Fred Garbo was doing his show from the inside of a park garbage can, becoming one of the most sought-out features of the fair. (Steve Westren photo)
The program, originally designed to entertain long, hot, weary lines of tourists, quickly blossomed into the most popular attraction for EXPO's 20 million visitors.
Like many a World's Fair before it, Vancouver's EXPO86 liked to boast of several world-record distinctions: the world's largest Swatch Watch; the world's biggest hockey stick; and the world's longest, largest and finest festival of street theatre.
With a budget of over $2.5 million, EXPO's street entertainment program featured performers from Canada, the USA, Great Britain and Europe. The program, originally designed to entertain long, hot, weary lines of tourists, quickly blossomed into the most popular attraction for EXPO's 20 million visitors.
The roster of musicians, mimes, magicians and novelty acts featured such notable juggling acts as The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Slap Happy, Garbo, Vaudeville Nouveau, Circus Shmirkus, Chris and Alex, Dr. Hot and Neon and Fred Anderson.
My partner, Fred Stinson, and I have one minor hang-up about traveling cross-country to gigs. It usually hits us at 35,000 feet that maybe this is all an elaborate practical joke. Maybe the jugglers back in Toronto simply made a few slick phone calls just to get us out of town for a while. After all, we'd heard that the Flying K's were going to be at EXPO. What the heck would they need Circus Shmirkus for? But when we were met at the airport by a nice lady holding a "Street Entertainers" sign and promptly loaded into a van with an all-female Polynesian toe-cymbal band I figured it was time to loosen up.
We were contracted to work for five weeks at EXPO, including one week on an indoor stage in the Canadian Pavilion. During the negotiations, coordinator Jane Howard Baker had told us that she was booking acts with "...good audience rapport, originality and portability." The EXPO site was small and cramped and most of the pavilions had very small capacities, so the organizers had been anticipating line-up hassles.
The theme of the exposition was "Transportation and Communication." Most participating countries were reluctant to risk much money on their exhibits -- at times they were no more than glorified Toys-R-Us window displays -- and people quickly tired of waiting to see what insignia Bosnia-Herzegovina flew on their ships these days. Adding to that the high prices and frequently spavined monorail system... people were ready to be amused.
We'd arrived in early June. The fair had been in operation for just over a month. In that time the street program had exploded to become the highlight of the event. The performers who'd been there from the start were being profiled in two-page spreads in the newspapers and steeped in TV coverage.
Intriguingly, most of the performers had created this huge success by breaking the contracted rules. Derek Scott was doing 55-minute shows nowhere near a line, jamming his huge crowds into the main streets and plazas. Fred Garbo was doing his show from the inside of a park garbage can, becoming one of the most sought-out features of the fair. Baker, who was supposed to be in charge of all this, was being hailed as a genius. The secret, she said, was "you get good people and let them work."
The EXPO site, shaped much like an appendix, was divided into six color-coded zones. Each zone contained a small entertainer's office outfitted with dressing rooms, showers, lockers and lounge areas. The lounge areas contained the two things dearest to a juggler's heart -- coffee and gaffer's tape.
Street entertainment was scheduled from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in three four-hour shifts. The zones were marshalled by Production Liaisons. The PL's main responsibilities were to keep the acts organized and happy. They'd help with equipment problems, arrange to have props built, suggest show locations and even sign your daily report when you forgot to show up. On your first day in any of the color zones the PL would take you on a walking tour of the site. They'd have useful information like, "This looks like a nice spot but I wouldn't recommend it, the tour helicopters land here."
Most of them had neat little tidbits of advice that they'd picked up watching other acts. They recognized that lines moved too much to be good audiences, so they suggested that we find a spot where the lines could see us -- or to use the line as a backdrop. Some of the pavilions had anticipated their long lines and had hired their own entertainment, showing a horrifying predilection for tone-deaf country and western bands. The PL's would steer us away from them and try to warn us when Motorhead was scheduled for a sound check in the EXPO outdoor theatre.
With some of the acts, such as Britain's 'Arry Pavarotti, the PL would tag along to ensure that he didn't get hauled away by security. 'Arry, a plump little character in a tuxedo and flight goggles, like to gather a crowd by climbing things that were clearly labelled "Stay Off!" Garbo, performing as "EXPO's smallest pavilion" inside his garbage can, was assigned a volunteer to keep people from stuffing him with trash and mostly to thwart the groups of young kids who thought it was a riot to try to tip him over.
A daily entertainment guide was distributed free to visitors. Because no one ever knew just where any of us would be, the guide simply listed the names of the acts and what times they would be in their zones. With only a few permanent stages in the whole park, Fred and I discovered that the best way to see an act was to go to their dressing room and follow them out.
