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Class clown from Florissant now a sword-swallowing, fire-breathing magician

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 24, 2013: Growing up in Florissant, Josh Routh was the class clown. Little did he know he’d one day make a living at it.

Routh, 35, is now a professional clown but that’s just the first layer in his bag of tricks. He also juggles, performs magic, does acrobatics, walks on stilts, hypnotizes people, swallows swords and and eats and breathes fire.

You might have seen him earlier this summer at Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night,” wowing the crowds by swallowing a sword and carrying a chair on his head.

Routh’s always had a fascination with performing. When this self-described “troublesome” child was 12, he tagged along to his mother’s clown class. If the giant clown shoe fits, wear it. He did.

“I began clowning as a volunteer in nursing homes and hospitals for two or three years, and adding juggling, balloon animals and magic,” Routh says. “Then I took it to the next level by getting an agent when I was 16.”

‘Hard to harness’

Routh’s then-agent Jeff Lefton of Abra-Kid-Abra magic company, remembers the teenager as funny, creative and “full of mischief.” As part of his kids' parties business, Lefton owned a number of bouncy inflatables. One time, as Lefton’s employees washed the inflatables in a parking lot, they were surprised by Routh shooting at them with a paintball gun.

“Sometimes he was a little hard to harness,” Lefton remembered.

After 10 years of performing all over the country, Routh relocated to San Francisco to train at the Circus Center. There, one of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey’s early female clowns helped Routh fine-tune his act. A year later, Routh was performing with the Pickle Family Circus, with guidance from a former Cirque Du Soleil performer.

After moving back to St. Louis, Routh formed Circus Kaput, which offers the services not only of Routh but additional fire eaters, human statues and other entertainers, including Routh’s wife, a face painter and balloon artist.

He’s contracted with the Shakespeare Festival for 10 years, and he and other Kaput entertainers have worked for Clayton at the Taste of Clayton and other events. No fire or swords there, but plenty of juggling and magic tricks, according to Clayton’s event specialist Janet LeMay.

“They do an amazing job. They’re alway a hit,” LeMay said.

Tricks of the trade

For most of us, even the ability to juggle seems out of reach. So how does a mere mortal also learn to swallow a nearly two-foot-long piece of cold metal and spit out flumes of flame?

“I’m not going to give away all my trade secrets,” Routh said.

But Routh did reveal a few details of his superhuman skills. Sword-swallowing is basically an exercise in eliminating the gag reflex. And it’s not pretty. You start by pushing the sword (yes, a real sword) four inches down, which makes you gag and likely throw up. Then you try eight inches, then 12, then work up from there.

“You do that long enough and your gag reflex says, ‘I give up,’” Routh said. 
“To be in the International Sword Swallowers Association, you have to be able to swallow a 22-inch sword.”

As a member, Routh has attended numerous annual conventions including one in Branson, hobnobbing with an elite group. There are only about 100 active sword swallowers in the world, he said.

Sword swallowing is something that can only be done about five times in a single day, and saliva is the only substance used to make the metal go down. There’s also no lubrication in fire-breathing, just fuel and fire.

“You couldn’t use any kind of lubricant because it could go up in flames or be toxic,” Routh said.

Fire breathing is known to be an extremely dangerous stunt, not to be tried except under the guidance of professionals.So is fire-eating; Routh sometimes still gets blisters. Close calls with fire and other stunts include the time an intoxicated man rushed him, knocking him over during fire-breathing, and the occasion when he slipped on a spilled drink while stilt-walking. Neither incident resulted in injury.

“We have very few accidents,” Routh said.

Boosting tourism with street performers?

As a professional of nearly two decades, Routh has performed at a World Series game and at the Smithsonian, and has swallowed swords at Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. He even has his own Wiki page.

It’s been years since he's hustled as a street performer, something that’s also called busking. Recent local debate has focused on performers having to pay busking fees, and a recent injunction capped the cost at $50. It’s hard to make it as a busker in St. Louis, according to Routh, because onlookers aren’t used to tipping as they are in other cities. Tipping would encourage more street performers, something that brings vibrancy to an entertainment district, Routh said. 

“If we want to be a tourist destination, we have to compete with cities like New York or San Francisco or Toronto,” Routh said. “But we don’t have a culture that’s used to it.”

To ensure quality, the city could hold workshops and official auditions, Routh suggested, calling street performing a bonafide art form.

“It’s just as valid as it is to paint a painting, to sing a song or to dance a dance,” Routh said.

Performing is also a strong bond shared by Routh and his wife, whom Routh met when she was producing a TV commercial that called for a magician.

“She noticed how cute I was and we’ve been together ever since,” Routh quipped.

The couple’s not likely to add children to their household of four rescued dogs. They’re busy enough already, and Routh doesn’t relish the idea of producing and training the next generation of entertainers.

“I spend my life around kids,” Routh said. “I don’t know if I would have the energy for kids of my own.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.