Art Jennings dreamed himself to the stage, founded the International Juggler's Association and accomplished enough else to fill several lifetimes.
"Few accomplishments ever come close to the great feeling of joy when my dream of a juggler's organization became a reality."
Each evening while his parents managed the Woolworth Five and Dime in Pittsburgh, 5-year-old Art Jennings was taken across Diamond Street to the Harris Family Theater to watch "Twenty Big Acts Continuous Each and Every Week Twice Daily Noon to Ten."
"Vaudeville was my baby sitter," said Jennings, an IJA founder. "Only in later years did I realize that I had seen nearly every one of the great acts of the period. What a fantastic head start, what a great kindergarten!"
This was 1916, with vaudeville in its stride. Tickets cost 30 cents for 10 hours of vaudeville, 50 cents for 2 hours of burlesque. The audience was polite, quiet, and waited for the acts to end before seating themselves during the two-a-day continuous performances.
In the dim light and exuberant music young Art Jennings could smell the pungent oil mixed with sawdust used to sweep the floors under the seats. The aisle and lobby were plushly carpeted and the decor was grand, evoking cathedrals and palaces. A five piece orchestra wore tuxedos, despite being sunk out of sight in their pit.
With the asbestos curtain rolled away, elaborately pleated proscenium curtains framed a stage onto which walked, talked, rode and sang America`s premier talent: singers, dancers, comedians, dramatists, acrobats, lecturers, magicians, celebrities, animal acts and jugglers - the "you name it" of popular entertainment. It's not surprising that children inspired by such live action spectacles would dare to cross the footlights into the dream world on stage themselves.
Art Jennings dreamed himself to the stage, toured his acts throughout the country, founded the International Juggler's Association and accomplished enough else to fill several life times. "I wanted to learn everything there was, period. I have learned enough to qualify in 15 trades over my lifetime."
It isn't surprising, meeting the man, to believe that dreams come true for Art Jennings: hard-driven, laser-focused intellect, a voracious appetite to discover, learn, accomplish, and teach. What is astonishing is the breadth of his reach: research and design engineer, pattern and model maker, pilot, silversmith, builder of Story Book Forest in Pennsylvania, magician, juggler, clown, philosopher, unicyclist, slack wire artist. Wunderkind!
"At that time I was what today might be referred to as a Yuppie. I was very ambitious. I was very confident and truly felt that there was nothing I could not accomplish if I put sufficient energy and time into the project. I wanted to learn to do everything, and still do even though I know its totally impossible. I'm still taking courses and exploring new fields. Love it!"
His athletic talents displayed themselves early in "The Three Dolphins," a synchronized swimming show in Pittsburgh. His mechanical ability showed up when he carved a Boy Scout badge with such precision the Scout leader, a pattern maker himself, tried to steer Art toward a career in industry. But Art couldn't see that kind of surrender to a job. "I like to be able to look in the mirror and tell the boss what I think of him." Instead, he became one of those fortunate few who make a living on their hobbies. Throughout his life he has lived by all his talents simultaneously.
He first cultivated his entertainment talents as a magician, becoming active in the International Brotherhood of Magicians in the mid 1930's. He worked juggling into his act, as many magicians do, simply as a side bit. "I first put my juggling into my magic act about 1936. I juggled the oranges I used in the 'Dollar Bill into the Orange' as a diversion and to add a bit of novelty. There were not many jugglers so it made my act a bit different. By 1939 that bit had developed into a separate part of the act and soon became a 12 minute standard act booked primarily in theaters."
He moved on to clubs, using solid Indian swinging clubs until he met the Three Swifts, a comedy juggling team. They let him in on the secret of Harry Lind's clubs. Tips like this were rare and much appreciated. Soon afterward, he was snubbed backstage by another professional, whose hard-nosed attitude toward the "business secrets" of juggling fired Art's determination to form a fraternal association of jugglers.
By the early 1950's, his juggling career was in full swing. Of all the forums available to him, he gravitated to the most difficult, the school assembly circuit. It was grinding - long hops of driving along one-horse roads, bad weather, lugging trunks of props in and out of a cramped car that always threatened to break down.
Although circuits in the West and Midwest were better than others, some booking agents could run you to death. Jugglers often turned down lucrative school bookings for saner pastures.
Nevertheless, Art reveled in the travel. He toured for an unprecedented 17 years with the same agency, enjoying the sight-seeing, the enthusiasm of the children and the thrill of defeating obstacles along the way.
Reported in the March, 1954, IJA Newsletter:
One of Earl's fishing pals was stopped on a country highway recently by a fellow who had run out of gas. While driving to the next town they discovered that Earl was a mutual friend. The guy with the thumb and nonchalant attitude toward gas stations was Art Jennings, who has been in the midwest lately working school shows.
