Most people associate ďThe Amazing Blazing Tyler FyreĒ with Coney
Island or The Lucky Devil Circus Sideshow, but before all this you
had already acquired a good amount of sideshow skills. Where did
you originally learn these skills and what was it that made you
Iíve always had a love for the circus and the sideshow. I
remember seeing the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus
at the Omni in Atlanta, GA in 1982, so I would have been about six
years old. Like most kids who see the circus, especially those of
us coming from a rural, small town, it was the most amazing
spectacle Iíd ever seen; the colorful costumes, the amazing death
defying acts, and the grandeur of it all. Well Iíve never
grandparents had a book when I was growing up called Toby Tyler
or Ten Weeks with the Circus. Itís
the story of a young boy who runs away with the circus and back
then there were very few folks named Tyler. I only knew of Mary
Tyler Moore and of course the former president. So you could say
that that planted the seed too. Fire has always fascinated me and
certainly got me into more than a little trouble for a long time.
coming from the South helped me along into the world of
entertainment. The laid back pace of life, rural atmosphere and
hot weather encourages folks to tell long stories and entertain
each other as a part of everyday life. So learning circus and
sideshow skills to entertain anyone just seemed like the natural
thing for me to do. I told stories and read gypsy cards and
juggled a little when I was a teenager as a way to meet people and
find places to stay. It was really exciting.
When I was
in college I was lucky enough to take a class with Hovey Burgess
who taught me the basics of trapeze, how to juggle (properly),
walk the tightrope, and balance everyday objects along with some
basics of showmanship. Heís such a magical human being. It was
really inspiring to learn from him. In Hoveyís class I met Josh
who taught me the basics of fire eating and I was hooked. In
another class called Street Theater, we had two guest lecturers
who blew my mind: Todd Robbins and Jennifer Miller. Listening to
their stories about Sideshows by the Seashore gave me the
inspiration to focus on the sideshow.
Once you had the acts under your belt can you tell us where your
first public performance was and how it went over?
My first public show performing a one-man sideshow was at Silver
Lake Water Park in Raleigh, NC. As for my first show there, well
I moved to North Carolina on my motorcycle so I didnít have much
in the way of props or costumes. I remember one day as I was
making a balloon animal for a kid at the water park her Dad asked
me if I worked at the park or if I was just there talking to all
the small children!
I had some
skills and some storytelling, but I hadnít written many acts or
put together a whole show so it really came off the top of my head
for a while until I settled into a rhythm and got it together as a
show. I was performing five shows a day on the beach. Performing
multiple shows is the best way to tighten up your material so it
definitely helped me get better quickly.
You mentioned earlier that you attended college. Did you attend
college in Georgia? In addition, what degree did you receive and
what affect do you think it has had on your performing abilities?
I am from Georgia, but I moved around a lot as a kid because my
Dad is a minister. I lived in Georgia until I was seven and then
we moved to a town on the south side of Boston. We lived in New
England for a while until I went to college in New York and
despite several extended trips and stays in other parts of the
country, Iíve been here ever since.
I went to New York Universityís Tisch
School of the Arts for their Dramatic Writing Program in 1994 and
in 1999 I received my BFA in playwriting. I canít say that I
really enjoyed college and I quickly realized that playwriting was
not the way I wanted to spend my life. I didnít want to leave New
York yet, so I stuck it out and Iím really glad I did, because
going to college allowed me to meet some wonderful people that
helped get me into the sideshow.
playwriting itself Iíve come to realize helps me a lot. Dick
Zigun, the impresario and founder of Coney Island USA is also a
reformed playwright. So itís nice that we both share that
background and it helps us communicate our ideas about the show to
and sideshow doesnít at first seem like an obvious combination,
but that may be why itís helped me so much. When Iím writing a
new act or putting together a show I find myself thinking about
using the three-act structure and what is the major dramatic
question of this act.
after all, is entertainment for the masses and in order to appeal
to the broadest demographic, your show has to make sense and be
easy to understand for anyone, while still being at itís core Ė
As the story goes, after finishing up college you were somewhat
trapped in NYC by the DMV. Can you
give our readers a little insight into how that happened?
