There are days when nothing goes right. Today, for example, I spent half the day trying a false cascade with seven balls that Antonio Bucci showed me. He can do it easily. But for me, it just doesn't work. My left hand throw is always too far in front and if I try to correct it, it goes too far behind. After four hours of infuriating attempts, my morale was lower than the column of mercury in a barometer during a hurricane. I was thinking of quick suicide, then to run away and begin a new life in Transylvania. Then my spirits lifted as I remembered I was going to see Dieter Tasso at the Crazy Horse that night!
I left my frustrations behind and got a ticket for the most sensual and hilarious show in Paris.
The first act was a dance number with 15 beautiful women. Luckily it was hot in the room, because with what they were wearing you could hardly tailor a patch for a one-eyed canary! I don't need to draw you a picture! The audience seemed to enjoy it, but I was waiting for Dieter Tasso.
Finally he took the stage, as he has almost every night for six months a year for the last 10 years.
The audience, which came mainly to see the women, was a little discontent at the beginning. But Dieter won them over completely in presenting the perfect picture of elegance and relaxation and a flurry of gags he weaved into his feats of dexterity. The applause that followed his act must have been humiliating for the dancers, because the audience was completely sold on the juggler. Dieter bowed and, always smiling, left the stage.
The show broke down into three parts. It began with hats. Dieter pulled off the difficult stunt of pretending to be a bad juggler. The art of making the audience believe that the trick is about to fail, that the balance is so precarious that everything is bound to fall to the ground, is only successfully presented by the best. Dieter is the master of this material. He knows how to make the tension mount to a paroxysmal point, and then to release it just before the trick doesn't crash.
One example was when he began to throw the hat in the air and to a balance on his nose. In fact, it hit him in the eye, but as he grimaced with that fact he caught the falling hat on his foot. He then finished the trick by tossing it from his foot to a balance on his nose!
In the second part he performed his trademark trick, tossing cups and saucers up to catch them on his head. He tossed the first saucer from his foot, then a cup followed, and landed with diabolical precision on the saucer. Then he put another saucer on his foot and threw it. It landed noiselessly on the cup. He added a third story while explaining to the astonished audience that he, too, was looking forward to the end of the show, but that he had to continue because it was part of his contract!
At the fourth stage, his throw was visibly too high and the cup passed over his head, and everyone was astonished to not hear breaking crockery behind him. But no! The trickster had made a blind catch with his hand behind his back! His skill was even more extraordinary because the Crazy Horse stage was only 8 feet tall, and there were only a few centimeters between the top of his pile of dishes and the ceiling. He completed the fourth cup-and-saucer story, continuing the buildup of gags that made the audience roll with laughter, and finally he tossed a teapot to the top of the incredible scaffolding.
Then, following cigar boxes was a series of three ball tricks done very classically but with a relaxed manner and wrapped with such irresistible humor that I had trouble following it because of the tears in my eyes.
Once the routine was over, I rushed backstage to find out more about this wonderful performer...
Dieter Tasso was born in Berlin, Germany, in January 1934. His mother and father juggled as the Krakows, but had just about stopped performing publicly by the time Dieter came along. Still, he remembers growing up in an active household with rings, balls and clubs flying all over the living room. But World War II disrupted the entertainment world all over Europe.
As a youngster, he didn't understand the cataclysmic nature of the conflict, and he and friends took a childish pride in being able to identify air mines, fire bombs and explosion bombs from the fragments they found all around them. When the bombing became regular, Dieter's family sent him to the southern part of Germany to live on farms and in military camps. Both parents died before the war ended and Dieter went to live with an uncle, a well-known comedy juggler named "Little Knox."
As he was watching over the cows on the family farm Dieter started amusing himself for the first time with juggling. He asked Little Knox to teach him the art but his uncle refused at first, claiming that Dieter didn't have the talent. Dieter admits this was the case, but Little Knox didn't count on this young disciple's tenacity. Dieter said, "I couldn't balance and I couldn't juggle, but I liked it so much I'd get up in the middle of the night and practice so my uncle wouldn't think I wasn't talented."
In 1947 Little Knox relented and began 13-year-old Dieter's formal training. Little Knox began his career as an acrobat in 1911, but made his reputation as a well-respected comedy juggler who performed three balls and kick-ups with clubs. He had many juggling friends, and another frequent visitor to the practice studio was King Repp, a giant figure in the German entertainment world. Another comedy juggler, King Repp was well-remembered as the first juggler to perform with three different colored top hats. He used a red one, yellow one and green one to emulate traffic lights, and the effect of them flying around his head as he swept them on and off was said to be stunning.
Dieter explained, "King Repp had done an act with my father and two other people when they were young. I knew him very well, he came to practice to see if I was making any progress, and he gave me my first cigar boxes and top hat. I was very proud of him, he was always my idol in life."
As Little Knox wound down his own performing career, he cranked up that of his nephew. They performed together for a while as the Two Krakows. As Tasso would learn a new trick, he would add it to the act and Knox would take out one of his own to keep the time constant. When he learned the cup and saucer trick, Knox saw it as the opportunity to give young Dieter a stage name. "He said I should name myself 'Tasso' because the word for 'cup' sounds like that in just about every European language," Tasso explained.
