Francis Brunn is a classic artist in the truest sense. He lives for his art and flourishes by it. He is a man of great pride and many accomplishments, yet still retains an ingratiating humility.
Still hungry in the pursuit of perfection and constantly exuding youthful enthusiasm for his craft of over 30 years, Francis Brunn stands as an inspiration for all jugglers. His seven-minute act represents years of ardent practice and is presented in a royally dynamic and graceful way.
I was fortunate enough to see Francis Brunn perform a number of times during his eight-week engagement at theChateau Madrid in New York where he most graciously agreed to the following interview.
Brunn: My father was in a French prison camp in World War I. From behind barbed wire he saw a circus juggler warming up, and out of boredom he took three stones and tried it. Later, he showed me how using oranges. He was a champion diver and also gave me instruction in diving, acrobatics and gymnastics.
Geno: How old were you then?
Brunn: I was very young. I went to Performing Arts School in Berlin to learn more acrobatics and do some wrestling. A friend of mine took me to watch a juggler practicing, and I remembered then that my dad had shown me juggling before. That was when I really got started. The first juggler I ever saw was Angelo Picinelli - a great Italian juggler in his time. I was fascinated by him and then read about Enrico Rastelli. I also learned about balancing the ball from playing soccer when I was in school in Germany.
Geno: Were you totally sell-inspired once you got interested in juggling?
Brunn: Actually, I had no official teacher, and was largely self-taught. I used to spend hours at it. I was very inspired watching movies of Rastelli and reading the book on him called "The Miracle of the Dancing Balls" by A. H. Kober. Years later I tried to find my own style and tricks. My father helped me in the beginning, too. He influenced me, but never pushed me. Nobody had to because I loved it. I still love it today because there are so many things to learn. Juggling is limitless. My imagination is the only limit, and it is still lively!
Geno: When did you first start supporting yourself by juggling? Did you do other things first?
Brunn: My father owned a couple of restaurants at that time and I really didn't juggle to support myself because there was no need to. I learned juggling because I thought it was fascinating.
Geno: You do one trick that constantly amazes me. You balance one ball on the back of your heel while you are spinning a ball on your finger behind your back. Then you kick up the ball from your foot to spin it on top of the one on your finger. Is that a trick you invented?
Brunn: I was the first to do all these things with turning and spinning the ball through the arms left and right - at least I had never seen anyone do them. Most of the tricks I do are my own inventions. Naturally, in my time I did many different types of juggling. At one time I did Indian clubs. I also did more hoops than I do now, and worked with smaller balls. I worked together with my sister, Lottie, who assisted me in the act. I have gone away from this kind of work because I felt very limited. By limited I mean you cannot really use much imagination. The possibilities are fewer. Sure, you can throw hoops, you can do eight or nine of them, but the variations are less. So I found that with fewer objects there are more possible variations.
For myself, I find that I am fascinated by controlling one ball. It sounds like nothing, but it is quite difficult to do properly. The body has to be right, the feeling has to be right, there are many things involved. It took me a long time to arrive at this, so it is difficult to explain. It's just a certain feeling I have.
Being a gymnast, I am able to control my body and find different ways to use acrobatics with one ball. Those incredible certain stops in the act, which happen out of nowhere - like sitting on a ball - I had never seen anyone do that before. The routine I do with the tennis ball - I have never seen anyone do this kind of thing either. I spent so many hours in front of a mirror in the studio by myself. Juggling started for me as a hobby, but I started working on these things and became like a fanatic. Today when I am rehearsing it is still the same. I still feel limitless - that there is no end to it. There are so many ways of doing things, doing them in a certain rhythm and changing the rhythm - different moments to wait and different moments to push. You cannot learn this by just going into a hole - you must gain experience in front of audiences.
Geno: Are you superstitious before a performance? Do you do certain things in a certain order?
Brunn: I have to. But since I spent a couple of years in the hospital I am much more quiet and also more cool.
Geno: You mean you had a temper?
Brunn: No. Cool where my work is concerned. I don't get as nervous before the show.
Geno: If you were advising someone what exercise is important to becoming a good juggler, would you suggest a specific formula for working and warming up? Do you think dance is important for movement?
Brunn: It depends on the kind of work you do. Dance is always helpful because if you move well it is easy to get around the stage. But there are also comedy jugglers who might want to look very clumsy in order to be funny. It depends on the background you have, when in life you start, who you are, who your teachers are and if you learn it by yourself.
Geno: I notice that when you rehearse you do each part of your act for a certain amount of time rather than just randomly practicing. Is that how you practice?
Brunn: I do have a particular way of warming up. But what works for me doesn't work for everybody else. I work like this: I practice the act methodically, but for the half-hour before the performance I do absolutely nothing - just put on my make-up and stretch. I do very little juggling before going on stage so I am almost fresh when I get out there. I know many people who almost juggle themselves onto the stage, though. My sister, Lottie, practices until the last moment. Everybody has a different way of warming up. I think it is just what you get used to.
