“Good evening; my name is Johnny Fox,” he’d always begin.
“But that’s just my stage name,” he’d add to the huge crowd thronging the Pearl Street Mall rock park, blocking the walkways past. “My real name is: John Fox.”
Snarky humor, deep honoring of old-school freakshow and vaudeville arts, and sword swallowing. That’s what made Johnny Fox one of the best performers I had (and still have) ever witnessed. He never knew this, but I idolized him.
When I was a teenager, I was a storyteller, and as such, fancied myself in the realm of the court jester, the venerable wit of renaissance time. Magic, juggling, and acrobatics were three aspects of my cultivation of this type of performance I never did get very good at, to my chagrin. I nearly went to Clown College after high school, but I got a freshman-year scholarship and so went to regular college instead (but I did get a theatre degree).
Point is: Johnny Fox was doing everything I admired about performing, everything I wanted to be, and he soon became my unwitting mentor, as I watched his Pearl Street act uncountable times, absorbing it like the adoring sponge I was, till I had every bit of his impeccable timing and structure and patter memorized, word for pause.
He’d do what I call gross-out magic: the spikes up the nose; needles through the tongue; razor blades in the eyes; and of course the classic: swallowing razor blades and a length of string, making expressions of gastric distress, till he’d slowly, elegantly, pull out the blades, tied neatly onto the string in sequence like Christmas lights.
But he’d do old school legerdemain type tricks as well: cards and coins and pickpocketing audience members. He had an awe-inspiring pair of hands.
But what set him apart from the crowd of excellent magicians I knew and saw regularly around that place and time, was the freakshow skill that made him famous: sword swallowing.
He’d start small, building the drama of the finale, driving his blades into a log, just to show they weren’t retractable (and of course the joke trick where he did indeed use a retractable knife). The finale consisted of Fox inserting a full length blade down his throat, up to the crossguard. Then he’d bow, sword still inside him, till his rotating bow took him to the carefully selected audience member, who got to hold the hilt as he withdrew.
(I never once got selected to be that hallowed part, though I was fascinated to observe him shaking the hands of several audience members, till he found the exact right kind of grip to trust with this dangerous task. Was it all for show? Maybe. I didn’t care.)
Johnny Fox looked like a gypsy, and dressed like one, too, when onstage. Beyond finding his appearance and talent attractive as a young theatrical teen naturally would, even more than that: I wanted to be him when I grew up. My love of (and expertise in) swords, my work in aerial and burlesque dancing all have their seeds right there in Johnny Fox.
Beyond Boulder, Fox was a performer on TV, several renaissance faires, and curated a museum in New York called the Freakatorium. A proponent of old-fashioned dark-side entertainment, he did much to spread it all over the country. I am thankful that his impact on me was able to be so strong, that I was able to witness his profound talent firsthand, and learn from him as an idol and a mentor, even if we never once met. (Actually I do have an embarrassing story about a joke I finally got the guts to tell him after one of his shows. Not writing about that here—ask me about it sometime.)
Liver cancer took Johnny Fox too soon, just this past Sunday. He was only 64. What other amazing acts, feats of grosseur, or ascerbic and charming wit would he have regaled us all with, had he lived even ten years longer?
We will never know, but to those of us honored to have witnessed his incredible work firsthand, he will be immortal.
RIP, Johnny Fox. May you be grossing out the angels and swallowing seraphic swords to their delight hereafter.