Juggling - its history and greatest performers by Francisco Alvarez

PART 7: The Demise of Vaudeville

Felix Adanos
Master salon juggler, Felix Adanos.
Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected 32nd president; the year is 1933; Hitler's "Mein Kampf" not successful in its English translation; labor unions estimate the unemployed at 13 million; scores of theaters now showing talking pictures only; vaudevillians worry about their future.

The death of vaudeville did not come about suddenly. Vaudeville remained in a moribund state from about 1929 to 1950. The variety form of entertainment might have survived one severe blow. But there were three! Radio, sound motion pictures, and television. The wandering minstrel had been replaced by the electronic age. It was at the tail end of vaudeville that I walked into the juggling scene. Television was yet unknown and the nation sought entertainment in order to forget the horrors of the depression. Consequently, there were still many live shows to be seen. It was my good fortune to have occupied a balcony seat at the Palace when the Cantor/Jessel show was there. It was the first time I saw Serge Flash.

While in my teens, I bought a set of clubs from the Elgins; and after suffering from aching hands and bumps on my head, I realized that I was not a club juggler. (Recall that the Lind club was 16 oz. in weight, made of hardwood, and nothing like the modern plastic club.) I sold the clubs to a policeman from Hackensack, New Jersey, who practiced juggling as a hobby, and turned my attention to sticks.

I had been juggling as a hobby since I was twelve years old and could easily do five balls from the cascade to the shower without stopping. But I was still half-baked and knew nothing about putting an act together. During the next eight years I practiced umpteen hours a day, and met some of the great jugglers of that period. Everyone was helpful - Serge Flash, Bobby May, the Elgins, Youna, and Señor Wences. But I learned mostly from one Carl Lorenz, who had once done an act with sticks in the Japanese style. It was Mr. Lorenz who introduced me to show business and was the first to manage my career. In 1939 I began to do shows professionally in small night clubs around Manhattan and Brooklyn, using my first name only, "Francisco." Around the time I started, Kara died. His obituary reads:

Juggler Dies - Kara, the gentleman juggler, died in Munich on April 9 [1939]. He was well-known all over the world, and with the exception of Cinquevalli, was the best paid juggler before the war. Since his farewell engagement in U. S. A. some ten years ago, he has lived in retirement in Bavaria.

Keep your eye on the juggler, he does some great tricks. His name is Tux.
A contemporary of mine was a young Brooklyn juggler, Lester Weeks, who later changed his name to Larry. Through the years, Larry Weeks has amassed an impressive collection of juggling memorabilia. He is best remembered as the juggler in the all-soldier World War II show, This is the Army, which was comparable to the World War I show, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, in which juggler Harry Ferrier had played a similar role.

My army experiences were different from Larry's. I was whisked to Fort Bragg and later to Fort Sill, where I was kept busy doing shows and performing my duties as a soldier. Meanwhile, back in civilian life, shows for servicemen were being organized by the United Service Organization (USO). These shows employed performers who were not in the service. In addition to serving a good cause, the USO shows proved to be a boon to performers who, being provided with steady work, transportation, etc., were able to save a bundle.

On one occasion, the arrival of a USO show was announced at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. One of the names on the program was that of the celebrated comedy juggler Stan Kavanaugh. At first I didn't believe we would be honored by the presence of such a distinguished juggling personality. But the day of the show came and there he was. I had never met Kavanaugh; and after I introduced myself as a juggling GI, we spent a most enjoyable day practicing and conversing. When Kavanaugh left, the good opinion I had of him was greatly enhanced. He was not only a fine juggler but also a fine person. He certainly had not joined the USO for personal gain; he was a well-to-do, extremely successful Broadway star.

After my hitch in the service, I informed my agent that I was back in business. Work for jugglers at that time was abundant. Agents literally plucked acts from the street (Broadway) and asked them to come to the office to sign a contract. With so much work to be had, I enthusiastically plunged into a life of constant practice and steady work. I never set the world on fire nor did I start a flame in anybody's heart with my juggling act but I did make a good living for many years. Here are a couple of my reviews:

Francisco is a comical-faced juggler who can keep a variety of objects travelling through the smoothest arcs and ellipses in the most polished way. The effect of his dexterity being one of rhythm and velvet-smooth motion. He was without doubt one of the hits of the show.

The above is from The Standard in Montreal (Dec. 1943). And in the Gazette of Montreal, also 1943, we read:

A mute but expressive juggler, Francisco, is really well above average in everything he does. His work is clean and his timing faultless, and he manages to insert some humor into it, no mean achievement when he has eschewed all patter.

Television was not yet popular in 1944, but at that time I was asked to appear on a televised program. I wondered who would see it, since TV sets at that time were virtually unavailable to the general public. The show at the DuMont Studios in the Grand Central building in New York City , was televised on September 13, 1944. This was the first of about 21 shows on which I would appear during my lifetime.

