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

In Service to the Art

A Brief History of Propmakers

Edward Van Wyck

Van Wyck's motto was "Everything for the juggler, anything for the circus."

The name Van Wyck has become synonymous with the beginning of the modern juggling era, and has come to symbolize quality in juggling props.

Born in St. Louis, this son of a druggist was an active performer in the days before vaudeville. He performed for about 10 years under the name of Eddie Evans in Primrose and West's Minstrels, Hopkin's Trans-Oceanic Co., Albini's Entertainers, and others before marrying and settling into the insurance business.

He was one of the best club jugglers of his era and originated many tricks, including the "running trick" in which he would face the wings of the stage, throw a club over his head, turn around and run to recover the club in his pattern.

He established his manufacturing business in Cincinnati in 1895, with perfect timing to catch the decades of vaudeville juggling that was to follow.

Van Wyck had always made his own apparatus and his skill had caught the attention of fellow performers. He said that he "just drifted" into the production of props for others. Eventually, however, he made props for circuses around the world in his small 25x28-foot shop. His motto was "Everything for the juggler, anything for the circus."

He made juggling and aerial items for over 800 truck shows, and invented over 200 types of "spectaculars." They included the loop-the-loop trapeze and and a trapeze that revolved in one direction while the performer, doing a head stand on a ball, revolved in the opposite direction. He made everything from battle axes to tightwire apparatus, throwing knives to swallowing scissors and even bronze balls for the tips of elephant tusks.

Prior to the Van Wyck club, clubs were painted by the performers themselves and were often decorated with bands of nickel, brass, or copper nailed around the clubs or set lengthwise along the body. Aside from being tremendously heavy and of suspect balance, this construction led to injuries from metal splinters.

Van Wyck introduced lighter, foil decoration. But his greatest contribution was to take the club away from the haphazard production of the local wood turner and place more control over the balance of the club.

Previously, performers might order twice as many clubs as they needed in order to select a set with proper balance. But Van Wyck made the club sturdier without increasing the weight. The interior construction was at first solid white pine. In 1887 he introduced hollow clubs weighing just 24 ounces, and later brought the weight down to 18 ounces. The price was $1.50.

Before Van Wyck, the handles were merely glued to the neck and a good knock on the floor either broke off the handle or split the club wide open. Van Wyck added a wooden nut inside the handle.

He continued to make clubs through 1942. The last performer he provided with clubs was Eddie Johnson, an IJA founder, on March 10, 1942. Before he died in 1952, Ed Van Wyck passed along the mantle of club making to Harry Lind of Jamestown, New York.

Harry Lind

One of the advantages of early juggling get-togethers was that every juggler used Lind Clubs.

In the family of American juggling, Harry Lind was the grandfather, the patriarch of a growing clan. He was an indispensable manufacturer of clubs, counselor, inspiration and one of the prime movers in founding the IJA.

He was born in 1879 in Jamestown, New York, where his Swedish mother ran a rooming house for Swedish immigrants and where his Danish father worked as a bookkeeper. Both parents were staid, God-fearing people and were undoubtedly shocked by the decision of Harry and his brother, Eugene, to enter show business.

Lind's devotion to juggling was a return on the gift it had given him: it had saved his life. As a young boy working in a furniture factory, he was riding in a freight elevator when a broken cable whip snapped down on him, putting him near death for a month and partially paralyzing him. His therapy was to swing one Indian club gently in his weakened hand, then increase the arc. He slowly regained the use of his arms, putting the lie to the doctor's verdict that he'd never use them again.

He made his debut on Oct. 1, 1900, at Nate Fenton's Pekin Restaurant and Concert Hall in Buffalo, New York. Between shows, he was sent by cab to repeat the performance at Fenton's Main Street Saloon and Concert Hall. This was not only his first professional show, it was his first public show ever.

Lind's act was one of the first full club swinging routines in vaudeville. He also did three and four club juggling. Harry and Eugene, who was a flute player with a minstrel show, traveled in circuits together for some 18 years until Eugene contracted tuberculosis. Both men returned home and Eugene later died.

Lind had several other partners in his acts through the years, but none lasted more than a year, due apparently to Lind's demand for practice and perfection. He had brought his parents' work ethic to his chosen profession and few others could live with the demands he placed on them and himself.

