Juggling - its history and greatest performers by Francisco Alvarez

PART 2: The Formative Years

On April 3,1793, the Ricketts Circus had its grand opening in Philadelphia. George Washington, who was present, witnessed, among other things, a performance by John Bill Ricketts. Ricketts is best remembered as the circus owner, but he was also a performer who could do some juggling on horseback. It is a little-known fact in juggling history that the father of our country was friendly with a juggler. Washington and Ricketts shared a great love for horses, and both men often went riding together.

In 1836 P. T. Barnum returned from an unsuccessful tour and part of the failure was blamed on the juggler, a Signor Antonio. The signore spun plates and balanced guns and bayonets on his nose. He performed some of these tricks while walking on stilts. Barnum later changed the name of the juggler to Signor Vivalla, but evidently the change of name did not improve the act. Barnum had experienced an early failure. But with his promotional genius, he did not fail for long. Barnum founded the biggest museum in the United States and his connection with circus history is legendary. A "museum" in theatrical days past was an entertainment arcade.

Hans Arrino
Hans Arrino, equilibrist. Possibly mid-nineteenth century. In addition to the skillful balance, a water-pouring action took place from the top barrel to the ones below through holes drilled in the barrels.An ingenious trick, but rather awkward by today's standards. After a rare print in the Author's collection.
Most jugglers who entertained American audiences after 1840 were seen during the Variety/Olio intermissions at the minstrel shows. The term "olio" no doubt referred to the material of which the drop curtain was made - a form of oilcloth. At the same time as changes of scenery were made behind the curtain, variety acts of all sorts appeared in front. In addition to the minstrel shows, there was a growing demand for live entertainment for, in truth, there was no other kind. Since radio, motion pictures, and television were unknown, a growing industry in live entertainment had mushroomed and extended around the world. These entertainment palaces and circuses are too numerous to mention. It will suffice to say that during this time juggling developed naturally along with the entertainment industry.

Carl Rappo
Carl Rappo, after a print from the collection of Max Koch.
Shows were now better organized and the printed program became popular. This made it easier for future researchers to pinpoint names and dates. One of the first names to appear is that of Carl Rappo (1800-1854). Rappo is said to have been a great juggler and the teacher of one Karl Johann Schäffer. Two of Schäffer's sons followed in their father's footsteps and this family became one of the first and greatest in juggling history.

I was privileged to have seen a personally-autographed photograph of Severus Schäffer in the Larry Weeks collection. This was one of Karl's sons. The other was named Sylvester. The photo is dated January 10, 1865 and, if I remember correctly, it was dedicated to James E. Darmody, another famous juggler of that day. In this photograph, Severus Schäffer was about 30 years old and handsome; and though no props appear in the picture, he evidently belonged to the heavy-prop style of juggling which was popular at the time.

The information on Carl Rappo and the Schäffers has been gathered from the Larry Weeks collection and from Max Koch's pamphlet History of the Juggling Art. Another fine historian, Marcello Truzzi, notes that Lau Laura is one of the first jugglers on record. Laura, Truzzi states, appeared at Drury Lane in 1832. In my personal research, I have found no significant name before John Bill Ricketts (1793) and Signor Vivalla (1836).


As previously noted, the Japanese made balls by winding pieces of yarn. In other parts of the world, balls were made out of round pieces of leather which were stuffed with sand, rags, or feathers. Balls were also fashioned out of wood or metal. In the mid-1800s, a rubbery substance called gutta percha was discovered in the Far East and became an important ingredient in the manufacture of balls. A superior ball, used mainly in the game of golf, was introduced in 1896, and consisted of a rubber core with winding rubber threads on the surface. The processing of rubber, which has greatly improved with the years, has resulted in our modern high-bouncing lacrosse ball. Also, the air inflated balls which are used as toys and for sports, though they've been around for long, have undergone many refinements in recent years. The good and bad features of these balls as they apply to our juggling needs will be discussed in the forthcoming technical manual.

1858 TO 1874

Barrel organs appear in the streets of Europe; first Atlantic cable by Cyrus W. Field fails after 17 days; "A house divided against itself cannot stand," says Lincoln; Alaska sold to US by Russia for $7.2 million; Great Fire destroys Chicago; "boss" Tweed of New York City convicted of stealing public funds.

In 1859 Paul Cinquevalli (pronounced Chin-cooeh-valli) was born in what is now Poland. At that time the area was known as Lisa, in the province of Posen, Prussia. His real name was Emile Otto Lehmann-Braun.

