They appeared to be unlikely leaders of a movement when they first appeared in California parks and on streets corners 20 years ago. Young men and women lugged bags of props and unicycles to public places, staked a claim on the passing public's attention with loud voices and fire, and started the modern tradition of juggling in America.
Twenty years ago they were keeping an eye peeled for policemen who may not appreciate the show as much as the crowd. Now they're keeping an eye on the clock to make sure they don't miss a plane to take them to their next engagement at a regional theatre, comedy club, television show or college campus. What began in California as a renegade interpretation of a particular circus skill has become a corporate way of life for jugglers today.
But those 1970's California street jugglers not only found mainstream success, they also reinspired a whole recreational juggling movement that will be found in full flower July 17-22 on the campus of UCLA. It will be the 43rd annual festival and championships of the International Jugglers Association, an organization that was near extinction in 1968 until the fresh breeze of California street juggling revived it.
More than 1,000 jugglers from around the world will gather at UCLA to celebrate their art with workshops, a Cascade of Stars public show and championships events. They will compete to see who can run the fastest while juggling three balls, keep the most objects up in the air the longest, and present the best combination of artistry and skill on stage. The colorful, action-packed event has become a highly successful and highly publicized occasion. But it was not always so...
Juggling's history can be traced back 4,000 years to paintings of female jugglers on the walls of the Beni-Hassan tombs in Egypt. In ancient civilizations in India, China, Japan, Iran and Central America, some form of ball manipulation was associated with religious rituals. Through the Middle Ages in Europe, juggling was associated with legerdemain, or sleight of hand, and practiced only by wandering entertainers and court minstrels.
It was not noted in historical records at all throughout the early modern era, but surfaced in 1819 again with the appearance of the "East Indian" Ramo Samee in England. Samee's feats included "a series of evolutions, with four hollow brass balls, about the size of oranges; stringing beads with his mouth... and a manly activity in throwing a ball, the size of an 18-pound shot, to different parts of his body with the greatest of ease."
It was not until the late 19th century that juggling became an art on its own, separate from magic. With the flowering of variety theatre in Europe, which initiated American vaudeville, jugglers found steady work, public appreciation, good pay and reason to develop their art. They specialized as heavyweight jugglers, equestrian jugglers, salon jugglers, group jugglers and foot jugglers. The best of them were incredibly creative and skillful, fully deserving of the star status they achieved.
Paul Cinquevalli, for instance juggled an umbrella, a bottle of water tied at the top with paper and a top hat. He ended the act by tossing the hat to his head, opening the umbrella above him and throwing the bottle so that its open end stuck on the point of the umbrella, cascading water over the umbrella and all around him! That's entertainment!
His turn-of-the-century German contemporary, Kara (born Michael Steiner), took juggling to the limits of probability. He juggled six balls and, without interrupting their cascade, took off his top hat and added it to the pattern. He used an apple, knife and fork in another act. He cut the apple in half as it was juggled and continued to juggle with four objects instead of three!
A huge crowd of mourners jammed the streets Bergamo, Italy, when Enrico Rastelli died an early death at age 34 in 1931. They were there to pay homage to the Italian who still holds the reputation as the best technical juggler of all times. Rastelli juggled ten balls in performance and juggled six disks while spinning a ring on one foot and jumping a rope twirled by assistants.
American vaudeville theatre flourished from about the turn of the century until the Depression, when radio and talking movies began to attract audiences away from live performances. Hundreds of small-time American jugglers filled the vaudeville houses, but few of them survived the demise of that entertainment venue. One notable exception was W.C. Fields, who began his career as a vaudeville juggler before he found a broader audience on film.
Times were leaner for jugglers through the 1940s, 50s and 60s. A few high quality performers, such as Ohio's Bobby May, found a good career in nightclubs, ice shows, circuses and industrial shows. His good nature and skill at tricks such as standing on his head and bouncing three balls off a drum head upside down earned him engagements in America and throughout Europe, where variety theatre had remained stronger.