Because the site was packed with visitors, getting a crowd was usually quite easy. Sometimes it was so easy you'd get a crowd when you didn't want one. New Jersey's Charles Senack, who dressed like a cop and roared around the site on a unicycle handing out spurious citations to innocent people in wheelchairs, got a crowd every time he stopped someone. He'd blow his whistle indignantly and motion for the onlookers to break it up.
When we were working in the same zone as Garbo we'd call him over, hand him a prop like a devil stick or diabolo and ask innocently, "Gee, do you know how to do this?" When the crowd formed we'd remind him that he should probably be looking after his can.
On days when the sun had gotten to us, I'd go about 100 feet from where we were going to do a show, put on a blindfold, juggle three clubs and start walking. Fred would attempt to guide me in with a duck call. People would stop, mostly to see if I killed anyone. Paul Wildbaum and Derek Scott mimicked people's walks. Garbo squirted water at folks from inside the safety of his can. A crowd would form because the victims wanted to see someone else get nailed, and then people would stop to see why people were crowded around a garbage can.
EXPO audiences were very attentive and happy to stay put for the average 30-minute show. Unfortunately, there seems to be a new generation of tourist who never knows just what they've seen until they get home to watch the video. A wishy-washy memo arrived from the EXPO brass asking the acts to put up with being video-taped. Several of the acts, having requested of a visitor that he put away the machinery and enjoy the show, simply packed up and abandoned the area. The worst abusers were the local TV camera jockeys who like to waltz into your circle and take over.
Fred's got a neat little trick he uses to dissuade these guys. He spots a tiny speck of dust on the camera lens, spits on a finger and helpfully wipes it off. That usually induced a primal scream from the crew, and off they'd go somewhere else.
Of the 165 days of EXPO it only rained 35. When it did rain, a few of the acts would be accommodated indoors while the rest of us figured we'd stand in the rain to work for anyone who would stand in the rain to watch. One day during a monsoon our PL directed us under an overhang by a pavilion. We waded through enormous churning puddles to get there and began our show. During our club-stealing bit, Fred looked out at a sea of wet, miserable, rubber-bundled folks huddled under umbrellas, steam rising from their sodden skins, and yelled, "What's the matter with you people?! It's RAINING!!"
I'd love to go on with these sparkling reminiscences, but I think I should get to the highlights. Following is a list of all the juggling acts at EXPO that I can remember. My apologies to anyone not mentioned.
Representing Canada were: Les Voila, Daniel le Bateleur, Derek Scott, Circus Shmirkus, Archer Mayling, Red the Juggler, and Dick & Dick. From the USA were: The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Vaudeville Nouveau, Slap Happy, Garbo, Alexis Lee, Fred Anderson, and Jim Jackson. From Britain: Chris & Alex and RA RA ZOO. From Spain, Marceline Y Sylvestre. Finally, Dr. Hot and Neon, of no fixed address.
At one time during the summer juggling was so prevalent that when a new guy strolled into the dressing room I'd ask, "And what kind of juggling act are you?"
Here are a few mini-reviews of some acts:
Chris (l) and Alex contort to draw a crowd. (Steve Westren photo)
Chris & Alex: These two Britains perform an excellently crafted, very entertaining show. They portray a pair of impeccably attired nerds who are very nervously attempting to put on a juggling act. They set out a blanket, count the crowd, move the audience about until they've achieved an eye-pleasing symmetry, and begin.
They start with two oversized suitcases and do some neat maneuvers, including 180-degree turns without moving the case. From the suitcases they pull out clubs. Chris gets his three out and passes with Alex, but Alex has a rough time extracting his. They work from three up to seven. As each club enters the pattern Alex becomes more and more distraught.
After they've "mastered" the clubs, they try six real wine bottles back-to-back. For their finish they enlist the aid of a youngster from the crowd to help them up onto giraffe unicycles and to hand them six torches. At the end of the show they are totally dishevelled. Their shirts are torn and hanging out. Chris is missing clumps of hair and their faces are streaked with soot. A splendid show.
Marceline Y Sylvestre: Play a married couple who barely like each other. Sylvestre, the henpecked husband, tries his best to support the juggling displays of Marceline. They have a nice bit right at the beginning of their show when they organize the audience. Marceline scurries around the circle showing people where to stand while Sylvestre very dutifully follows behind spilling out a corn starch boundary across their feet.
While Sylvestre is apologetically dusting off their shoes, Marceline does some nice five ball tricks, including a lift bounce off a drum head. One of their neatest ideas was the illusion of underwater cigar boxes. Marceline, dressed in wetsuit, mask and fins, did some nice floaty-looking box tricks. When she dropped one, Sylvestre heroically tore off his coat and "dove in" to save it.
