Olde City Sideshow: Bug Eaters, Sword Swallowers, Human Blockheads Take Over Churchill's

Living in South Florida, you may feel like you're part of one big circus. Whether it's escaped wild animals and endless palmetto bugs or that crazy lady tossing her baby at a police officer, this region is awash in a weirdness that never seems to settle.

Maybe what Miami needs is a professional touch, someone to take all that freaky behavior and put it in the capable hands of trained performers. Enter Olde City Sideshow, a traveling evening of performance art in the stylings of vaudeville, burlesque and the historical sideshow atmosphere, mixed with Philadelphia's counter-culture flair.

Founded in 2006, Philadelphia's Olde City Sideshow has evolved from a classical vaudeville show with silent talkers to a modern variety event, featuring a combination of acts ranging from fire eating, sword swallowing, and glass walking, to comedy, magic, the Human Blockhead & Human Insectivore, burlesque, and more.

"I'm a rotten sword swallower, which is something I tell myself I'm going to work on all the time, but I think sword swallowing is one of the most awful, boring, least rewarding things ever, so I tend not to do it," said Olde City performer Reggie Bugmuncher. "I do the insectivore act, which usually includes eating crawlers, crickets, goldfish and the like."

Other stomach-twisting acts Olde City specializes in are Bed of Nails, Bed of Barbed Wire, and Human Blockhead. "Sometimes we get cinder blocks smashed on us with a sledgehammer or audience members stand on us when we're inside the barbed wire," Reggie said. "Human blockhead is when people hammer nails in their noses."

Though they might sound like scenes from the next installment of Hostel, Olde City Sideshow's acts stem from historical and modern takes on the vaudeville performance genre, with professionally trained entertainers Brunetti and Danny Borneo at the helm.

"Dan's more of the nose person," Reggie said. "We do glass walking, and over the past year we've been doing more sideshow-themed burlesque, which incorporates more glass rubbing on my body, fire eating and breathing...I had all through college been completely in love with the Pontani Sisters, these burlesque dancers out of New York. I was completely entranced with them and that opened up my love of variety."

Though she started at the bottom, Reggie eventually moved up to perform her favorite acts, like Bed of Nails. "Every single time somebody steps on me, or every single time the sledgehammer comes down on the cinder blocks, there's always that moment of, 'Oh my God, why am I doing this?' " Reggie said. "There's this intense rush."

Though YouTube videos of the crew show close shots of the squirm-inducing feats, some audiences refuse to believe the group is actually performing the dangerous acts, or believe they use fake glass. For the sword ladder, a longtime sideshow act, the crew takes a sword and cuts up carrots to show the sharpness of the blades. They also have audience members toss apples on the bed of nails and try to pull them off to show the nails are real.

"But there's always somebody in the audience that's like, 'That's just the ONE sharp sword, everything else is dull,'" Reggie said. "You have to walk this fine line of letting people know it's real, but there's certain people that are just never going to want to believe...And people are always welcome to come over and help us clean up glass on the stage."

Despite the skepticism of their authenticity, the group has faced very real injuries over the years.

"The worst one I had was I went into anaphlaxis because of a reaction I had to eating the insects, and Dan almost lost a quarter of his finger..." Reggie said. "Knock on wood, we haven't had anything really serious yet."

Through pain, disbelieving crowds, and tons of travel, the performers keep coming back for more, this time for a stop at Churchill's Pub.

"The sideshow arts and variety are really important to us, and keeping the spirit of that art alive is really important to us also," Reggie said. "Even if we're 70 years old hanging out in Florida with a bunch of carnies, we plan on doing something for the rest of our lives in the variety arts."

The Titillate Tour features Olde City Sideshow performances and a set by Sparklefight, Philadephia's "favorite rock punk sleazeballs." The show starts at 9 p.m. Saturday. Visit churchillspub.com for details.

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