A Taste Of What's In Store!
Chad Taylor is a Venice icon, one of the street-performing pioneers who helped propel the Venice Boardwalk into the second largest tourist destination in southern California. Mention ‘Mad Chad’ to any of the performers, old or new, and you’ll get a smile followed by, “Oh yeah, I know who that dude is, he’s crazy!” Chad first hit the boardwalk as a 13 year -old kid, sneaking out of the house with three of his mother’s toilet plungers that doubled as a juggling arsenal. Little did he know that by 18 he would be juggling deadly chainsaws and honing an act that would lead to television commercials, movie roles, and legendary status on the hallowed Venice Beach Boardwalk.
From Chad to Mad…
My first introduction to juggling came through a birthday gift, “Juggling for the Complete Klutz”. The kit came with a juggling book and three small beanbags, and for the next six months I practiced for hours every day after school. Growing up in Santa Monica, just blocks from Venice Beach, provided easy access to the boardwalk where I began performing after school and on weekends. I’ll admit Mom’s toilet plungers didn’t provide the most death-defying or show-stopping thrills, but being a kid was an advantage and the tourists took pity on me. The first day on the boardwalk I made 30 bucks in tips. It sure beat mowing lawns!At 17 I was offered a spot as an entertainer on a major cruise ship. I still had a year of high school but decided it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. I quickly got my GED and headed for the high seas for the next seven years, although I would always return to Venice in between cruises to perform and diversify my act. As my show improved, a number of talents agents that caught my act recommended that I try acting. I took the advice and actually landed several national television commercials. For some reason all my roles seemed to be in beer commercials, but the pay was good and the exposure even greater. In fact, it was a beer commercial that would change my life forever.
Tim Newman, a commercial director and cousin of Grammy-winning musician Randy Newman, asked if I could juggle chainsaws? In my naïve enthusiasm I said sure. I had opened my big mouth and the clock was ticking, with only 10 days to figure out how to juggle a live chainsaw without seriously injuring or killing myself. The first four days I was so nervous that I wouldn’t even start the chainsaw. Finally I pulled the cord and on my first attempt, I missed. The chainsaw hit the ground and went crazy, buzzing at full speed. Two policemen ran up and asked, “What the hell are you doing, kid?” I explained my dire situation and they thought it was cool. They began cheering me on. They wanted to see me do it!
On shoot day I show up for the commercial and get prepared. I fire up the chainsaw and Tim Newman says, “Whoa, what are you doing?” Long story short, after 10 days of practice, I find out they didn’t want the chainsaw running during the commercial (insurance won’t cover a stunt like that). The plan was to just add the sound effect in post-production. I felt a little stupid but it turned out to be the best mistake I ever made. The seed had been planted and soon I was juggling three saws at the same time. No one in Venice was doing a more extreme act.
The notoriety led to more acting roles and I even appear in “Spider Man III” in what was written as a big fight scene opposite star actor Tobey Maguire. Funny story is, the director of the movie, Sam Raimi, came up to me on set and said, “Sorry but we’re going to have to cut your part down a little.” I replied, “A little, I only have one line.” Raimi nodded apologetically and said, “Not anymore.” Not exactly the big break I expected, but I did make the final cut of the film as a bartender in the jazz club scene. So keep an eye out for me in “Spider Man III”.
These days I spend most of the time on the road, performing live shows for corporate events and college campuses around the country. And although I rarely perform on the boardwalk anymore, I look back on my years in Venice as the best of my life. I feel fortunate to still have both my arms and legs, with only two incidents and minor cuts sustained over all the years of chainsaw juggling. A bit lucky and a lot blessed, I would like to thank those who have supported me along the way, especially my beautiful wife, Jamie, and my gorgeous baby girl, Marley.I owe so much to the boardwalk. It’s one the hardest places in the world to earn a living and the expectations are so high that you have to be the best at all times or you’ll get left behind. But in the same sense, that’s what makes the boardwalk such a rewarding experience. When you go home at night and empty out your pockets, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. It’s like you’ve earned every penny, and for me, it is absolutely the most honest money I’ve ever made in my life. Venice is in my blood, it’s a huge part of who I am. There’s no place like it in the whole world!
“If it wasn’t for Venice Beach, I’d probably be dead by now.”
One dictionary meaning for fire is stated as, ‘A rapid, persistent chemical change that releases heat and light and is accompanied by flame’. Another meaning of fire is defined simply as, ‘Enthusiasm’. Yell fire in most circles and widespread panic will quickly ensue. This is not the case on Venice Beach. For the thousands of visitors who frequent the boardwalk each weekend, Tony Vera transforms fire into a rapid, persistent chemical change that sparks mass enthusiasm!
Tony Vera is tall and thin, with dark piercing eyes and skin remarkably smooth and devoid of scars, especially considering the dangerous feats he performs during his immensely popular street show. A professional with 30 years of experience in an array of daring and dangerous fire feats, Tony is a consummate showman who takes great pride in each performance. And for any of you who have had the opportunity to stroll Venice Beach over the last 20 years, chances are you have encountered the man known on the boardwalk as The Fireman.
