Juggling - its history and greatest performers by Francisco Alvarez

PART 8: Review of Mid-and-Late-Twentieth-Century Artists

The following commentaries reflect my personal views and are not necessarily the conclusions drawn by others. The order is alphabetical.

Ben Beri - billed himself as "The Juggling Zani" and his manner was indeed clownish. But he was also very elegant. One of the most polished performers of his time, Beri worked with clubs, balls, parasols, and tambourines. Although his comedy almost reached the point of slapstick, he never lost his sense of elegance and dignity of characterization. Ben Beri worked the best theaters during his very successful career.

Francis Brunn
Francis Brunn
Francis Brunn - "Greater than the great Rastelli, and ten times faster" was Brunn's billing when he made his New York debut. Arthur Ward, who had seen Rastelli, acknowledged that Brunn was faster than his predecessor. Whether Brunn's tricks were more spectacular than Rastelli's is another question. But rather than make comparisons, Brunn should be judged by his own extraordinary talents. He is one of the juggling giants of the twentieth century. During the season 1951-52, Brunn was with the Polack Circus, and I quote from his agent's (Harry Nathano) publicity brochure.

Dynamic as TNT - that Nijinski of the enchanted globe, the great Francis Brunn - the most mystifying maestro of super-juggling that ever hit the town. The Polack announcer states: "Look well! You'll never see his like again!" Brunn is literally the talk of the town - a leaping, juggling legerdemainic marvel. He conducts a ballet of whirling globes with his two hands, his feet, his knees, his back, his head, forehead, nose, ears - but you can't kid the boys in the back room. This Brunn fellow has two dozen hands.

Francis Brunn was everything his publicity claimed and more. Trying to describe Brunn's act is like trying to describe the flight of a swallow. He juggled three sticks very briefly for an opening with incredible speed. The last stick was thrown high, and not wanting to wait for it to descend, he leaped and snatched it from the air. He followed with inflated ball bouncing on his head. But they were not the calculated, rhythmic bounces of the less imaginative juggler. He exerted so much control, that he could bounce the ball erratically, at an angle, and sometime leapt to strike it with his head at the most unexpected offbeat moment.

From the nape of his neck the ball was made to roll down his back. Then he quickly turned around to strike it with his knee, and bounce it down to be caught on his toe. He performed fast toe to toe catches, not kicking, as in soccer, but real catches in the true Japanese tradition. Not for an instant did his image digress from the leaping, dancing gymnast. He interrupted tricks with an occasional somersault, only to return to balls that danced and sticks that twirled.

He had xcellent hand balance with a ball clipped between his feet. Now he bends his knees so as to bring the ball down to mouth-held stick, where it balances. Then he resumes his upright position. (This trick is a variation of the wine-pouring trick which Salerno had performed some 45 years earlier. Substitute the ball for the bottle and the mouth stick for the glass, and notice the similarity).

One incredible move was to make the ball travel from his toe to the highest part of the body. He did it by raising his leg and making the necessary motions with his torso. This move is one of the most amazing things I've seen, the ball apparently moving up against the forces of gravity. He finished his act with hoop tossing while at the same time balancing sticks and balls on his forehead, and spinning a hoop on his leg.

Brunn, later in his career, adopted the style of a Spanish dancer. An act which was already sensational, with the added fire and flavor of the Iberian-Moorish people, became almost electrifying!

Rudy Cardenas - One day in the mid-1940s, I received a phone call from Lou Folds. "Frank," he said, "come over to the gym. That young Mexican juggler who is about to play the Paramount Theater is here with me. He doesn't speak much English, and he would like to meet you." The gymnasium was part of the Rockefeller Center complex located on one of the upper floors of the building directly across from 48 West 48th Street. Rudy's agent had offices at that address and from a window Rudy had seen clubs flying in the gym across the street. Rudy walked over to investigate and found Lou at the bottom of the mysterious flying clubs. I met Rudy at Lou's gym; and after exchanging a few greetings in Spanish, we got down to the business of practicing.