When he retired in 1919, he tried his hand at interior decorating and soon opened his own manufacturing shop with machinery purchased from Van Wyck. His shop in Jamestown became a gathering place for jugglers and would later become the site of the first two IJA conventions. It was crammed with a dozen machines running on 18 motors, filled with club parts, and so many wood shavings that he was able to heat his shop with them.

Lind fine tuned the weight control of clubs. He had more of a woodworking background than Van Wyck and was able to choose wood stock by grain and density to achieve more uniform balance.

Both the Van Wyck and Lind clubs were made of a three-piece construction. The two pieces of the Van Wyck bodies consisted of a hollowed cup joined by glue to the upper part of the body, with the handle then inserted and fastened with the wooden nut and glue. Lind's two pieces were like slats or ribs running lengthwise, to which the handle was wedged. He then covered the body with canvas and wrapped the neck with glue-impregnated cord.

The canvas was occasionally painted and the handles were oiled and polished. The ribs of the body were basswood, from the Linden tree that was common in his area. The handles were maple or ash.

Lind would select the tree he wanted for production and have it cut and sawed into 14 "quarter boards," a lumbermans measure. He stored them carefully for several years to season. When he was satisfied with their condition, he cut the lumber into blocks roughly 3x6x13 inches. Each block was weighed since the density of the wood varied from one to another. The blocks were marked and stored in pairs, and the pairs stored in groups.

He worked in ounces, not grams, and used an inexpensive kitchen scale to match weights of clubs. He was proud of his ability to "eyeball" precise measurements, and relied on skill and experience rather than calipers. As did most of the craftsmen of the time, Lind used templates and patterns made of a stiff, thin material called fiberboard.

The weakness of the construction was the fact that he hollowed out the clubs by hand with a rotary burr, a machine on which he lost three fingers. The thickness of the club wall was not always uniform, and the light clubs couldn't take too much punishment.

Being an old club swinger, Lind had a religious fervor regarding the knob of the club. He viewed it as essential for stabilizing the club, and, most important, for precise control when passing.

The third step in the Lind evolution of the club was to lighten it to 11 ounces, which was just about heaven for the jugglers who could remember performing with solid clubs. Lighter weight, durability and improved balance made the Lind club the final stage in achieving the perfect wooden club.

His 14-ounce club, named the "May" model in honor of Bobby May, became his standard. One of the advantages of early juggling get-togethers was that every juggler used Lind Clubs. Earlier, many jugglers made their own of barrel staves or sticks with a knob on the end. Club passing between strangers was made easier as uniformity of equipment grew to be the norm.

In 1967, when Harry Lind died, the mantle of quality club manufacturing was already passing to Stu Raynolds, friend of the Lind family, who introduced a new age of high-tech production materials.

(Thanks go to Andrew Schwartz, publisher, and Nancy Raynolds, author, for permission to incorporate portions of her article on Harry Lind in "Juggling Magazine," No. 1, 1980.)

Balls Go To War

In the vaudeville era, a juggler might have to wait a couple of months for a set of Lind clubs or settle for clubs from smaller makers. But there was at least an assured source. Little thought was given to balls until World War II. Suddenly, it seemed, all the rubber in the country had been siphoned off for the war effort. Jugglers saw their equipment ground into the dust on foreign shores under the tread of marching armies.

In reading the archives of this time, one feels that the lack of props or the need for better ones was the catalyst that brought jugglers together. The rubber shortage, like the simultaneous shortage of foil paper to decorate clubs, tightened the juggling network.

Roger Montandon, operating his Montandon Magic supply company along with his "Juggler's Bulletin," hit some kind of high point in advertising and emphasized the plight of the times when he offered some balls for sale in September, 1944:

"Balls are mighty hard to get, as you know if you've tried. Good balls impossible, poor ones next to it. In spite of this we have promise of delivery of 2-1/4 inch hand balls. Now, hand balls are black in the raw and black isn't very colorful, so we give them a sort of a mist coat of white and would just as soon sell you some at 75 cents each as not. We really don't recommend them highly and we know the price is rather steep for the quality, but on the other hand, they do have a pretty fair bounce, and they could be worse!"

