Tongue's Afire 

One hot minute with a vaudevillian fire-eater.

A hard act to swallow: Leather lights one up at CPT. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • A hard act to swallow: Leather lights one up at CPT.
If you play with fire, you're going to get burned. Such is the wisdom most mothers dispense, and the mother of Leather -- a fire-eater who will be performing as part of Cleveland Public Theatre's First Vaudeville of the New Millennium -- was no different. For a while, Leather listened to her advice. Then he joined the circus.

"I worked for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Mystery Theater," Leather recalls of his 27-year career. "They didn't work under the big top; they went with the carnivals, and I did various things with them."

But it was his penchant for controlling the crowd as a sideshow barker that caught the attention of his fire-eating boss, who decided to spice up Leather's stage presence. "He didn't have a son, and he wasn't going to live forever," Leather explains. "So he taught me to eat fire."

After leaving the circus, Leather forgot most of his acts, except fire-eating. As a solo performer, he works fairs and private parties -- once even a menorah-lighting ceremony. A good deal of his work takes place in bars, either performing between bands or just strolling around playing with fire.

"I do shows basically anywhere I'm asked to," he says. "Like in a bar, I walk over to somebody with fire in one hand and light my tongue on fire."

As much fun as he gets from impressing people in bars -- especially the girls -- it's not what he enjoys most, which is where the CPT vaudeville comes in. For Leather, now a four-year veteran of the annual show, it's like coming home to the circus.

"I really like the atmosphere," he says. "I like being there, and someone's juggling on one side of me, and on the other side of me this girl's got her leg bent up over her head."

"Vaudeville is just plain fun," explains James Levin, artistic director of CPT, who has spent the last 20 years keeping vaudeville alive in Cleveland. "Some of it is everybody that thinks they can croon or juggle or do magic. For me it's a way of reflecting on the diversity of talent in the community."

"It's exciting," Leather says. "I just like going backstage, and you're surrounded by other performers. You have people in different corners doing different things and talking, and everyone's getting ready -- that kind of life really excites me."

And the backstage buzz is transferred to the audience, who didn't necessarily come to see fine art. Like Levin, they just want to see people. "The ritual of going to a space to see real human beings perform is a very different thing than going to the movies or watching a video," Levin says. "Since we spend so much time behind a screen now, we need that ritual more than ever. In vaudeville, it's a more basic kind of humanity."

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