But he seems to have sensed the calling from the moment he discovered it, and was able to seek out and befriend people who could help him further his career. The first was Bobby May, who lived in retirement not far away in Akron, Ohio. Franco sought him out and visited regularly. May encouraged Franco to follow his instincts, helped him put together an act, and taught him about the business of juggling.
Franco's early career as a trucking dispatcher gave him a good education in management and negotiation. He was able to follow the leads he got from May and others like Paul Bachman and El Gran Picasso to work his way into major contracts with groups like the Harlem Globetrotters and EMI, the European agency that managed the Beatles. In the last nine years since he left the Globetrotters, Franco has played cruise ships and hotel variety shows all over the world, won two "World Championship" titles competing against the likes of Rudy Schweitzer and Kris Kremo, and won a Silver Clown at the Monte Carlo Circus Festival.
His knowledge of juggling history runs as deep as his business acumen. His home in Venice, Fla., is a virtual juggling museum. A confirmed packrat, he still has the first taped plywood hoops and drilled-out wooden Indian clubs that he and his early partner, Joe Sullivan, used in 1970.
Eager to seek out responsibility and leadership, he volunteered to host the IJA's 1975 convention in Youngstown when he attended his first convention in 1974 in Sarasota, Fla. The 40 or so jugglers in Sarasota also elected him as their president. He used his studies in advertising to actively promote the 1975 convention, and turned it into a huge success. It attracted more than 300 jugglers, national media and marked the beginning of new era of large turnouts for the IJA.
Franco intends to build on his success thus far to make a long lifetime of juggling. He says that demands that his act change to suit the times, and in America that means comedy. During the last two years he has added chain saw juggling and a number of non-juggling sight gags to his repetoire of technical skills. Though he can do five ping-pong balls with no hands from his mouth, he gets more audience response with a silly trick using three. This year, he says, is his best year yet as far as good bookings and earnings.
His reflections on his career thus far and strong opinions on the business of juggling were taken for "Juggler's World" during his current engagement at Bally's Grand Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J.
But more than that he opened my eyes and told me there were still a lot of places a juggler could work. After I worked in the states for a couple of years, he started giving me an international strategy that has taken me all over the world since 1979.
It took me almost a week to learn the three ball cascade, but when I finally got it going it was like everything around me stopped. I thought, "Boy! There's really something to this!" I remember that very spot where I learned to this day. After that, I couldn't stop.
He told me I could make a lot of money doing the ping pong balls. He had developed it by spitting grapes while he was an orange picker back in Spain. It turned out that Bobby May had been Picasso's juggling inspiration and I was able to introduce them to each other. Picasso was appreciative and told me to call on him if I needed help. With Bobby May and Gran Picasso behind me, it was a pretty easy decision to keep following a professional career.
During the winter of 1975-76, Paul Bachman in Chicago got me on the Bozo show and let me watch all of his films, which were a tremendous source of ideas. He also helped me develop a rola-bola juggling routine in which I stacked platforms on the rola bola, stood on it and juggled five balls off Bobby May's drum head.
A year later, after I had a bad experience with the American Continental Circus and couldn't find work, Bachman helped me line up a bunch of shopping malls and odd jobs that kept me going until I got on with the Globetrotters in 1977. A three year contract at $1100 a week, nine months a year!
Between Globetrotter tours, I worked in Europe and met Gil Dova. He was a great help in making connections with the right people there. He told me all about the marketplace prices and gave me a sage bit of advice. He said, "Do me a favor and don't work cheap!" He helped me realize that working cheap would only bring the whole market down for everyone.
The Europeans came to know me during the four years I was there from 1980-84 as a "picture act," a straight juggling act that the audience looks at, but doesn't touch. That's what you do in Europe, and that's what the format of the Globetrotters show before that demanded.
Entertainment directors in the States want comedy. You break your neck with technical juggling and they say, "that's nice, but do you eat the apple?" So, to work here you have to adapt.
It's impossible to impress an American audience with technical juggling, but in Europe the more technique you demonstrate the more they like it. Here in the states you have to erase the barrier between the performer and the audience. The straight act is dead in America.
What that means now is that if I want to work in Europe again, I have to sell myself to those people all over again. They came to know me as a picture act and are very wary when they hear that Dick Franco is doing comedy now.