Eventually a source of good juggling balls was found - Canadian lacrosse balls. It became the mother lode and, in the recollection of Art Jennings, was a closely guarded secret among the pros - no need to kill the fatted calf.

The chief supplier was a firm called the Backrack Raisin Company in Montreal. By the end of the war, the T. Eaton Company of Toronto was selling lacrosse balls made from war-time rubber for $3.90 a dozen. They didn't have the bounce of pre-war rubber, but they were better than nothing at 32 cents each. By 1947 post-war inflation shot them up to $1.15. Montandon reported on the price, "Ouch! But they are the real McCoy. They seem slightly larger but have good bounce."

Balls Come Home

Harry Moll was the first to combine three balls, directions, and mass marketing. At one point, he even sold molds to make juggling ice cubes!

When our boys came home with their rubber, it coincided with America's giddy Mickey Mouse age. Perhaps from the exposure TV was giving juggling, and perhaps from the back-to-peace turnaround of our factories looking for new outlets, juggling toys hit the street through the mass markets.

The '50s were spinning on yo-yo strings, kid-size diabolos showed up at recess, and boys who couldn't hula worth a hoot were rolling their Hula-Hoops down the alley with reverse English on them.

And Harry Moll of Denver, an old veteran juggler and late-night reveler with Francis Brunn, introduced his boxed juggling set for children. As far as can be determined, he was the first to combine three balls, directions, and mass marketing. At one point, he even sold molds to make juggling ice cubes!

There was no booming success, no overnight sensation, but he had run a flag up the pole and more than a few saluted. There was something in the air. Two decades later, it hit like a thunderclap.

Stuart Raynolds

Raynolds' formidable background in chemistry naturally inspired him to turn to new polymer materials.

Stu Raynolds' close association with Harry Lind began when Raynolds returned from military service in 1947 with a renewed interest in juggling. He ordered clubs from Lind and Lind urged him to attend the first IJA convention. There he met Bud Carlson, Lind's grandson, and the two formed a juggling act at Cornell College, which both were attending. Their act was almost completely based on Lind's coaching.

Raynolds' formidable background in chemistry (he later obtained a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh and is now a senior research fellow with Du Pont) naturally inspired him to turn to new polymer materials. Despite the greatly improved durability of Lind clubs over predecessors, Raynolds found himself going through a set of them every six months.

He began experimenting with various processes on a part-time basis in 1950. Lind's death 17 years later put Raynolds and countless other jugglers desperately in need of a source of clubs. Raynolds was convinced that epoxy resin with fiberglass fabric gave the most controllable system and by 1969 he was into production.

The unique process he uses to manufacture these Rolls Royces of clubs involves wet layup laminate on an outside mold. An inside mold system, requiring the joining of five separate parts, was rejected earlier. The total amount of epoxy fiberglass can be controlled to within plus or minus one-tenth of one percent, and distribution along the mold, for purposes of balance, is also minutely controlled.

Despite Lind's craftsmanship, he could only control his weight to within three-quarters of an ounce and his balance to within one-half inch, due to the vagaries of wood. The Raynolds process makes variances virtually undetectable, with the balance points varying no more than one-eighth of an inch.

At the same time Raynolds was introducing epoxy resin fiberglass clubs, others were introducing plastic clubs. Both Dave Madden and Jay Green were innovators in the field. Green's "Poly Club" was made from tough linear polyethylene. This design was adopted by Brian Dube and later Todd Smith. It is, in one form or another, the club used by 99 percent of jugglers today.

John Cassidy

Klutz raised $34 giving lessons in the street and thought "the sky's the limit!"

It had tremendous visual impact. Book store owners had trouble shelving it next to sedate books on bridge, golf and other hobbies and recreations. It just had to stand out. It was that damn bag! Shelve it normally and that fish-net stocking bag crammed full of three bright, soft beanbags hung down like a long row of obscene ink blots. Try to lay it flat and it took too much space from "Arnie on Sand Traps," or just fell off the shelf of its own accord.

It seemed to have a life of its own, this "Juggling for the Complete Klutz." And what kind of marketing strategy was a title that insulted prospective buyers? The cover was atrocious, obviously not from the art department of a major publishing house. Hell, it looked like a book of cartoons. Hell, it was a book of cartoons. This was no way to sell books!

