NEW YORK — Johnny Fox, a sword-swallowing magician who presented his quirky art form to enthusiastic audiences around the world, has died.
The 64-year-old had been battling cancer and died Sunday at a home in Maryland, according to close friend Barbara Calvert. He passed away peacefully, with a smile, while surrounded by loved ones who gave him a standing ovation, she said.
Jules Smith, the president of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, said Mr. Fox — though ailing — completed a nine-weekend run there in October.
His haunts included New York, where he ran an oddity-filled Manhattan museum called Freakatorium for 5½ years. The items on display included a shrunken head, a two-headed turtle and clothing from circus performer Tom Thumb, Smith said.
‘‘He even had a glass eye from Sammy Davis Jr.,’’ she said.
Mr. Fox also performed at Coney Island’s freak show.
‘‘He was one of the finest examples of a sideshow virtuoso as well as being a celebrity within our own culture,’’ Patrick Wall, general manager of the nonprofit arts organization Coney Island USA, told the New York Daily News. ‘‘We lost one of the best. . . . He had a dynamic stage presence and just a complete love and commitment to what he did.’’
Mr. Fox was born in Minnesota on a Friday the 13th and raised in Hartford. He got his professional start in St. Petersburg, Fla., according to Smith, who was a friend for 38 years.
‘‘He was very proficient at magic, but people started stealing his bits,’’ said Smith. Mr. Fox figured it would be harder to steal a sword-swallowing act.
‘‘He started with cooked spaghetti — swallowing, holding the end, pulling it back out,’’ said Smith. Then ‘‘he did a string and a key like Harry Houdini, someone he admired greatly, until he could regulate his gag reflex.’’
Then came the swords. There were admittedly a few mishaps, but within eight months he’d mastered it.
Working before a live audience or on TV, Mr. Fox made it his mission to introduce families to his world of ‘‘circuses, carnivals, sideshows, and the life of people involved in them,’’ said Smith — and to lend a hand to his fellow performers.