I was a kid when I first saw his act – A wry, smart-mouthed magician with a knack for sleight of hand and sword swallowing (amongst other freakish sideshow skills) and the uncanny ability to do it with such ease he’d tell the audience “anyone can learn to do it”. He’d explain exactly what he was doing … and yet still manage to surprise his onlookers. The little red ball would turn to an orange and the orange to a glass of wine. He’d swallow a bigger sword than you thought was humanly possible and stuff a balloon down his throat and then pop it with a smaller blade – leaving the audience in stitches as his throat echoed the squeaking balloon’s deflation inside his body. He was handsome and funny and infectious and he called himself “Johnny Fox”. “Johnny Fox”, he’d say “is my stage name. My real name is John Fox.” And it was.
It worked out that I married a man who loved the faire as much as I did. And so as we built our life together and our family, the Maryland Renaissance Festival became an autumn-time staple for our family, a continuation from my childhood. And Johnny Fox stood at the heart of it. For years my son wanted “to grow up to be Johnny Fox” and he was constantly asking for new magic kits and wands … and forever disappointing himself that he wasn’t as good as Johnny. And even though we could practically recite half his jokes by heart and the outcomes of many of his tricks became predictable as the years passed… we couldn’t not see him. Because his jokes just never got old, his skill never got sloppy and his act never stopped amazing and entertaining us. Every year, when we’d walk through the gates of the festival with our entertainment schedule in hand and I’d say “Ok guys, who do you want to see?” Someone would always say, “Well you know we HAVE to see Johnny Fox!”
And so when the year came that I checked the entertainment schedule in advance and I saw that Johnny wasn’t on it, I panicked. He had been performing there forever! Nearly, forty years in fact. He was the longest running performer at the festival and we weren’t the only family who had come to love his entertainment for generations. Quickly scanning the site, I discovered that Johnny had been having some health problems and his performances were uncertain. We attended the festival regardless and were thrilled when we discovered that he’d still be performing. It wasn’t his usual three or four shows a day, there was only one that day; but it was the “must-do” for the day.
So when the time approached, we purchased “sweet nuts” from his signature booth and arrived early to get good seats. With beer and nuts in hand, my husband and I sat on the blue wooden benches like we had every fall. And the kids ran down the hill to the front, to sit at the Royal Stage’s edge (now the Royal Fox Stage) – just as they always had; because they already knew that when Johnny’s act started, the first thing he’d do was invite the kids down. They didn’t seem to realize that they were getting too big to use that accommodation anymore, but I didn’t stop them. For years, my son would gaze up at the magician like a god. And my daughter would soak in every second … until he grabbed the sword. Then she’d divert her eyes and squirm like the little girl that she was … only not so little now. As for my husband and I, every year we’d think this would be the year we would catch him in his sleight of hand. We never did.
As we sat on the benches, waiting for the show to start, I wondered and worried about what would have kept Johnny from posting certain performances.
And then Johnny appeared.
And the nurse inside of me knew exactly why his performances were uncertain. One look at him and I knew that he was dying. The look of end stage cancer is a look any seasoned medical professional can spot. The crowd cheered and welcomed him with a standing ovation and tears welled in my eyes. Oh, the difference a year can make. Standing on the same stage that I’d seen him perform for decades, his strong, fit body suddenly looked so frail. His clothes hung off of him and his cheek bones jutted under his thin, pale skin. I knew in that second that the great magician’s body was betraying him in the greatest of ways. And yet, stretched across his face was the biggest smile one could produce and his eyes were on fire.
Without missing a beat, he jumped right into his same jokes, the same ridiculously good sleight of hand and the same good-humored freak acts. With the same smooth confidence he held in his shoulders and the same mischievous sparkle in his eyes, he carried his audience from laughter to jaw drop, in a comfortable and entertaining act that was always second to none. And despite his obvious health concerns, he still ended the show with a sword swallow. I was astounded that he had the strength and energy to do what he did. He was a performer that we’d come to expect year after year and this time, while I watched, along with my laughter and smiles, my heart felt heavy because I knew that this was Johnny’s last show for us. And I soaked in every delicious second of it. He ended the show as he always did, by saying, “It is a privilege to make people laugh for a living…”
After the show, he confirmed to the audience that this past spring he had been given a grim diagnosis and had been undergoing alternative treatment. “They told me I only had a few weeks to live,” he said, “And I told them, you don’t know who you’re talking to.” He didn’t call his journey with cancer a “battle” though, he called it a “dance”. He spoke about his love for life and people and his drive to “keep getting better”. If death was on his mind, you never would’ve known it by his words or his performance. He called the Maryland Renn Fest his “home” and thanked everyone for making it that. He informed us of a Facebook page that he had opened for people to follow him on, “Friends of Johnny Fox”. And while he needed to clear the stage for the next act, he’d be in the back to take photos and sign autographs.
The kids and I were at the front of the line. He sat on a stool while a line formed behind us. I could see how tired he was and yet he was still so full of life. Before even acknowledging the adult that was trying to talk to him, he spotted my son and held out an autograph for him and shot him a sweet, inviting smile. And after we snapped our picture with the legend, I bent down and planted a kiss on his cheek, which he welcomed with a “muah”. “I just wanted to tell you that we love you,” I said.” You have brought us back to the festival year after year and have brought us so much joy. You taught my children to believe in magic. Thank you!” “I’m just dancing”, he said with a smile and I walked away just as the tears started to roll.