There was method in his madness. He stowed all his props in exactly 5 trunks that fit precisely into the trunk of his Cadillac. He arranged with principals to have kids meet him at his car so that, after an impromptu performance, what kid could resist carrying his trunks to the auditorium? He used a minimum of props and replaced each in its own place in its own trunk as he worked, thereby packing for the next show even while working. He threw on makeup and costume in 15 minutes and was ready to leave in five.
Through it all, he maintained separate "civilian" jobs. During one period as an engineer, his reputation was such that he could come and go as he pleased. He'd sometimes return from a school hundreds of miles away, go to work at two A.M., and work on a project until it was time to leave for another school. He occasionally paid someone to drive him so he could sleep en route between jobs: driven, indeed.
The distinction between professional and semi-pro blurs and becomes meaningless with performers like Jennings. Although he didn't work juggling "full time," he worked at it more hours than many professionals who did only juggling, and with his combined incomes, he made substantially more than many pros and avoided the sitting around between shows. Bobby May, that most professional of professionals, told him, "Don't sell yourself short. You're better than most of us."
Civilian employment gave Jennings the luxury of being selective, of not becoming a packaged can of beans. He preferred to set his own hours to his own, tight schedule. When he traveled for his employers, he was sure to coordinate a booking in the same area. Although technically a semi-pro, he made professional money. He felt that entertainment - of himself and others - was his real occupation; his civilian jobs were his hobbies.
"I consider myself a very fortunate old man. I've made a couple of 180 degree turns in my life, much to the consternation of some of my friends. But as the song goes, 'I did it my way.' My father told me just before he died, 'Son, the only thing I take with me are the memories. The only money that was ever worth earning was the money we used for what we wanted when we wanted it. Try to live each day with the thought it is your last day.' I have tried to live that way."
He wanted to see America and traveled throughout the 48 states. He told his agents, "Send me where no one else will go. I don't care about the money." He sought bookings at Indian reservations to pursue his love of Native American culture. He played to Eskimos and Indians who knew no English. His greatest and most rewarding challenge was to present an act both totally visual and totally audible for an audience consisting half of deaf children, half of blind children.
Native Americans are his other love and acceptance into their culture has been one of his proudest achievements.
He'd show up in a jerkwater town and think he was going to lose his shirt on the percentage booking. The sponsors would put the show in a barn, hang blankets for curtains, sheets for backdrops and bring in benches for seats. Then from everywhere families would appear, pouring into the tiny town, standing room only, forcing him to do two shows. Good memories.
Other memories - in a West Virginia mining town, no place to eat, the Fleetwood too big for the tight hills, carrying props through the cat and dog rain to a high school half way up a mountain. After it's over, some wizened old woman keeps the pocketable bills and hands him two heavy bags of coins for the trip back down. She said, "You don't seem to care for West Virginia - but remember young man - our money spends!"
"I wanted to see and be in every town on the atlas of the U.S. In 19 states, I've been in every town listed on the map. And in 20 others all the bigger ones. All the national parks and monuments. I took the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Good Night Darling Trail, the Chisolm Trail, the Mission Trail. I loved it, man, I had a ball!" He became known as the "loco tourista." Playing literally thousands of school assemblies, he "was paid to see this country and have a wonderful time doing it."
Between school bookings, he worked industry shows, churches, prisons, veteran's associations, civic organizations and fraternal associations. He worked, the man never stopped.
He went from $25 for his early magic shows to $1000 a week for his Happy Dayze act. He was making $500 a week when a hotel suite went for $25 a day. He owned a plane and used it for making long jumps between shows. He has driven Cadillacs for about 35 years. He was offered TV spots but turned them down.
In the October, 1944, "Juggler's Bulletin," he is mentioned in the same breath with Bobby Jule, Bobby May, Fred Allen, and W.C. Fields. He had an enormous home in Pittsburgh that became the center of attraction for traveling performers. (He met one fellow on the road who let him in on the tip that "there is a fellow in Pittsburgh named Art Jennings who will slip you fifty for your equity dues and won't bother asking for it back.") He once received a letter addressed simply to "The Bum Juggler, Pittsburgh." Art was easier to find than Pittsburgh.
When he tried to slow his schedule to 13 weeks on and 13 off, his agents still booked him for 39 week runs, so he quit. He grew a beard and retired to a Pennsylvania farm to raise deer, as he had done at Story Book Forest, live by bartering his silver work, content to be a hermit in the woods. He spent increasing months in Texas and the Southwest, pursuing his study of silver work under Native American craftsmen. Then he and his bride of 25 years, Carol, moved to San Antonio.