Early television was plagued by the hot lights. Intense illumination was placed directly above the performer's head and this naturally caused a perspiration problem. Also, in those days of early black and white TV, performers were told to wear blue shirts because white, they said, was too glary.

Adolf Behrend Salerno died on December 10, 1945. He was the last of "the three" who left their brilliant mark at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.


Bela Kremo
Talent runs in the family. Béla Kremo, shown here, is the father of the equally talented Kris Kremo.
Arthur Ward practiced at Bothner's Gymnasium on 42nd Street. A congenial man, apparently in his fifties, Ward remembered many of the great jugglers of the past, and some of the information in this book has been made possible because of my conversations with this man. Oddly enough, Ward practiced only one trick, which he did very well - the juggling of six huge wooden hoops. I regret that I never saw Arthur Ward's full act in a theater; but at the gym, it was fascinating - and a bit eerie - to watch him practice only that one trick "as if his soul in that one (trick) he did outpour."

The Littlejohns, who have been mentioned earlier, were very active at this time. The man and wife team was known for their dazzlingly decorated props, which were completely covered with rhinestones. But their tricks were also interesting. They passed clubs to each other while walking on globes, and they also juggled battle-axes which had very sharp blades, demonstrated when the man sliced paper by running it against a blade before doing his routine.


The International Jugglers Association was formed in June, 1947. The founders of this organization are listed as follows: Harry Lind, Bernard Joyce, George Barvinchak, Jack Greene, F. R. Dunham, Eddie Johnson, Roger Montandon, and Art Jennings. A publication called Newsletter was periodically circulated among the members, who had a voice in organizing meetings, conventions, workshops, etc. At this writing, the organization's periodical is known as Juggler's World. The membership has grown with the years and hundreds of jugglers have been brought together in a flurry of conventions and enthusiastic exchange of ideas, books, and movies. This organization should be supported by all jugglers. It has done its job well, possibly surpassing the expectations of its founders.

In 1948, Francis Brunn made his New York debut at the old Madison Square Garden with the Ringling Bros. Circus. This fine artist will be reviewed later. The Palace Theater in New York City continued to present live shows during the 1950s, but not on a regular basis. Only sporadically was a show of sufficient importance to warrant an opening of the old theater. Two of these shows included well-known jugglers. Rudy Cardenas appeared in Hellza-poppin', sharing the bill with Jose Greco and Olsen and Johnson. Francis Brunn appeared with the Mitzi Green/Liberace show.


He brought his British charm and juggling skill to the United States in 1946 and captured the heart of his audience. His name was Peter Elliott, better known as Woodrow.
Prosperity in show business - of the variety type - continued during the war and shortly afterward. By the mid-1950s, however, the great transformation had taken place. As more people bought TV sets, more theaters and night clubs closed their doors forever. There was a short-lived demand for "sight acts" on TV, but jugglers soon found themselves on the way out. While the passing of the Old Guard paved the way for a totally new breed of juggler, many old things were completely forgotten - stage lights and music rehearsals, makeup, agents, contracts, 8x10 glossies, etc. Even stick-and-ball became a thing of the past. (NOTE - Theatrical photos were originally printed on double-weight matte paper. The single-weight glossies were the product of Hollywood and the last few years of vaudeville).

But if their ancestors had survived the demise of the troubadours, the new jugglers could certainly survive the demise of vaudeville. History repeats itself in more ways than one, and now jugglers had taken to the streets and parks as they had done in past centuries. To borrow an expression from the impressionists who painted out of doors, the plein air juggler was now a fact of modern life. With the mystery of backstage removed, jugglers were now accessible, friendly and talkative, and a new enthusiasm was kindled for the ancient art. Even such well-established performers as Philippe Petit found it exhilarating and profitable to perform out of doors, whether in the streets of Paris or in New York's Washington Square Park.

Curiously, the street juggler has not lowered the technical standards of the vaudevillian but has in fact raised them. While much theatricality may have been lost, the tricks of today, in many cases, are superior. For example, the juggling of five clubs is looked upon by many park jugglers as child's play. Yet not many vaudevillians were able to muster up the courage to make five clubs part of their every day bread-and-butter routine. Evidently the rigors of travel and three-a-day left the old vaudevillian with less time to practice than he thought he had. Even the long-held notion that it takes "years and years" to become a good juggler is being questioned today. For how do we explain the success of our modern-day boy prodigy Anthony Gatto? There is no question that today we are witnessing the age of the superjuggler and, ironically, at a time when there are no theaters. Vaudeville could certainly have used some of this talent.


The profound interest in juggling that young people have demonstrated in recent years seems to baffle even psychologists. And there's a growing belief that juggling is in some way related to the computer environment of today. Several papers on the mathematics of juggling began to appear in the early 1980s, and some colleges are offering classes in juggling. Notable among these are the Circus Arts courses at New York University under the able tutelage of Hovey Burgess. I myself conducted a juggling seminar at the University of New Mexico in 1978. Other institutions of learning are recognizing the value of juggling, comparable to dancing or playing a musical instrument.