Red the Juggler: Red was one of the best known jugglers at EXPO. If someone arrived for his show just as he was finishing, he'd start all over again. Red, who used to be a boxer, is obsessed with the challenge of numbers. He'd say, "It's not how many times you drop 'em, but how many times you pick 'em up!" Some of the more difficult stuff Red does in his show includes: a long five ball routine, including very high throws and a ball tossed in by an audience member; a six ball Mills Mess multiplex; a very long seven balls; an eight ball multiplex; five torches; and a finish trick of chin balancing a chair while idling on a unicycle and juggling two blades and a club.
Red is very good at selling his high-level tricks. People leave knowing that they've seen some hard-core stuff. He makes his own props and his parting words of advice were, "If you want to get good, you've got to pick them buggers up!"
Dr. Hot (Bill Galvin) eats an apple, juggling it with a horn and kitchen knife. (Steve Westren photo)
Dr. Hot and Neon Circus Theatre: Bill Galvin and Steve Mock present a theatrical blend of juggling styles. They do hats, canes, ping-pong balls, clubs, boxes, stacking cups, apple eating, giraffe unicycles, a three person cage and a lot of percussion effects. The highlights for me were Dr. Hot's classic three box routine and a lovely and gentle finale with banjo ukuleles. Hot and Neon each cascade three differently tuned ukuleles and pluck out an ethereal rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." There was something very haunting about the simple act of cascading bringing forth such quiet beauty. A lyrical end to the kinetic frenzy of our art.
Derek Scott: Nick-named SuperClown by the press. Any time a memo arrived for the entertainers it was because of something Derek had done. EXPO insisted that all performers had to wear shirts, so Derek simply cut the back and sleeves off of his. With three bean bags, a rubber nose, three cigar boxes and the three oldest Todd Smith clubs in existence, Scott routinely did 60-minute shows to huge crowds. Watching him underlines the rule that people don't care as much about the juggling as they do about the juggler.
Garbo balances a running chainsaw on his chin. (Steve Westren photo)
Garbo: A couple of weeks into the exposition Garbo dreamed up the idea of getting inside an EXPO garbage can and declaring himself "EXPO's smallest pavilion." He smuggled a park can out of the grounds and rigged it with a seat and sight gags, then smuggled it back in. When the guy in charge of the cans found out, he became very hurt and said, "I would have given him one..."
Garbo did about 15 minutes inside the can with puns on garbage, some neat sight gags and a guided tour of his pavilion. Leaping out of the can, he then did an excruciating series of acrobatic flips, a very tidy three ball routine and five balls. His finish trick was to balance a running, bladed chainsaw on his chin. That's the kind of trick that prompts people to get out their cameras, just in case!
Circus Shmirkus and their box routine. Fred Stinson takes them away from Steve Westren.
Circus Shmirkus: I figured that I'd include our act just for the sake of completeness... The theme of our show is two fairly dense characters who are better jugglers than they think. But they're trying to impress with bombastic theatrics. We start with a three club pass, including hats and shoes and whatever else we find lying around, and work up to six. We do a bunch of four-beat tricks, including the eponymous "Steve Trick," which is usually done by Fred for some reason.
After this Fred gets stuck doing four while I go get another club and we pass seven. We follow that with a long stealing routine. We usually ended the show with our box bit. A brief summary of that -- we've both got two boxes and fight for control of a fifth. We get tired up with each other and do body tricks with each other's appendages, then decide to resolve it with a six box synchronized contest that ends with each of hopelessly tangled. You know, quality stuff!
Jim Jackson: A European-style clown who has a nice twist to ping-pong ball juggling. Through sleight-of-hand and a bicycle pump, ping-pong balls multiply in his mouth until he's got five of them jammed in there, looking like a chipmunk with the mumps. He then spits them in a hand-assisted cascade.
Los Trios Ringbarkus: These two guys from Australia aren't jugglers but they do the funniest juggling bit I've seen. They play a pair of nerdy characters who are almost strangled with stage fright. They timidly announce that it's time for their juggling act, and bring out a bag of day-old buns. They gently toss them out to the audience and invite the audience to toss them back. Of course, one always comes back a bit too hard for their liking. The nerds throw them at the crowd a little harder, and soon the whole thing disintegrates into a wild bun-throwing brawl. Mark my words, Gatto will be doing it in Las Vegas within the year!
Finally, there are two moments that I will always cherish from our weeks out west. First, when Fred and I headed into the Karamazov's dressing room to say hello and they were all standing there buck naked. I figure, that has to count for something. The second, and my favorite, came when I was strolling through Vancouver's Granville Mall. There was a guy cocooned in a battered army surplus blanket, and he was playing a harmonica. He had a bedraggled little terrier with him, and when the guy played the high notes the dog howled along. You can't do better than that!