There's a sprinkle of rain falling outside the Green Elephant, a small dive bar near Southern Methodist University, when Draco Pendragon takes the stage. He dresses like a heavy-metal circus ringmaster, clad in black leather pants and a steam-punk top hat, and wields a whip that spouts flames when he cracks it. He opens his mouth and a jet of flame erupts. Pendragon uses his mouth to regulate the stream of flammable fluid to make fiery art.
He says controlling the flames makes him feel "grounded in a way that you've never been grounded before. The stress relief, the emotional release — everything about it is natural, flowing.”
Pendragon's real name is Patrick Thomas, but his fellow performers know him as Papa Dragon. Every other Wednesday, he and other fire entertainers showcase their arcane craft at the Green Elephant, one of the few businesses in Dallas to navigate the local fire code to get the permits needed to host fire acts. One of the requirements includes having a fire marshal on the premises during a show, watching for dangerous situations. The owners pay the fire marshals $250 an hour, making shows too expensive to put on more than every other week.
Thomas has been a fire breather since the 1980s, when he found inspiration from fire-breathing Kiss bassist Gene Simmons. He retired from the stage but in 2013 received a diagnose of Stage 4 throat cancer. His weight plummeted and he lost his teeth, and he says the character of his throat changed. The doctors bluntly told him he would never breath fire again.
“I experienced terrible radiation burns on my neck, internally and externally,” Thomas says. “It was the hardest thing I had ever done in life.”
Surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center in 2015 helped him beat cancer, but he says teaching his craft to "the fire community" fueled his spirit and gave him purpose as he battled the disease. Former student Hillary Bonner introduced him to the Green Elephant in Dallas. She was the flame effects operator for the drum circle that meets every other Wednesday. Everyone knew her as Kite, and Thomas says she helped him “live again through the fire arts.”
Bonner died in an accident on her way home from a renaissance festival in 2016, when she lost control of her car during a rainstorm. Thomas took over as the flame effects operator at the Green Elephant, and the experienced flame performing artist started training aspiring performers.
“You recognize the spark in someone else, you fan that flame,” Thomas says. “You watch the beauty that will come out of this individual as they connect with this element — what I call dancing with the dragon."
Lighting the flame
In the 1980s, Thomas was serving in the Army in Massachusetts when a performer taught him the art of fire breathing. He practiced as an amateur until the 1990s, when he met Christa Avalon, a fire breather who headlined in Vegas. There, fire entertainers found lucrative work at pool parties, luaus and weddings.
“She renewed that spark within me,” Thomas says.
In the late 90s, he worked with the Falcon Fire Warriors, a horse act that did a little bit of swordplay. He was also perfecting his stage character, Lingus the Cunning, at Scarborough Renaissance Festival. He was part of a large group of people who considered themselves “unsanctioned characters” and referred to themselves as “Kodak moments” because fair attendees would often ask them for photographs.
Then he met Jeff Gilmore, one of the owners of Hawkwood Medieval Fantasy Faire, and pitched the idea of a flame act. Thomas' love of renaissance festivals introduced him to a variety of like-minded people from the community, including a fire-breathing sword swallower and a magician he taught to eat fire. They became part of the Dragon Tribe, and Thomas changed his stage name from Lingus the Cunning to Draco Pendragon.
They didn't just breathe fire on stage. They also manipulated it, choreographed it with music and introduced various fire props into their production. They performed for a couple of years until Hawkwood closed down.
The troupe spent a year and half performing at block parties, corporate events and weddings. As troupes do, the members slowly went their separate ways. In the early 2000s, Thomas started teaching strippers — mostly women — fire skills to incorporate into their dance routines. That's how he met his wife, Melissa. He decided to shelf the fuel and retired from the performance art, he says, to focus on his family — just before his illness interrupted his plans and threatened his life.
Stop, drop and roll
Safety is the major concern for a fire performer. Thomas acts as a safety spotter, kneeling next to the Green Elephant's stage with a wet towel and a fire extinguisher as his students perform with their flaming whips, bo staffs and fans. Fire breathers use lamp oil because it's a high-flashpoint fuel, meaning it doesn't have a chance to reignite. They'll ignite their hands, arms and legs and breathe smaller dragon fire from the flames dancing on the palms of their hands. Those who spit fire do their damnedest not to swallow the oil.
A flame dart spinner known as Torch says he knew a couple of fire breathers who were rushed to the hospital after hiccups caused them to suck in some fuel. Thomas and the other fire breathers rinse their mouths out with mouthwash after their performances.
But safety isn't simply someone standing next to you with a water hose or wet towel. It's also being mindful of your environment. Fire performer Izzy May says performers have to be aware of wind patterns and predict any blowback. A lot of her fire-breathing practice, she says, is done with water. That way, she can perfect the amount of pressure she puts into a release of fuel from her mouth.
As one might expect, performing with fire is dangerous. Some of the burn cases are well known within the fire community: the mermaid in Florida who used the wrong fuel and caught on fire, the experienced fire breather who got too comfortable and burned her face. Whenever a story appears about a fire incident onstage, fire performers explain that it's a "don't try this at home" kind of scenario unless you're being trained by a professional. In Dallas, the bassist from a local Kiss tribute band ignited his chest and singed his hair while breathing fire onstage.
