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Key West banned fire acts at its nightly Sunset Celebration after a mishap. Can a 'fire spinner' - and a popular tradition - survive?

Renita Kavallieros, whose stage name is Andromeda Fyre, learned fire spinning in Thailand a decade ago. She lives in Key West.
Robear Photography

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Provided by Renita Kavallieros
Renita Kavallieros, whose stage name is Andromeda Fyre, learned fire spinning in Thailand a decade ago. She lives in Key West.

Renita Kavallieros is a fire spinner at Key West's legendary Sunset Celebration, a nightly street festival for the tourists who flock to Mallory Square to bask in the spectacular views of daylight fading over the Gulf of Mexico.

After years of living in many different spots around the globe, she chose to make Key West her home about two years ago, after realizing she could do fire performances for a living there.

As the affordability crisis worsens, she is part of an increasingly rare breed, following in the footsteps of artists who moved to the island over the years and decades to practice their craft and feed the city's unique scene.

"Mallory Square was the best thing that ever happened to me," Kavallieros said, in an interview with WLRN.

But she's spinning LED lights instead of her beloved flames now — she has no choice. The city prohibited fire from performances at the waterfront Mallory Square after a newcomer not versed in handling flames bungled his act.

With no timeline for its reinstatement, Renita's livelihood is under threat — and, some fear, so is the future of the popular nightly show.

On Jan. 11, Kavallieros' Key West life performing with fire at Sunset Celebration was upended, in seconds. She wasn’t even there.

Benjamin Prows, a juggler and tightrope walker living the classic vagabond street performer life, had come to Key West for about a week. His cameo appearance at Sunset Celebration led first to a near-disaster, and then to the fire ban.

During his act that day, on the seawall at Mallory Pier, his hand caught on fire. While trying to shake the flames from his hand, he accidentally tossed some onto a tourist, Tracy Wieder, 53, of Cutler Bay.

Wieder was treated at the scene, and City Manager Patti McLauchlinresponded by canceling all fire performances in the square until further notice.

Benjamin Prows, a street performer, explains to Key West police how he ended up burning a tourist at Sunset Celebration in Key West on Jan. 11, 2023.
Key West police body camera footage
Benjamin Prows, a street performer, explains to Key West police how he ended up burning a tourist at Sunset Celebration in Key West on Jan. 11, 2023.

"My whole decision was [based on] public safety and making sure this does not happen again," McLauchlin told WLRN.

Prows had a fire extinguisher on his performance spot, but in an apparent panic, jumped on her in an attempt to smother the flames. When that didn't work, he shoved her off the seawall into the water and then jumped in himself.

Wieder was treated at the scene for a minor burn two inches in diameter on her back, according to the police report.

She wasn't watching Prows' show when the performance started to go wrong. She had her back to him, as she and her husband were seated and eating by the water, witnesses told police.

"It caught my back on fire, is my understanding," Wieder can be heard saying on Key West police body camera footage immediately after the incident.

"But then he like dove on me and I thought he was trying to just roll on us on the ground and put me out but he, like, forced me into the water," Wieder said.

Prows left town after the incident. When contacted by WLRN he initially declined the opportunity to comment on the record, but he later said he was "very sorry to the community" and Renita for the effect it had on the Mallory Square performances.

'It will come back'

The city owns Mallory Square, but has long kept a hands-off approach to Sunset Celebration, which started about 40 years ago, and has been run by a nonprofit since 1984 — the Key West Cultural Preservation Society.

On the back of the incident, however, McLauchlin, the city manager, wasted no time in banning all fire acts at Sunset Celebration.

Wieder didn't return a message for this story, but her attorney, Aaron Rothenberg, who works at a law firm in Fort Lauderdale, did speak to WLRN. Rothenberg said the city, Sunset Celebration and Prows are all potentially liable for Wieder's back burn and, he said, also a knee injury.

The preservation society requires all performers on Mallory Square to pay $20 to perform, plus a fee to be covered by insurance. Its board members would not talk to WLRN for this story, but it's unclear what protocols are being used by the nonprofit to vet performers, particularly visitors such as Prows.

