The Oklahoma juggling trio of Darn Good & Funny earned the only standing ovation of the festival championships. IJA audiences know juggling, and are not satisfied with mere technical excellence and clean routining. The hard-boiled viewers reserve their top acclaim for those performances that demonstrate innovation in the art.
So the crowd was pleased, but not overly impressed, as Kevin Holman and Karen and Paul Phariss danced through a club routine between a stage curiously defined by six upright white poles.
But then the music changed appropriately to Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.," and the group started working the poles into a routine unlike anything the audience had ever seen. They were constantly in motion to the upbeat tune, smiling and dancing playfully around the poles as they handed them back and forth in creative ways. But when Holman and Paul Phariss started juggling two balls each along with one end of a stick that they jointly held, the audience went wild. The excitement of that simple new juggling concept built into another routine where balls were passed through hula hoops. The final trick was the three jugglers passing 10 hula hoops, with Kevin standing at point passing ultimate throws with each hand while his partners tosses on the every-other count. The routine climaxed in a spontaneous and well-deserved standing ovation from appreciative viewers.
The only other team contender, the Raspyni Brothers, had presented a clean and professional routine, but it was little changed from what they had done in previous IJA championships. There was no question who won the audience vote. The judges confirmed that selection shortly thereafter and Darn Good & Funny became the 1990 IJA Teams Champions.
Paul Phariss said the group had taken to heart a message they heard at each of the nine previous conventions he and Karen attended, "People are always saying, 'We want to see something new, something different.' So in planning this routine we consciously set about to find something new to do."
The idea for using a pole as the jointly held third object in a two-person ball cascade pattern developed during the long hours the trio spends "playing" in their home gymnasium in Norman, Okla. Holman said they began with the idea of two people juggling two balls tethered together with a rope. "But that wasn't very visual and we saw we could do the same thing with a rigid object," he continued. "So we tried a devil stick, but it was too short. That's when Karen remembered we had all these 4-foot pieces of PVC pipe that support our backdrop."
During several months of playing with the new concept, they developed several variations presented in their routine. As Paul and Kevin faced each other in the ball and pole cascade, Karen stole the pole and replaced it with another one. They tossed out two balls as she put another pole into the pattern. They flipped the pole as they juggled it, and they held two poles still side by side to form a slanted trough that they rolled balls down. The audience gasped and cheered to greet each novel move. Juggling archivist Karl-Heinz Ziethen said he knew of no other juggling troupe in history that had ever used this technique.
The visual grace of hula hoops concluded the well-developed act. They combined many different variations of juggling hula hoops and balls, including one in which Karen and Paul juggled three hoops between their two downstage hands while passing five balls with their other hands and Kevin. Karen said, "That was the toughest part of the act because we were dealing with different objects, different hands and different directions!"
They said the pole juggle is relatively simple to learn, but requires perfectly synchronized cascades between the two participants. And while it had never been seen on an IJA stage before, many viewers have certainly by now taken it back to their own performing venues. The originators said they don't mind other folks using it, as long as the routine is not simply duplicated, but used in a new context.
The group had competed in the IJA's team championships for the first time in 1988, and finished fourth. They were pleased at the time, but decided to sit out a year and put their creative energy to work. "It gave us the motivation to work on something new," said Karen. "You can get away with the same old stuff just doing library shows back in Oklahoma, but the IJA championships is a great impetus to create new material."
The three have juggled together since 1982, following Karen's organization of the Oklahoma Jugglers group. Karen and Paul performed previously together, doing mime and juggling, while Kevin had a solo magic and juggling show. They quickly found they enjoyed club passing together and began fashioning an act that still tours the state. Their show includes a slow-motion mime race, Kevin's magic, a juggling piece with many different props, and a finale of comedy and club passing between Kevin on a six-foot unicycle and Karen standing on Paul's shoulders.
They have been trying to develop bookings outside their home state and hope that the new IJA championships title will help do that.