On January 31, 1867, Kara was born in Nuremberg, Germany. Thanks to some thoughtful and careful German writers, notably Hermann Sagemüller, we know much about Kara. Even details about his boyhood and his parents are well documented. Kara's real name was Michael Steiner.

On September 30, 1869, Salerno, whose real name was Adolf Behrend, was born in Königsberg, then capital of East Prussia. Salerno was the last of "the three" who were to make juggling history around the turn of the century; namely, Cinquevalli, Kara, and Salerno.


F. Silvo
F. Silvo. Juggler and equilibrist. Possibly active from 1875 to 1905. After a print in the New York Public Library.
The 1880s is a busy time in our little history. While the French were digging the Panama Canal, we observe the birth of W. C. Fields, the birth of vaudeville, and the debut of Cinquevalli. Kara and Salerno were also beginning to break ground. Biographers of W. C. Fields disagree on the date of his birth, but January 29, 1880 is believed to be correct. At any event, William Claude Dukenfield was born in West Philadelphia. Since several good biographies exist on this hero, we will not go into details. We know that around 1889 William Claude walked into a vaudeville theater and saw a juggling act, the Byrne Brothers. He liked their cigar box routine and decided to practice juggling. The rest is history. The vaudeville show that had inspired W. C. was a comparatively new form of entertainment. It had started in Boston in 1883. Many factors had played a part in the development of vaudeville - American Minstrelsy, English Variety, the popular craving for entertainment, and the work of two enterprising showmen: B. F. Keith and Edward F. Albee.

In 1885 a 26-year-old juggler made his debut in a London circus. The circus had been installed as a Christmas attraction at Covent Garden. The juggler was Paul Cinquevalli. At a very early age Cinquevalli had ventured into the entertainment world as an acrobat. But a traumatic experience was to change the course of his life. We'll let him tell it in his own words:

... in this world lots of things happen more by luck than judgement, and the fact that I am juggling today instead of being the acrobat which I started out to be is the outcome of, first, ill-luck, and then good luck. It happened like this: I was a member of a troupe which was giving a very successful turn in St. Petersburg - a turn with plenty of risk in it. It was a flying trapeze act some seventy feet from the ground - an act performed in the open air in the Zoological Gardens of that city. As it was a flying trapeze act, the essential point was that the trapeze bars should be perfectly dry. The attendant had been up and had dried the bar from which I had to swing.

Paul Cinquevalli posed for his photograph, from which this drawing was made, when he was about 36 years old. Author's collection.
The temptation of vodka, which is worse than whiskey, assailed him when he descended, and he forgot the second bar. The moment of the act came. I gripped the first bar and swung out into space, calculating the moment when I should let go and seize the glistening trapeze which swung toward me. I let go. For a moment I launched through space. I gripped the bar, and then, horror of horrors! It was moist, damp, and impossible to hold, and so gradually my fingers slipped and slid and slithered through it until I fell clean into space.

I tried to save myself by somersault upon somersault and then struck a guy-wire in my descent - and all the rest was darkness. Darkness which resulted in eight months in the hospital in St. Petersburg, and the utter impossibility of ever doing a trapeze act again.

In the many months that I had been an acrobat I had, nevertheless, had a taste for juggling, which was fostered in me by pure accident. It was in Moscow that I did a man a good turn, and he gave me a large ebony skittle-ball weighing six or eight pounds, which I continually practiced with, throwing it into the air, catching it, and eventually, by accident getting it in the nape of my neck and finding that it did not injure me. You have seen conjurers, or jugglers, or whatever you like to call them, throw an egg into the air and catch it on a plate as it descended without breaking it, and may have wondered how it was done. I have done the trick myself. It is purely a case of 'breaking the fall.' [1]

These were the fateful circumstances which turned Cinquevalli into one of the most colorful jugglers in history. His manner of dress, mustache, and general appearance were typical fin de siècle. He performed in the tights and leotards made popular by the nineteenth-century French aerialist Jules Leotard. Cinquevalli's tricks were very diversified. In addition to the cannonballs and heavy props, he performed complex tricks with knife, fork, darts, and a turnip. He would pierce the turnip in mid-air with dart and fork, then catch the descending compilation on the point of the knife which he held in his hand. From Ellis Stanyon's Magic publication, we learn more about Cinquevalli's tricks.
Another very clever business of M. Cinquevalli is to juggle with a cigar, a hat, a walking stick, and a half-crown piece. The half-crown, after pirouetting some time in the air, drops on his toe, at the same time that the hat falls on his head, the cigar in his mouth, and the stick into his hand. Then he will kick the coin and catch it as a monocle in his eye.

