Looking back is always a bit dicey, and having come through the year we’ve just endured, the first instinct is not to open the treasure trove of memory. In my case. However, I do have a string of indelible experiences that I’m pretty sure fall outside the range of the ordinary.
For a number of years I was entrusted with the task of bringing a wide range of intellectual, cultural, artistic, and spiritually uplifting speakers and performers to a weekly convocation of faculty and students at a small but highly esteemed boarding school nestled atop a mesa in near Santa Barbara, California, its back to a national forest, its entrance down and out at some of the most highly prized surfing spots on the Pacific coastline. It’s a splendid location and one that speakers, performers and spiritual pilgrims find edifying; it’s also within twenty minutes of a major university and ninety minutes from Los Angeles. The range of successful performances ran from gospel choirs to neurosurgeons, from film stars to recovered gang bangers.
Leonard Cohen’s backing singer? Hallelujah! David Crosby? Eight Miles High. Russian Balalaika Band? Da. Nationally celebrated storytellers? More than once upon a time. Irish harpist? Inspirational quadropeligic hockey player? Canadian folk tro? A hypnotist with a speech impediment?
Yes, yes, and yes.
I will be remembered, however, for my coup in bringing international Scottish “entertainer” Stevie Starr to the stage five times over twenty years. Mr. Star is better known by his stage name, “The Regurgitator”, and is the most celebrated swallower of objects in the known world. What does he swallow, you ask? Well, virtually anything he can stuff in his mouth. His stage kit usually includes a pool ball, a magic eight ball, a set of keys, the padlock to be unlocked somewhere inside Stevie, razor blades, dollar coins, needle and thread swallowed separately and made one, again somewhere. There are other objects in play, but those I provided and will be discussed later, in the more technical portion of the program. He’s been on stage with John Oliver, but I’ve not been able to access that performance. Should you wish to see the artist at work, his performances have been recorded on America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent, Cesco Slovenska Ma Talent, Italia’s Got Talent, La France, A Un Incroyable Talent, and Das Supertalent.
So, he’s got talent.
I booked The Regurgitator before he hit the big time, when he was just starting out, so he and his manager cut me a break; I could afford to bring him back once every three or four years. Students in several generations who might otherwise have regretted my other and more quirky convocation choices now share the privilege of watching The Regurgitator up close, and occasionally up much too close. Alumni reunions often include conversations between classes years apart but able to relate to any description of the act. “Oh, My God! Do you remember when he swallowed Stephanie’s watch?”
Yes, one of Stevie’s stocks in trade involved moving into the audience, encouraging his victim to cough up … wait … no, that’s his job … to present a personal object, such as a ring, a watch, or a bracelet. I do have to confess that even the mildly insane Stevie Starr did not attempt to swallow a proffered cell phone.
I alone had the greater privilege of dining with Stevie. I had to book a table at IHOP in order to allow him to enjoy his favorite/only meal- sausages and bacon. I did get to see him pull one of his prize stunts on a waitress, however, as he threw back an entire shaker of sugar, drank a glass of water, and brought the sugar up -dry — in the waitress’ hand.
I left a very large tip that night.
There are so many things to wonder at, starting with the effect of a steady diet of bacon and sausages, but the real question is, “Where does all that stuff go?” Stage magic works with misdirection, and there’s probably some of that in his act, but one of my jobs as his host was to purchase goldfish of a specific size, dollar coins, and butane gas. You can imagine the purposes to which the coins and fish were intended; you may not have guessed that Stevie put a microphone against his stomach so that we could hear the coins clink as they landed … somewhere. The goldfish went down and came back, still alive but not as frisky as it had been before it went on the short dark trip.
The benzene was part of what might have been the most picturesque of The Regurgitator’s stunts. He swallowed dish soap (I know!) then the butane gas (I know!), then proceed to bring up impressively large clear bubbles which he then filled with butane from somewhere. The gas filled now milky white bubble floated until broken then released a cloud of butane smoke. One of my jobs was to step on stage in order to hold a lighter under Stevie’s mouth so that the next released bubble could burst into flames, scorching the hair on my hand. Go, figure. The “celebrity” panel on Romania’s Got Talent (Romanii au Talent) recoiled at this portion of the show, crossing themselves as though warding off a shirtless Scottish demon.
Look, we don’t even know why we dream; how can we know how Stevie Starr swallows numbered tokens and brings them up in any order we demand? Does he have secret pockets sewn into his esophagus? Both unlikely and painful. Does he have a cavity above his palace into which he can place pool balls? Where would sugar go in order to stay dry after he drinks the water?
The mysteries of the universe continue to instruct us in the limitation of our imagination.
I am a retired teacher, a writer, a husband and father, but there are those who will hold me in memory as the guy who asked Stevie Starr to blow flaming bubbles on command.
It could be much worse.