The Most Interesting Man in the Room

Oct13 coverDoc Swan is truly a one-man variety show. He does magic, mentalism, and escapes. He performs a wide variety of sideshow stunts, including fire eating, glass-walking, Blockhead, the hand trap, and sword-swallowing. He does chapeaugraphy, hand shadows, stilt-walking, lariat-spinning, and plays the musical saw. Doc is also a painter, a former drummer in a rock band and traveling shows, and he even does balloon animals. He is also one of the funniest performers around. He has an original presentation for everything he does, presentations that have grown out of the character, or characters, he has become. But let’s go back to the beginning.

 

Jaime Swan was born in Philadelphia in the mid 1950s; he continues to make his home in the Philadelphia area. Doc makes particular note of the spelling of his name. His mother specifically spelled Jaime that way as a contraction of the French Je t’aime (I love you). He calls her the best mother in the world. She is still his biggest fan. His father was a professional painter who was very skilled in refinishing and painting boats. He had a special technique by which he was able to make metal look like wood. His grandfather was also a professional painter, so it was natural for Doc to take an interest in art. He showed a real aptitude for painting and everyone thought that would be his career path. As time went on, he also believed this would be his path, but painting within the entertainment industry and building props. He still has, and uses, his dad’s sign brushes.

But his dad gave him something even better. When Doc was three or four years old, his father showed him his first magic trick. It was the transposition of a dime from under one bottle cap to another. This really baffled him; it was a few years before his father told him how it worked.

Doc says growing up in a small town in New Jersey was great. His parents were both very supportive of whatever he and his older brother did. This became very important, because Doc’s path was far different from most. Like many kids, Doc got a magic kit for Christmas when he was eight. He remembers that it was an S.S. Adams set. He learned to do everything in the set, but he was a rather introverted and nonsocial kid, so he would only show the tricks to his parents. He got The Golden Book of Magic by Clayton Rawson and he made many of the props within it. He still didn’t want to perform for others, because he thought he couldn’t really fool anyone. He also got Dunninger’s Encyclopedia of Magic, but there wasn’t anything from that book that he could do. Bruce Elliott’s Classic Secrets of Magic was a far more important book for him, which he found at the local library.

At the age of eleven, two important things happened that changed his life. In sixth grade, everyone had to take up a musical instrument. He chose the drums. All through school, Doc played in four-piece cover bands playing top-40 music; they played all of the school dances. By the time he was eighteen, he started playing in bars (for a short period of time, eighteen was the legal drinking age in New Jersey). During this time he played in a band called Arcus, who did original material as well as covers.

At this time, he also found a book someone had left in his house, Step Right Up by Dan Mannix. This was a book about life in a carnival sideshow and Doc devoured it. He says that it changed his life. I had also found this book and loved it. I found out from some friends who knew the author that he actually lived less than thirty minutes from where I live. They also told me that one of the characters in the book was based on Jack Chanin. Doc says he wished he could have talked to Mannix to tell him that he had written Doc’s biography five years before he was born.

Doc went to any circus that came anywhere near where he lived, but all he wanted to see was the sideshow. He would show up and help them set-up and strike the tents for nothing, just to be around the sideshow performers. This became his education. Doc says he learned ninety-nine percent of what he does on his own. He would watch and absorb what he could. He was most impressed by the fire-eater, so that is what he learned first, followed by learning to swallow swords. He already juggled and did magic. He learned to ride a unicycle and that’s how he delivered newspapers on his route. When he was thirteen, he saw a Girl to Gorilla in Atlantic City. He had read about Pepper’s Ghost in the Dunninger book, so he went home and built one in his basement. He used an old window from his house as the glass and the lights were from his train set, powered by 110 AC current.

The night he graduated from high school, he and his friends went to a fair. There was a help wanted sign posted that said “must be able to travel and drive a truck.” Doc took the job and joined the carnival the next day. He worked setting up, operating rides, tearing down, and driving to the next location. After two months the carnival played in the same town as another carnival that had two grind shows. These were “display” type attractions that had people going through continuously, as opposed to scheduled shows. He talked to the manager of the show and told him of his interests. That manager told him about a Ten-In- One Show that was playing fairly nearby. He made a beeline for that show, which was managed by Dick Johnson. Now this was a show exactly like Dan Mannix described and Doc wanted to join up. The only job available at that time was as a ticket seller,
so he took it.

Read the rest of Marc DeSouza’s M.U.M cover story about Doc Swan by Clicking HERE.