The only thing book dealers liked about this bastard child was that it didn't stay around long. They just sort of flowed through the stores - 10,000, 100,000, 500,000, for gosh sakes! A million copies were sold in a decade!

It had tremendous visual impact. You'd walk into the store, browse around for something intelligible by Alan Watts, a new Uris novel, anything to keep from thinking about how long the '70s were dragging on. And there, next to the cash register where the owner had put it out of desperation for a better place, was "Juggling for the Complete Klutz."

The title spoke right to you, "Hey, you! Yes, you, schmuck, the one who just dropped your change. You always wanted to juggle, didn't you? Well, look at me! You might learn something! Now pick up your change and buy me!"

John Cassidy, with the help of Klutz co-owners Rimbeaux and Hack, says he wrote the book in 1978 because it seemed odd that no one was promoting or teaching juggling despite the fact that nearly everyone is, on one level or another, a frustrated circus star.

He had learned to juggle in college and was searching for "various ways to reenter the Real World," as the Klutz corporate history blurb says. They invested eight dollars in scissors and cut up an old pair of Levis, filled the swatches with lima beans (which tended to sprout, and were replaced with crushed walnut shells later) and sewed their first bags. They raised $34 giving lessons in the street and thought "the sky's the limit!" They were about to have to pull their tongues out of their cheeks.

The book was originally sold in the Palo Alto, Calif., area out of the back of Cassidy's scooter. "The standard humble beginnings," he says. The ambience of Klutz Enterprises retains this lottery-winner "goshness" about it, like they worked hard to be this tremendously successful, but not tremendously hard! By 1980, as if pitching dirt on the grave of a lackluster decade, sales were astronomical. Klutz became Enterprises and Press and branched out into boomerangs, aerobies, jump ropes, harmonicas, rola-bolas and even bubbles.

As much enjoyment as the old-timers Lind and Van Wyck derived from juggling, it was still a business - show business. With Cassidy's bag of bags, he had tapped the market of the total amateur, the real mother lode, the guy who wanted to do something on a date when he was tongue-tied, the girl who wanted to get back into movement without busting a sweat gland. Klutz tapped the fun market.

Their corporate history calls them "the leader in the field of human-powered gravity-defiance" and claims that at any given moment a million pieces of Klutz flying apparatus are in the air. Objects, they say, that would "otherwise be stuck tightly to the surface of the earth." God bless them for freeing juggling from the realm of the impossible dream!

Dave Finnigan

Professor Confidence creates Jugglebug.

With the IJA having righted itself after running aground in the 60s, with manuals like Klutz and spiritual guides like Carlo's "The Juggling Book," with props just beginning to become easily accessible, there remained one final step. Juggling needed one person to bring it all together - business, teaching, preaching and fun.

Dave Finnigan was about the last person you'd expect to get The Call, but on reconsideration, the very best man for the job. He didn't learn to juggle until he was 34. At the time, he had degrees from Cornell and Berkeley, with 10 years of experience as an international consultant on health and development planning.

He was a globetrotter around a half-dozen Asian nations. He was about to get his doctorate, was considering multiple job offers and undoubtedly had the kind of career ahead of him that pops up every now and again in "The New York Times."

But his son, Davey, made him learn to juggle. Finnigan spent two days in the woods, taking eight hours to learn a cascade. When he came out it was like Moses coming down from the mountain. Finnigan had received The Word.

Bang! He ditched his doctoral dissertation, said good-bye to advising governments and took his message to the streets, parks and gyms. He had grown tired of trying to save people with great ideas only to see the bureaucrats dump 99 percent of them in the trash. In juggling, he saw a way to share the same feeling of accomplishment and self-worth juggling had brought him, and a way to retain control over "an action program that would have impact."

Finnigan's speech is laced with language like that. Whereas Cassidy was a '60s hippy spark igniting the stagnant gasses of the '70s, Finnigan is a '70s go-getter inspiring a corporate '80s.

In formulating his plan to take the Word of Juggling to the masses, he says it was "a program that people didn't see they needed or wanted. There was a supply side, to get a product or service into their hands, and a demand side, to stimulate the desire to use the product or service. Latent demand for juggling equipment would not in itself be sufficient to create a juggling movement. Instruction was necessary."