But many American jugglers of that era spent their lives on the road traveling from school show to state fairs, making a little money but not getting much respect. Some of them viewed the plight of their art as desperate, and thus decided to form the International Jugglers Association in 1947 to help preserve it. Through a newsletter and annual conventions they communicated and commiserated, sharing juggling tricks and tips on what locales treated you right. They were largely ignored by variety television, but nonetheless applauded more popular European counterparts like Francis Brunn, who earned spots on the Ed Sullivan Show and in the center ring of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
The IJA remained a small society of less than 200 professional friends for more than 20 years, until the California wave of the 1960s developed a whole new constituency for the art of juggling. The tired East Coast administration of the organization couldn't muster enough members for its 1968 convention, and was about to cancel it altogether when a California member named Roger Dollarhide who was back East on vacation said he'd like to pull together his friends for a get-together in San Mateo. "I was shocked they would cancel the convention," he said. "We had been having some very successful gatherings in California. There were a lot of retired jugglers in Los Angeles and they were still enjoying it and getting some younger people interested. They weren't really trying to keep the flame alive, they were just getting together and having a good time juggling."
About 40 people showed up for the one-day gathering in Bud Raymond's back yard - a stunning turnout compared to the 10 who had convened the previous year in Fallsburg, N.Y. They elected officers and guaranteed the continuation of the organization. It was so successful that the 1969 and 1970 conventions were also held in the Los Angeles area, with larger and younger turnouts.
At the same time, teenagers began taking to the streets in Los Angeles, Westwood, Venice Beach, San Diego's Balboa Park, San Francisco's wharf area and Berkeley. Some were politically motivated, but the jugglers were just young kids looking for a buck.
Peter Davison, now a member of the Boulder, Colo., based group Airjazz, remembered that he was about 14 and had been juggling a year when he first headed out to the Los Angeles County Art Museum in 1971 with a little bit of talent and a hat in his hand. The Art Museum never developed as a performing arena because crowds were sparse and periodic. But the colorful Venice Beach scene attracted jugglers early on, and still supports them.
Most jugglers get involved for the same reasons that motivated Davidson, who said, "I went out on the street because it was a way to make money and I wanted to perform. But it was really scary at first - I always hoped it would rain!"
Davison found he liked it, stuck with it, found two fellow performers, formed the group "Airjazz," and has since played such respectable engagements as the Edinburgh Arts Festival, the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival and the Tonight Show. He feels like the street was a great place to start. "It helped me develop direct communication with an audience," he said, "and that wouldn't have happened if I started on a stage with lights in my eyes. The group, Airjazz, also started on the street in Boulder, and that gave us a lot more spontaneity and awareness of the audience. It also helps us stay pretty relaxed when we make mistakes on stage, because that was a part of life on the streets."
It was the era of young people in the streets, and the jugglers, mimes, musicians, and magicians who were busking were a natural part of that movement, according to Patty Campbell of Fallbrook, Calif., who wrote the book "Passing the Hat" in 1979. "Juggling is a quintessential street art, it's infinitely variable, visual, and you can stop and pass the hat at any point that looks like a good psychological moment," she said.
Campbell said the modern street performing renaissance began in 1969 with people who were "intensely individual" personalities. "They want to work when they want to work," she said. "Their fierce desire for individualism is part of the reason they decided to perform on the street."
In San Francisco, Ray Jason knows the exact date he first did a juggling street show - July 17, 1971. He confirms her thesis about the street juggler's personality, saying "I was a Vietnam vet and didn't want anything to do with the mainstream when I returned. People were performing on street, but no one juggling, so I decided to do that. And what started as a lark became a vocation."
Jason is also prototypical of another chapter in the California street juggling saga. His conflicts with the police over his right to perform on public property were well chronicled in the San Francisco press. He went so far as to build a flat-bed stage on his own truck so he could simply park it and perform without standing on public property. History would vindicate Jason, however, as San Francisco declared "Ray Jason Day" a decade later in 1981 to recognize his contributions to the arts in the city.