Rudy did very good stick-and-ball work and a sensational three hat routine. But he wore shoes with heavy heels, and his sticks looked like undernourished curtain rods. I suggested that for the type of work he was doing he'd be better off wearing acrobatic pumps instead of shoes, and I offered to take him to my woodturner where he could get good sticks made. These were turned after the same design as mine and Rudy loved them. It soon became clear, however, that I could help Rudy in a material way only - he was very advanced.

At that time he had seen few jugglers, his inspiration deriving mostly from the two Latin-American jugglers he had seen - Meneses and Tatali. But he came from a fine old circus family and was very well trained. A hard worker, Rudy was gifted with the speed of a cheetah. Moreover, he had an ingratiating mannerism that was a cross between boy wonder and bullfighter. Thus it came as no surprise that Rudy Cardenas became one of the most successful jugglers in the business. His hat routine, which he did as a finish for his act, is worth studying.

Three top hats were juggled in a cascade with single turns. Suddenly one hat was thrown high to be caught on the head. But instead of being caught squarely on the head with a single thud, it was allowed to bounce back and forth, tapping the back and front of the head before settling. Thus the single thud was embellished by the following rhythm:

tap-tap thud

The musical accompaniment was continuous but it observed, at the proper moment, this rhythmic peculiarity which was carefully rehearsed and synchronized with the trick. The catchy little rhythm recurred several times at the precise hat-on-the-head moment, which was every second measure. When the final cadence note was reached, the hat fell upon the head with a single consummating thud. The effect was visually and musically enchanting. The little tune used was the popular song from the 1920s, "Titina."

After the rhythmic effect, the routine ended by gradually increasing the speed with which the hats were juggled, caught, and removed from the head. The speed soon reached dynamic show-stopping proportions as Rudy furiously caught with his head and snatched hats at a dramatic pace. Either Meneses or Tatali - I don't remember which - is said to have done this routine before Rudy. But it was probably old then. Several jugglers have done similar routines with hats, and Paul LaCroix had done the "dancing hats" early in the century. The silk opera hat was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century.

Felovis - Although Felovis was a stick-and-ball juggler, he opened his act with three clubs. Before doing his mouth stick routine, he ceremoniously announced that his stick was "absolutely round." This announcement was printed on a card which he displayed for his audience to read, a common practice carried over from the early days of vaudeville and what has come to be known as "flash cards" to our television generation.

Spinning a spiral-painted stick (barber's pole) on the tip of his mouth stick was one of Felovis' tricks. This he did with exaggerated dramatic gestures. Felovis had a sure command of all his tricks and finished his act by doing excellent back-crosses with three flaming torches while at the same time walking from one end of the stage to the other. This artist was always enthusiastically received and played the best theaters. His music was the familiar "The Jugglers in the Market Place" from Albert Ketelby's In a Persian Market.

Serge Flash
Serge Flash
Serge Flash
Serge Flash
Serge Flash - During the post-Rastelli era, the principal stick-and-ball artists playing in the US were Bob Ripa, Trixie, and Serge Flash. Of these three, Serge Flash was the supreme showman. He did everything with a flair - graceful to his finger tips. He embroidered the air with turning, floating, undulating little sticks. One didn't care how many. It's the way he did it. His tricks were very advanced. He could do complex combinations, like transferring balls from neck to toe and vice versa (two balls). But despite his skill, his showmanship always rose to the surface. It's strange, but if I had to name the most beautiful piece of juggling I've ever seen, I'd say it was Serge Flash juggling three sticks. But maybe I'm biased. The juggling idol of my youth was Serge Flash.

The article on Serge Flash which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post of October 7, 1931 contains some inconsistencies and misspells "Rastelli." Nonetheless, it is worth reading. Serge Flash, without question, should be rated in our little history as a true artist. Overcoming his modesty for a moment, Serge Flash once told me that of all the jugglers on Broadway he had been chosen to appear in the super Cantor/Jessel show at the Palace.