When I left the festival, I sent my request to “Friends of Johnny Fox” and from that day on I followed his page. With every updated picture and post that was made of him, it became clearer to me that he was getting sicker, and yet, he was always doing something fabulous! He was attending concerts (we share a favorite artist-Bob Dylan), putting his feet in the ocean, soaking in a hot tub with friends. As a health care professional, I know first hand what end-of-life looks like. Some people deny it and some people accept it. Many people submit to it and some people fight it. Johnny rocked it! He really did dance, right up until the very end.
And when the inevitable post came through that Johnny had drawn his last breath, I hung my head. “He died with a smile on his face and was surrounded by friends”- who gave him his final standing ovation-the post explained. When I turned to tell my family, my voice shook and I cried. I’m a nurse – I know death. This man wasn’t my family or even a friend. He was a festival performer. “I’m crying over a sword swallower”, I told my husband as I laughed through the tears. “Yeah but it was Johnny Fox”, he said. ” And he was just such a cool guy.” My children cried too.
His whole presence and journey had such a profound effect on myself and my family that we continued to follow his page and it wasn’t until after his death that we realized just what a legend Johnny was. We aren’t carnies or performers ourselves, we only knew the Maryland Renn Fest. And we thought Johnny Fox only belonged to us ( silly, I know!). It wasn’t until the various newspaper articles and NPR coverage surfaced that we began to learn the depth of his extraordinary ability and larger than life persona, whose influence spanned the nation. A true “sideshow virtuoso,” one article explained. All those years, we thought he was just our favorite festival act … when in actuality, he was a nation-wide legend.
We also learned more about the journey that he had been on and his drive to keep living and performing, right up until the end. His friends shared that one of the goals he had set for himself when he was diagnosed was to perform for the MD Renn fest for one more season. Friends drove him to doctors and even across the country to receive alternative treatment. He fought from Spring to Fall and there were weeks that he spent the weekdays in the hospital, but would be determined to get out in time to perform for the weekend. He was from Connecticut and performed in festivals all over the country. But somehow, Maryland Renn Fest won his heart, and we were all the luckier for it.
It was a family decision to attend his Celebration of Life ceremony. And we were so glad that we did! The man we knew only from the stage came even more to life when his friends told stories about him and his years of antics and performing. People traveled from all over the country to be there and to honor him. The stage was perfectly anointed with his props and posters and regalia. And the program his friends designed with quirky acts, comedy, eclectic people and musical minstrels was so suited to him that it was life-alteringly inspiring. They even performed a “Twenty-one sword swallow” as a salute to the great entertainer. I don’t know whether I felt more like an unworthy intruder or a privileged guest, to witness the tremendous love for a man I only knew as an audience member.
At the end of the ceremony, the host, a friend of Johnny’s and a fellow performer and magician, explained a tradition that started with the death of Houdini. The tradition was to break the magic wand of the late magician; “because a magic wand without the magician is just a stick”. And they followed the tradition with Johnny’s.
We don’t always know where our inspiration is going to come from. Nor do we know how the people (or performers) in our lives are going to change us. During the Celebration of Life ceremony, Johnny’s friend and fellow performer, Mark Sieve said “Johnny’s leaving us has affected all of us in ways we have yet to know.” And it already has.
I never would have dreamed that I would gain the inspiration or the lessons that I have as an audience member of a sideshow artist … I never thought I’d find myself in a room full of circus performers and be moved to tears with their tribute. I am changed because I stopped to watch and paused to learn.
Johnny’s example taught me that no amount of “bad news” or challenges can keep you from living, unless you let it. “Life is a choice to sit it out or dance.” Dancing he did, and magic he made. It’s up to me to make magic with the talents that I have.
And like a magician’s wand, things are just things and days are just days, until you use them to create something magical.
His diagnosis taught me not to let the inevitable, rush me to the ending. There’s a journey, a dance to be had. What he accomplished in those months of “dancing” was earth-moving. He taught this nurse, this skeptic, that it’s not over until it’s over.
And yet, he was a return act who reminded me that nothing lasts forever. Life is fragile and even the longest running act must come to an end. Take nothing for granted.
His quirkiness and love for the oddities in life confirmed my love for individual uniqueness. Johnny was a beloved person and character that embodied everything that was weird and unusual. He not only embraced that strangeness, he made it cool and he made it his. He was a perfect example of being yourself and utilizing your unique talents to make the world a more beautiful place.
Johnny reminded me to honor our past. His act, though it always felt fresh and new, always included tidbits of info that credited the forefathers of his art. He educated while he entertained and he honored the performers and talent that came before him. He fought to keep that dying art alive.
Johnny’s story taught me that “family” is whoever stands by your side and “home” is where your heart is. It was obvious from the speeches made, that Johnny was a well-traveled and well-loved man. He seemed to have many homes. I’m honored that Maryland was his favorite. And the turnout at his life celebration made it clear that his family was a wide and diverse one.
And that family reminded me that it’s those relationships that matter most. The people who carried Johnny to the end it seems, would have gone to the ends of the earth for him. And relationships like that, unlike magic, don’t generate from thin air. Johnny invested in people and they too invested in him. We mustn’t ever be too busy to invest in the people we love.
Despite his life threatening illness, Johnny showed up for one last season. Regardless of his fragility, he still performed and made people both laugh and squirm in enjoyment. He didn’t quit or give up. He didn’t lose himself or become bitter. He lived for every second that he was given and turned a death sentence into a beautiful dance. Might we all find the tenacity within us to do the same.
So here’s to the sword swallower who taught this nurse, this mother, this beer-holding, giggling fan … to believe in magic. Life is a Circus …bring your friends, buy the peanuts, sit in the front row, stay for the last act … it’s too damn short not to!
Thanks for sharing yours with us Johnny! Hats off to a life well performed!