A Mouthful of Roaches, a Fistful of Fame

Sword swallowing, fire eating and giant cockroaches are all in a day’s work for sideshow entertainer Travis Fessler

You either respect or revile a man who takes a shot at the Guinness Book of Records by holding 11 Madagascar hissing cockroaches in his mouth. I’ve opted for respect with a dash of bemusement.

Travis Fessler is one weird guy. He swallows swords, eats fire and allows 300-pound men to stomp on his chest while he lies on a bed of nails.

His Oct. 11 record-breaking stunt wasn’t easy: The roaches had to be at least 2 1/2 inches long, had to stay in his mouth for 10 seconds and had to be alive when they crawled out. Previously the most anyone’s been able to mouth were nine of the exotic bugs.

“It kind of hurts,” Fessler says, explaining that the roaches have sharp barbs on their legs and one tried to creep down his throat.

Fessler, who works in IT full time, has managed a second career for more than a decade, performing at festivals, parties and on city streets as a sideshow entertainer. His current gig is working the big tent at the Mayhem Mansion in Northern Kentucky.

Fessler pulled the stunt to attract publicity for the Mansion, a charity haunted house that benefits the Kentucky Amateur Baseball Association and Boone County FOP Shop With a Cop, which provides Christmas gifts for needy children. (See our review of Mayhem Mansion)

Fessler also has a special place in his heart for the giant hissing cockroaches. He and his wife, Susan, have more than 1,000 as pets.

Their parrot takes a more active role in their shows.

“The parrot only knows one trick, to take money from people and put it in a basket,” Fessler says, smiling. “I still work a day job as well. (The act) is full time, but I work a day job as well.”

He says it’s not about money. It’s really not. Fessler smirks as he recalls his wages for the sideshow work he does 20 to 40 hours a week every week.

“I like making people laugh,” he says. “I like making them react in some way … entertaining
people. Most of the time what we’re doing is watching the audience. Imagine seeing the same
movie over and over again but you’re in it. You have to watch them.”

Fessler started off doing magic at children’s parties, “and I was really bad at it, so I started doing stuff that was real so they couldn’t say they knew how I did it.”

Susan wrangles animals, eats fire and holds cigarettes in her mouth as a whip target, but she
isn’t the only family member in on the act. His brother, Erik Kloker, is also a regular part of the show.

Last year, he broke the record for upside-down juggling, maintaining three balls in motion for
more than four minutes. Kloker has been training and performing with Fessler for five years, since he was 13.

“Now he does everything I do, except the roaches,” Fessler says.

Kloker is quick to add, “I have no interest in that.”

There’s a long list of things Kloker and Fessler do that no one else would attempt. Fessler happily listed off some of his superlatives: The roach stunt was the nastiest, “but I’ve also let people staple $20 bills to my forehead — with the assumption that I would keep the $20, of course.”

Sword swallowing was the hardest thing to learn. The swords are flat and stack easily, but they go all the way down his gullet into his stomach. The strangest experience was either the time
he held a sword down his throat while dousing a cigarette with his whip or the time he hammered a torch into his nose and shot flames out of his nostrils.

The bed of nails has marked Fessler with his worst injury: a poorly placed move caused a nail to puncture his wrist. The rat trap closing on his tongue was pretty bad, too, he says.

The act’s focus is often on the physical extremes, but it’s performing that really keeps Fessler’s passion alive. He’s interested primarily in making audiences laugh.

“It’s more the comedy than the magic that you come to see,” Fessler says. “It’s not so much the physical shock value of the show, it’s the comedy that sets us apart, even though the jokes are corny.”

Of course, it’s the extreme lengths that Fessler goes to in pursuit of a laugh that keeps people talking about him. The video of the roach stunt has recently been among Google Video’s top 20 viewed.

He says that he’ll attempt a new record-breaking stunt every year.

“I’m always on the hunt for more opportunities to sell the show,” he says.

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