Juggler's World: Vol. 39, No. 2

Ethical Perspectives Old and New

"Unlike comics and playwrights, jugglers do not strike up friendships with each other." - from an unidentified trade article in the '40s collected by Bobby Jule.

What's Wrong With Juggling

In October 1947 veteran professional juggler Doug Couden, one of Roger Montandon's regular columnists in the "Juggler's Bulletin," began a discussion on "What's Wrong With Juggling." The topics raised are as relevant - and unresolved - today as they were 40 years ago.

Couden's prime concern was that professionals were stifling the art by not sharing their experience with others, particularly young beginners. The paranoia was so deep that some pros were even cutting off contacts with Montandon and Couden for fear that something might end up in print:

"Juggling today has reached a stalemate. This is due, I believe, to the fact that pros do not like the idea of having tricks of the trade made public property. This idea was expressed in a letter from Larry Weeks in which he stated that he did not believe that tricks or trade secrets should be published in the Bulletin. Perhaps others among the pros have this same idea. Judging from the deep silence which prevails among the pros, perhaps it would be best to bring the whole matter to a head and call for a show-down on this idea." - Bulletin, October 1947

The letter from Larry Weeks (who himself became a "Newsletter" editor but eschewed publishing tricks) gave the professional's side:

"One thing we like about Larry is that he doesn't beat about the bush and when we asked for some juggling ideas for publication, he showed us why he feels he cannot author such articles. Here are the reasons - If the ideas are his original ones he doesn't want to reveal them until he has used them in his act and discarded them. If the ideas are not original ones, their revelation might put Larry in the dog house with other pros who might claim them as their originals. That is, in brief, why more pros will not share their juggling knowledge in printed form." - Bulletin, October 1947

Montandon's answer was that the concept of originality was too ambiguous to stand in the way, and that, in fact, publishing a truly original idea was the best way for its author to claim parentage.

He also pointed out that pros, who actually had a difficult time catching the acts of other pros while on the road, would find it easier to develop new routines if material was shared through a publication that followed them around the country.

Couden was more concerned for the beginner. He emphasized that that the "Bulletin" was a trade publication within the juggling family and tricks were not going to wind up in the public domain:

"As there are too few Betty Gorhams, Neal Suddards, etc. planning to crack the pro ranks, I feel that the Juggler's Bulletin should be the medium through which beginners should be given tips which would help them get started. Another thought for pros who object to having info dispensed herein is that many of our present subscribers are amateurs who have no desire to enter the full-time professional ranks. There are also too few of these. If we had more who do juggling as a hobby, it would be a big boost in business for the prop makers, bigger circulation for the Bulletin as well as making it profitable for more and better juggling books to be published. All this would result in a wider interest in juggling and would benefit the pro rather than handicap him." - Bulletin, December 1947

Several decades later, in an interview with "Juggling" magazine, Dave Finnigan was encountering the same attitudes and offering the same argument. But he spiced it up with a little financial sense:

"When we first started our programs a number of jugglers were displeased... But out of a thousand people I teach, only a dozen will really get hooked, and only a rare individual will become a performer. The rest become fans. I think juggling is just like tennis. When I was a boy only rich people played tennis, and the best-paid pros had to squeak by on a few thousand dollars per year in prizes and their teaching fees. Now the top pros earn hundreds of thousands." - Juggling, vol. 1, 1980

Jack Greene, an IJA founder and a professional from vaudeville days, sided with those who wanted to spread the art among the young:

"In earlier issues of the Bulletin I have noticed squawks from jugglers lamenting the policy of the JB in catering to the student juggler, punks, as they were called by many old timers. I happen to be a juggler of the old school - with modern ideas, of course - who believes the punk needs help and I am willing to help to the best of my ability. The more jugglers there are, the more popular juggling will become." - Bulletin, April 1943

One writer in the "Bulletin" saw a decline in the popularity of juggling since the turn of the century, and attributed it directly to the failure of jugglers to teach the young:

"The point that impressed us was the quantity of jugglers working and the popularity of juggling at that time. Yet, pick up a trade magazine today and you have to search pretty hard to find a juggler's name. Perhaps juggling has declined because those relatively few who do know the game and could rouse interest in the art are afraid to encourage youngsters. We feel that the only way to revive the old-time popularity of juggling is to encourage beginners through personal contacts and through printed word, and by increasing the amount of national publicity accorded juggling and jugglers." - Bulletin, February 1946

Magicians have their discussions on the subject also. A writer for the Society of American Magicians' publication "MUM," (standing for magic, unity and mind, and not coincidentally evoking the phrase, "keep mum") stated the professionals side flatly:

"If a guy has something good, whether it is an act, a trick a costume, or just a bit of business, I'd advise him to keep his mouth shut. Don't show it to other magicians and don't talk about it. It will only be lifted. Even best friends will gladly lift an item. There are no ethics among magicians when it comes to material. All of the working professionals have had their pet pieces lifted." - MUM, June 1986

At the core of the discussion is the issue of originality. Assuming a performer has every right to protect what he has fashioned from thin air, what really is original? A writer in magic's Linking Ring magazine stated it eloquently:

"If I were to create an effect never before imagined, utilizing a method never before conceived, there would still be some doubts as to its originality, because I didn't invent Magic. Others have expressed the same thought through the oft-used quote I paraphrase here: that we all stand on the shoulders of those giants who came before us."

