Bruce Springsteen sang about it in 1977. The Doors recorded a track about it in 1966. And even that pork-pie-hat-sporting pop singer Gavin DeGraw hollered about it in 2014. We’re talking about fire, people, red-hot, burn-inducing, smoke-producing fire.
And while most people (save a firefighter) wouldn’t consciously choose to work with something as dangerous as fire, there are a few interesting characters throughout Northeast Florida doing just that. Weather permitting, of course.
Fire-entertainers make a living — or at least some extra spending money — by juggling it, breathing it, even eating it. But like most anything staged against the backdrop of a finicky Northeast Florida landscape, entertaining outdoors has its own set of obstacles.
Meet Andrew Ratliff, who goes by the stage name Mister Mayhem. A Jacksonville native, Mayhem has been playing with fire for just over three years. He got started with the rather sketchy hobby after a lifelong interest in magic and juggling. “The more I got back into magic, I came across an entertainer, Brian Brushwood, who uses both magic and fire as part of his performance,” Mayhem says. “I thought, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I do it, too?’ I started off by doing a lot of research on fire-eating and eventually taught myself how to safely execute this skill.”
Mayhem, 28, put in the time. He researched things like which fuels are safe to put in your mouth and on your skin, how to transport the fuel from home to gigs, how the wind affects a flame, which tricks require a spotter in case something goes horribly wrong.
“I perform fire-breathing, which is the act of creating a plume of fire by breathing a stream of fuel over an open flame,” he says. “Fire-eating, on the other hand, is the act of putting a flaming object into the mouth and extinguishing it. There are several flourishes that go along with fire-eating, such as transferring the lit flame from one torch to another using bare hands and even the tongue — both of which I do.”
Mayhem has performed all over the area, including at Riverside Arts Market and several private parties and business functions. His path to stardom has taken quite some time.
“Fire can be fickle and because of its nature, trial-and-error becomes the method of choice to solve problems,” he says. “Training involves a lot of time and dedication.”
A trained paramedic and firefighter (he also works in a dental office), Mayhem says a working knowledge of how fire reacts and interacts has helped him hone his craft.
“Fire-entertaining outdoors is tricky at best,” he says. “There are a lot more variables involved with entertaining outside.”
Tiffany Grunzel, a fire-entertainer who performs under the handle PennyWise, agrees. “Most of our shows are outdoors, which is one of the top factors in why a healthy respect for fire is needed,” she says. “Jacksonville always seems to have a nice breeze — especially at night. Wind and fire always keep me on my toes because I have to be aware of the direction and strength of the wind. The direction of the wind can quickly change and end up putting the fire right where I don’t want it.”
The 30-year-old Augusta, Georgia, native has been spinning fire since age 17.
“My first introduction to fire as an art was at a local rave,” PennyWise remembers. “There was a man spinning fire on a pedestal in the middle of the room. I met him a month later at the coffee shop I worked for, and I told him I was interested because I could spin glow sticks. He laughed and gave me his address.”
As soon as a pair of burning fire poi (tethered weights) was thrust in her hands, PennyWise was hooked. In the five years that she’s lived in Jacksonville, she’s been hired by the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, and the Jacksonville Historical Society, among others.
“This is a very dangerous activity,” she says. “I get burned every time I do a show. I get asked a lot, ‘Why on earth do you do it?’ and ‘Aren’t you scared?’ It’s actually relaxing. When you are surrounded by fire, you can’t think of anything else. All your problems mean nothing when you have a flaming ball coming toward your face at 30 to 40 miles per hour.”