Sometime in 1955 I watched two jugglers race around on my family's little black-and-white TV screen. The act on The Sealtest Big Top, fresh from Denmark, was The Virginians.
During my own career 20 years later I met these two jugglers, Albert and Mina Sahlstrom. Though I came to know them as friends, and Albert as mentor, they seem to have somehow escaped the notice of most juggling enthusiasts and historians.
Albert died in May 1990 at age 70, survived by Mina, his daughter, Rosita, and an entire world community of jugglers who deserve to know more about his 40 years work in Europe and North America.
When I met Albert, I regarded him as the refined version of the juggler I was working to become. He performed with a speedy, quirky style, and was an accomplished physical comic.
Albert's father booked entertainment for Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, and his mother's family owned Circus Meihe, Denmark's oldest. Albert rode horses bareback as a boy. When he was 12, his father booked Bobby May, and the young lad met the great American juggler. May encouraged Albert's interest in juggling, and upon returning to the U.S. sent him some lacrosse balls. Albert always said his main influences were Bobby May, Bela Kremo, and the films of W.C. Fields.
Albert worked in an acrobatic act and in a two-man juggling act before forming The Virginians (named for his mother) with Mina in 1944. By this time he had perfected his signature club juggling trick - the running leap-frog take-away.
Albert coached Mina on the leap-frog until she became the first woman to perform it. Then, with a repertoire that included seven balls, five clubs, steals with seven rings, hat and cane, unison cigar boxes, the leap-frog, and rapid-fire club passing, they were on their way to working the top clubs in Europe, including the Palladium, the Lido, Club China, Tivoli Gardens and the National Scala, first as The Virginians and later as The Almiros.
In 1953 they signed on for a one-year tour of the U.S. with a stage revue. They quickly learned that American audiences responded better to Albert's comedy than to his technical juggling. This was fine with Albert, because engaging the audience with comic mime was his first love. His superb three ball routine with one ball on a string was his favorite. They elected to remain stateside, and for the next 30 years worked clubs, theatres, circuses, fairs and television shows like Ed Sullivan, Hollywood Palace and the Milton Berle Show.
In 1963 daughter Rosita joined the act, and at 14 became the youngest woman to perform the leap-frog trick. As a trio they made up to six consecutive leaps and steals. Their club passing was designed for maximum speed.
Audience response was more important to Albert than displaying his juggling skill. In 1959 he added a plate-spinning act, and his personality transformed the tired theme into sublime comedy. His pratfalls and flyaway toupee created audience hysteria. After a show, people would come backstage and call him a great juggler. He replied, "No, I'm just a good entertainer."
Over the years when our paths crossed we spent hours talking juggling. Full of encouragement, good humor and wisdom, he was "the old pro" and all I had to do was listen. Over the years, Albert became the most supportive fan Mr. Slim and L.J. could ever have. He would find a seat front-and-center at our show, and laugh uproariously at the slightest hint of comedy. If I ever complained about poor lighting or lack of sleep Albert always had a story of his own.
Albert and Mina retired in 1986. At age 66 he was still performing the leap-frog trick, despite being slowed by arthritis, a bad back, and an operation for a heart pacemaker.
For the past 10 years Albert produced a stage version of the Royal Danish Circus, and also emceed the show. A few years ago I inquired why he did not include a cameo juggling routine of his own. "Nobody wants to see an old juggler," he said. I protested. I never grew tired of watching him work. But again, he was "the old pro" and all I had to do was listen.
(R.W. Bacon performs with his wife, L.J. Newton, in Mr. Slim & L.J. Classic Comedy Juggling, and is the author of two books on juggling specialties.)