On a recent Monday night in a strip mall parking lot on Camelback, Jeremy Kinison takes a swig of lighter fluid, then holds it in his cheeks as rain extinguishes the small torch in his left hand.
He fumbles for a lighter and flicks it repeatedly as fissures of lightning flash in the sky behind him, trying to reignite the swatch of cloth. Finally it takes and Kinison tilts his head back, brings the torch to his lips and spews flames from his mouth in a giant plume. It's an impromptu encore to the night's performance, and one that he doesn't get to do much anymore because of liability concerns of the venues that book his freak show.
"Ever since Great White burned that place down, everyone's been very concerned with safety," Kinson says.
Inside the Space Theater on Camelback, Kinison's Cut Throat Freak Show, joined for the evening by Reverend Steven Strange and the Castration Army band, filmed a show as part of a promotional video they are putting together using a compilation of performances over the space of about a month. Kinison says he plans to send out the tape to public access television stations and cable networks in the hopes of increasing the group's profile. "I want to send it out everywhere," Kinison said before his performance, "HBO, Discovery Channel, whatever. Our real goal, though, is HBO."
Like a gritty, punked-out version of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, a popular Seattle-based revival of side-show performers that both disgusts and mystifies audiences with a wide variety of Jackass-type stunts, the Cut Throat Freak Show is a conglomeration of tricks and abilities Kinison learned on the streets of Venice Beach, California. "We're like a live That's Incredible!," he says.
Kinison, 23, who performs with his wife, Princess Anna, and Christine the Contortionist, bristles slightly at comparisons to Jim Rose, who garnered fame touring with Lollapalooza more than a decade ago.
"I learned all I could learn from Jim Rose by the time I was 18," Kinison says. The rest he picked up on his own as an urban survival method. "I saw people doing these things and realized that if you did them a little differently you could make money at it."
The glass eating, fire breathing and eyelid lifting he does onstage have become second nature enough that he no longer needs to practice, he says. "All I really do is shove a nail up my nose every other day," he says, explaining that going too long between nasal probes would diminish his ability to inhale a six-inch spike.
"I was kicked out of my house when I was 16," Kinison says, conversing with the same machine-gun delivery he employs onstage. Kinison slept on California's streets for three years, he says, and quickly made friends with the eclectic street performers that pepper the Venice Beach boardwalk. The first skill he learned was fire breathing. Kinison already knew how to juggle, the fire-breather didn't, so the two traded skills. Kinison learned how to eat glass in a similar fashion.
Kinison was fascinated by a particular street performer, and slept at the spot where he performed for nights until he persuaded the man to teach him. They went to a restaurant and ate fried chicken and light bulbs for hours as Kinison learned how to masticate the shards of glass into tiny grains that would not lacerate his digestive track.
"I was a fucking junkie!" he writes on his Web site. "I ate four light bulbs in the Koo Koo Roo that night."
In addition to light bulb eating, stunts Kinison performs include fire eating/breathing, testicle smashing, stomach flossing, eye socket weight lifting, razor blade eating, straitjacket escape and chain- saw juggling.
"If I didn't have kids, I'd still be a street performer," Kinison says, "It's their fault I sleep in a house now."
Kinison has two children (Cataya, 3 and Ryan, 2) with Princess Anna. The two toddlers are often in the audience, and Kinison hopes they will soon join him onstage. Cataya does impersonations, Kinison says, and he's constructed balance beams at their home so she can gradually learn to walk a tightrope.
Although the stunts can at times horrify audiences, the kids love to watch, Kinison says. "I took my eye hooks and attached them to their tricycle and pulled them around the living room," Kinison says, referring to the popular stunt of lifting weights using his lower eyelids. "They loved it, that's a trick they ask to be repeated quite a bit."
But having a roof to sleep under does not make the Kinisons traditional parents by any means. He and his wife have multiple piercings, scarifications and implants, as well as a myriad of tattoos. Anna has a large star adorning her ample cleavage which Kinison says was burned into her skin with a laser, and Kinison has horn implants on his forehead, which make him look like a modern-day Puck, the mythical mischievous fairy trickster Shakespeare described as a "shrewd and knavish spirit" in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The Monday night show is a semi-regular gig for Kinison and crew, who often participate in Strange's Theater Noir reviews. Strange, a magician and performer, acts as a host for the evening introducing stunts with a leering smile, a python wrapped around his bald head. Strange will accompany the Cut Throat Freak Show as it travels to Alaska for a series of shows next week. Kinison, who ate a light bulb on a talk show in Buenos Aires last year, is learning Spanish in hopes of traveling more in South America, where, he says, "performers are more energetic."
Other than South American gigs, it's the tattoo and piercing conventions at which he prefers performing. "Those people treat me like a rock star," he says, explaining that the crowd tends to be more educated about certain stunts he does and are aware of the technical difficulty involved. "They know I'm using the biggest nail, that Anna has the best bed of nails."
Bars and conventions kept the Cut Throat Freak Show performing about 300 nights last year, says Kinison, who charges $100 for local gigs, $500 plus travel and expenses for out-of-state bookings, and $1,500 for televised appearances. Business has been good since the Freak Show's inception in 2000, and Kinison is hopeful for the future as he and the other performers push themselves to excel.
"We're really trying to take stunts that other shows do and just do them a hell of a lot better," he says, adding that success here will hopefully lead to a European tour in the near future as well. "I would like us to be remembered as the show that pushed it just a little bit further," he says. "Either in Europe, or here, we want to be the best."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.