The most important thing street performance did for modern entertainment was to give people a place to start. They didn't have to practice in private at home or in a gym until they had an act good enough to take to an entertainment agent. They simply practiced on the street in public and measured their success by how many people stopped and how much cash they collected in their hats. The money they made kept them fed and housed as their act developed, and the exposure on the street led to more frequent private engagements that eventually allowed them to leave street juggling behind altogether.
Edward Jackman remembers when he started in Los Angeles "We just kind of juggled. We didn't know you could have an act." That's the same person who was named National Association of Campus Activities Comedy Campus Entertainer of the Year in 1985 for, among other juggling feats, balancing a bicycle on his head while juggling three clubs.
He began performing at age 15, and one of his regular haunts was the theatre lines in Westwood with his friend Daniel Rosen, who has also gone on to greater things. Conditions were not ideal, he recalled. "Westwood was guerrilla warfare more than anything else," he said. "You were standing between two parked cars just off the sidewalk because you couldn't block the sidewalk. Hare Krisnas came by and tried to chase you out, then buses would come by in the middle of your show and you'd have to scream to be heard."
He found more pleasant conditions in Balboa Park in San Diego and settled there, spending all day sharing the performance space with other jugglers like Mark Nizer, Kit Summers, Ben Decker and Dan Wiles. The peer presence forced them to stretch for better technique and audience rapport. Nizer remembered seeing Wiles juggle five clubs while bouncing on a slack rope to keep two hoops on it spinning in opposite directions. That's a tough act to follow!
Even the famous juggling Dick Franco started on the streets. Before his first big tour with a circus, he traveled to San Diego to practice. He met Bob Rosenberg, who was the first juggler to work Balboa Park regularly, and they juggled together there for about six months.
This duo inspired Kit Summers and Jon Held to try their hands (and hats) in the park, thereby launching two other distinguished juggling careers.
Jackman explained, "Since we were in same place with many of the same people every week, I didn't want them to see the same thing every time. Working there for me made me stretch for new material to entertain the other jugglers who would show up. I always thought being original was more important than being funny."
He improvised a lot, and occasionally flopped and quit in the middle of a show. But it didn't matter because it was the street. Jackman said, "I felt pretty vulnerable out there because I cared a lot about what people thought. It took me a long time to learn that if you cared about making a fool of yourself and what people thought about you, you were dead. So I learned to enjoy it and not worry."
One of the biggest success stories is that of Michael Davis. Davis hoped to be an actor, but in 1973 was mostly delivering pizzas in San Francisco. Following the lead of mimes like Robert Shields, Davis decided to take to the streets with a partner and clown for his daily bread. After a detour through Ringling Brothers, he was back on the streets without the makeup and without a partner in 1978 and began drawing tremendous crowds for three shows a day at the Cannery. Exposure at the San Francisco Street Performer's Festival led to a slot on the HBO Young Comedians show, which led directly to Broadway and the show "Broadway Follies."
As he travels around the world now doing corporate shows and nightclub engagements, Davis looks back fondly on those days in the streets. He said, "Being a street performer was the thing I did best of anything I ever did. I was killing on the street, and I think my act reached a peak then. I don't think I could go back now and be as good as I was then. I was obsessed, that's all I cared about. It was satisfying also because it was very honest money. Sometimes I do a show now and feel like I didn't earn it, but then I always knew I earned what I got."
Other notable individuals who have come a long way from their early days on the streets are A. Whitney Brown, Avner the Eccentric, Robert Nelson, Daniel Holzman, Barry Friedman and Frank Olivier.
Nelson came to San Francisco from New Orleans as a greenhorn street performer in 1978 and quickly became entertainment coordinator at Pier 39. He likes to think his example of aggressive banter with the audience provided a model and inspiration to help nurture several fledgling performers who started their careers on that stage. He said, "They saw I made a success of it without tremendous technique, that you could become friends with the audience without depending on your technical stuff."