I love my motorcycle. I ride a 1966 Triumph Bonneville, a British
motorcycle just like the one Marlon Brando and his gang of outlaw
bikers rode in The Wild One. Her name is Trixie and weíve
ridden a lot of miles together up and down the Appalachian
Mountain Chain. And on occasion I get so entranced in riding, the
Zen state that it is, that I may not obey all the applicable
traffic laws. When I finished college I was ready to split town
and leave New York for good. I went to the DMV in Coney Island
with a stack of cash in my pocket to settle a stack of tickets and
letters from the DMV. As it goes with government agencies, I
spent all day in different lines before getting to the right
person; whereupon I was told that my license had been suspended
and "after filling out this form I would get a response in seven
to ten months."
I was a
little put out with the way my day had gone and with steam pouring
out my ears I decided to go for a walk on the beach before going
home. As it happened on my way back to the train I walked past
Sideshows by the Seashore and decided to knock on the door. So
thanks DMV Ė much like college Ė for all the days you pissed me
off Ė I couldnít have done it without you. Working in the
sideshow is the exact opposite of being a meter maid. I make
people happy to pay money for an experience that they want and are
going to enjoy. And just so you donít think that all the good
luck Iíve had in the sideshow has changed me, I got another one of
those DMV letters in the mail yesterday.
So after being somewhat trapped in New York by the DMV you ended
up at Sideshows by the Seashore knocking on Dick Zigunís door
looking for work. Seeing as you are now a regular at Sideshows by
the Seashore something must have happened that day. Can you give
us some insight?
My first meeting with Dick Zigun was a very humbling moment. Dick
opened the sideshow door wearing his orange glasses in the middle
of the day and I told him I wanted to work in the show. Iím 22
and I know that the world was made especially for me. Iíve just
come back from working five shows a day and working at the
Olympics before that. So I feel pretty confident that no show
could possibly make it without me.
Well when I told Dick my list of
amazing skills, he checked them off on his fingers saying that
they either had them or didnít need them. While I was spinning in
my shoes, he said that they did need an outside talker, and as my
mind was saying Ė now what exactly does that mean I do again Ė my
mouth was saying ďOf course I can do that.Ē
I started on Memorial Day weekend -
with no talker to listen to, and next to no material. Little by
little, old time talkers came by and helped me out. God bless
them all. I feel most grateful to Bobby Reynolds who really
shaped up my ballys and taught me so much about the sideshow.
There is a big difference between your home state of Georgia and
Coney Island. I would imagine the same difference is reflected in
the type of people you see on the streets. What was running
through your head that Memorial Day Weekend?
Georgia is a lot different from Coney Island. My hometown of
Grayson, GA had a population of 498 people when we lived there.
Coney Island has housing projects where a single building has more
people than that.
started at Coney Island I had already traveled the country on my
thumb for a while and lived with hookers and police raids and
slept in the back of a refrigerated truck, so I wasnít as shocked
by Coney Island as your average green help might have been.
and meeting folks the way I had in addition to my proper Southern
upbringing gave me a good sense of how to talk to people and get
what I want even with as diverse a crowd as we get in Coney
Island. But Coney Island remains the only place Iíve ever
performed where someone pulled a gun on me while I was on stage.
Q. Someone pulled a gun on
A. Yes, late night in Coney
Island we get a crowd like nowhere else. We used to sell dollar
tickets late at night to get the last of the money from the midway
and what a crowd they were. Mostly, the people who came in for a
dollar after midnight were not there to watch a show - but to...
well I'm trying to think of another way to put it... they're there
to fuck with you. You have to be really on your toes and you need
to run the show really tight, because any moment of pause or any
sign of weakness and it's all over. The crowd takes control and it
can get dangerous. I've seen more "laying on of the hands" on
stage in Coney Island than the Baptists see in year and we've all
got baseball bats at our stations. However, if you run it just
right, you can turn it around and make them an awesome crowd. The
night the gun came out was one of the good shows.
I start my blockhead bit with the ice pick. So I've just finished
as the Master of Magic and I reveal the ice pick saying I'm going
to show you why they call me the Human Blockhead. Well from the
stage I'm motioning like I'm stabbing the ice pick. One guy in the
front row with two chicks with him; I've got my ice pick in my
fist and he reaches down into the waistband of his pants so
everybody can see and pulls his gun out, pointing it at me and
says, "You're going to show me what?"