In a Bible or snake-oil salesman, this would be hucksterism in its finest hour. But Finnigan had less than selfish reasons. "I never tire of the thrill of seeing the smile on the face of a neophyte as they break through to a sustained cascade with a whoop of triumph. I think juggling is valuable, even necessary, in a world gone mad with hate and fear and lust for things and sex and power.

"It represents virtues that I hold dear, like creativity and silliness and perseverance and communication and not taking yourself too seriously. When juggling equipment outsells GI Joe and Rambo dolls, we will have passed the cusp from the Piscean to the Aquarian Age."

Replace GI Joe with beanbags? Can this guy be serious? Sure! Consider for the moment his degrees, his intellect, his experience with entire countries. Consider his method of teaching juggling. "It's all a matter of learning theory. You break the pattern down into the smallest possible steps and you build it up again step by step."

In other words, just as the simple act of scooping a ball from one hand to the other is the unstoppable beginning of the pattern, and just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, Finnigan's "Dr. Confidence" ("Juggling is our cover. We teach success!") and his Jugglebug Company is the unstoppable foundation for the juggling revolution. Hell, yes, he's serious!

Finnigan hammers away at this one-step-at-a-time philosophy until you are ready to believe him, because it makes sense. "A dropped ball is a sign of progress because you are on the leading edge of your capability, taking a risk. A touch is as good as a catch." These stock phrases instill confidence in the students.

Finnigan is, in other words, a guru in the board room and you had better take that combination seriously.

He has aimed his Jugglebug Company - the supply side - at the middle market of juggling with high-quality, mass-produced props with detailed instruction, marketed as widely as possible. He speaks of a synergy among a gym full of learning students and implies the same thing about his competition. He tips his hat to all the others. "We have all put tens of thousands of dollars into molds and materials that rebound to the benefit of each individual juggler," he stated. Finnigan is so serious about spreading The Word that he enjoys competition.

He has aimed his instruction, the "demand side," at school kids eight or nine and up. (He gets paid, you see, to create a demand for his product.) In gyms full of Scott Joplin music and scarves, he has personally taught countless thousands of people to juggle. His "Joy of Juggling" book and scarves are reaching thousands more, and his video tapes and students teach others.

And now Finnigan has published "The Complete Juggler," which is the definitive manual of juggling, teaching juggling and being a juggler. "It should do for juggling what the Boy Scout Handbook did for scouting," he says. Or what the tablets did for the Hebrews!


There have been detractors of Finnigan's movement to popularize juggling, the same voices who protested against the formation of the IJA, people who feel that spreading The Word cheapens the art. "But," he says, "those voices are fewer and less strident than in the past, and history is bearing out our contention that juggling is for everyone."

The question of cause and effect in the explosion of popularity in juggling - was it propmakers or a public demand for props - is impossible to answer. In the mid '70s, we had Cassidy pumping out his bean bags, the IJA was in the early stages of rebirth and Dave Finnigan was evangelizing the Word.

Ask any 35-year-old juggler today what got him into juggling, which factor was the real cause, and he'll probably answer, "I dunno. It just seemed like a neat thing to do."

So the answer is, no one gets the credit. The times were right. Physical activity was in, but spiritual adventure was still a big thing. Youth was sliding into yuppie - not unwillingly, but looking for its own terms, its own childishness to keep the 9-to-5 from being like Dad's.

Juggling was just the right tonic at the right time. Zen philosophy would say, "Don't give the credit to the juggler, give it to the balls." Which is to say, the balls always juggle, it is just our job to keep things out of their way.

Juggling, and I mean by that word the event and feeling that come together when a juggler loses himself in a perfect pattern, gets the credit. Juggling inspired Van Wyck and Lind to inspire Raynolds and Moll to inspire Cassidy and Finnigan to inspire us all to juggle. On and on like the symbol of infinity within the cascade pattern, the infinite egg pattern of the shower, the mesmerizing mandala of Mill's Mess, like the...

Hey! Let's not get serious about this. Let's go juggle!

In Service to the Art / Index, Vol. 39, No. 2 / jis@juggling.org
© 1996 Juggling Information Service. All Rights Reserved.