Dick Franco's Improbable Juggling Success

Juggler's World, Summer 1988

Starting with none of the traditional advantages, he capitalized instead on determination and business skill to climb to the top of the entertainment mountain.

Using common sense, business sense and juggling skill, Dick Franco has become one of the most successful solo jugglers in the world. And unlike many others, Franco had no logical springboard to the art. His family practiced business in Youngstown, Ohio, not circus. Franco didn't even learn to juggle until 1970 at age 20.

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.


When you joined the IJA in 1974 was it a help to your career?


It was a help juggling-wise, of course, but that doesn't make you a better entertainer. I really learned my trade in Europe. The IJA was very small time back then. The only real working pro who came to conventions was Jerry Greenberg, and he wasn't working full time. Now at conventions you can meet lots of people who make their living off juggling and get some real insight into the market through them. My insight came through Bobby May and Picasso, and they weren't at the conventions.


What was Bobby May like and how did he influence your early career?


After I made contact with Bobby in 1971, I started visiting almost every weekend. He was a real jokester, you know. He once walked around a shopping mall in a green wig, and wore a picture of the pope on his face one time to greet a pastor at the door who accompanied me on a visit. He gave me a lot of good ideas. He told me one good gag was to cover your props with a blanket coated in baby powder, then tell the audience you hadn't done the trick in a while and shake the dust out. Things like that.

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.


What did your family think of you giving up a good job to pursue a juggling career?


My father, my wife Carlene and all my friends thought I was crazy. My daughter, Noelle, didn't mind because our first job was with a circus and she got to play with the animals all day long. The hardest part for me, though, was selling my two Corvettes and replacing them with a pickup truck! But I was committed to it.

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.


And you made many friends along the way...


I couldn't have done it without them. One of the first was El Gran Picasso, who I met in November 1974 as he was winding up his four-year appearance with Ringling Brothers. He was nice enough to practice with me and gave me two key tricks that are still in my routine -- spitting ping-pong balls and four ball shoulder throws while turning in a circle.

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.


Why are you now trying to put more comedy into your act?


So I can last! I'm preparing for the future. You're a fool if you think you can keep up your technical skill for a lifetime. I don't want people later down the line to think they're getting less Dick Franco. Before it was a race against gravity. Now it's a race against time.

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.


You're saying the European market and American market are different?


Definitely, and in several ways. Besides prefering the technical act, the European entertainment directors really know juggling. You'll walk into their offices and see pictures of all the great jugglers plastered on the wall. They hire you because they want you, and are usually willing to pay whatever it takes to get you.

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.


Were you nervous at 1979 Circus World Championships in England against Schweitzer and Kremo. What was it about your act that judges saw and liked so you could win it?


I decided to do the performance because I felt it could only help my reputation to be on the same stage as Kris Kremo and Rudy Schweitzer. I wouldn't have even done it otherwise. On the night of event, we drew lots for our slots in the show. Kris ended up first, Rudy second, and me third. Kris did boxes, hat and balls, then Rudy used the same props.

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!


Describe for us the tricks you do in your act.


Well, I'll describe the technical part, but I'm not going to give away the comedy bits. They're too difficult to conceive and too easy to steal!

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.


What is your practice regimen?


I really don't practice at all. Technically I get better just by performing every day. I have better control of 7, 6 and 5 rings now than ever before. I do spend 20 minutes warming up before each show, and every once in a while I work a while afterward to keep my hands in shape. I work on eight and nine some just to make my seven easier.

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.


Is the increased number of jugglers and exposure of the public to juggling helping open markets for jugglers or just increasing competition for established professionals like yourself?


It has definitely opened up markets in advertising. But I think it's mostly incidental to the main point of those commercials. Instead of having someone jogging or break dancing, they're putting in jugglers. The problem is that there's no quality there. The people who see juggling in that forum don't know anything about good jugglers or the IJA, they just think it's a neat thing to do.

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.


There seems to be some rivalry and hostile feelings between professional stage jugglers today. Is that so?


I think it's just general show business. There's a lot of trials and tribulations involved with becoming a good entertainer. The jealousies arise when someone comes along and copies your stuff. It's not fair. The way to avoid problems is to get inspiration from others rather than verbatim routines.

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.


What advice do you have for young jugglers contemplating professional careers?


Study it and perfect your skills. If you're going to do it professionally, you ought to put together something of quality. Too many people get the impression that jugglers are bad because they see one locally who is. If you can't juggle well, don't juggle in front of people. That ought to be a law!

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