He wasn't ever planning to shoot anyone - but it was macho man
measuring up moment - I had my ice pick out, so he pulled his gun
out for everybody to see. Once everybody knew, I told a joke and
kept going with the show. He smiled and shook my hand on the way
out that night. Taking a hostile crowd and winning them over is
one of the best feelings in the world and moments like the night
with the gun, well those are the moments where Coney Island has
won me over and they're the most fun crowd I've ever played.
So how did that first day go, and more importantly what did Dick
think of your work?
My first day of work in Coney Island was a pretty startling
experience because I didnít know I was showing up to work. I had
talked to Dick about trying out to be the talker and he said,
ďOkay, come by this weekend and check out the show.Ē So I came
out with my girlfriend and we watched the show. We hung around
out front for a while to listen to the talker, but no one ever
came out onto the bally stage. Clearly this is why Dick was
giving me the opportunity. Anyhow, Dick catches me standing
outside, hands me the microphone and says, ďOkay kid, go for it.Ē
Frank Hartman came out and gave me about 30 seconds of tutoring
and that was it. I talked the show for ten hours that day in my
shorts and sneakers before Dick called John Robinson (end the
At the end of it all, Dick said, ďWell
kid, you did okay. Come back tomorrow and weíll see how it
goes.Ē He kept me on that way, one day at a time for over a month
before hiring me at $7 an hour for the rest of the season.
You remained on the bally for 3 years and anyone who knows you
knows that youíre one hell of a talker. Did there come a time
where you just sort of went on autopilot or did you continuously
try to come up with new and better ways to turn the tip?
Working in Coney Island or on a carnival midway anywhere in the
country is an incredible experience. You learn to reprioritize
things like food and sleep, even going to the bathroom. At
Sideshows by the Seashore we perform 12-15 shows a day and three
ballys per show. So thatís about 40 ballys a day plus grinding in
between the ballys. When Iím out on the bally stage, Iím always
looking for the next big tip I can turn in, looking to see whoís
got money in their pocket, and occasionally a pretty girl will
pass by too. But working those kind of hours on questionable food
and sleep deprivation, there are certainly moments while Iím
talking that I find myself thinking about what Iíd like to have
for lunch if I wasnít working or if I can get that pretty girl to
buy me a beer. That happens mostly during the grind talking which
can become somewhat monotonous day after day. During the ballys I
really expend all the energy Iíve got trying to hypnotize the
audience. Often we get people inside the sideshow from a bally
who donít want to watch a sideshow at all. Thatís when you know
that the talker is really doing a good job.
Was there a point during those 3 years where you thought you were
going to remain on the bally forever and never make it inside?
I was certain that Dick was going to keep me out front forever and
would never give me the job inside. First there was Frank
Hartman, Bobby Reynoldsís nephew, who grew up with the sideshow
and when he wanted to be, he could be the best showman youíve ever
seen. He was fresh off the road from Bobbyís show after a dispute
with Bobby over money, married and living in an apartment (not a
trailer) and making more money than he had with Reynolds. So he
had no plans of ever leaving the show.
first unexpected thing happened. With all of the help I got from
Frank and Bobby Reynolds, from Uncle Milty (Milt Levine), from
Marie Roberts talking about her Uncle Lester, and the other
showmen coming through Coney Island, I started getting good at
talking the ballys. Once I started making Dick money out on the
Bally stage, I knew he would never put me inside. But life has a
funny way of giving you what you wish for, whether itís what you
hoped for or not.
Eventually you did make it inside. What changed that allowed
that to happen and what was it like?
Everybody knew that I wanted the job inside. Frank Hartman knew
it too and held on to it very tightly. But things started to
change, Frankís first wife left him and he started leaving work
early every now and then. After John Robinson came and I had done
my last bally, Frank would let me finish the last show inside. I
remember the first time he let me eat fire to close the show Ė it
was the greatest feeling in the world. Of course the crowds for
the last show of the night are the worst crowds you could ever
perform for, and often, crowd really doesnít describe the handful
of drunken people sitting before you. I think it was because I
had wanted it for so long that it just felt great to be up on that
away for a weekend once and let me fill in and then it happened.
