From Boy Juggler to Star Comedian

One Fun-Maker's Income, Beginning with Five Dollars a Week,
Now Exceeds Five Thousand for the Same Period

By W. C. Fields

Theatre Magazine, October 1928

Reckoned in monetary terms, I was not a howling success at the beginning of my career. Obsessed with the idea of juggling every conceivable object as a lad, very early I became proficient at this art. In fact, I felt sure I was as good as any of the jugglers I saw in shows around Philadelphia, where I spent my childhood.

So, armed with a lot of nerve, equipped with a lot of juggling practice, I sauntered forth in the world at the age of eleven years to dazzle the amusement seeking public with feats of juggling. I got a engagement at a summer park, through a booking-agent. I'll never forget the name. It was Flynn & Grant's Park, at Norristown, and it was a twenty-five-cent trolley ride from Philadelphia. I was to receive five dollars a week.

I got five dollars, but I had to pay a dollar and a half commission to the booking-office, and it cost me over four dollars to ride back and forth to the park. I was rooming in a club over a blacksmith shop and foolishly came into Philadelphia every night to sleep in my old haunt. As a kid I could not reason out that I might have found some place to sleep in the Park. I just got used to sleeping in the shop, and naturally thought I must come back to my room.

I heard there was a demand for talent in Atlantic City, and I went down to that summer resort. I was engaged at the Fortesque Pavilion. Frank Tinney was playing a cornet in the place. They had a stage - the old-timers will recall it. You could get a big glass of beer for a nickel, and sit and watch the show while you quaffed your beer. Of course, a few people ordered more expensive drinks, but there were times when it was difficult to keep the pavilion filled. The things we did there were quite laughable as I look back on them.

A favorite way to fill up the place was to work a fake rescue. One of the performers would go out into the surf, pretend to be caught in an undertow and shout for help. We would all be ready, rush in the water and drag the rescued person into the pavilion. Naturally the crowd followed, and if it was a woman we rescued the crowd was particularly large. Once inside the bought drinks and we were supposed to be entertaining enough to keep them there. It was a great racket and we got plenty of fun out of it. I received ten dollars and cakes. "Cakes" was an expression of the olden days for eats. We had the privilege of ordering what we wanted to eat several times a day. So that was a little better.

The first time I got away from juggling was in a burlesque show. It was a one-night-stand affair, owned by a man named Jim Fulton. All that bothered Jim was that every time he interested an "angel" in the show to pay the bills, the angel got stuck on his wife. He said it seemed odd that with twenty other girls in the show every backer that came along couldn't find somebody else but Mrs. Fulton to be smitten with. I juggled, played a dozen bits, and got a chance to develop a line of humor. Here was another step upward. I got twenty-five dollars a week, but it was rather precarious, and some weeks we did not get salaries.

[Fields' description of a series of jobs at ever increasing salaries omitted]
Of course, I could not escape the motion pictures, and here again was a multiplication of salary. I can not and do not expect the legitimate producers to compete in salary with the pictures. But I must say that when I started out in Flynn & Grant's park at five dollars a week that even my boyish imagination never conceived a salary of more than five thousand dollars a week, for any time in my life. Earl Carroll has seen fit to outbid several other producers to that figure for my newly "discovered" voice, so here I am among the Vanities beauties, my income multiplied exactly one thousand and forty times since I juggled Indian clubs and rubber balls in the open air for five berries a week, three shows a day, seven days to the week.

I like to look back over the good old days. They were all happy because they were full of promise. But you cannot blame me if I do not sigh for their return.

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