Black and White Budget, London, March 16th, 1901

Fields and assistant I thought I knew him directly I saw him. This, said I, was his second visit to the Palace Theatre. Apparently he had made some alterations to his "act", for certain features were new to me. But I felt confident about the personality - it did not seem possible to make any mistake about the figure - Such a figure! Clothes - old, torn, loose and unclean; boots - big and bulging; hat - an artistic wreck. And the face! Hirsute and blotchy, with a ludicrous expression of countenance that was most diverting. Yes, I thought that must be my shabby old friend back again. And with this conviction firmly established in my mind I sat through and enjoyed the performance, none the less because my thoughts were reminiscent.

Subsequently came the awakening! Later in the evening, stumbling across a friend of mine, I remarked about this turn, calling his attention to the fact that it was rather different in detail to that presented on a previous occasion. "That cannot be," said he, "for this is the first time it has been seen in this country, and has been at the Palace only a week." I am neither a pugnacious nor a self-assertive man, but I felt monstrously inclined to take up an attitude of firmness in this matter. I suspected that he was deliberately attempting to deceive me. Yet was he not, for correct he was. It was an entirely new turn, but so like a previous one in many respects that I excused myself for mistaking them. It was yet another of the apparently extensively patronised type of tramp which appears to be indigenous to American vaudeville entertainments. It is always the same: hairy and florid face, seedy attire, grotesque movements. Sometimes it is a juggler, at others a cyclist, anon a musician. Take Richie, Harrigan and Fields - the last-named the subject of this article - place them in a row, and lo! "Tom, Dick and Harry!" As like as three peas.

In the "business" of the latest of these bedraggled gentlemen there is much that is new, and the act, taken as a whole, is worthy of some sort of distinction in dress. I do not think it is advantageous for an artist to be closely associated in "get-up" with another, however prominent either or both may be.

Mr. Fields, who is assisted in a measure by a young and attractive lady, does not crowd the stage with apparatus. In fact, there is little to be seen when the curtain goes up. Just a small table on which there are a few cigar-boxes. The latter, however, supply an opportunity for some really remarkable tricks in dexterity which set at naught all the laws of gravitation. Mr. Fields takes six or eight of the boxes and holds them together horizontally between his hands; he then proceeds to detach them one at a time by hitting them sharply on the top, retaining the horizontal position till they have all been dislodged. He does it with such speed and precision that it appears as easy as amorously saluting your hand. He can also as readily readjust them, and with such neatness that the boxes would appear to be coated with an adhesive substance. That, however, I assure you, is not the case, for the only "deception" which Mr. Fields brings to bear upon his tricks is the incessant practice, which, as we all know through the medium of proverbial philosophy, makes perfect in almost anything.

Fake cigar-box trickOne of the tricks which Mr. Fields performs is not clever, but is certainly very funny. And thereby hangs a tale. The description first, then the tale. The juggler produces from his table a few cigar boxes, reposing one on top of the other in the orthodox manner. He makes a great show of preparing for a coup, something to startle you; and does, in fact, perform what you believe to be a really remarkable feat of manipulation. Anyway, you applaud vigorously, and are sorry for it afterwards. I freely admit I did applaud and was sorry; annoyed, almost savage. I was within an ace of blushing, a thing I have not known myself to do for many years.

Well, with a sudden twist of the wrist the boxes are shot into the air and come to rest end on end. Then, when the applause is at its loudest the juggler allows the boxes to fall over, but not to the ground. They are fastened together with a string!

At a theatre in Germany, on one occasion, Mr. Fields informed me, in a chat I subsequently had with him, that this innocent deception created quite an amusing "situation." It was taken in earnest by some distinguished friends in front, who made themselves quite prominent by the generous measure and quality of their applause. When the "fake" was revealed and the laugh came, the embarrassment of the appreciative folk was so great that they beat a hasty retreat.

Ball jugglingUntil I saw Mr. Fields I did not know that tennis balls could be made to perform such remarkable and such a variety of evolutions. He gets them into the most extraordinary positions, employing both hands and feet in their manipulation. They fly about all over his body, resting now and again in the most inconceivable places, with a maximum of movement to a minimum of effort. He will bring them to the closest possible quarters, still revolving - the balls, not the juggler - and expand again into a long-distance aim with perfect ease and smoothness. I do not know if there is any professional jealousy between Mr. Fields and Mr. Renshaw.

Hat tricksAnother very good trick is with two tall hats, a black and a white, both more or less dilapidated. One the juggler places on his head and the other on his outstretched foot. Simultaneously he jerks the latter up onto his head, and drops the former on to his foot. Like all good tricks, it looks very simple, and isn't. Then he turns his attention to a hat, a cigar and a whisk brush. For this he utilises a large pocket at the back of his trousers, just below the waist. He tosses the articles about in a similar manner to the tennis balls, and finally gets the hat on to his head, the cigar into his mouth, and the brush into his back pocket.

Mr. Fields is unconventional in many things, not the least striking of these being the way he ignites a match on the side of his face.

Return to W.C. Fields home page