RIVERVIEW — The red-haired old man wearing a kilt and holding a long contraption made from coat hangers took a deep breath and asked the crowd, "So, do you really want to know how to swallow swords?"
The crowd cheered, and then Red Stuart — who claimed to be the world's oldest sword swallower without volunteering his age — said a poem he has recited hundreds, maybe thousands of times right before jamming large metallic items down his throat: "It's between the lips and over the tongue, behind the heart and over the lungs, watch out stomach, here it comes, this is the way swallowing swords is done."
And with that, Stuart gulped down the coat-hanger contraption, eliciting gasps and cheers. (Stuart did swallow a sword Saturday night, but for unclear reasons decided to recite the poem before swallowing something else.) As he removed the metal from his mouth, however, a stagehand told him he needed to do the whole thing over again — something about the shot not being right.
The AMC reality show Freakshow tapped the Gibsonton area, a community with a long history of being home to sideshow and carnival performers, to host a taping Saturday evening of an episode for the show's second season. The allure of a free freak show brought hundreds to the Museum of the American Carnival. After waiting through intermittent rain, some for more than an hour, the people got their free freak show, albeit one with frequent intrusions from the mechanics of a television production.
By the time Stuart was interrupted, the crowd was actually getting acclimated to the rhythm of a TV shoot. They'd all signed waivers promising AMC they were okay with the network using their images and likenesses. (When staffers ran out of waivers, they had the last dozen or so in line say the words of the waiver while staffers videotaped them with their cellphones; a verbal contract the staffers hoped aloud would hold up in court.)
They'd all seen the cameramen moving in and out of the crowd, and watched as the performers like Stuart, with the opening act Ward Hall's World of Wonders, repeatedly looked over to production staff for approval.
At 7:45 p.m. Todd Ray, the former music producer and owner of the Venice Beach Freakshow, featured in the AMC show, took the stage. Ray's first performer was Morgue, an androgynous young man who got his nickname, Ray explained, because "if you try to do what he does you'll end up in the morgue." Morgue drilled an electric drill bit into his nose, then turned the stage over to Creature, a man with a body covered in tattoos and a head studded with piercings whose act consisted of jumping up and down and acting like some kind of creature.
A few minutes later, Ray took center stage again, and started a short speech intended to inspire crowd energy for 7-foot-8 George Bell, the "Tallest Man in America." Ray got a few words out before a producer interrupted him. Again, the shot was apparently not quite right. Ray smiled, looked at the crowd, and pleaded for patience as the cameramen moved.
"Welcome to TV," he said.
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]