Peter Piper is not the only pickle picker. Legions of variety arts fans on the West Coast have picked the Pickle Family Circus as a habit that no one wants to break. This extraordinary little circus began as one man's dream...
Larry Pisoni was just a 15-year-old kid when he left home. His early exposure to "show biz" was through his grandfather Al "The Wop" Pisoni, a comedian on the Italian vaudeville circuit in the '30s. Grandma was a hoofer. She got Larry's toes tapping and taught him the joys of tumbling. The world was an exciting place for a kid seeking fame and fortune.
After a plethora of odd jobs, he started running spot lights for acts at the Electrick Circus, a night club in New York. Jugglers Hovey Burgess and Judy Finelli were part of the show. Hovey (a past-president of the IJA) taught a class in circus skills at NYU and Larry signed up for the course.
The essence of any circus is juggling, tumbling, wire-walking, trapeze and clowns. Burgess knew them all and was an exacting teacher. He stressed the technical aspects of juggling, emphasizing numbers. Finelli was his star pupil. Under her tutelage Larry was soon passing clubs. He joined Burgess' Circo dell' Arte company and toured the country with them. On one trip to California, Pisoni chanced to see the San Francisco Mime Troupe in action and thought they were terrific.
When the Circo disbanded he headed West and the Mime Troupe took him on as a circus skills instructor. During the two years he worked with the Mime Troupe, Pisoni met his spouse and current co-Pickle, Peggy Snider. "I was doing the set designs. He lured me from backstage, taught me to juggle, and made me his partner," she said.
Snider continued telling the Pickle saga, "One day an old friend of Larry's from New York, Cecil Mackinnon, rolled into town. She was an actress and of course knew how to juggle. We put together a juggling act and called ourselves The Pickle Family Jugglers in 1973."
Everyone asks the origin of the peculiar name. Snider smiled and replied, "Well, one of our favorite explanations stems from the old vaudeville notion that P and K are two of the funniest sounds in the English language. So we decided the word `Pickle' would get the fans laughing right away."
For three years this merry menage toured the parks, colleges, fairs and street corners of America. Street performing gave them their livelihood and taught them about the intimacy of crowds. They liked the feeling of having people so close you could count the freckles on their noses. By 1974 it was time to expand.
Pisoni borrowed $1,000 from four philanthropic friends, put an ad in the paper, and began assembling people and equipment. "Our first recruits weren't exactly jugglers," Snider said. "In fact, we didn't hire anyone who'd ever been in a circus before."
The people knocking at the door of their tiny office in her Potero Hill home were mainly dancers and actors. "Bill Irwin was our very first clown and he'd had a mere six weeks training at Ringling Brothers Clown School," she said. What a group! Short on circus experience but long on talent. But they were a hardworking bunch of individuals with the "can do" spirit.
Snider explained, "Our philosophy, from the beginning, was that as a community of friends, we would try to give back to the world more than what we took. After all, we grew up in the '60s. We would be non-profit, and act as a fund-raiser for other needy organizations. An alternative to the Big Business approach of `stab 'em in the back and stomp on 'em.'"
They created themselves in a somewhat chaotic fashion as they evolved. Larry developed his eloquent clown character, Lorenzo Pickle. Bill became Willy the Clown and Geoff Hoyle developed the mischievous Mr. Sniff. Kimi Okada helped to choreograph the dance numbers. Acrobats, ropewalkers and tumblers joined the little one-ring show.
"We utilized the best of vaudeville, theatre, American jazz and modern dance and the `slap schtick' of silent screen comedy," Snider explains. "No live animals locked up in cages and dragged around the country, but plenty of the two-legged variety that, in costume, could transform into happy hippos, prancing ponies and dancing gorillas. We even had a band whose members wrote original music for the acts. And of course, everyone had to learn to juggle."
If clowning is the heart of this circus, then juggling is it's soul. Newcomers are taught to juggle and then brought into the show. At the beginning of any season those with few juggling skills mess up gloriously; by season's end most are pretty spectacular.
"Everything in the juggling routines is practiced a million times," Snider states emphatically. "Accuracy is everything. It gives you time to correct without missing a beat. The responsibility for the pass is with the passer. The catcher should not have to pull down any lousy thing thrown their way. They should be ready to correct, if possible. Watching a person's face while throwing helps keep you focused. After so many years of working with the same people it's astounding what you can tell from their eyes."
