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Remembering Sword Swallower Johnny Fox and His Clinton Street “Freakatorium”

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Johnny Fox outside the Freakatorium on Clinton St., circa 2003. Photo by Nicodemys Carvell.
Johnny Fox outside the Freakatorium on Clinton St., circa 2003. Photo by Nicodemys Carvell.

The tributes are rolling in for sword swallower Johnny Fox, a mainstay of the Coney Island Freak Show and proprietor of the Freakatorium on the Lower East Side.

Fox died over the weekend of liver cancer at the age of 64. Over the years, he took his sword swallowing act all over the country, and appeared on national television programs. He was probably best known for his appearances at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.

From 1999 to 2005, Fox ran the Freakatorium, El Museo Loco, at 57 Clinton St. As the New York Times noted in an obituary published yesterday, the quirky museum, “harbored artifacts including clothing worn by Tom Thumb, the P. T. Barnum performer; a mummified cat said to be from an Egyptian tomb; and a glass eye that supposedly belonged to Sammy Davis Jr.”

The photo you see posted above was taken around 2003 by Nicodemys Carvell outside the museum. Local author and filmmaker Laurie Gwen Shapiro put it up on her Facebook page, along with the following note:

I just learned my friend Johnny Fox died… A good friend of many years… I was walking home through the Lower East Side one day in (1999) and saw a very good-looking man swallowing fire right in the middle of Clinton Street. Who are you, I asked. He had a tiny sideshow collectibles museum that had just opened on the block called the Freakatorium, which he showed me that day. He was so exceptionally nice. Oh my. Goodbye, Johnny.

Like so many of the Lower East Side’s colorful characters, Fox was gentrified out of the neighborhood long ago. Upon closing the museum in 2005, he told the Times,”People say: ‘Don’t close. We love you… It’s great to hear that, but do you want to pay the bills?” The rent had shot up to $2400, twice what he was paying just a few years earlier.

Patrick Wall of Coney Island USA said in an interview with the Daily News, “(Johnny Fox) was one of the finest examples of a sideshow virtuoso as well as being a celebrity within our own culture… We lost one of the best … He had a dynamic stage presence and just a complete love and commitment to what he did.”

Here’s a video featuring Johnny Fox at the Freakatorium. It was produced by James Straker.


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