Lou Folds - I first met Lou Folds in 1943. I was playing the Touraine Hotel in Boston, and he was appearing in the musical Carousel in a theater around the corner. Lou Foldes (this was the original spelling) was born in a small town in Hungary where his father was mayor. He was brought to the United States as an infant and as a young man had two adventurous careers: first as a prizefighter, then as a dancer. His third love was juggling. He was a resourceful hardworking person who was forever at the gym - bouncing five balls on a drum, tossing clubs, or inventing new tricks. Lou was also a shrewd businessman, refusing to appear on TV at a time when that medium was still in its experimental stages. He insisted on making personal appearances and as a result of his determination he always worked on well-known Broadway shows or spectacular ice reviews. Ice skating was one of Lou's accomplishments and in his retirement years he still conducts his own ice-skating rink. Lou Folds is an inspiration to those who start juggling late in life.

Sergei Ignatov - is so exceptional that he is difficult to put in proper perspective. I first saw him when I took my children to the Felt Forum in New York in the early 1970s. As I watched in disbelief, I realized that he literally starts where others terminate. His opening trick was five clubs, which he did with astonishing facility while running about and jumping upon the platform that surrounds the arena. Juggling seven balls about the size of grapefruits was also one of Ignatov's accomplishments. And not being good at mathematics, I couldn't quite figure out how many hoops he juggled. Was it eleven at the last count?

Pictures of Ignatov give the impression of trick photography, with an endless string of hoops flying high above his head. But the trick is Ignatov's, not the photographer's. The genius of Ignatov appeals to the modern juggler, who is determined to surpass Rastelli, at least in numbers. Sergei Ignatov is the supreme master at this.

Stan Kavanaugh - was the master of comedy juggling. Portraying neither gentleman nor tramp, he looked like a leftover comic from a Mack Sennett movie. He moved with an easy, humorous grace, and his captivating smile was adorned with a little mustache. Kavanaugh could convulse an audience with just two routines - three balls, and three clubs. His last-split-second catches were superb. A ball would shoot out unexpectedly but his hand always reached out in time to catch it. He would stop in the middle of a routine, nonchalantly look at his watch, and deciding that he still had time, continue to juggle in a most indifferent way.

Kavanaugh's successful career spanned several decades. He was equally successful in vaudeville, musical comedy, and motion pictures . A rumor once circulated along Broadway that Kavanaugh was to appear in a motion picture. When the rushes were edited, the producers decided that the picture was too long and Kavanaugh's efforts ended on the cutting room floor. No real problem for Kavanaugh, who had been extremely well paid.

Bobby May
Bobby May. After a photo by L. S. Willis.
Bobby May - did not have a pretentious theatrical manner. He often made his entrance wearing a beret and playing a harmonica. Resembling the boy next door and radiating a hint of mischief, he was casual and lovable. But when he began to juggle - the roof came down! It was clear that his audience took his personality lightly, but his juggling seriously. Bobby May exerted so much control over lacrosse balls and clubs that it would take the average juggler two lifetimes to come close to his achievements. His three club routine included the more difficult moves, which be did with great vitality. He also did ball bouncing as he stood on his head. His closing routine easily compares with the best of Rapoli and Kara. Wearing a hat, Bobby juggled five balls in a variety of patterns, the shower being the last. Now the balls were allowed to systematically drop on the floor one after the other. As each ball bounced, it was scooped up with the hat, except the last, which was allowed to bounce on the forehead once, caught at the back of neck, and rolled down the back into the waiting hat which he held between his legs. From this position, he did a forward acrobatic roll, up on his feet, and triumphantly walked off stage.

Bobby May died on November 7, 1981. During his memorable career he was highly respected by agents and fellow performers alike, and was one of the giants of his day. He was often the headliner in a show, a privilege rarely enjoyed by jugglers.