Like terror, for instance, if one remembers the face of the guy "volunteered" by friends to stand between Snider and Wendy Parkman, clubs whizzing by his face. He chomped down determinedly on the base of a carrot while large chunks of its length vanished with each pass.
Juggle breaks for Pickles are like coffee breaks for the rest of society. A way to let off steam, loosen up muscles, and relate to your fellow man. Like the office water cooler, the studio space always had people gathered, practicing a juggle, giving pointers, helping out. Solo juggling was never the thing.
Snider praised the level of juggling in the show now. She said, "Juggling in general has changed over the past decade. To consider the type of talent we have now compared to when I got in to it is remarkable. People are learning at a much younger age, and more people are learning. We pick the cream of the crop for our show, and the crop is much larger now!"
Two solo jugglers are appearing with the circus for the first time when it begins its nine-month season in April. Andrew Allen is doing a three-ball routine, five, six and seven balls, a devil stick routine and staff twirling. John Gilkey juggles five clubs and some eccentric things with various pieces of equipment.
Group juggling routines are the bookends of the show, Snider explained. The Big Juggle that ends each show is a visual statement of Pickle philosophy. The harmony of the whole is greater than its parts. Individuals working together for the benefit of the family.
"The final juggling is an illustration of cooperative effort, which has a lot to do with internal politics of the circus. Just as everyone juggles, everyone helps put up and strike the set. It's a celebration in flying clubs of cooperative human skill," she said.
That final act sees people passing on rolling globes (including 10-year-old Lorenzo Pisoni) and an eight person line passing in both directions.
There are some other group routines as well performed by various ones of the 18 performers, including a three-person routine with very large balls and three person feeds using 10 and 11 clubs.
"It's a big, cold world out there today," Snider said. "People are out for themselves. For jugglers there's a lot of places to work -- conventions, shopping centers, theme parks... They can make $75 a day."
But the Pickle Family Circus offers as much to its performers as it does to its audience. There are no prima donnas. The bass player as well as the clowns all help put up and tear down each show. The pay scale may be small, but the artistically protected environment is precious. Performers don't have to hustle up an audience. They have The Family, people who care to help them put order to their tricks, to present their act so it shows well. There is the opportunity to learn new skills, to develop artistically.
"Generic juggling acts are boring, same lines and routines all over the country," Snider laments. "The pioneers were different. They invented the lines and the routines that everyone else is copying. Bobby May is still teaching people posthumously through tapes of his work."
When Robert Altman was looking for extras to flesh out his "Popeye" movie in 1982, he asked Burgess and Finelli for recommendations. They advised him to pick some Pickles. The Pickles, in turn, asked Finelli to come aboard. "Delighted," she replied.
And she and Wendy Parkman, the resident trapeze artist at the time, formed the Pickle Family Circus School. Finelli was fantastic, creative, and very well-trained. She was in fact the first, and so far only, woman president of the IJA in 1971.
She did ball juggling in the show with Jay Laverdure and Robin Hood. A club passing act was the traditional show opener, first Wendy and Judy, then Mark Jondell and Judy. They did a lot of right and left-handed passing. Very flashy. Her devil stick and diabolo routines were special, with original music written for them. To this day that is what she is proudest of, what she feels most approaches art. This year Finelli gives her wrists a rest and co-directs the show.
It is this constant change and challenge that keeps the Pickle Circus provocative and fresh. Sara Felder, a superlative juggler, has left the show to put together a Woman's Circus that will tour Nicaragua this spring. She will be replaced by Andrew Allen, a gifted young juggler who joins the troupe for the first time after spending the past two years in Europe.
Larry Pisoni, the original dreamer who envisioned it all, has put together a solo show called, appropriately, "Clown Dreams." It opened to great reviews in Seattle. He'll return for the summer tour.
The Pickle Family Circus is imagination made manifest, a herald of happy times. Once pickled, you're in the barrel for life!
(Orrel Lanter is a free-lance writer living in Berkeley, Calif. She notes that the "Pickle Family Circus Book," detailing the first decade of the Pickles in words and photos, is available for $14.95 postpaid. Write to The Pickle Family Circus, 400 Missouri St. Suite 10, San Francisco, CA 94107.)