Geno: A few years ago you had an operation and were not able to work. What happened?
Brunn: My problem started in 1970 when I had an accident on stage. The stage manager forgot to lower the stage at the Lido in Paris. I suffered a hip injury and was out of the show for 10 days. That was the beginning. I worked with pain for six years, then stopped working to have an operation. I didn't know for 18 months if the operation would be successful and neither did the doctor. I wasn't able to put my leg down, so I rehearsed sitting in chairs. The only thing I could keep in condition were my neck muscles which I use a lot.
Geno: What was the first show like when you returned?
Brunn: I was not ready. I should not have done it really, but it was a terrific thrill. I was very happy to work again, but something was wrong. I had to have another operation. They had installed metal inside my hip, and it created friction. I went back to France to have the metal removed and had to stop working again for a couple of months. Then I had two wrist operations for pinched nerves from walking on crutches. Let me tell you something. After having these operations I'm happy just to be walking!
Geno: Have you always used the flamenco style music in your act?
Brunn: No. When I first came to America I used Chopin. Everything was very, very fast with tricks and tumbling. I wanted to change it into a different form of presentation... and am still working on it. My act is always changing, never stagnant.
Geno: How about your props? For someone who works so intensely for so many years, your props must be tremendously important.
Brunn: There is a man in Pennsylvania who makes these balls for me. I did the Johnny Carson show quite a while ago and mentioned to Johnny that it was very hard to get good rubber balance balls. A man in Pennsylvania, George Bowman, phoned the NBC studio to say he could make some. I went to Lebanon, Pennsylvania to have him make a mold for me. It is very strange... He has made them for me for 15 or 20 years now, but recently they came out a little bit different. I talked with Mr. Bowman and told him the balls were different. He said they were the same, but called me back in a week and said I was right, a new man was cutting the rubber just a little bit different. Bowman was amazed that I noticed such a small difference.
Geno: How about your headpiece and mouthpiece?
Brunn: My father made the first type for me. But I have a cousin who works for Mercedes Benz in Germany who makes the ball bearings for the steering wheels. He made me some very good sticks. My hoops are Plexiglas, which I have used since Plexiglas first came into existence. I used to do eight, nine and ten hoops but stopped because the weight made my arms tire too quickly.
Geno: You must be very attached to those props.
Brunn: I never leave them alone, especially when traveling. The first bad experience I ever had was when I flew from Germany to Spain. It was the first time I ever flew and I didn't let the air out of the balls. When I arrived all the balls had blown up and broken just like eggs. So I learned my lesson!
Geno: Do you fully inflate the rubber balls you use in the act?
Brunn: Some of them are very hard. Some are very soft. When I come to the end of my act I am perspiring a lot. My hands get slippery, so I use softer balls then. Mostly I prefer a hard ball because it is easier to handle and control.
Geno: How about the foot balancing. You seem to balance objects on the outside of your foot.
Brunn: A little on the outside. That's how I learned it. I have a light shoe like a ballet shoe and find the best service there. Otherwise the big toe would be in the way.
Geno: I am curious about your family. Have you always traveled with them?
Brunn: My wife assists me with the act. My son Rafael is six. Sometimes I take him with me but my daughter, Christina, always goes.
Geno: You worked for Ringling Brothers. What was it like?
Brunn: It was a terrific experience. I was with Ringling Brothers from 1948 to 1950. It was different then than today. I was very young and came to America for the first time with Ringling. John Ringling North saw me in Paris and Barcelona and asked me to come here. I was doing very well there, but he brought me over as the star attraction of his circus. I worked in the center ring. My opening at Madison Square Garden was absolutely unique - the lights went out and the announcer said, "Now in the center ring for the first time on this continent! The greatest juggler of the ages - better than the great Rastelli and 10 times faster! Watch closely, you will never see his likes again! Francis Brunn!" They had put a stage in for me and I handed my sister, Lottie, a cape I was wearing. But they hadn't fitted the stage together and I stepped between two boards and twisted my foot. It swelled up like a balloon and I never did one trick! That was my opening in America. I was disgusted and wanted to go back to Europe. I didn't perform for months, but finally opened with Ringling in Boston.
Geno: Could you be more specific about how Ringling hired you?
Brunn: At that time, in 1946, Umberto Schichtolz was my agent and personal manager. He brought Ringling to see me at the Embassy Theatre in Paris. Backstage after the show Ringling asked me to come to America for 1947, but I couldn't get a visa. It was after the war and there were problems for German acts. I stayed another year and he came to see me in Spain. He was quite young then... The last time I raw him was in 1975 when he came to see me at the Lido, I think he thought of me as his protégé in a way. He is a good friend.
Geno: Do you ever put away a miss, or do you do it until you get it right?
