Four decades into the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, Rod Sipe is still on fire
Rod Sipe has been swallowing fire and making things disappear at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival since 1979. His act has survived changing audiences and personal tragedies, and he doesn’t plan to step away from the stage anytime soon.
Rod Sipe grips a flaming torch in his left hand. Wearing a yellow peasant shirt over a heavy blue kilt, Sipe casually banters with his audience, teasing them.
A rush of wind tussles the treetops above his stage. He hears the leaves rustle and plunges the torch into his mouth, extinguishing the flame before the breeze can whip it out of control, drawing applause.
“It’s a dangerous show,” Sipe tells the audience. “I’m not talking about the fire. I’m talking about the skirt. It could fly up at any time.”
For 43 years at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, almost as long as it's been around, Sipe has performed his dangerous shows as Dr. Dumpe (pronounced doom-PAY). He mixes magic, fire eating and humor six times a day every weekend during the fair’s run — this year, until Oct. 16.
At 67, Sipe is one of three performers who’ve racked up over four decades at the annual Bonner Springs gathering, which started in 1977.
He alternates time on the stage with Brian Wendling — also known as “Bob the Incredible Juggler” — who began at the festival in 1979 with Sipe, but took off two years in the middle, making Sipe the longest-serving performer there.
Magician Steve Payton rounds out the last of the group, who refer to themselves as “the dinosaurs.”
Working the crowd
Sipe says he has briefly held “real” jobs, but his life’s work has been as a performer.
His parents would run concession stands at carnivals and festivals outside of their regular jobs. At one point, they owned a winter quarters in Paola, Kansas, where circus performers would live in the offseason, exposing him to the personalities and professions of that world.
His childhood fascination with magic was fashioned into an act in his early 20s, but Sipe knew he wasn’t good enough to be successful.
“What if I could use fire?” he asked himself instead. “Anybody will watch a fire eater. I'm a country guy. They'll watch a guy in bib overalls eat fire.”
Sipe found a sideshow performer who tutored him. “A lot of people want to be fire eaters,” Sipe said he was told. “And they do it one time and retire.”
He was hooked after his first attempt.
“It’s all timing, technique and feel,” he says. “If you really want to do it, you’ll do it.”
He honed his skills as a street performer and worked small weekend fairs. Until, one day, his father came home from visiting this new thing in Kansas City: the Renaissance Festival.
“I had never been to a Renaissance festival,” he says. “There was no internet. Who knew?”
He auditioned and quickly became a popular act, hauling his props and gear across the grounds before being granted a permanent home on the Queen’s Folly Stage.
As the Renaissance Festival has evolved, so has his act: The audiences and the routines used to be bawdier. But the crowds have become more family-oriented and less tolerant of off-color jokes.
“I just cringe at the things I used to say in my act that was hugely successful,” he says.
He likes to bring children on stage as assistants, making them take a bow before they leave.
And the culture at the Renaissance Festival has shifted to be less medieval and more about pop culture.
“You will see steampunk. You'll, you will see cosplay, huge cosplay,” he says. “You might see a stormtrooper going by, Spiderman go by.”
But none of those changes have slowed his enthusiasm. Outside of the Renaissance season, Sipe enjoys a steady schedule performing at other fairs, festivals and corporate gigs.
“I give it my all every show,” he says. “And I never want to be that performer that does one show too many. That's my biggest fear.”
Not out of fuel just yet
Sipe says that performing for that long has its challenges. The Renaissance Festival did not open in 2020 because of the pandemic; last year, it held court again, but with some restrictions.
Sipe has suffered two strokes, battles a bum knee, and one year, he performed 80 shows while sitting on a wooden throne because he had to wear a colostomy bag.
While he doesn’t have any lingering effects from the act of eating fire -- his torches use white gas -- the most damage he’s suffered has come from the sun. He doesn’t usually wear a hat, and his arms and bald head are marked with age spots and sun damage. A small divot in the top of his skull reveals where he had a spot of melanoma removed.
But those injuries pale compared to this year.
In March, Sipe lost his 43-year-old daughter to complications from COVID.
“It’s been six months, but it sneaks up on me,” he says of the emotion of losing a child.
Long before Sipe lost his daughter, he says he got some advice from the previous longest-serving Renaissance performer: “Rod, do not underestimate the effect you have — or we have — on the people in the audience.”
Sipe says he now uses that advice to steel himself, but also to accept the graciousness of others amid his grief.
“I look into an audience and I know that we all have a story or some family in the audience that has had a loss like I’ve had,” Sipe says. “And for 40 minutes, I can just bring them into my world — like everybody does for me now.”
Sipe says he hears from adults who were children when they first came to the festival decades ago. They bring their own children now, and share their memories and experiences with the performers.
For now, Sipe has no plans to retire from performing: He wants to make it to 75.
Sipe says Dr. Dumpe will remain on stage for a bit longer, holding onto the advice his father gave him at the start of his journey.
“My dad told me the worst thing that could happen to me is that I might have to get a real job,” Sipe says. “If that’s the worst thing, that’s not so bad.”