But when the fireman’s helmet and yellow jacket come off, the larger-than-life performer fades into a soft-spoken man who is quick to place credit where credit is due. Although he has never been employed as an actual firefighter, his connection to the firefighting brotherhood runs deep. There is even a slight hesitancy, a detectable somberness in his voice as a date that is embedded like granite in his memory is mentioned: September 11, 2001.
The Fireman: Blaze of glory…
Tony Vera was born on May 12, 1959, in Philadelphia, PA. My mother left my father when I was only eight years old and we moved to New York City. By the age of 12 I was doing magic shows for schools, navy bases and fire stations in the New York area. At 13 I got a job at Madison Square Garden peddling popcorn and soda for the chance to watch the greatest show on earth, ‘The Ringling Brothers Circus’. The experience cemented my desire to perform and there was no doubt, I wanted to do it forever!
By my sophomore year the desire to perform had overtaken any interest in formal schooling, so I quit. I went from a pretty good student who loved playing baseball to spending all my time in clubs and on the streets. While most kids my age were finishing high school, I was experimenting with ‘blowing and eating fire’. I soon added the fire act to a repertoire that included comedy and mime, and began making a name for myself in ‘The Big Apple’, the greatest city in the world!
Le Clique, a well-known French entertainment troupe, hired me to work the hottest clubs in Manhattan, including the legendary disco hot spot, Studio 54. Disco and all- night parties ruled the 70’s scene and I steadily gained recognition on the club circuit, opening for pop icons like The Village People and Grace Jones. I was even featured on the hit television show “To Tell The Truth”. And although I would like to say that performing was the only high that I ever needed, that is not the case. It was the 70’s, one of the greatest party eras in New York history, and yes, I did partake in my share of wine, women and song. Guilty as charged.
The hard living began to take its toll and fame and fortune were rapidly becoming an elusive illusion. By age 22 I was down and out, back on the streets scrounging out a living performing for spare change at Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan. It was in Washington Square that my life would nearly end. I was performing while intoxicated one afternoon when I noticed a man harassing a girlfriend of mine. In my drunken state I confronted him, and he retaliated by pulling a knife and stabbing me in the right side of my abdomen. The knife ripped into my lung and it collapsed. The assailant then cut into a security guard’s face before the crowd finally apprehended him. He was caught, but I was left with a scar that remains today.The upside of the stabbing was that a representative of a Japanese entertainment group read an article about the incident in “Newsweek”, and offered me a job. After two months in a NY hospital, I was flown to Tokyo to perform on Japanese television. My fate would turn again upon returning to the US from Japan on May 6, 1987. My plane landed in Los Angeles where I expected to change planes and head home to New York. When I tried to board the connecting flight I realized that my ticket stopped in Los Angeles! The Japanese company had failed to book the last leg of the trip and they wouldn’t pay for the additional ticket to New York. That’s the way my luck seemed to run. I was broke and stuck in LA!
It would be this fateful error that paved my way to Venice Beach. Needing money I began working the boardwalk, and in 1988 I was selected as a contestant for Chuck Berris’ hit variety show, “The Gong Show”. And the funny part is, I won! I made a thousand bucks, but it was the trophy that was important. The producer didn’t want to give me a trophy because they were pretty expensive, but I sure as hell got it! I was feeling on top of the world again, and not long after I met my first and only wife, a beautiful Japanese woman. We were happy for a while but like most things in my life, it didn’t last long. I was drinking a lot and in 1993, it destroyed my marriage and once again, nearly cost me my life.
Dangerous enough by sober standards, I was drunk while performing my show’s finale, the Chair Act where I take a girl from the audience and rotate her above my head using only my chin for balance. I blacked out just as I put the girl down and fell face-first onto the concrete. The scar between my eyes remains as proof, and fortunately, there was a nurse in the audience that saved my life that day. It was a painfully humiliating lesson but I can honesty say, ‘I’ve never had another drink’. Being sober was a life-changing experience that gave me renewed focus and led to several acting roles in commercials and films. I co-starred with Rosie Perez in the 1994 film “Somebody to Love”, and also appeared “The Underground Comedy Movie” in 1999.
But with all my up and downs, the most tragic day of my life was September 11, 2001. Like millions of others, 9/11 broke my heart and stole a piece of my soul. I couldn’t help but remember back to the days when I was a kid in New York, performing at the local fire stations. These were the men that I held as heroes, and they always treated me with dignity and respect. And even though I was never a firefighter by trade, I was accepted into their fraternity. Now when people see my act and call me The Fireman, my heart swells with pride, and I realize just how much the heroes lost on that fateful day mean to so many. For their sacrifice, I will always be grateful.
Through all the ups and downs I can honestly say the last 20 years spent on the Venice Boardwalk have been my greatest blessing. I’ve learned to live life day-by-day and let the future take care of itself. I’m the happiest guy in the whole world! I’ve even added paparazzi to my resume, providing celebrity photos and film footage to high-profile newspapers, magazines and television stations around the country. But performing will always come first and I hope to still be working the boardwalk 10 years from now. And however it all unfolds, I have no regrets. Like the mythical bird of fire, The Phoenix, I rise from the ashes over and over.For more about The Fireman: www.TonyVera.com