Carol is a petite, jaunty young woman with a sunny bright smile; she is the hub of his many-spoked wheel of life. They met when he was constructing his Story Book Village and she followed him through all the years of his travels, often ending up stranded in the desert because the car blew a hose or busted a widget trying to get to another monument or Indian reservation, following roads that turned into trails and then into dunes.
Also ranking high in his loves is the last Cadillac from his touring days: a custom El Deora with a Coupe de Ville front, Limo rear (you'll swear you hear echoes back there) and a hearse/ambulance chassis, newly restored after 15 years and a quarter of a million miles. He had intended to buy a Rolls but compromised on the El Deora for its practicality on the road, and because its hood ornament features a Rolls Royce flying lady in the swept-back design of the Cadillac.
"This old man has been living in heaven for the last 10 years or more. Heaven couldn't be any better!"
And there is still juggling. He meets most Wednesdays with young jugglers who come by the house, still showing a few tricks to shoot at. He meets his visitors in white PONY sneakers (perhaps in honor of the clown association of the same acronym of which he is an honorary member), new stay-pressed jeans with an enormous turquoise bear claw buckle, red plaid western shirt with large silver work eagle on a bola tie and wearing a straw Stetson with turquoise and Roosevelt dime hatband.
He speaks with a surly east Pennsylvania twang and the rapid, practiced enunciation of the performer. He'll show you around a manicured lawn and ranch home, and tour you through his "Putsin' Palace" - a garage filled with the tools of his various hobbies.
Not a man to live in the past, he has few souvenirs to show off from his juggling days, but what he has is, characteristically, to the point: the finely made break-apart club that was his comedic signature, the original drawing for the IJA logo, with its variations, letters from the greats in juggling, early IJA historical records, prized "report cards" from his school shows and wonderful footage of the first juggler's convention showing bare-chested and shirt-sleeved names from IJA history cavorting with the same youthful exuberance that has marked every convention since. It includes rare footage of Harry Lind doing his full vaudeville club swinging routine.
At the appropriate time before a dinner of aged steak, he'll offer to share his "attitude adjustment break:" slow sips of Eagle Rare Bourbon, 101 Proof and so smooth it slips your mind.
Later, he provides a whirlwind tour of San Antonio, from the Alamo to the Venice-like canals, and everything in between (if it's four o'clock, it must be the gondola ride over the Oriental Gardens), including a quick stop to meet jugglers in the park. Talking constantly - no, permanently - the man discusses and soliloquizes on an encyclopedia of topics: city planning, aerial photography and mapping, magic, theology, silversmithing, finance and business, engineering, the holocaustic treatment of the American Indian, politics, photography and cinematography, chorus girls, circuses and carnivals and, of course, juggling.
If 18 hours of this tires the visitor, an early morning trip to his fitness center is just the thing uncalled for. Following Jennings around from machine to machine ("Here, try this one now."), one frantically adjusts the resistance settings lower and struggles through a few repetitions before being called to the next Inquisition device. Then the sauna, turkish bath and a swim.
Despite near crippling arthritis on bad mornings, this man gets around, abounds. He still has the fingers of a magician, the arms of a juggler, the legs of a rola-bola rider,and the appallingly displaced and bunioned right toe of a slack wire artist. "I consider juggling on the slackwire to be my peak achievement from a skill standpoint. But I regret never being able to do a handstand on the wire. I was never any good at handstands in the first place."
After spearheading the founding of the IJA and serving as its first president (see accompanying story), Art remained active for several years until he felt that what he had set out to do had been done and was being carried on by able members. He returned again as president in 1955 at the urging of some early members who wanted to calm some of the conflicts within the adolescent organization and restore its simple goals. Ruth, his first wife, took on the task of pounding out the "Newsletter" on the kitchen table while he toured.
He remained active in the IJA until 1959 when he began his 17 year tour with Happy Dayze (see accompanying story). As his juggling son and several thousand IJA members can agree, he's been a good father. "I have been a very fortunate man but few accomplishments ever come close to the great feeling of joy when my dream of a juggler's organization became a reality. I'm quite sure that there are those who did and perhaps still do feel that I was a bit stubborn in trying to get things my way. However, while I may have done some 'arm twisting', all decisions were made by majority agreement. I think we all knew that it wouldn't work any other way."
It becomes apparent, upon meeting this most exuberant of men, that although juggling was only one of a multitude of pursuits, it shared an equal 100% of his attention with the others that made up the 1000% life of Art Jennings, a man who juggles life itself.