W.C. Fields,
The Crown Prince of Comedy...
A Juggler First!

By Rich Chamberlin, IJA Secretary/Treasurer
Kenmore, New York

Juggler's World, May 1983

Fields cartoon The juggle bug seems to have bitten William Claude Dukenfield at the age of 14, after he saw a performance of the juggling Burns Brothers. The bug must have bit hard, for it inspired this young man to become one of vaudeville's most successful entertainers, W.C. Fields, 'The Eccentric Tramp Juggler.'

W.C. Fields the juggler bears little resemblance to W.C. Fields of later movie and radio fame. The young, trim, and handsome juggler presented a silent act, hiding behind a bizarre tramp face. The W.C. Fields drawl and clever wit were confined to off-stage appearances, as he did not add any talking to his act until about 1915. This worked to his advantage while touring Europe, as he was not confronted with a language barrier. He also felt that he wanted the audience to concentrate on his juggling skills, and that talking would be distracting. Even though juggling was popular at the time, it had to be different to be memorable. Fields made his juggling memorable chiefly through the of comedy.

His show business career got a real start when he joined a tour with the Keith Vaudeville Circuit at age 19. Besides his juggling act, he had to shift scenery, play in a musical comedy and perform other odd jobs. Eighteen months on this circuit led Fields to New York City, where he received great reviews and a job with the Orpheum Circuit (which lasted four years) at $125 per week.

About this time he married Harriet Hughes (and began a wrangle which continued until his death), who joined his act as assistant and straight woman. The act consisted of about 20 minutes of comedy juggling.

Fields entered a stage almost barren of props. He wore old, torn, loose clothing (saving wardrobe expenses) with his face made up to look unshaven. His few props were tennis balls (he could juggle six), a balancing stick, a top hat, and cigar boxes (available for free).

He developed a genius for the conscious error, the retrieved blunder. A review of his act in the San Francisco Examiner summed it up with, "It is impossible to tell whether Fields makes real or fake mistakes in his juggling. He will drop a hat apparently by accident in the middle of some difficult feat and then catch it by another apparently accidental movement. It is all so smooth and effortless."

A good example of this was in his cigar box routine. Standing among a pile of boxes scattered on the stage, Fields would go through a three box routine. While bending very low, he would accidentally drop one of the boxes from his hands, but without missing a beat, he would replace it with one from the floor. Only the careful observer would ever catch this "miss."

Fields claims to have practiced for two years to perfect the trick of kicking a top hat up to a stick balanced on his forehead. Another difficult trick consisted of balancing a top hat, cigar, and whisk broom on his foot, then kicking them up so that the cigar goes to his mouth, the hat to his head, and the broom to his back pocket.

1904 saw the birth of a son, W.C. Fields, Jr. This marked the end of Harriet's stage career and the beginning of the end of her marriage to Fields. Although they remained married for life, Fields separated from her when their son was very young. He continued to financially support them both until his death. W.C. Fields, Jr., later took up music, organized his own band at Columbia University, and became a lawyer.

Back on his own again, Fields returned to Europe with his brother (his new assistant) for a second tour. The next ten years involved two world tours, many trips to Europe, and tours of all the best vaudeville houses in the United States. For two years (1904-06), Fields played in the musical Ham Tree, as an amusing detective who juggled anything in sight. The play consisted of vaudeville acts tied together by a thin plot. In no time at all, Fields ended up running the show.

Fields was fast developing a reputation among managers and agents: "No matter how smart you may be about money, Fields can outsmart you." Fields felt it was vital to impress two things on the management; that he was an outstanding juggler, and that he should get more money.

As his reputation with agents grew, his salary climbed from $375 per week in 1906 to $800 per week in 1915.

Fields seems to be remembered by most vaudeville old-timers as a solitary man. Though few performers got to know him well, he enjoyed the company of a few people. He shared bills with other jugglers on tour at the time, including Valazzi, Frank Le Dent, Silvo and Selma Braatz.

He was now becoming known for his comedy as much as his juggling. In 1913 he was honored with a command performance for the King and Queen of England, the only American performer thus honored.

Other types of comedy juggling entered his act over the years. The most popular was his pool act, consisting of a gimmicked pool table beneath a mirror, so the audience could see the balls on the table. It was rigged with invisible strings, so that with one hit of his crooked cue, all of the balls would go into the pockets. Fields' first movie, Pool Sharks was little more than a silent one-reel film of this routine.

In 1915, Fields entered the vaudeville limelight. He signed with the Ziegfield Follies from 1915-1921, appearing with such stars as Fanny Brice, Will Rodgers, Eddie Cantor and Bert Williams. He presented his billiard, golf and tennis acts during the Follies run, as well as his special humor. By this point in his career he had discarded the tramp makeup and presented a great deal of humor. In the 1921 Follies show, he did no juggling at all.

Though he was earning $1,000 per week, Fields never saw eye-to-eye with Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld believed that comedians were only necessary to fill time on stage while his beautiful girls changed costumes. Fields looked upon the girls as a harmless backdrop for comedians.

Fields had much talent as an artist as well, though it was little known. He designed and drew many cartoons for newspaper interviews and poster advertising, and kept up the hobby for many years.

Following the 1923 Follies, Fields received star billing in the stage play, Poppy. Although he did juggle in the play, he was appreciated as a comedian first and foremost. Poppy ran for a year, and ended his role as a co-comedian. He was now a star. A review of Poppy stated, "Not only does he handle lines as deftly as cigar boxes, but he creates an authentic and appealing character."

After playing in Poppy, Fields seldom strayed far from this character in most of his future movies. A year later he made the movie version of Poppy, titled, Sally of the Sawdust.

The next few years consisted of making a group of movies in New York. He always clamored for straight comedy parts, then insisted on juggling when he landed them. In 1926 he passed a milestone, making his first movie which included no juggling. In 1931 he left New York and the stage for good, moving to Hollywood and becoming the W.C. Fields who is remembered so well today.

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