Europe is nice, but I'd rather live in America. So, I've got to make the transition to the type of juggling that sells here. I want to do comedy, but keep the quality in the act. If I keep all my technical juggling and add comedy, my 8-minute act is now 25 minutes. But that's OK. It's a challenge and will help prolong my career. I'm in it for the long run. I don't want to be 50 years old pretending I'm 30.
Other people are doing it. Dieter Tasso made a beautiful transition from a circus act to comedy. And look at Kris Kremo, he's doing a lot more comedy.
I came out with totally different props and finished with ping pong balls, which no one in England had ever seen. The luck of the draw, going last, and the reaction of the judges to the different props worked together to help me win.
None of us went there to win or lose. But I figured I couldn't lose by just being in the same forum as these other two great names. Competitively it was totally inconclusive, but it was a good paycheck and good way to sell myself. It couldn't have helped Kremo or Schweitzer at all, but I was new in Europe.
So I got to ride on Kremo's reputation for one day and ended up earning years of work out of it. After I won, people were asking, "Who is this guy who can beat Kremo?" It got everyone's attention and got me an invitation to the Monte Carlo Circus Festival.
Those two appearances opened the continent of Europe for me. I got TV offers and did three shows a day sometimes. I'd hire a taxi for the whole day to shuttle between performances. I had enough engagements to make $10,000 a week sometimes.
So it was luck, but you have to be prepared when these opportunities come up. Bobby May had told me that to succeed, first you have to be good, then you have to be lucky!
I do three and four balls, and sometimes five and seven. My ring routine includes five with a half-shower, a five-up pirouette, pancake tosses and color changes. Then I do seven rings down to three and back to seven, putting and taking them from under my arms and between my legs.
Then there's a picture trick with six hoops, a spinning ball on a mouthstick and hoop on my leg. I do eight rings several times around, starting with simultaneous tosses and breaking into alternate throws.
The first part of the act establishes me as a good juggler, then I stick in some goofy stuff -- a nine ball gag and four connected cigar boxes. The gags that have nothing to do with juggling usually get the biggest reaction.
After the rings, I do a three and four club routine I've been doing for years. People applaud twice during it, then strongly at the end. I end it with a kickup from four to five clubs with a couple of under the leg throws and a pass-and-a-half of behind the back triples.
Now I end the show with chain saws. They've been a good selling point in American theatres, but wouldn't sell at all in Europe. I begin with one, tossing it around my body. I cut a piece of wood to show everyone it's real, then put it up into a chin balance. I purposely let it slip off my chin and the audience gasps. Then I do the three.
I also had a pretty fair 10 ring juggle. It took a lot of work to get it to where it was and I'd like to maintain that.
I still enjoy working out, but you gotta start worrying about your elbows and aches and pains. After all, how many old Russian jugglers do you see? They work so hard they get hurt and can't perform after a few years. Where did Petrovski and Kiss go? On the other hand, Bela Kremo juggled the year he died because he took care of himself.
I'm working out a little now because I'm want to return to Europe soon and will go back to my classic routine. I'll drop the comedy, use my old props and do a technical act again. I want to show them I'm still the Dick Franco I was over there six years ago.
I reflect back on Art Jennings' article in the last issue, and agree that the more quantity you have, the lower the quality is. I think the American public is seeing less quality juggling now. And what's good for commercials is bad for nightclubs. There it creates more competition and brings the prices down. Suddenly you've got 100 jugglers to pick from and a lot of them are doing the same thing. The management naturally hires the least expensive performer.
You derive the inspiration from someone, but inject your own personality into it. Then if you're real lucky, you'll come up with something totally original.
There are honorable exceptions, of course. My three and four ball routines, virtually unchanged for years, were given to me intact by Picasso. He gave me those tricks because he didn't have room for them in his act. I watched tapes of Ignatov and May when I was learning, but I was always trying to find a different way of doing things. I got my inspiration for rings from Ignatov, but I think I took his idea and bettered it.
Barrett Felker and I had the same inspirations and originally juggled a lot alike. But over the years he did things his way and I did them my way to the point where we're not even close now.
But it irks you when you construct something over a period of years, then some guy in the audience decides it looks good and starts doing it too. Next thing you know you go in for an audition and a producer says "Oh yeah, what's-his-name showed me that trick," and it's become his trick. You've got to have respect for other people.