He would have been 75 on February 20, his next birthday. However, Bobby May died of heart failure on Saturday morning, November 7, at Euclid General Hospital in Euclid, OH. He suffered from bronchial asthma and a heart ailment for the past few years.
Bobby's real name was Ludwig Mayer, but in 1928 his agent, Edward S. Keller, gave him the stage name because it was memorable and easy to fit on a theater marquee. Neither of them could have realized at the time just how memorable the name would become.
Bobby earned the title of "The International Juggler" during a career that included performances in more than 35 countries during five decades. And in all those years, nobody ever had a bad word to say about Bobby May. He was one of a kind as a juggler and as a man. He was gentle. He was modest. And although he was world renowned, he always remained America's own juggling genius.
He originated several tricks. One involved standing on his head on top of a table and juggling five balls and then three balls off the surface of a drum while the orchestra played.
Another trick that invariably was covered on the front page of newspapers in many towns was called the cigarette trick. He held up an unlit cigarette for the audience to see, flipped it around his back and caught it in his mouth. Next, he produced a lighted kitchen match, flipped that around his back and caught it in his mouth next to the cigarette. Finally, he lit the cigarette without using his hands!
About his own juggling ability, Bobby said, "Natural talent constitutes fifty percent of my success - hard work and constant practice constitute the other half." From the time he started at age 12, he estimated it took seven years to become a competent juggler. Through the rest of his performing career he practiced two hours daily. At one time, Bobby juggled eight balls in his act, but he quit doing it because it didn't have the showmanship of simpler tricks. And Bobby was the consummate showman.
He advertised as "Bobby May... the juggler - you know." He had a unique style on and off stage. From the stage, it showed in his walk-around after a difficult trick, milking the audience for applause with a simple glance. Off stage, it showed in his sparkling eyes and boyish enthusiasm when he talked about juggling. Bobby left us with memories. Great memories.
While performing at the Oriental theater in Chicago with the Ted Weems orchestra, a reviewer wrote, "Bobby May's juggling act winds up the show and deserves high praise. His comic gestures help give the act keen polish."
At Loew's State in New York, another reviewer said, "Bobby May comes on for a breezy, socko eight minutes during which he juggles balls, hats, cigars, with his entire body and even upside down. Sure-fire novelty turn, as ever."
Here are some highlights of Bobby's career:
1920-21 Bobby saw his first juggler, Phil LaToska in a tramp juggling act at the Grand Theater in Cleveland.
1922 Bobby's first professional engagement came at Luna Park in Cleveland. Bob Hope was on the same bill in a tap dancing act.
1924 That fall, Bobby joined the Englishman, Les Hall, in New York. Together they did an act in a restaurant setting, using bottles, plates, and balls painted to look like oranges.
1925-28 Bobby and Joe Cody joined in a double club and boomerang straw hat juggling act known as Joe Cody and Brother.
1928 In the fall, Bobby started a single juggling act that included playing St. Louis Blues on the harmonica, dancing, and patter with club, ball and hat juggling.
He then signed a five year contract with the RKO circuit for 40 weeks each year. This gave him summers free to go to Europe to play variety theaters in England and on the continent.
1930 His first European date was the Palladium theater in June. Over the next 35 years, he made more than a dozen trips between Europe and America playing the best dates wherever he was. The juggling film of Bobby shown at the last few IJA conventions was taken at the Scala Theater in Berlin in 1933.
1942-48 Bobby joined the Skating Vanities. This was a roller skating show. He was billed as doing tricks at 30 miles per hour that other jugglers couldn't do standing still. He was also with the Holiday on Ice and Sonja Henie Ice Reviews.
1944 While appearing at New York's International casino, he met Emily Fabian, a fellow Clevelander and Ziegfeld Follies dancer who was appearing in the same show. They were married in 1945.