The study of the Commedia Dell'Arte and the ancient Graeco-Roman mime is another modern phenomenon. No doubt Marcel Marceau's talents have inspired the new performers into combining juggling with mime. Much has been gained and perhaps new forms of the art will emerge. But I hope the mood and style of yesteryear is not irrecoverable. Kraftjongleure, gentlemen jugglers, and stick-and-ball artists are unfortunately no longer very visible, a regrettable situation for young students who want to study these styles.

It is true that in today's venues some of the props of yesteryear would not hold up well. The monocle and coins of the gentleman juggler, or small sticks, easily get lost in the wind during an outdoor performance. The heavier, more substantial club is preferable. We must remember that performers during the days of the theaters worked in front of a black curtain under a brilliant spotlight. Under these conditions, tricks with small props were quite visible and manageable. Tricks with spoons, matches and coins were common. White-painted sticks glistening in the spotlight, particularly, exuded a clean - almost antiseptic - charisma. Today's untheatrical environment does little to bring out these visual qualities.

If the art of juggling is showing any signs of weakness today, it is a weakness that has existed all along, namely: a total failure by its practitioners to move their art in a more scholarly direction. For instance, no one has ever compiled a glossary of juggling terms that can be considered truly authoritative and official. Except for the pattern names "cascade" and "shower," which are deeply ingrained and generally accepted, few juggling terms have ever taken hold.

And the designation "gentlemen jugglers," etc. are in total disarray for understandable reasons: these styles have often been mixed with other styles, adding to the confusion. And synonyms can be used. For historical and pedantic reasons, this book has clearly defined the different styles of juggling. But no style in its pure state has probably ever existed. Jugglers have always done what they can do best, and they can easily lose sight of style. And while unity and variety are important artistic elements, the only commercial requirements are that the act sells and entertains.

Although this is not an instruction manual, we can briefly touch upon the subject of unity and variety. It means that a hodgepodge of unrelated tricks should generally be avoided. We can learn about unity and variety from the great jugglers of the past, and from our magical cousins: - The King of Cards, the King of Rings, The Master of the Escape. It pays to specialize in one thing, with just the right amount of variety.

Getting back to our glossary of terms: it should be compiled on the basis of traditional usage, experience, and the sound judgment of many. Not on the arbitrary inventiveness and whim of one individual. If progress is made along these lines, we can perhaps someday rid ourselves of the deplorable "pins" and start juggling "clubs."

And "stick-and-ball," which I so freely mention in this book, is far from being an official term. To be sure, the style has also been called "Japanese style," "Awata style," "Ball and stick," "Rastelli style," and "mouth stick work." And the confusion goes on and on. Can it be that the nature of our work and the many variables defy classification?

Looking at the business end of the art, there is clearly a swing of the pendulum. City officials are beginning to see that the closing of the theaters wasn't such a good idea after all. Other businesses have been adversely affected. Some cities today are conducting "Downtown Saturday Nights," "Revival Nights," and similar festivities in order to lure the crowds back to Main Street. Some theaters have actually opened their doors. We don't know if this trend will continue, but jugglers today don't seem to care. They've learned to deal directly with schools, libraries, shopping centers, or may simply pass the hat after an outdoor performance .

"In today's show business," a young juggler recently told me, "you've got to make your own work." Some are actually doing this quite successfully. They don't miss - or even remember - the vaudeville circuits. But others disagree, claiming that the best jobs in Las Vegas, the Lido in Paris, or on tour with the Globetrotters can only be booked through the services of a reputable artist's representative. We must also understand that, except for very special types of programming, the 10-minute juggling specialist is not easily sold in today's market. The needs of show business have changed, and today, in certain areas of show business, it is easier to sell an entertainment package capable of doing a full hour or more. For this reason today's juggler generally joins forces with other acts and stretches his own efforts to fill time. This, unfortunately, dilutes the quality of his act.

Old-timers like to say that the apotheosis of the art was reached during the vaudeville period. I share this view, but we must realize that the vaudeville period was comparatively short - a single drop into a vast sea of history. No one can say with certainty how many unsung heroes there have been in antiquity. Nor can we say what the future holds.

Distinctive forms of entertainment have come and gone, but apparently juggling goes on forever. Perhaps the endurance of the art is born out of its skillful splendor. In closing this chapter, I quote Alistair Cooke:

It is comforting to recall Hazlitt, who
after a lifetime's appreciation of actors
and acting, was moved to tears only once [and that was]
by the exquisite and, as it seemed to him,
philosophical skill of a juggler. [1]


Alistair Cooke: Douglas Fairbanks - The Making of a Screen Character (New York: The Museum of Modern Art; 1940.) P.23

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Text and illustrations © 1984 Francisco Alvarez
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