The soft economy has driven people to do just about anything to get by, but perhaps the strangest response has been by a couple of street performers visiting Carbon County and demonstrating their skills at the Midsummer Renaissance Faire at the Ukrainian Homestead grounds in Lehighton.
Riley Schillaci is a sword swallower, one of less than 20 females in the world who ply that trade. She also performs fire eating, fire breathing, human pincushion, human blockhead, bed of nails, and burlesque. Her partner, Elijah Lopinto (A.K.A. Mr. E), performs fire eating, fire breathing, and is the tallest man to lie on a bed of nails.
Schillaci, a native of Rochester, N.Y. was encouraged by her family to become a singer-but she hated to perform.
"I used to have stage fright, she said. "Everyone in my family wanted me to sing so much, I stopped doing it. The sword swallowing, they want me to stop doing, so I kept doing it."
After graduating college with a degree in Sociology and Health Science, she could initially only find work in a factory. She eventually became a substitute teacher in the Rochester school system, working with special education children, and at a day care center before landing a Web development job and getting laid off.
"I had a family member that used to swallow forks and knives," Schillaci said. "She saw an Indian Fakir do this when she was in high school. When I was 14, I started practicing with forks and knives, and when I graduated college, I graduated to a sword."
"My first sword was 17 inches long. I walked into the sword shop and told them what I needed and swallowed it on the spot to make sure it worked," she explained. "They were a little flabbergasted."
After a while, Schillaci realized that she needed a longer sword but didn't know how long a sword to order. She decided on a 36-inch long rapier.
"That's a big package to get in the mail," she noted. After practicing to find how deep she could swallow the sword, she had it marked and cut to 19 inches.
"That seems to be the longest I've been able to do," she said.
Schillaci's performance often combines several of her skills. For instance, she can swallow a sword, set the hilt on fire, and hula hoop at the same time.
She's been touring the festivals. One highlight was a promotional event for Sword Swallowers Awareness Day held at Ripley's Believe It or Not in Niagara Falls.
Her partner, Lopinto A.K.A. Mr. E, hails from Sitka in Southeastern Alaska.
"I would probably have been a commercial fisherman if it wasn't for the Exxon Valdez," he said.
At 6-feet-7 inches, Lopinto towers over the petite Schillaci.
He hung out at side shows and made friends with the carnies at a freak show.
They taught him fire breathing and he began practicing it professionally a year ago.
Six months ago, Lopinto met Schillaci at the Devil's Folly Hunted Barn in Salisbury Township.
They stayed in touch, and when Lopinto moved to a house and needed someone to share the rent, he asked Schillaci.
"I had lost my job," she said. "I'm moving to Pennsylvania and starting over."
Among the props Schillaci brought with her was a bed of nails.
Lopinto checked it out, liked it, and built a supersized seven-foot long version consisting of nearly 2,000 twenty-penny nails.
Schillaci are experimenting with ways to form an act together.
One act that they have developed is to have Schillaci swallow a sword, set the hilt on fire, and have Lopinto breathe the flame into a fireball.