Several successful acts grew from more communal roots. The Pickle Family Circus and the Royal Lichtenstein Circus have survived the early 1970s caldron of social upheaval. Just as street performers were learning that they didn't have to come from an entertainment background to enjoy some success, these nouveau-circus troupes showed that spirit was more important than heritage. The juggling wasn't very sophisticated at the beginning, remembers San Francisco's Dana Smith of his experience with the Royal Lichtenstein Circus. "The big trick was juggling four balls for a second," he said. "Back in '72 the killer trick was the neck catch, that was one of biggest applause points in the show!"
Probably the most successful of the groups, and the one that has remained most loyal to its roots, is The Flying Karamazov Brothers. Their theatrical presentation of comedy, juggling and music was born in the streets of Santa Cruz, and has since then entertained audiences on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, on major television shows and all over the world. However, they have maintained a communal spirit, traveling with their families, allowing themselves time for personal pursuits, and spending several weeks on the road each year with the counter-culture Chataqua tour of the Northwest.
Karamazov Brother Tim Furst says their current show in every way reflects its street heritage, "the fact that we don't work with a director, the improvisation, bantering back and forth with the audience, not being afraid to drop things or try different things, and the general energy level. If you do street a lot, it means you can do some things in your sleep. You can improvise around them and don't have to concentrate on the actual juggling."
As these early street performers have moved onto more legitimate stages, the street scene has faded away. You don't find jugglers at the L.A. Art Museum or in Westwood. But you do find them doing the same sort of act on private properties throughout the country. Seeing how much people enjoy the spontaneity and close contact with performers on the street, business has built performing stages in private complexes. Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco was the first, but many have followed, such as Pier 39, Seaport Village in San Diego, Faneuil Hall in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore and Underground in Atlanta. Renaissance fairs and street performers festivals also have been established to replicate the atmosphere of the street in a more controlled environment.
Mark Nizer, for one, regrets this institutionalizing of the street scene. "The purist thrives for the no-control environment," he said. "We've lost the places where people can develop their acts and form their performing personalities."
Nelson fears the era of free-spirited street performing is over, its brief flame consumed and institutionalized in a way that will prevent a younger generation from enjoying opportunities for growth that were available a decade ago. "Especially since the earthquake last fall it's the end of an era in street performing out here it seems," he said. "A lot of people are not coming to San Francisco any more because of the earthquake. We're hoping it'll pick up, but performers are focusing their attention elsewhere. I really think it would be impossible for someone to come here and start out now. The general feeling is that it's the end of an era."
Nevertheless, the increased exposure of juggling in the 20 years since those first street jugglers began have inspired thousands of other people to take it up as a recreational pastime. That has, in turn, spawned a minor manufacturing business to cater to the aficionados. John Cassidy of Klutz Press in Palo Alto built his entire business around sales of "Juggling For the Complete Klutz," a book with three bean bags attached that has found its way into hundreds of thousands of homes.
The kids who started on the street began a process that has removed juggling from the exclusive domain of the circus and nightclub and turned it into an approachable endeavor for everyone. The street performer was physically close to the audience instead of separated from them by the "fourth wall" of a stage. Instead of being quiet during the performance, he invited and encouraged their banter and jokes. And instead of disappearing into a dressing room after the show he sat around to talk with them and teach them to juggle.
The domino effect took hold as new jugglers showed their friends how easy it was to learn the three-ball cascade. Those who learned and stuck with it to try the reverse cascade, shower, behind-the-back throws, more balls, clubs, devil sticks, cigar boxes and diabolos began gathering in Golden Gate Park, the park in San Diego, at L.A. Valley College, Hermosa Pier and other places once a week to get tips from performers, pass clubs, and work on their individual skills.
Juggling became increasingly popular as an adult hobby and became in many schools a basic part of the physical education curriculum. The growth of the movement fueled substantial growth in the IJA. Annual conventions began swelling in 1975, and recent ones, including the 1986 convention in San Jose, attracted more than 1,000 people.
Wherever the annual festival goes, it attracts attention and enthusiasm. But this year's festival at UCLA will surely have a bit more meaning for some of the stars on stage as they think back 20 years to their radical beginnings as a street performer in Westwood, just a few blocks away.