Here's a trivia question for you: Who was the last entertainer to appear on the Tonight Show in the decade of the 1980's?
Juggler Dan Menendez is proud to claim that distinction for his appearance on Friday, Dec. 29, with host Jay Leno. Menendez's 4-1/2 minute routine was highlighted by his ball bouncing to play tunes on an electronic "floor piano" device.
For Menendez, it was the high point of almost five year's work on the routine. "The idea of the keyboard came from Bobby May's bouncing balls on a drum," he said. "I started looking for a drum to bounce balls on almost five years ago."
It was a tougher search than he imagined. Actual drums didn't work well because the bounce varied depending on what part of the drumhead was struck.
He turned to electronic drum pads, and liked the idea of a series of "octipads" that responded with different tones. But the ones he liked didn't work because of a metal rim around their edges that didn't allow any room for throwing error. The factory wasn't interested in building a custom set for him, and craftspeople wanted a fortune to build something special.
He finally found someone who was interested and could handle the job. That first model was attached to a store-bought music module which can produce the sound of 150 different instruments.
There were some electronics problems with the first two models they built, and in one case he was left tuneless on stage in front of a crowd, but the third model proved reliable enough for the nationwide television appearance on the Tonight Show. Menendez will not reveal its electronic secrets except to say that it produces tones each time a ball strikes its surface.
His repertoire is up to seven songs using three and five balls bounced in cascade and multiplex fashion. On the Tonight Show he played "Hungarian Rhapsody," Beethoven's "Fur Elise" and "Axel F." Rock fans will be glad to know he has also worked out "Stairway to Heaven," and the country fans can anticipate "Dueling Banjos." The challenge comes in trying to find a song that fits the narrow range of timing available with juggled balls. Though he can adjust the timing for three balls without much trouble, the five ball force bounce rhythm is not very flexible.
The Tonight Show appearance naturally led to some other jobs for Menendez, who has been performing for his living for almost ten years. He lugs the 30 pounds of electronic equipment with him to comedy clubs and corporate shows and uses it as his next-to-final routine. He ends with his strong ball spinning skills.
He says he's also trying to work non-juggling comedy into his show. "I do it at the beginning to get the audience to like me. I get a better response that way - win them up front with the personality, then hit them with the juggling to bowl them over," he said. His show includes comedy, the piano routine, ball spinning, three to five clubs and nested cups.
He says it has changed over the years to try to keep it fresh and different. He said, "I got rid of the torches, the apple, the machetes and the unicycle because people seem to identify them strongly with jugglers, and I want to give them something they haven't seen before."
A recent trip to the Pacific island of Guam as part of the Miller Lite Comedy Connection show with Pat Paulsen was nice in that regard because almost everything was new for that isolated audience, he said.
But even as he finds success as a performer, Menendez enjoys keeping in touch with the everyday juggling scene. If you missed him on the Tonight Show, you can probably find him in the gym with the other jugglers every Thursday night at UC-Santa Cruz.
Ocean City, Md., is finally open for public street busking! But it took four years of work and determination by juggler/unicyclist/clown Paul Belanger.
When he first approached the city of Ocean City about public busking four years ago, the city refused him in no uncertain terms. "Basically I was told it was not allowed and if I was to busk on public property they would lock me up without hesitation," Belanger said.
But he was determined to turn the tide, and spent two months visiting businesses to ask them to allow his shows on their private property. He approached the job as a business person - dressing neatly, presenting a portfolio with pictures, references and letters of recommendation. He stressed that his shows were family entertainment with no blue humor, and would be a positive reflection on their business.
He was offering entertainment at no cost to the business, but only for the privilege of passing his hat. Still, no business wanted the potential trouble of being the first in town to accept him. He finally got a warm reception at an amusement park and began doing ten shows a day for seven days a week there. They gave him only space to store and lock equipment overnight, and let him pass the hat after each show. The first year he performed there the park was free, but an admission charge was levied the next year. Since patrons had to pay to get in, they were not so eager to put money in Belanger's hat, so he made a sign to reinforce his hat lines and remind the crowd he wasn't being paid by the park.
