dead”. I believe he has even had a TV show.
NCM: Why have you decided to focus on sword swallowing as opposed to other types of side show performance?
Eric: It seems to be the most popular. I do still perform other things. Depending on how much time I have I still do the human block head and eat broken glass. I also still do animal trap stunts. For example, sticking my hand in fox traps and rat traps. I close out shows with the human tip jar where people staple money to my body. I learned that from a man called Red Stewart in the carnival. I start my stapled tips at $5. The higher the dollar amount, the stranger the location on the body. (Note: New Orleans Canvas Magazine feels compelled at this point to insert its standard disclaimer: Do not try any of what you read here at home!)
Technically what I do is not strictly side-show. I don’t set up a tent. And I don’t do a grind show, which is one show after another all day long. I busk in the street. To strictly be a side-show performer you have to travel from carnival to carnival and put up tents. I generally call myself an entertainer rather than a side-show artist. The genre I perform in is traditionally known as side-show.
NCM: Tell us about the comic book you are writing.
Eric: I am collaborating with my very good friend Jeremy Kennison (who is also head of the Cut-Throat Freak Show) on a comic book based on my life. It will be The Adventures of a Time-Travelling Sword Swallower. He will illustrate it and I am going to write it. We have already started working on it. Hopefully we will finish mid to late this year.
NCM: Have you ever written anything before?
Eric: I’ve never written a comic book, but I am a huge comic book fan. I grew up during a really great time for comic books. I’d like to write something non-fiction.
NCM: It seems like there’s of material available to you just from the people you’ve met.
Eric: Because I have always been a freak show and side show enthusiast and historian, I feel like I am uniquely qualified to write about it.
NCM: There has to be a market for that.
Eric: I think there is too. I read a book about Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. It was a new genre of writing. Kind of fiction/non-fiction. They took all of the known facts and filled in the blanks.
NCM: Didn’t Chang and Eng marry some women from North Carolina?
Eric: Yes they did! And they had a whole bunch of kids. I’ve met some of their descendants. They are very proud of the twins!
NCM: How do you differentiate yourself from other sword swallowers?
Eric: There is a kind of brotherhood among us. We know we all do the same material. I think the biggest different between me and most other sword swallowers is I typically use two or three swords for an entire season of shows. Most sword swallowers require more swords for more material. But I write acts around the same two swords. I do a lot of movement based sword swallowing. I am well known for doing the worm while swallowing a sword. In my most recent act I swallow a coat hanger, which is straightened out roughly in the shape of a sword. I can fish a king cake baby out of my stomach with a coat hanger.
NCM: Ever injure yourself doing that?
Eric: No, I’ve yet to injure myself swallowing swords or anything else.
NCM: I’m sure that’s one of the first things that people might ask you.
Eric: I’ve been very lucky. I attribute that to other sword swallowers who gave me pointers. I’ve always been concerned with safety first. (!) I’ve heeded warnings and have yet to injure myself, although I’ve been told that it is just a matter of when. Hopefully if I ever do hurt myself, it’s just something minor.
NCM: What’s the most challenging part of being a street performer/sword swallower?
Eric: Well those are really two different things. The most challenging part of being a street performer is building and holding a crowd. It’s also hard to get people to tip. A lot of them don’t carry cash anymore. There are also other street performers who might try to move in to close to steal my audience. I’ve also got to be careful if people try to grift my crowd. Street performing requires a lot of multi-tasking. It’s not my favorite thing to do. I prefer the stage. But I end up performing on the street an awful lot.
The most challenging part of being a sword swallower is how to market yourself. In today’s world (with YouTube) you have to be really creative about how to market your show. More stage shows are working with a troupe. For example, with Cut-Throat Freak Show, we have built a name and they know it is not just going to be the same old side-show. We always switch the acts around. We usually have burlesque. We are able to book a lot of interesting shows. We’ve performed in Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy Festival two years in a row. We’ve done Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare. The biggest challenge is not swallowing words, but knowing how to sell it.
NCM: What do you wish you had known about all of this before you got started?
Eric I wish I had realized that sideshow entertainment and sword swallowing is a very niche market. If you try and blast it all over the internet, you’re kind of throwing away your money. You’ve got to advertise to your niche. Because I was a fan of it and also marveled at it, I always expected everybody else to.
NCM: How do you handle negative criticism? Has there ever been something said that’s cut you deeply (no pun intended)?
Eric: I generally don’t get much negative feedback. I’ve been doing this for so long now that if I ever got negative criticism from another Sword Swallower, that might sting a little.
NCM: How do you come up with a way to make your art profitable? Have you figured it out yet?
Eric: I have, but the problem is that every time I’ve got it figured out everything changes. It definitely has its ups and downs. One year I might be saving money every month and doing really well, and then the next year I am scraping by. I’ve managed to make it profitable by being open to doing anything. I’ve done some really weird gigs lately. I was recently the subject of a Sociological book called Down and Out in New Orleans. I get paid to do appearances in connection with that book. I recently did a book signing at Octavia Books. I also did a Kenny Chesney video. You never know who is going to need a sword swallower.
NCM: What is the best advice you ever received about your profession?
Eric: First, never get overconfident. It could get you killed! That’s why I’m still here. And second, be your own agent. Don’t hire anyone else to do it. I do all of my own booking.
NCM: Where can people see more of your work?
Eric: In June and July, I am going on a National Tour with Cut-Throat Freak Show. Go to www.cutthroatfreakshow.com It will post where we are going to be. I am also in Jackson Square most days.