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Scott Parson, dabbler in typestries and fabulations
Fire in the Pie Hole

Scott fire eating

I spent a summer working in an outdoor drama in Maryland. The money wasn't very good, but I got to swing a sword and threaten the good guys. It's also the summer I learned that a can of kerosene could be a cheap and remarkably effective way to pass the time.

A fellow performer, master of quite a few fascinating circus skills, offered to teach me fire-eating. I was intrigued. It sounded dangerous enough for a young man looking for ways to play fast and loose with his mortality.

My friend taught me the mechanics and the secret, and then turned me loose to practice.

Because that's where the hard work is. He offered a few warnings and several anecdotes of severe bodily injury that revolved around the science of fire and oxygen-filled lungs. It kept me from getting overly confident and careless. The consequences he described were dire enough to cure me of any over self-confidence.

When the summer ended I went back to New York and scared my roommates with my new found skill. But having that on my résumé paid off immediately. First, it was a sure-fire (pardon the pun) attention-getter in those cattle call auditions when you have nine seconds to catch a casting director’s attention. It was an effective speed bump that slowed them down every time. They would look up and ask in a quizzical voice, “Fire-eating? Really?” I’d say something like, “nothing to it once you know the mechanics.” And just like that, my 15 seconds of fame were over.

It only ever came close to paying off once. I’d submitted my résumé for a Troma Films casting call, and someone from the production company got in touch with me. I was elated. He wanted to know if I could play a waiter in a restaurant and eat a flaming shish kabab. I was game. He went on to described what sounded like a full-on fire gag, for which stunt people have special equipment, training, and insurance. I told him how a non-stunt person, with no special equipment or training, might pull it off. But he had something more spectacular in mind. He saw the waiter eating it like an ear of corn. Hilarity, he assured me, would ensue. I could see myself laughing all the way to the hospital. Naturally, I didn’t hear anything more from them.

I was tidying up my résumé recently and noticed that my master template still had fire-eating listed as one of my special skills. I kept using it for the job interviews I started doing once I left performing. A guaranteed ice-breaker for job hunting in the cold, bright offices of personnel departments across corporate America. It derails the average cookie-cutter Q & A every time. But now it was time to let that one go.

Before I pushed the delete key, I looked up the film, to see if I could remember which one I’d been called for. Turns out it was Waitress!

Scott fire eating

I'd completely forgotten. I do recall that they didn't do the fire gag the way they described it to me.

But what makes me sad that I didn’t at least try was finding out that Chris Noth (Mike Logan on Law & Order, Mr Big from Sex and the City) was in the cast. Who knows where I might have ended up if I’d been willing to forget all that fire science and figure out how to eat a flaming shish kabab like a ham sandwich flambé.

Scott blowing fire

The winter I went home after learning this marginally useful skill, I gave an impromptu performance. My mother took pictures to document her son’s transformation from studious thespian to wannabe carnival geek. 

I'd mentioned to her that I might try sword swallowing. I'd practiced with letter openers while working the midnight-to-eight shift in the document processing department of a major New York investment bank. One thing that did for me? Kept the chairs on either side of my desk empty.  And -- no one ever ran off with my letter opener.

Text and images (c) Scott Parson