With the ice broken, he made arrangements in succeeding years to busk on private property at restaurants, clubs and a marina. And four years of determination finally paid off. With help on street performing legal issues from Robert Goldstein and representation from the American Civil Liberties Union, the city of Ocean City relented this year without a court fight and is allowing public busking.
Belanger's advice to others trying to sway the authorities on this issue? "Be professional in your approach and persistent, and every tourist area in the world will soon be open to busking!" he said.
By the way, he also invites entertainers to join him in Ocean City this summer for its first year of public busking. You can contact:
Sports Illustrated, the foremost sports magazine in America, rarely pays attention to jugglers. So it came as a surprise to many jugglers to find that the Feb. 12 issue, the largest selling of the year because of its swimsuit feature, devoted 10 pages to Bill Gnadt of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Gnadt, dubbed as "The Utah Chain Saw Juggler" in the article's title, received the extensive coverage because writer Douglas Looney found him to be a fascinating character. But certainly not because of his success as a professional juggler. Looney writes in the article, "Seldom has anyone worked so hard for so little reward."
He was pictured on the article's first page juggling two ungimmicked chain saws fitted with handles, and says that's all he does. "They asked me to do three, but I don't think anyone can do three. No one would be stupid enough to hold two chain saws in one hand. Those things weight ten pounds each."
Gnadt's personal history and the oddity of the things he juggles was what attracted the magazine's attention. Gnadt juggles all sorts of hardware besides chain saws - including pitchforks, axes, bow saws, hedge trimmers, baseball bats, sledge hammers and thatching rakes. Though he rarely performs now outside of his immediate area, the 62-year-old Gnadt has a long juggling history. "I was in a dressing room once juggling with Bob Ripa, Serge Flash, and Lotte and Francis Brunn," said Gnadt. "Bobby May was one of my really great friends. As far as I can remember I was the first US juggler to do nine rings, and Bobby May did nine balls. We shared that for a long time."
The article does describe Gnadt's act, but almost as many inches are devoted to describing his unconventional personality and appearance. "On stage, Gnadt most nearly resembles an unmade bed," Looney writes.
But Looney also gives him credit for intelligence as manifested in his love of reading, and athleticism as manifested in his juggling, bodybuilding and former status as a table tennis expert.
Gnadt said he found the attention to his personal life humorous, but a little overblown. He said, "My house does look like Dr. Einstein's laboratory, but I don't have things growing in the sink."
Looney concludes that Gnadt is a classic case of a man born too late, that his act is perfect for vaudeville but largely lost on modern audiences. Gnadt candidly agrees, claiming that jugglers today just ain't what they used to be. "The old guys were just better than the new guys," Gnadt says, describing the acts of people like Rastelli and Kara. "I can't get over the fact that so many jugglers are ring, ball and club jugglers and are not creative. But that's what they see. My era was the end of vaudeville, so I saw a lot of different stuff and that's reflected in what I do."
Gnadt said the article came about through his friendship with former NBA player Mike Newlin and bodybuilder Bill Perl. Those two pushed his cause with the editors, as did a Time magazine writer who saw his act in Salt Lake City. The whole process began more than two years ago. Gnadt was pleased with the article. "It made a very interesting story, and the exposure will be good for juggling," he said. "It's one of the really great honors to be recognized. Getting in SI gives you a tattoo on your backside that really raises you up!"
You would naturally expect some spinoff publicity from an article in such a prominent publication, and Gnadt said he had received coverage from local newspapers and television. In addition, he got a call from the Good Morning America show. He said, "They called me up, but they didn't want any tools juggled. They must be thinking so much about liability. Why did they want to feature me without my tools? They could have gotten anyone."