His death is hard to swallow.
Coney Island’s sideshow community was reeling Sunday from the death of a legendary and beloved sword swallower to liver cancer.
Johnny Fox, 64, had appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and a Maalox commercial in which he swallowed light bulbs. He was so revered at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville that its main stage was named after him. He’d performed there since the early 1980s.
“He was one of the finest examples of a sideshow virtuoso as well as being a celebrity within our own culture,” said Patrick Wall, general manager at the nonprofit arts organization Coney Island USA.
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“We lost one of the best … He had a dynamic stage presence and just a complete love and commitment to what he did.”
Fox, who grew up in Hartford, Conn., ran the Freakatorium on the Lower East Side, showcasing sideshow culture, from 1999 to 2005. He also had performed at the Coney Island Freak Show
“When it came to actually dropping the blade and doing the extremely dangerous acts, he was one of the best,” said Dick Zigun, founder of Coney Island USA.
He recalled that Fox was a dedicated collector of sideshow memorabilia.
“If you hung out with Johnny, he would pull out Sammy Davis Jr.’s glass eye!” Zigun recalled.
Magician Todd Robbins called Fox “one of the greats.”
“I used to joke I wanted to be Johnny Fox,” he said.
In 2016, Fox received a grim diagnosis and then took a fall that resulted in him slipping into a coma for several days. He chose not to go to hospice and instead sought treatment at a facility in Arizona specializing in alternative medicine.
He recovered enough to perform again this year at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. His fans and fellow sideshow freaks started a fund-raiser for him called “A Hard One 2 Swallow.”
“Gratitude and optimism and being content have gotten me through so much of my life, and if I can share those things with others and help each other out … we’re all in this crazy world together,” he told NPR in October.
“There’s love, and there’s fear,” he said. “I choose love.”
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