“You can traumatize your audience,” May says.
Thomas got his flame effects operator license and took over as lead safety for fire performers. Fire performer Tina Arons, a high school English teacher who recently received her license with Thomas, says some states have different requirements, but in Texas, to perform fire at a public event requires someone to be insured and have the license.
“If an accident happens and it's our fault — somebody stumbles, for example — we have insurance to cover the damages,” she says. “It's like $300 a year for a whole bunch of peace.”
ire performers also have to be mindful of longer-term dangers. Chemical pneumonia is a concern for fire breathers and eaters. It's the result of breathing fuel vapors or not washing your mouth out properly. Performers also wear flame-resistant clothing, dampen their hair, and use special care for their teeth and skin.
“The fuel used for fire eating is undoubtedly toxic,” fire performer Courtney Lopez says. “There have been no scientific studies which explore the potential long-term health effects of fire eating. ... If you aren't willing to die for it, you should not try it.”
Thomas first learned about his cancer when his throat began closing shut.
The first round of treatment involved chemotherapy, but he was allergic to it. He says he began bleeding as ulcers appeared from the top of his throat, down through his esophagus and into his stomach.
Thomas' wife, Melissa, flew with him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where they learned about a surgical technique called transoral robotic surgery. Only five doctors around the world could perform it. Two lived stateside, but one was retired.
The retired doctor's son, Baran Sumer, performed the surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He didn't advertise the procedure, Thomas says, because he got all the business he needed from word of mouth.
Thomas' year recovering from throat surgery at the Green Elephant cemented him as part of the local fire community. He met Ron Dyer, who runs the drum jam, and began helping to turn the backyard of the dive bar near Southern Methodist University into a safe, structured environment with a fire marshal on site for people to perform fire acts twice a month.
Although Thomas was exhausted when he first started attending, he says he felt renewed when he began offering instruction to some of the other fire performers, including May, and teaching Kite the skills she needed to become lead safety.
“I enjoyed being back in the environment,” he says. “My connection spoke to me. [It's] what I call the spark. It just reignited like nothing else in my life and help[ed] motivate me to get out of bed and go to rehab to learn how to eat, how to swallow and [eventually] how to breathe fire.”
Thomas had been told that he would never breathe fire again, but May convinced him to try early this year when she announced she was moving away from Dallas. He'd been practicing the flame whip at the time, cracking fire balls off the end of it.
“Patrick, listen,” he recalls her saying, “we've been working together [for a while now], and I only want one thing before I leave: to fire breathe up on the stage with you.”
“You know what, Izzy, I'd do it for you,” he replied.
He practiced for a few minutes with water before discovering a spray technique that worked and joined her onstage. It was difficult, he says, but as he blew fire, he realized Draco Pendragon had returned.
Burn, baby, burn
The fire art community is a tight-knit group of people, with mentors like Thomas serving as vital ambassadors. It's easy enough to get started watching how-to YouTube videos, but these flame artists all discovered their sparks from other artists.
May, a former stage performer at a Spanish theater in Dallas, was already an ace with a hula hoop when she watched a fire performer ignite one at a music festival. She soon found herself attaching wicks to her hula hoop. She was in her 30s and “felt burnt out on life,” says May. “It made me feel young and carefree again. It was the perfect marriage between performance and mental health.”
Her mentor taught her the basics: Wear safe clothing, avoid hairspray, keep your hair moist, and keep blanket and fire extinguisher nearby. She “didn't get tricky with it” at first, she says. Now, May dresses like a dragon in a Facebook photo and eats, breathes and spins fire onstage.
Dalton Sessumes works his fire act like a magician. A graduate student in physics at the University of Texas at Arlington, he performs year-round with various fire props. Tonight, he takes the stage looking like a Jedi, with braided-strip of hair behind his ear and a flaming wand that he coaxes to levitate around him onstage. A few times, it looks as if his Jedi braid will catch fire, but he moves his body like a dancer as the wand waves through the air.
"You don't touch it a whole lot when you spin it," he says. "And that goes hand in hand when you light it because you don't want to touch the fire.”
More students arrive and take the stage as it gets closer to midnight. Fire performers Jo England and David “DK” Hernando join Sessumes. One of the newer students is called Echo. She's petite and now cracks a whip like a ringmaster. She plans to ignite it onstage when the fire marshal shows up. They call it a virgin burn.
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“Once they do that, they're hooked,” Thomas says.
Onstage, all the techniques and fire safety preparation are forgotten as the performers fall into a fire dance, entranced by the drumbeat playing in the background. Each one appears onstage, wielding various props as if battling a demon only the performers can see. Experienced professionals such as Sessumes and Hernando offer flawless performances as they meld with the flames. Others wrestle with their fire as it wraps around their legs or drops to the ground only to die out quickly when Thomas appears with a fire blanket.
“We've got people from every skill level coming up onstage,” he says. “Some will stumble a little bit. It's OK. Everybody's lighting up in a safe environment, all sharing the spark, all dancing with the dragon.”