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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.