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

Betty Gorham Willer

First Lady of the IJA

Her youth and immersion in juggling was a forerunner of the new generation of jugglers waiting to transform the face of the organization.

In 1947 she became, after the original 13 charter members, the first person to join the IJA.

The contributions of women to juggling in general and to the IJA in particular have been tremendous and largely unsung. From the brunette blur of Lottie Brunn to the tireless dedication of Violet Carlson Beahan, from the magic of Dell O'Dell to the behind-the-scenes ministrations of Eva Crosby, countless women have graced the juggling community as performers and supportive non-jugglers.

They are too numerous to mention them all, but they deserve recognition and thanks. It seems appropriate, therefore, to choose one to stand for all, and to accept for all a bouquet of gratitude. Appropriate in the service as representative First Lady is Betty Gorham Willer.

She was barely a teenager, but already an accomplished amateur juggler, when she began her life-long connection with the embryonic IJA. She was part of a new generation of jugglers and of women in post-vaudeville, post-war America. She first began corresponding with other jugglers simply to learn more about the art. But this correspondence led to years of columns in Roger Montandon's "Juggler's Bulletin" and the IJA "Newsletter" - columns full of news on other jugglers and her own career around the country.

In 1947 she became, after the original 13 charter members, the first person to join the IJA. She remains a member to this day.

She began juggling at age 13 for no particular reason she can remember. When she saw the great Truzzi, she was captivated. From his style, she learned that half of a good performance was involving the audience in the juggler's personality. Her trademark became a happy smile to convey to them the joy she felt juggling.

Doug Couden, an established professional in the school assembly circuit, first brought Gorham to the attention of "Bulletin" reader in July 1945 when she was a 14-year-old club juggler in Davenport, Iowa. In August, her picture appeared, identified as "that 14-year-old gal tosser." She was a thin young woman, with an open smile and buoyant dark hair, wearing a simple striped blouse and long skirt. The enormous Lind clubs she juggled for the camera nearly dwarfed her.

In February 1946, portions of a letter she wrote to Couden were published by Montandon in the "Bulletin." This began a long stretch of faithful reporting to readers, with a quality that rivalled members decades her senior. Her words are flavored with her youth, and one can feel the vivacity of a teenage woman in a postwar era of Sinatra and bobby socks:

Think the new Bulletin letterhead is neat. Glad you are going to tell more about school show biz. In last White Tops saw article, 'Juggling is Engineer's Hobby' about Roger by A. Morton Smith. Book 'Circus from Rome to Ringling' has some bits of information about Al Ringling who did juggling and balancing. Hope someone follows your suggestion about taking juggling movies. Guess that's all for now.

The P.S. to that letter mentioned that Wilfred DuBois was playing "across the river" in Moline, but that the nightclub was off limits because of her age. In the typical spirit of those early networking days, Couden air-mailed a request to DuBois to visit Gorham on her own turf.

Her reporting was the byproduct of a desire to learn more about juggling during a time when information was hard to come by. The same was true for obtaining props.

In July she wrote her appreciation for receiving foil paper from Glen Phillips. At that time, it was one accomplishment to get hold of a set of Lind clubs, and quite another to keep one's self stocked with the fragile foil that professionals used to decorate the naked clubs. She also received juggling knives from Eddie Johnson and books from Jack Taylor of England, and she expressed her gratitude to Montandon for "those utility balls" - good practice balls hard to come by in the rubber-short postwar years.

Still in high school, she practiced for hours in the gym on Saturdays and participated in school shows, all the while broadening her contacts with the juggling community through letters and by catching the acts in her area. Her dedication and success seem all the more remarkable because she did not come from a family of entertainers. She had no sponsorship into the professional juggling community - something that was virtually required then - except her own push and zeal for juggling. "Chutzpah!" she said.

On June 19, 1947, just two days after the historic founding luncheon in Pittsburgh, Betty Gorham's name was enrolled as the first member of the IJA at the ripe old age of 15. Her youth and immersion in juggling was a forerunner of the new generation of jugglers waiting to transform the face of the organization.

This was confirmed by a published letter from Jack Greene in which he said, "Betty is of the coming generation. She has all the talent necessary and the youth to go with it. Watch for Betty."

Readers of the "Bulletin" and "Newsletter" didn't have to look too hard for her - her "Juggler's Junction" and, later, "Best from Betty" columns became ubiquitous fixtures of the publications. Mention of her by other reporters was also frequent.

In September 1947, the 16-year-old "jugglienne," as her letterhead stated, was pictured in the budding of her career. Although taken amid the same back yard foliage, gone are the simple blouse and skirt. Now she is posed, a little proudly and looking a touch camera shy, in a satiny performance blouse with puffed sleeves that is tied coyly at the midriff. She wears bright slacks and holds four rings next to her spinning ball.

At the 1949 IJA convention she was pictured in a studiously bored pose, sitting in a chair spinning her ball, with the look of one wondering how long the damn thing was going to stay up there. The story of that convention brought Gorham space on the cover of "Life" magazine.

She was working more dates now and travel brought her into the company of many more fellow jugglers, all of whom she reported on for her readers. And more - she seemed to be privy to a pipeline of information on who was playing where and when. The young girl who had come to the "Bulletin" and to the IJA to increase her knowledge of juggling was returning the favor.

She met countless professionals - Pryde and Daye, the Belmont Brothers, The Willys, E.E. Myers, Billy Tirko, Harry Moll, Ray Wilbert, Jack Greene and Bobby May. And she was meeting amateurs, encouraging them as she had been encouraged. Perhaps a highlight of these meetings was with Francis Brunn in Denver in 1951. Although she mentioned only the facts in her own column, it was reported by another person that Brunn highly complimented her performance.

Her act was full of props: tennis rackets and ball, devil sticks, spinning ball, hoops, clubs and even a spinning basin. By the end of the '40s, she was fully a professional, expanding outside her native Iowa, touring the midwest and northwest states. She traveled with the Ford Unit and later the Massey Harris Farm Implement Show - those great traveling advertisements that filled the bill for a short while after the demise of vaudeville.

On May 20, 1953, while playing a night club in Spokane, Wash., Gorham lost all her props, music and costumes in a fire that burned the club to the ground. The response to her plight was so strong and so immediate from Harry Lind and others that she was able to work another club date just two days later.

By the mid-fifties her career had blossomed. She was working the larger circuits, hitting St. Louis, Montreal, and New York City. In Philadelphia, she appeared on "Big Top Circus," a TV show that headlined many jugglers and circus performers. She was beginning to criss-cross the country, playing the Gypsy Room in Atlanta one year, the Police Circus in California the next. She toured Asia with the USO and played cruise ships. Her spot on Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" was good enough to wind up in "The Best of Groucho" collection.

In 1961 while playing a fair date, she met Ken Willer, a hand balancer whose signature trick was the rarely-accomplished single-finger balance. She was doing a stage show and he was with a small circus across the lot. A fellow juggler introduced them and they were married the following year. It was the start of a happy 25 year - and counting - collaboration. They continued to do single acts until 1970 when they began performing as a duo. Today, although no longer juggling professionally, Betty joins Ken in his act of hand balancing, rola-bola and juggling.

Throughout the years of her success, she maintained the network of ties she began as an adolescent. Remembered as a quiet, talented woman, dedicated to juggling and her fellow jugglers, Betty Gorham Willer is still a member of the IJA, with membership number 1, our First Lady.

Betty Gorham Willer / Index, Vol. 39, No. 2 / jis@juggling.org
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