Interview: Real-Life Superheroes by Nora Brooks

Editor Colin Farstad, Interview, April 30th, 2014

Nothing is without danger.

NY Variety All-Stars

Real-Life Superheroes: A Conversation with the Sideshow Artists of the NY Variety All-Stars


I’m crouched down behind a stage with Cardone and Adam RealMan. We’re trying to get the microphone to pick up our voices over the cacophony pervading the Malspeth Carnival. RealMan, a strongman, has the huge sideburns of a old-timey carnival barker, and magician Cardone is in a shiny lounge-act tuxedo. It’s a hot afternoon in late summer in a Queens parking lot filled up for the day with games booths and cotton candy vendors, the pavement already sticky with dropped soda. All these people are about to watch Cardone pull a string of razors out of his throat. Clearly—a really good time.

Cardone and Realman are core members of a Coney Island sideshow troupe, The NY Variety All-Stars that specializes in a vaudeville style of sideshow. Also featured this afternoon is Krissy Kocktail, a sword swallower and general femme fatale. I catch up with them to find out what sideshow is really all about.

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NAILED MAGAZINE: How did you get started in sideshow performing?

ADAM REALMAN: I grew up in Coney Island and was exposed to this kind of entertainment as a kid. I was probably about twelve, thirteen, when I came across the Coney Island Circus Sideshow on the boardwalk and was completely blown away by it. I’d memorize the lines.

Fast forward some fifteen-odd years, and I see something on the internet: sideshow school, Coney Island. I say, oh wait as second. This is phenomenal. Took the class and within a matter of days, learned the workings of the acts. Now fast forward a year from then, after going over the acts—perfecting them, mastering them, mastering what I was going to say, how I was going to present them—I jumped up on stage and with great review. I mean, people loved it. And at that point, I said ok, this is it.

I do all of what are called the working acts of the circus. I swallow swords, eat fire, do the human blockhead, walk on glass, lay on a bed of nails. I can talk the inside of the show and the outside of the show. I do a lot of what are called strongman acts.

NAILED: What about you, Cardone?

CARDONE: Out of traditional sideshow working acts, there’s only a couple that I do. But I do stuff in the realm of magic that very few people get to see. Escapes that are very rare.

NAILED: I notice that in the sideshow, a lot of times they explain the trick.

CARDONE: A lot of sideshows don’t like magic because it almost diminishes what the sideshow is, which is reality. To incorporate magic is a little tricky because it’s not always real. It’s fake.

The show that we do now kind of blurs the lines. My favorite things are escapes. Escapes are real. Unfortunately over the last twenty-five years with a lot of magicians doing escapes, they’re parodies of escapes.

NAILED: How real are the acts in the sideshow?

REALMAN: Every single act is extremely dangerous. The fact that we’re well-rehearsed and we know what we’re doing eliminates some of the danger. Everything has to be done with the correct frame of mind because there’s just no room for error. Whether it’s something as walking on glass where you can just completely lacerate your foot to hammering a nail into your head, nothing is without danger.

NAILED: I was wondering what the effect was on the body.

REALMAN: A lot of sword swallowers have been injured doing their sword-swallowing. What you’ll find now is that a lot of sword-swallowers are just trying to show up the next sword-swallower. So ok—you swallowed a sword and bent over backwards, I’m now going to try to do a backflip. I’m going to swallow thirty swords.

NAILED: There’s a one-upmanship.

CARDONE: It’s like that with magic too. These are people who perform for other magicians. It’s not for these people. Look at these kids over there. These people have never seen any of this before.

For me the biggest buzz I get as a performer is tapping into the brain of an adult and making them have the feeling they had when they were a kid. And for the kids, it’s giving them something that when they are an adult is this legendary moment they had when they were younger. It’s that, right there. When I have a bunch of Wall Street businessmen clapping because I made a bunch of sponge bunnies appear.

That’s the buzz. We lose it as adults. Me and him haven’t lost it. But most people lose that energy of wonder and amazement at the natural world.

REALMAN: With me, the strongman feats are the ones that resonate the most universally whether it’s with kids or adults. I mean, it literally is a real-life superhero. You’re doing things that no one, I mean hardly anyone, can do. Everyone has touched a nail. You know how thick a six-penny nail is. I go to bend a steel bar, everyone is just: wow, I can’t believe you did that.

CARDONE: The question is, why does this stuff still work? Like magicians, we use the same techniques we did five thousand years ago because we understand human psychology. It’s how our brains work. If I lift a cup up, you’re going to look underneath it. That’s the way it is. When you eat fire, you know cavemen were afraid of fire.

NAILED: It’s watching people do real things that most people are afraid of.

REALMAN: That’s exactly it.

CARDONE: And that why we’re doing this. There’re not many things like that around today.

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Adam Realman is a consummate sideshow performer specializing in strongman feats, sword swallowing, and fire breathing and eating. Realman’s act has toured from some of New York’s hottest venues to Oklahoma, Georgia and North Carolina. He is a graduate of the Coney Island Sideshow School where he now teaches.

Cardone’s magic been featured on Fox 5 News, Good Day New York, Wonderground Las Vegas, Monday Night Magic, the Learning Channel, CW’s Stylista and as the opening act for the Miss Hong Kong Pop Show. He holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from Carnegie Mellon University and has received grants from the Henson Foundation/St. Ann’s Theatre for Puppetry and Magic.

[Header Photo Credit: Norman Blake]

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poet nora brooks nailed magazineNora Brooks is a poet and nonfiction writer whose work has been published in Poets & Writers, PopMatters, Monkeybicyle, Redactions, Alimentum, and The Best American Poetry blog, among others. She is an MFA student at The New School and research assistant to David Lehman. She lives in New York with a lot of taxidermy.


Colin Farstad

Colin Farstad's work has most recently appeared in Spilt Infinitive, Analekta Anthology, and Coal City Review. He is the editor of the short story anthology The Frozen Moment : Contemporary Writers on the Choices that Change Our Lives (Publication Studios, 2011). Colin has been a teacher, editor, writer, event coordinator and connoisseur of classic cocktails for years. Currently he's living in Brooklyn, hard at work writing a novel tentatively titled It's Never Over and working at the literary agency DeFiore and Company.