He admits the cup and saucer trick was not original with him, but it did turn out to be his ticket to fame and America. Tasso believes it was originated by a German juggler named Ferry, but it was quickly adopted by other jugglers. Tasso saw both Rudy Horn and Sigi Manulescu doing it after the war, Manulescu on a rolling globe and Horn on a unicycle. Tasso decided to learn it on a slack wire.
As you might imagine, catching an ever-growing stack of crockery on one's head is not an easy trick to learn. Tasso said he started with real dishes and broke plenty during the learning process. "It was also a neck breaker and a knee breaker," he explained. "When you catch them you have to bend down into your knees very softly to catch them. It ruined my knees eventually."
Tasso said he didn't learn the trick very scientifically, it was just a process of trial and error - tossing cups up and either catching them or hearing them fall. Tasso said, "There was a picture of me in old biology book that explained it to me. It said as soon as a cup passed into my field of vision it set up an electric thing so that I knew exactly when to duck and catch it. It was a combination of tossing higher and ducking more as the stack grew. It's second nature now, but I've been doing it 40 years. Now I say in the act that it's not much of a trick, but at my age it's a miracle!"
But 40 years ago he began performing it too soon - after about three or four months of practice. He recalls dropping the whole stack on stage a few times, and of being almost booed off stage in Berlin once. "They advertised I could do 10 and I could barely do 6 then," he said.
It took a full year to develop the confidence he needed to do the trick right every time. He eventually reached a 14 cup stack record while standing on the ground in rehearsal, and did as many as 10 in actual performance. He also did eight while balancing on the slack wire.
But developing the technique was only part of it. Tasso said, "It takes a long time to learn, then even longer to make something out of it, to sell it to the audience."
Henry Ringling North saw Tasso perform the trick at the Friederickstadt Palace in Berlin, and offered him a contract to perform center ring with his circus in America in 1952. Tasso said, "The cups turned out to be my big break. I wasn't getting into variety shows before, but started getting those jobs once I could do the cup and saucer. Then learning it on the slack wire made me a circus act."
Tasso and Uncle Knox, now acting as his assistant, packed up and left for the new land. Tasso ended up performing for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus for three years through 1954. He began his act by devil sticking a tennis racket, then had short passes with three hats and three cigar boxes. But he astounded audiences and made his fame with his cup and saucer trick. The high point of the act, he says, was for about six months when he incorporated a unicycle into the stunt.
Tasso remembered, "I would stand on a slack wire and toss eight sets of cups and saucers up to my head with my foot. Then someone handed me a unicycle and I mounted the unicycle on the slack wire and finished the trick on it by tossing up the teacup, a spoon and sugar cube."
But the unicycle riding damaged his knees and the dangerous trick resulted in a few spills, so he began to scale it back. He was still standing on the slack wire with a portable rigging when he performed with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1970, but dropped the rigging to kick up his cups from the solid stage as he began working cruise ships, where the rigging was impractical. Still, audiences liked his cup and saucer trick so much that it became the rage with other jugglers for several years in the 1950s. "It seemed like everyone was doing it for a while there," Tasso said, "even dogs and monkeys! But now I'm the only one still at it."
Now he does just four cups, five saucers and the teapot on top.
He and Uncle Knox established a home in Sarasota, Fla., in 1952, and Tasso still lives there with his wife, Irene, whom he married in 1970. He appeared on many national television shows in the 1950s and 1960s, including the Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan shows.
He worked in Shrine Circuses and in Las Vegas. Finally, it was the Crazy Horse, where since 1980 his six-month contract has been renewed every year by the director Alain Bernardin. During the off-months, he has worked on cruise ships in the Caribbean.
He admits to slowing down a bit these days, and was happy to take a job from January through April doing a family show at Busch Gardens, which was commuting distance from his home. "Home every night, and a day off every week around the house, it was great!" he said.
He returns to Paris and the Crazy Horse for July, August and September, then to Germany in October for the first extended engagement in his native country since he left with Uncle Knox 40 years ago. He will be appearing during October at the Summer Theatre in Stuttgart, and is a little nervous about it. "German is my native language, but I'll probably be speaking with an English accent. My English isn't getting any better, and my German is getting worse!" he said.
Bruno Quintero is a computer programmer and organizer of the group, "Institut Galactique de Jonglistique Appliquee," in Paris. Editor Bill Giduz also contributed to this article.
Posturing one-legged on a slack wire, He is no illusionist (nor I a liar) When his free foot tosses in sequence up, To be caught confidently by the joggled head, Saucer, cup, saucer, cup, saucer, cup, Each to fall fair and square on its mounting bed. Wonder enough? Or not? Not: for a teapot Floats up to crown them; item, following soon, Supererogatory lump-sugar, and spoon. Thus the possible is transcended By a prankster's pride in true juggling. Twice daily for weeks at Ringling's ring, Until the seasonal circuit's ended - An act one degree only less absurd Than mind: of slipperily balancing Word upon word upon word upon word, Each wanton as an eel, daft as a bird.
(This unusual bit of poetry, reprinted through courtesy of The Saturday Review, was penned by Robert Graves in 1952 after seeing Dieter Tasso perform in the Ringling Circus.)