Brunn: In rehearsal? It depends on how I feel. Let's say I am running through the act - after I had the operation. Just to get back in to condition I had to get my wind and stretch my arms. At times like that. I didn't mind missing. However, now when I do a trick, I do it right or repeat it. In the show I would say most people know what you want to do, so you must get it right. People are restless and nothing is a surprise anymore.
Geno: Have you always worn black on stage?
Brunn: Not always. With Ringling I wore blue and while and different colors. But now I like black because it goes with me. If you have good lighting, black is good. I like lots of light, but not on the face. Top and bottom, but not on the face, I also love high ceilings because the flight of the balls seems slower and looks better.
Geno: What do you think of juggling competitions?
Brunn: They are not for me. For myself, juggling is an art form. It is not a thing of doing tricks or juggling so many. There has to be more to it. It is a way of saying something and being involved in what you are doing.
Geno: What do you think of performing on television?
Brunn: There is too much television. It is very hard, if you travel to different countries and watch television you realize it is ridiculous. I have experienced that many untalented people become stars on television - it has probably been said before but there is still truth to it - if you are clever, television may kill you. If you have no talent, you can just stand there and talk. Look how long Ed Sullivan lasted.
Geno: Many people are fighting to get on television. Is it good for the career of a juggler who has an eight-minute act?
Brunn: It will kill you unless you have a story.
Geno: What is your opinion on the future of juggling? Can it ever achieve prominence to the extent that jugglers will be known by their names?
Brunn: The way things are going I think it is getting worse. There are not enough places to work. There are no places for an act to get ready because there are no more variety houses or cabarets. I hope that some day they will come back because I think there is room for them. People are getting tired of too much flash. Today you have to have an act that is ready. Most people don't know what is good and what is bad today because there is so much junk on television. This is my opinion. But people like Kris Kremo and Rudy Horn took a long time to make names for themselves, they have sustained themselves over so many years and played the best places in the world over and over again because they had something special.
Geno: Is it the same for you? You don't have to be modest.
Brunn: I'm just telling you what I think. I don't know. You interview me and I am very honored. I have no association with your organization whatsoever. I met some IJA jugglers who are very good, but all in all it seems amateur. Sorry, I don't like to say that, but what I do is on a different level. I am happy in a way because what you are doing may educate the audience to juggling so when they see something good perhaps they can appreciate it. You know, there used to be a time in Germany and England when audiences would know how many balls a man juggled because people were trained for variety. It doesn't exist today so much as before because things are changing. The one ring circus is still strong, though. For instance, in Switzerland, people make reservations for the Circus Knie like they do for operas in the United States. Knie knows where he will play exactly a year from now and all the seats are sold out in advance. There are very few small circuses in the United States, everything is mass production.
Geno: Have you ever had something silly happen, like a ball bouncing into someone's soup?
Brunn: One time a very strange thing did happen at the opening night when I worked at the Olympia in Paris. The place was packed. I had a little poodle, Margot, who is unbelievable. She had a hip operation like mine while I was in Spain after she fell in an elevator shaft at the Scala in Rome. She was a special dog, and would run and catch tennis balls in flip-flops when I practiced. Incredible! She caught these balls in any direction. Anyway, Margot was watching when I did tennis balls at the Olympia. She got loose from the dancer holding her, ran out in the middle of the stage, took the ball off my shoe and bang! boom! went back. The people screamed! I couldn't do anything after that, it was the high point of the show. People said, "Keep it in the show, it's terrific!" But I would never do that.
Geno: Are there things you haven't done that you are looking forward to? Are there places you haven't played? I know you have performed all over the world.
Brunn: Some day I would like to do my act with no one applauding until the end, like in the ballet. This is to me very interesting. It is also very difficult unless you do it in such a way that people are spellbound by what you are doing. In a nightclub, people are drinking and noisy. When I was with Danny Kaye in Australia, we had a terrific audience. I found myself wanting to change the music, props and act to just one piece and have the people be so fascinated that they wouldn't even applaud. That would be the ultimate!
Also, I would like to go to Russia. I was at the Lido in Paris and the Moscow Circus came to see me. Their impresario came back and asked me if I would like to perform in Russia, but because of the surgery it never materialized. I would like also to put together a package with some friends who I think are the best in each of their fields. Each act would be presented as part of a story. Perhaps we would begin in Germany, in my home town Aschaffenburg. If possible I would like to start there and then bring the show back to America. I think it would be different since it would have a story. You cannot present it like vaudeville, you know, just one act after another.
Geno: Do you have the desire to teach juggling? If so, would you prefer to have a number of students or just one disciple?
Brunn: Teaching is not for me. I think I would be the worst teacher!
Geno: Now that you are more acquainted with the International Jugglers Association, I hope you will keep in touch.
Brunn: I would love to come to one of your conventions, and will try to come to Cleveland if I am free this July.