In recent years I have had a chance to meet some of the juggling "gods" who have inspired and influenced me. Trixie has always been at the top of my list.
I had watched her on video hundreds of times and spent countless hours learning tricks she performed. After locating her in Oklahoma, I booked a show there to try to meet her. It turned out she was coming to New Jersey to visit her sisters Hilda (who also performed as a juggler) and Lola, and agreed to meet with me.
As I approached the door for our first meeting I was nervously wondering if it would live up to my expectations. My expectations were far surpassed as I got to know this thin, 5'5" woman with a twinkle of wisdom and love in her eye. We have subsequently talked on the phone and met several times, and she constantly overwhelms me with knowledge, experience and wit. Her humble and honest attitude has given me new inspiration that will carry me for a long time to come.
The following is a combination of those meetings, book quotes and my own thoughts.
Trixie was born as Martha Firschke in a circus family in Budapest, Hungary, in 1920. Her supposed destiny was to follow her mother's tradition as a perch pole balancer. But, at 11 years old, when she was first sent up the pole she was terrified and begged not to go back. Instead, she saw a juggler who let her try his mouth stick. The first time she tried it she could balance a ball. Her father, who was not a juggler, recognized his daughter's natural ability and began working with her. He had seen Rastelli and tried to teach his daughter many Rastelli tricks. She was unaware of what she was becoming and practiced not out of a love of juggling, but for her father.
At age 14 she was a star, performing on all the great stages in Europe. She even performed for Hitler in 1936, and he gave her a signed box of bonbons. Then she moved to America, where she worked at Radio City, in a movie with Fred Astaire, and as a featured star with Ice Capades from 1942-1957, except for a two-year break to work stages. She married Escoe Larue, another performer with the Ice Capades, and now lives in Muskogee, Oklahoma, having raised 5 children.
Trixie says her skill peaked at age 18, and insists that without her father's constant pushing she would not have attained such tremendous skill so early. Her typical practice method was to do a trick perfectly 10 times out of 10. If she missed any one of those she would go back and start over. She juggled because she was told to, but said, "I learned to like it when I started to be a success. A light dawned, then I started enjoying it."
When I ask her about working on ice she said it added entirely new dimensions to juggling - constant breeze, lights and instability. Lights on a "normal" stage are from set sides. But on ice with the juggler changing position and angles, the lights are huge spots from the heights of the arena.
Knowing the technical level of Trixie's tricks, her ability to work flawlessly night after night in this unforgiving setting is truly amazing. The other members of the cast used to bet on how many misses she would have in a SEASON!
As an Ice Capades star she was paid well but "was owned by the company." In 1952, she did several print ads for Camel Cigarettes as the Spin-up Girl, and was never paid for them.
For those who are unfamiliar with Trixie's performance I will try to describe some of what I have seen of her on film. She was skilled in ball and stick work. She was the only person I've ever seen balance a large soccer-sized ball on the forehead and then, with one sweeping motion, spin the ball around the head to come up the opposite side to spin on the forehead where it began. She also performed this move starting from and returning to a mouth stick.
She performed, on ice, balancing a ball on the end of a stick while juggling five plates. She bounced a ball on her head while skipping rope on ice. All her tricks were filled with energy, charisma and acrobatics. Her ball work with one large ball was laced with back handsprings to last-instant catches on the mouth stick.
She performed a ball-on-stick balance while in a full back bend. This trick cost her her two front teeth in a smaller than usual ice arena. While skating backward with the ball balanced in the back bend position, the ice ran out and she fell over and broke her front teeth. (Luckily they now make a nerf mouth stick!) She would complete her act with a fast set of some 20 back handsprings, keeping a good grip on the ice with leather palm pads studded with metal spikes.
Because she was moving slightly to one side while performing this, her father set up folding chairs all around her and made her repeat it without straying. Needless to say she didn't.
Karl-Heinz Ziethen's book 4,000 Years of Juggling described her: "Newspapers in the thirties hailed the German female juggler, Trixie, as a phenomenon of balancing acts. It was a wonder that the 14-year-old blonde girl was able to copy the masterpieces of Rastelli.
"Trixie completed the scale of her unbelievable skill without nervousness. With the greatest of ease she tossed into the air two, three and even up to five rubber balls with her small hands. She juggled with six disks (plates) while heading a ball with her forehead and even managed seven disks. The wonder-child not only appeared as a master juggler but also as an acrobat of great style. The gentle, dainty, little girl tossed the ball into the air, made a clean double backward somersault and caught the ball with a baton which she held between her teeth. The ball around her head, was tossed up again while caught with the other side of the baton while standing on her hands. It must be remembered that Trixie was a child working on the stage with a fully developed technique and routine."
Francisco Alvarez in his book, Juggling - Its History and Greatest Performers, said "You didn't believe it if you didn't see it." He goes on to say, "...the control she had over two balls bouncing on her head was as good as the best of them."
Offstage Trixie was shy and insecure but when she went on stage she was in her element. Trixie's love of performing was profound. She had the rare ability to sell the tricks to the crowd and share herself with them. "There is a feeling which I didn't realize when I was much younger... a feeling between you and the audience. You take in their energy and give it back. There is a lot more to it when you combine what you're doing with the music and the movement and put it into one. Harmony! It's that simple."
As we ended our day I wondered if the level Trixie attained can be reached in today's juggling world without an almost prenatal decision to teach juggling to a child. Her training began at such a young age (before she could know what she wanted), while I plodded around for years unaware that it was even possible to juggle more than three balls. The IJA is a blessing in its ability to bring juggling to the public eye and encourage jugglers of all ages to excel. It's a shame we can't live to be 200.... I know I could keep busy!
Trixie is one of the living legends of juggling. Her career is a triumph in a time when female jugglers were rare, and never at the cutting edge of their art. I will never forget my few moments with that STAR.
Mark Nizer is a professional juggler living in N. Hollywood, Calif.