He will take a cigar and holder, throw them up at different angles, and catch them in his mouth. Two more cigars and holders are placed, one on his chin, and the other on his forehead. [He will then] throw them off with a jerk, and catch the top cigar in the holder; the other falls into his hand. In fact M. Cinquevalli is a psychologic wonder. He is a consummate musician, and a composer to boot; the one man who is a living contradiction to the saying, 'to do a thing well, you must do one thing at a time.'

James E. Darmody
James E. Darmody and Cinquevalli were contemporaries, about 1898. Author's collection.
The many historical clippings generously sent to me by Dennis Soldati and Karl-Heinz Ziethen have been my source of information on the early days of Kara and Salerno. If the reader wants more information on Kara, he is strongly urged to get a copy of Hermann Sagemüller's book Michael Kara - King of Jugglers, Juggler of Kings. Although printed in the German language, this book belongs in every juggler's library. A friend can translate it, or you can now buy a translation in English, which I believe is available from Roger Montandon.

In 1872 young Michael Steiner (Kara) and his family moved to Munich, where he attended school. In a park near his home he saw his first juggler and was greatly impressed, though in later years he realized that the juggler had done very simple tricks. So at a very early age, using stones as props, the future Kara began to experiment with juggling.

Young Adolf Behrend (Salerno), after finishing school, became an apprentice in a carpenter's shop where his father was a craftsman. The young lad evidently learned his craft well. This was to be strongly confirmed by the magnitude of his accomplishments. It is said that while working in the shop, Adolf discovered that the hammers, rulers and pliers could also be juggled. So another juggling career began. But the future Salerno never lost his other skills, and by the time he reached manhood, German publications were speaking of him as juggler, watchmaker, aviator, builder, engineer, and inventor. Like Cinquevalli, Salerno had many talents.

In 1896, when the 29-year-old Kara was playing the Alhambra in London, writer William G. FitzGerald was preparing an article on Cinquevalli. The article entitled "The Greatest Juggler in the World," was to appear the following year in Strand magazine. Also in 1896, Olympic games were being revived in Athens, the Gold Rush to the Yukon was in full swing, and the Rastellis, who were aerialists and jugglers with a traveling circus, found themselves in distant Siberia, expecting the birth of a child.


The three-year-old bambino is none other than Enrico Rastelli in 1899. After a photo in the Rastelli family collection.
On December 19, 1896, a son was born to the Rastellis. A Siberian by birth, but from Italian parents, the boy was named Enrico. A few months earlier, on August 17, 1896, the Bonanza Creek gold strike had occurred. This was the beginning of a gold dust yield that by 1904 was valued at over $100,000,000. Curiously, the Rastellis had also struck gold, and almost at the same time, for Enrico Rastelli was to become the greatest juggler the world had ever seen!


Since the Civil War, gun spinning and balancing had been popular. But the guns and bayonets were soon replaced by clubs. The so-called Indian Club is probably older than vaudeville, though in the beginning it was used mainly for exhibitions of twirling and swinging. A popular club swinger of the day was Gus Hill, who had been a producer of burlesque shows. Some of Hill's clubs were very large, with huge bellies and short handles. A club 30 inches long was not unusual.

It is difficult to say who was the first to juggle with clubs, but DeWitt Cook is sometimes given this honor. Credit must also be given to Morris Cronin, who was not even one of the first to juggle clubs. However, Cronin's superb handling of this prop surely represents one of the smoothest transitions from club swinging to club juggling. The handsome Cronin was a very successful vaudevillian who for years presented the act known as "Morris Cronin and his Merry Men." Incidentally, juggler Max Baresh, who had once worked for Cronin, told me the following story many years later: Baresh had lied to Cronin about his left-handedness because he was anxious to work in such a prestigious act. Cronin made it a practice never to hire a left-handed juggler, but hired Max, thinking he was right-handed. Everything went smoothly for a while. One day, however, during a relaxed moment backstage, Cronin suddenly threw a club to Max. "Catch, Max!" was the command. Max instinctively put up his left hand and caught the club, whereupon he was fired.


Courtesy N. Y. Public Library

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Text and illustrations © 1984 Francisco Alvarez
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