Life as a Street Performer
Even in a city like New Orleans, Eric Ogilvie is a distinctive figure. It starts with his tattoos.
Under his lower lip is the word ‘laughter’ in all capital letters, the first four in red ink, the last four in blue. On the back of his left hand is a detailed portrait of Robert L. Ripley, of Believe It Or Not! Fame. The art on his forearms is an homage to the performers who starred in “Freaks,” director Tod Browning’s 1932 film study of life in a traveling sideshow, hinting at Ogilvie’s own profession. The ornate sword tattoo starting at his Adam’s apple and extending down his chest identifies it more clearly.
“In school, I was the kid who poked needles through my skin and got people to pay me for jumping off buildings,” he said over a cup of chicory coffee at Café Envie before heading to Jackson Square for an afternoon of performing. “It was only a matter of time before I learned sword swallowing.” Billed as Eric Odditorium, The World’s Most Daring Sword Swallower, he ingests as many as 200 blades a day on the streets of the French Quarter, where he is part of a colorful and thriving community of street performers. Many, like Ogilvie, who grew up in Pismo Beach, California, and came to the Crescent City via Austin, Texas, aren’t native to New Orleans but have found it a welcoming home for their art.
“A lot of travelling performers come through New Orleans, but only a certain type come back or stay,” he said. “I can’t put my finger on why. There’s just a particular flavor about this city, and there are people who come here just to see our street performers.” As Ogilvie stands at the corner of St. Ann and Chartres streets attracting an audience as he sets a 15-inch blade spinning on its tip in the palm of his hand, a gilded harlequin perches atop a metal pole at Decatur and St. Peter, making faces at passersby. Over at Royal and Toulouse, the six-member Secondhand Street Band entertains a crowd with Creole-infused Dixieland.
Farther up the block, two wordsmiths for hire sit in folding chairs at tables, producing poetry on demand on manual typewriters. A few paces away, Jeremy the Magician from Britain wears a top hat and waves a wand as he demonstrates the classic cups and balls trick for a group of children and their parents. Elsewhere on Royal, Uncle Louie the human statue, the dapper dean of New Orleans street performers, amazes tourists and locals as he has for the past quarter century.
Standing or sitting near upturned hats, open instrument cases, and buckets encouraging audiences to support their art, they inhabit the French Quarter’s streets with others who defy conventional explanation: the human automobile, the smiling man holding the Rent-A-Bum sign, and the skulking character in the black cloak with a salt-and-pepper beard protruding below his Día de Muertos mask. For Ogilvie, they’re all just his colleagues. “I view everybody as my co-worker,” he said, still at Jackson Square, having swallowed 15- and 20-inch swords, individually and two at a time, and treated multiple audiences to a demonstration of reverse sword swallowing, a stunt of his own creation. “I swallow a sword and bring up a volunteer to pull it out. Then I put my body back onto the sword while they’re holding it.”
As far as he knows, no other sword swallower has ever attempted it. “I’ve used other sword swallowers as my volunteers, and they’re shocked by it,” he said. It isn’t unusual for Ogilvie’s audiences to be shocked when they see him doing push-ups, jumping off barstools, and breakdancing after plunging a 20-inch sword to the hilt in his throat, but “they usually leave with an interesting video to take home.”
Some aren’t so easily impressed. “There’s always a doubter who thinks I use trick swords or that I’m not really swallowing them,” he said with a knowing smile. “The easiest way to overcome that is to pick them to be my volunteer. If they’re still not convinced after that, I’ll straighten out a coat hanger and swallow it. That usually seals the deal.”
As visitors to New Orleans can expect quality street entertainment while touring the French Quarter, the performers who work there reciprocatively expect respect – and tips – from their audiences, according to Ogilvie. “A good audience is one that isn’t afraid to laugh and clap and have a good time. A good audience also understands that we care about our shows, that what we do is art, and that it’s what we do for a living. And this is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done for a living.”