Sword-swallowing celebration brings sideshow feat to Gatlinburg

Feb. 21, 2014 @ 03:40 PM

Sword swallowing is getting to be a lonely profession.

“There’s not a lot of us still out there performing,” said Travis Fessler, a Kentucky sword swallower.

On Saturday at 2:22 p.m., Fessler will practice his art at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium in Gatlinburg. The performance is part of the seventh annual World Sword Swallower’s Day.

In observance of the day, sword swallowing will take place at outposts throughout the Ripley’s entertainment empire, including Odditoriums in Atlantic City, New York City and Branson, Mo. The Gatlinburg presentation will additionally feature the sword swallowing of Captain Stab-Tuggo, an Atlanta-based performer, Fessler said.

The two also will be doing “some other sideshow stuff,” Fessler said. “Maybe some glass eating.”

Fessler, 41, has been swallowing swords since 2003. “Before that, I was a really bad kids’ magician,” he said. At a mentor’s suggestion, he transitioned to fire eating. Then he learned to lie on a bed of nails, and to swallow swords.

“Basically, I spent about two years learning to control my gag reflex and keep my esophagus completely straight,” Fessler said.

The swords are dull. “We round them off, so there’s not much danger of cutting,” Fessler said. “But they can still push through the esophagus if it’s not straight.”

Sword swallowing is “a very dangerous activity,” Fessler said. “You could easily get killed.”

Fessler performs with Pickled Brothers Circus, which is based in the Cincinnati area. Pickled Brothers shows typically star Fessler and his half-brother, Erik Kloeker, 24 – “and my wife, whenever she can join in,” Fessler said. They eat fire, juggle and perform other feats, in addition to swallowing swords.

On Saturday, Kloeker will be swallowing swords at Ripley’s Myrtle Beach, S.C., location, Fessler said.

The Pickled Brothers calendar includes bookings at a Renaissance fair and an Old West festival. October brings haunted-house gigs.

“I perform at street festivals, anywhere and everywhere,” Fessler said. “I’m performing at a retirement home tonight.”

Audience reactions to sword swallowing are “across the board,” Fessler said. “Some people want me to teach them how to do it. Some are completely disgusted.”

World Sword Swallower’s Day was founded by the Sword Swallowers Association International and is co-sponsored by Ripley’s. The event is held “in conjunction with February as National Swallowing Disorders Month,” according to an association press release.

The sword-swallowing tradition is 4,000 years old, Fessler said. The modern practice has “been on the decline, probably, since the 1960s.”

Still, Fessler noted, there are occasional sword swallowing revivals. Recently, the practice has seen renewed interest in connection with the revival of burlesque entertainment.

“Not just TV, but now the Internet and everything else is keeping people from coming out to any kind of live entertainment,” he said. “I’m always hoping for an uptick.”

kburns@themountainpress.com