Returning to juggling, one professional suggested to Couden a compromise - - let the beginners cash in on the wealth of old material that would now be fresh again for lay audiences, thereby bypassing the problem of stealing new routines. Couden agreed that there were "plenty of tricks from the old days that can be revived to advantage," but stuck to the controversial idea of imitation as positive:

"Jugglers are imitators. That's how we started, seeing tricks which fascinated us and trying them ourselves. But when one is somewhat advanced, the viewing of a juggling act should stimulate the old bean to stew up different ideas. This would result in a wider range of juggling, an asset to the entire biz." - Bulletin, December 1945

In a subsequent article, Couden became more entrenched, pointing out that the foundation of being good at anything was study, yet there was nothing to study, aside from catching-as-catch-can fellow jugglers as they traveled through your area, and this often left a worn patina on juggling routines:

"If juggling does not advance and keep in stride with the changing conditions of show business it will become obsolete. Not long ago a well-known jug played a prominent spot in New York. He got an unmerciful panning in a review in one of the trade papers, saying his act smacked of the '20s, with corny gags and old stuff with clubs and balls. So there you are. Time marches on and so does show business. But what about juggling? Something to think about!" - Bulletin, February 1948

Another "Bulletin" writer pointed out that everyone doing three clubs was doing a trick that belonged to some fellow of the distant past. Although originality was desirable, it was often impossible and sometimes unnecessary:

"Everyone can't originate tricks, and it isn't necessary that they should. If you can't originate any, just do the tricks you have seen other jugglers do. Do whatever you can accomplish, but remember that it pays to be original. Almost anyone can imitate someone else, but it takes brains and hard work to be original. Even simple moves thought up by yourself are more likely to lead to success than is a rehashing of tricks that are old and worn out." - Bulletin, May 1948

Russ Torell, "The Juggling Jeweler," agreed, and offered an important point about the difference between the original routine and the borrowed routine:

"I have been scratching my beezer for something intelligent to write for this column when along comes Doug with his question, what's wrong with juggling? Every time I see a juggler doing something I want, I try to imitate it. Of course I realize this does not add to the originality of my act. But, so what? How about dancers and singers? Same steps, same songs. But isn't it the performer's own personality and presentation that makes up the difference?" - Bulletin, February 1948

Avner Eisenberg expressed a similar idea, adding that borrowing material without changing it cuts against the borrower in two ways:

"First I'll say that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. Then I'll say I think that the worst thing you can do is to take someone else's material. That's true ethically and in terms of your own development as a performer. It's important not to take someone else's character because what you are doing is short-circuiting the possibilities for developing your own character, your own sense of timing, rhythm and relationship with the audience. I think too many beginning performers see something working and try to adapt the finished product without going through the process that got someone else to that end. It really doesn't work for the imitator." - Juggler's World, Spring 1986

The fundamental defense for borrowing tricks is that very little is original and the little that is original can be imitated but not duplicated. It's the presentation, the showmanship that puts a performer's trademark on a piece, say the imitators.

But there are problems even with this. Supposed the originator is a fair-to-middling street juggler and the imitator is nationally famous? It was common professional courtesy, and good legal sense, for Michael Davis to buy the "Juggling on a Motorcycle" routine from the busker who originated it. Davis's greater talent and wider audience imposed the obligation on him.

But the street juggler or birthday party performer should feel little guilt in using a famous juggler's routine - they don't swim in the same pool and there is no danger of economic harm to the TV star.

But theft remains an issue, and it's hard spit for some performers to swallow. Frank Olivier stated it about as poignantly as possible:

"Ten minutes of my material is six months of my time. I won't do my act at IJA conventions because I'm afraid someone will steal it and perform it on TV before I can." - Juggler's World, September 1982

One irrefutable tenant of show business is that a good trick will be stolen, period, and you had better keep your act organic and changing. On the other hand, it's basic decency for the borrower to change the routine to suit his own style.

Then there's the difference between physical tricks and verbal material, as pointed out by Barrett Felker:

"If you're willing to put in the practice time it takes to learn a juggling trick, then it's fine to use it. If I tried to do an act using only stuff I've developed, it wouldn't be much of an act! But I don't approve of copying someone's whole sequence or scene." - Juggler's World, September 1982

Sam Kilbourne expressed this middle ground also:

"Juggling tricks belong to whoever can do them. But people need to develop original ways of delivering them." - Juggler's World, September 1982

Thus, individualized presentation remains the key to ethical borrowing. Everyone may remember Harrigan as the first Tramp Juggler, but everyone remembers W.C. Fields as W.C. Fields, even though he adopted the tramp act completely. He put his own stamp on Harrigan's work to the point that the original was secondary.

A possible guideline comes from the magic community, which has been dealing with proliferation of performers in their own ranks longer than us. They ask members not to perform the creation, or the signature trick of another magician, in his market area. This permits a trick to spread, for the benefit of performers, the audience and the art, but keeps an ethical eye on the financial realities of the situation.

Other suggestions include asking permission to use the material or at the very least attributing it to the originator. Borrowers must realize that they are treading on ground that would be under legal protection if it weren't such a fuzzy area. And borrowees should realize that, particularly in this era of multi-million TV audiences, original material will spread at the speed of its own popularity.

In the final analysis, both professionals and hobby jugglers weigh equally on their sides of the scales. Both must appreciate the needs and contributions of the other.

Ethical Perspectives Old and New / Index, Vol. 39, No. 2 / jis@juggling.org
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