1955 When Bobby was with an ice show in Los Angeles, he appeared in the television show "You Asked For It." He did the famous free-headstand while bouncing three balls off a drum. When he had played the Orpheum circuit, he did the same trick with five balls to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
1958-60 Most of his activity was abroad. He had gained his reputation on a world stage and over the years appeared with top stars like Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier, Gracie Fields, Sonja Henie, Ginger Rogers, Fred Allen, Jack Benny and Bob Hope.
1962 His last public appearance, before a private group at the Statler Hotel in Cleveland.
Now, after attending three conventions and seeing many performers, I am even more convinced of Bobby's greatness. Both in ability and creativity, he was a trend setter.
I met Bobby in August, 1979, soon after he was released from the hospital following his second stroke.
Although his reflexes had been affected and his bronchitis limited his endurance, he could still juggle five balls and demonstrate other tricks. I was fortunate enough to live close by, and visited once or twice a month. Bobby showed me his juggling memorabilia, his films, and gave me a first-person account of juggling in this century.
His collection included mention of many of the great acts and their specialties. His own performances helped inspire Gran Picaso to become a juggler, much as Phil La Toska had inspired Bobby. Bobby was also instrumental in the development of Dick Franco's career.
Although he had other interests, Bobby loved juggling most. His sister, Antoinette, (who was herself a performer for 15 years) recalled Bobby coming home from his workouts at the gym and taking his props out of his bag to practice a little more before dinner.
Bobby was very generous. He shared his time and ideas with jugglers in person and through correspondence. He and Emily often offered a home away from home for jugglers and performers visiting the Cleveland area.
When I first met Bobby, I was excited about being able to talk with and learn from one of the greatest jugglers in history. After visiting him for two years, the enjoyment came from spending time with a humorous and friendly individual. I am going to miss Bobby because I am losing touch with a whole era of juggling and show business. But most of all, I will miss his friendship.
His performing career started with amateur nights in theaters around Cleveland. He remembered that even at the earliest of these shows he was performing a four ball spread and four balls with one hand. At age 16, he got the idea for his headstand trick. He was also the first person to throw a small ball to his forehead and roll it from side to side and all the way around his head. Another feat Bobby performed was the juggling of eight halls. He would juggle eight for a while, then place one in a balance on his forehead and continue juggling the remaining seven.
A visit with Bobby was always fun and informative. Occasionally we watched old movies of him and other acts. He could describe an act from 60 years ago as if he had just watched it on television the night before.
If the weather was nice, we would go out in the back yard and do some juggling. When I knew him, he was not able to juggle very much himself, but he always loved to watch someone else. He would say when he particularly liked a trick, and would comment on the presentation of routines, offering suggestions on how they might be better, or how to time a move to get the best reaction from it. He would also tell about tricks and gags that he had done or seen in the past, which would be as good as new if repeated today.
This past summer seemed to be an especially gratifying time for Bobby, or at least for those of us who knew him. The reception he got at the IJA convention in Cleveland, the standing ovations and continuous accolades from hundreds of jugglers, was one of the highlights of the week. It was great to see him get the recognition he deserved from the other jugglers.
Bobby enjoyed his time at the convention, even though he needed several days of rest afterward. His only complaint was that he didn't get to see much juggling because he was always surrounded by friends and fans.
Another pleasant event this summer was a visit from Johnny Gray, who worked with Bobby in his act on and off since 1929. Johnny had never been to the United States and hadn't seen Bobby in 20 years. He decided to visit some newly discovered relatives in Canada, then realized he was within a day's drive of Bobby's home. Johnny and his wife visited Bobby and Emily for three days, and spent much of the time reminiscing about the past. It was amazing to sit and listen to them recall names and details of not only their contemporaries, but of acts from before their time.
We wanted to dedicate last summer's IJA convention to Bobby, but he turned down the idea and said we should instead honor Stan Kavanagh, an Australian juggler who died some years ago.
The death of Bobby May first left me with a feeling of personal loss: the death of a friend. Those of us who met him realize how lucky we were to have known such a kind and generous man. But Bobby will also be missed by people who never knew him. He was an inspiration to everyone, and the loss of this great human being has already been felt throughout the world.