According to McLauchlin, performers with fire are required to have a fire extinguisher and insurance. She indicated the city wants to improve the safety protocols before allowing fire to return to the performances in the square.

"It will come back but with different guidelines," McLauchlin said.

Crowds line the harborfront at Mallory Square in Key West for the sunset celebration on April seventh, 2021.
Nancy Klingener
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WLRN
Mallory Square is packed for Sunset Celebration on April 7, 2021.

The famous Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square dates back to the late 70s. People would go there to sell arts and crafts to tourists. It grew. Today, tourists flock to Mallory Pier to watch the sunset and they find themselves in the middle of a street festival with stunts, artists and musicians.

There’s an astrologer, Ron. For a long time, the Cat Man would lead his cats on little tightropes. About 15 years ago, Frank the strongman could lift and hold aSunset Celebration at Mallory Squaremotorcycle. Marcus the acrobat balanced a bicycle on his head.

Nothing like the fire mishap has ever happened at the event in all the time it has been going on, said wire walker and juggler Will Soto.

"Taking fire out is gonna, definitely gonna put a big crimp in the international performers that come here to perform," Soto, a fixture at Mallory since the 70s, said. "They’re not going to come."

Prows told WLRN, “I’m very sorry to the community and especially to [Renita] because she doesn't deserve to have her performance banned. She was very kind to me and I appreciated her friendship.”

A livelihood and a way of life

For Renita Kavallieros, fire is her livelihood but also a way of life.

Born and raised in Iowa, Kavallieros, 37, said she quit a job at a sports company, and life in Chicago, years ago to travel. On a beach in Thailand about ten years ago, she saw fire spinners. And she immediately saw her future.

She said, "When I saw it on the beaches in Thailand, I was like, what is this? It’s incredible. This power that somehow I can harness."

“It spoke to me," Kavallieros said. "It was love at first sight."

Renita Kavallieros performs as Andromeda Fyre, a fire spinner who has been traveling the world for almost ten years. She lives in Key West, where they city in January 2023 banned fire acts at the nightly Sunset Celebration festival at Mallory Square, due to a mishap by another performer who was only visiting. A tourist suffered a minor burn during an act on Jan. 11, 2023. Kavallieros wasn't involved.
Gabe Taviano
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Provided by Renita Kavallieros
Renita Kavallieros performs as Andromeda Fyre, a fire spinner who has been traveling the world for almost ten years.

She had another powerful motivating factor. "A bunch of guys told me I couldn’t do it because I was a girl," she said. "Their words were, 'We don’t like you, go away. You’re a girl. You suck.'”

But she didn't go away. Instead, she has thrived, doing fire her way - and with a $3 million insurance policy in hand when she got to Key West almost two years ago.

Kavallieros, has now been performing with fire for a decade as she travels the world. She's known as Andromeda Fyre, and thousands of people have seen her act - dancing while handling blazing torches. Fire performance is also her therapy - her medicine - she said.

She chose to move to Key West on a whim, like many transplants, after discovering the vibrant arts community - and that she could do fire for a living.

She not only fell hard for charming Key West, with its flip flop and shorts lifestyle and the balmy tropical weather, but she was making enough cash from her chosen path of fire performance to live in what is also an expensive city.

This was all due to the enormous, worldwide draw of Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, fueled by veteran street performers who bring their talents to the little island.

While she's not alone at Mallory Square when it comes to using fire in an act, she says she's the one being hit hardest by the ban.

"I’m the only full-blown fire person," she said. "The rest have fire intermittently in their shows, but it still has a huge effect even on their shows."

Kavallieros says she's willing to get certifications if that pleases the city. Or meet with the fire marshal. Anything to get the fire back at Mallory Square.

Editor's note: This story was updated on March 14th to add a comment from Benjamin Prows.

Gwen Filosa covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. She has been reporting from the island chain for over a decade, from Cuban landings and the workforce housing crisis, to the oddities and charms of the Keys.
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