Bob Ripa
Bob Ripa. After a photo he autographed to the author, October 1935. Photo by Robertson, Berlin.
Bob Ripa - When Bob Ripa played New York's Palace, he was billed as "Scandinavia's Juggling Genius" or "The Boy with the Balancing Complex." Bob Ripa was a superb stick-and-ball technician who had no time for the pretty embellishments of Serge Flash. Rather than rely on showmanship, Ripa attacked his routine with mechanical directness. This resulted in one of the fastest and cleanest acts I've seen. Tall, blond and dressed in white slacks, the Danish-born Ripa was immaculate in his appearance and his work.

Ripa had full control over three, four, and five sticks, and his handling of the inflated ball was beyond reproach. He balanced a ball on the crown of his head with such control that he could run all over the stage without losing the balance for an instant. And he could apparently bounce two balls on his head interminably. He did a balance involving six sticks and seven balls, decorating himself like a Christmas tree (a type of balance that was popular with Rastelli). Ripa could "whip" the mouth stick around the ball with great speed - in a backbend position! His lack of showmanship was in no way a disappointment. He more than made up for it in skill. Bob Ripa died in a plane crash while entertaining our troops during World War II.

Broadway will never be the same - without the Roxy Theater, and Trixie.
Trixie - When Trixie was twelve years old, the French magazine L'Illustration was already running articles on this sensational girl juggler. Trained by her father, Friskie, this petite German girl astonished jugglers of the 1940s by bouncing a ball on her head and juggling six plates at the same time. And all this while facing a blinding spotlight on the stage of New York's Roxy Theater. You didn't believe it if you didn't see it. She could also juggle five large balls, and the control she had over two balls bouncing on her head was as good as the best of them. Trixie was extremely successful in vaudeville, and once appeared in a movie with Fred Astaire .

Massimiliano Truzzi
The dynamic Massimiliano Truzzi.
Massimiliano Truzzi - Truzzi's appearance in New York with the Ringling Bros. Circus preceded that of Francis Brunn. A tall man with an impressive personality, Truzzi superbly filled the circus ring with overdramatic gestures and opulent looking props. Truzzi was a stick-and-ball juggler but seemed to have excelled best with tossing tricks. Intricate ball work was kept at a minimum. His mouth stick was shaped like a knife and he preferred to juggle huge sticks. Like Trixie, he could juggle six plates with a ball bouncing on his head.

Truzzi's ability to fill a large circus ring with opulence and grandeur was his best recommendation. The Great Massimiliano Truzzi (1903 - 1974) could do this better than anyone else.

Señor Wences - Because of his fame as a ventriloquist, few are familiar with the juggling talents of Señor Wences. Born Wences Moreno in Salamanca, Spain, this suave, sophisticated man came to the U. S. in the early 30s. In Spain he had been a bullfighter, and bears many scars to prove it. After a "showing date" at Loew's Coney Island Theater, his success was assured.

Unfortunately, his voice-throwing conversation with the head in the box, "Is all right?" "Is all right!" created such a furor that everyone - himself included - forgot all about his juggling. I had the good fortune of practicing with Wences many years ago. His style was unmistakably European, and he's the only juggler I've seen who could do the cigar box routine with balls. Delicately holding the two outside balls with his long fingers, the middle ball sandwiched in between, he went through all the cigar-box moves - transfering, shifting, crossing hands, and sometimes creating the illusion that the middle ball was stuck to one ball, as he pulled away the other. Wences also did some interesting tray-spinning, which he later combined with ventriloquism. The gain to the art of ventriloquism was a loss to the art of juggling.
Señor Wences
Señor Wences Moreno. The text in the balloon is the translation of Wences' handwritten words in Spanish as they appear in the photo he dedicated to the author in 1935. After an original photograph by Maurice Seymour, Chicago.

The Moderns - There are a number of fine young artists today. They generally follow the "numbers" trend, although some also possess great artistry and entertaining ability. No names at this time. Future historians will have to make choices and pass judgment .

Once when great Caesar went to war,
He won without a struggle;
He came, he saw, he conquered,
But he never learnt to juggle.

......Author unknown

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Text and illustrations © 1984 Francisco Alvarez
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