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

Joe Taylor

And Other Early Black Jugglers

With the Indianapolis Clowns, he was the pitcher, tossing balls, clubs and dinner plates around the diamond and rolling a baseball around his body.

The tradition of the minstrel show, performed by people without the need of burnt cork makeup, digs deep into the roots of American family entertainment. Though black jugglers remain a rarity, it is important to remember the solid influence that blacks have played in the field.

The Harlem Globetrotters certainly represent the oldest continuous object manipulation troupe in the world. The statistics on their travels and audiences read like world census reports - their impact on the world's acceptance of tom-foolery juggling, to say nothing of blacks and serious basketball technique, is immeasurable.

Less inspiring is the realization that the confines placed around black jugglers and vaudevillians has been as narrow as their contribution has been deep. Joe Taylor, the first black member of the IJA, grew up through these realities.

Probably due to their own eccentricities, entertainment people have usually been less representative of the prejudice of the general population toward peculiarities in other performers, whether it be pigment, dietary requirements or appreciation for mood enhancers. And there has always been a hunger to know what the other guy is doing.

On the front page of the premier issue of "Juggler's Bulletin," October, 1944, Joe Fleckenstein, one of the old veterans of show business - a man who had been around the corner and seen a thing or two - asked for more details on black jugglers. His curiosity was piqued by a line in "The Linking Ring" stating that "a pair of Sepia Jugglers entertained amusingly." Fleckenstein wrote:

To one who has enjoyed jugglers and juggling for many years, for one who has traveled many miles to see a juggler, for one who is a nut about juggling, the line above has caused quite a bit of thought. After thinking about W.C. Fields, Fred Allen, Serge Flash, Bobby May, Boy Foy, Mel Odey, The Bamfields, Harry LaToi, Three Swifts, Ben Beri, Stan Kavanaugh, The Elgins, Moran and Wiser, The Juggling Jewels (formerly Carlton Sisters), Johnny Ray, Art Jennings, Monroe and Adams, Belmont Brothers, Bobby Jule, Bob DuPont, Wilfred Dubois, The New Yorkers, Lon Rogers, Billie Burke, Pryde and Dell, Bobby Ray, and many, many more whose names I cannot remember offhand, I don't believe I have ever seen a colored juggler. Have you?

The answer, of course, is, if you don't travel in the right circles you don't see the right people. At the time, there were black vaudeville circuits, black theaters, black clubs and black jugglers. But Fleckenstein's question was wholly sincere, prompted by professional instincts - maybe these "sepia" people had a trick or two to teach.

So Roger Montandon asked "Bulletin" readers to send in information on "such a phenomena." They responded with a wealth of information. One of the replies was from a 19-year-old juggler named Joe Taylor. Taylor signed up for the "Bulletin" membership list, ordered back issues, and added, "You may add my name to the list of colored jugglers."

Taylor lived on Wellington Street near the corner of Columbus and Mass Avenues in Boston's Back Bay area, a trolley ride away from the home of vaudeville. He attended Boston English High School and picked up juggling skills from Ed Ellis. He was later influenced by Francisco Alvarez, who remembers being impressed by Taylor's gentlemanliness.

Alvarez also points out that other minority jugglers, such as Latinos, did not face the same sort of hardships a young black juggler faced. Central Americans, he says, were benefiting from the current "Good Neighbor" (or "Big Brother") policy of the administration. Indeed, all Spanish speaking and oriental performers - people who have often been lumped into the plight of blacks - shared a circus and entertainment tradition that gave them entree into American white society.

Black entertainers, on the other hand, although their minstrel show genre was flattered by imitation to the point of theft, were not welcomed in the better circuits. When they ventured outside their own circuits, they were generally limited to club dates, banquets and one-shot engagements in which the term "one-nighter" implied also "and then get out of town."

The problem wasn't so much that white audiences didn't appreciate good entertainment, particularly if it was amusing. The problem was that there was no place for the fellow to stay after he played the show. For black jugglers, it was a case of always playing a party under the admonition, "but don't mingle."

And so it was that a talented man like Joe Taylor struck out for the black circuits. He toured for two years with the New York Broadway Clowns basketball club before being drafted and serving in postwar Germany. On his return, he played with the Harlem Magicians Basketball Show and later the Indianapolis Clowns Baseball Team. With the Indianapolis Clowns, he was the pitcher, tossing balls, clubs and dinner plates around the diamond and rolling a baseball around his body.

As he matured, he stayed in touch with other jugglers. He visited Montandon when he passed through Oklahoma and wrote a piece on comedy ball rolling for Montandon's "Juggler's Bulletin Annual." While in Germany, he met with Max Koch and sent back an interview with this human Mecca of the juggling world for readers of the "Newsletter."

And that's about all we know of Taylor, the IJA's first black member. The "Bulletin" and "Newsletter" can take a little pride in the fact that they publicized him. And Taylor can take pride in having left Wellington Street to take a run at having his skills, rather than his color, recognized by the world.

A Sampling of Early Black Jugglers

George Rowland: Probably the best known, most successful black juggler, and one of the earliest; he was one of the first "dressed up" tramp jugglers, playing the circuits in the early decades of this century.

Thatcher, Primrose, and West: included baton twirling in their act.

"The Great English:" Hoop roller, popular around 1910.

The Billy Kersard Colored Minstrels: employed a juggler of balls, hats, cigars, and plates.

Will Cook: toured with the Black Patti Colored Musical Comedy Co.

Albert Drew: juggler and wire walker with the A.G. Allen Colored Minstrels.

Arthur Prince: Club and hoop juggler with the Huntington Colored Minstrels.

Coy Herndon and Silas Greer: With the New Orleans Colored Musical Comedy troupe. Herndon was reported to be one of the best hoop rollers ever.

Purl Moppir: Hoop juggler.

Willie Edwards: Not only a juggler but a wire walker and animal trainer.

Pee Wee Williams: Juggler and song and dance man.

John Pamplin: toured with several black shows and the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show in 1929. He worked in devil makeup, juggled clubs, balls, and "blocks." His finale was balancing a revolving table on a pole balanced on his chin.

Eddie Ellis: A club and ball juggler from the forties.

"Jerge-Abab, the Ethiopian Entertainer:" A cigar box manipulator of the thirties.

Harry Crayton: Hoop juggler from the forties.

Joe Taylor / Index, Vol. 39, No. 2 / jis@juggling.org
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