Frank fell in love with a girl and decided to move out west. I
was worried that Dick would find someone else for the inside and
keep me on the bally, but he let me work inside as long as I would
still talk a few ballys.
After 3 years of building up and turning the tip for the inside
performance, what was it like to be inside and having the tip
turned for you?
The three years I spent talking the front of the show in Coney
Island did more for my inside acts than anything else. Working
the bally was a real test and training ground of showmanship. On
the bally stage, you have to stop people and focus their attention
in the middle of the noise and flashing lights of the midway.
Youíve got to entertain them without ever picking up a prop or
performing anything, and then youíve got to get them to reach for
their wallet. If you can get control of a crowd like that, well
the ones who are already sitting down in front of you waiting for
a show feel pretty easy.
The way we
run the show in Coney Island with three ballys per rotation gives
the show a different feel than the traditional bally, show, bally,
show rotation. The three ballys really give a rhythm to the
show. So at three distinct points in the show you have a group of
people getting up and leaving and more people coming in, while
other folks are staying in the stands watching you on stage. We
have to time the ballys and the dings very carefully so that the
marks donít walk in off a bally and get hit with a ding right
away. The outside talker and the inside lecturer really have to
work together. If either a bally or an act inside go one minute
over or under it can make a huge difference in not just the
numbers at the end of the day, but also the energy of the crowd
and the feel of the show.
What exactly can one expect once theyíve paid their money and step
inside Sideshows By The Seashore?
Sideshows by the Seashore really is the last real live 10-in-1
sideshow left out there on the midway anywhere in the world.
Weíve made a few changes like bally rotation, but when you walk
inside you always see ten live acts and two dings. While we do
change up the rotation, the rotation we ran most of 2003 went like
this ĖHuman Blockhead, Sword Swallower, Madame Twisto (the blade
box), Eak The Geek (our totally tattooed man), the Bed of Nails,
Madame Electra (the electric chair), Inverted straight jacket
escape, Insectavora (our tattooed bug eating babe), Serpentina
(our snake charmer), Fire Eating and of course the Blow-Off.
At the time of this interview youíve put in a total of 6 years at
Sideshows By The Seashore. Now that we know how you got there,
what is it thatís kept you there?
Itís a magical experience to work a 10-in-1 in Coney Island. The
history of our building, which used to be the Wonderland Circus
Sideshow, and the old timers that walk in to say hello are just
part of the experience. Performing 15 shows a day is a rush like
no other. You hear rock stars explain how they got on drugs and
one of the things you hear over and over again is how that rush of
applause and energy you get from the crowd is overpowering and
then you go backstage and you want that feeling back. Well,
rock-stars are only doing one show a night. When the season winds
down and I find myself doing two or three shows a week, itís a
very startling feeling. The fact that weíre based in New York
City so we can all live in our own apartments instead of motor
homes is a great perk and in a great live performance town we can
do other shows too. Well at least off-season we can.
Do you have any plans on leaving Sideshows By The Seashore?
Iíve just renegotiated my contract for Sideshows by the Seashore
so Iíll be there in 2004. I really love my Lucky Devil Circus
Sideshow and I love traveling, so Iím continuing to work out a way
to do it all.
After 6 years you must have met some of the biggest names in the
business. Is there one person or event that really sticks out in
Iíve been privileged enough to meet so many greats in the sideshow
world and so many wonderful people that itís hard to list a few
without listing everyone. But there are two events that do stick
out in my mind.
time I met Bobby Reynolds, I recognized him right away. I was
talking a bally and Bobby came in on my tip. Seeing him in that
line was an amazing moment. He came up to me and said, ďGood
work, kid. Now give me the microphone and Iíll show how itís
done.Ē He did.
remember the day Todd Robbins brought Ward Hall to Sideshows by
the Seashore. Ward is the most kind and gracious man you could
ever meet. It was Wardís first time in Coney Island. Heíd been
on the road for 58 years, but he works the mud shows, so if itís
on season and weíre open, then heís open too, so our paths never
crossed before that day. He watched our whole show and made a
point of shaking everyoneís hand and saying something wonderful
about their act.
Page Two >>
Interview by Derek Rose
For more information on Tyler Fyre