The historical information in this article is reprinted with permission from the book "4,000 Years of Juggling" by Karl-Heinz Ziethen.
Born June 30, 1885, Selma Braatz was the most internationally famous female juggler of the early 20th century, and she had the ambition to carry the weight of that title.
A headline in The Cleveland News during an appearance in that city one time read, "Selma Wants To Beat The Boys." "The boys" referred to in the headline were master jugglers like Cinquevalli, Kara, and Salerno. But the act that Braatz presented included skills that none other than those famous names could match.
Her career began at age 15, when her aunt Clara Braatz, a famous soap bubble juggler, began training her. Selma made her juggling debut at the Corso Theatre in Zurich two years later. Four years later she went to America and eventually was invited to perform on all five continents.
She was the first female juggler who demonstrated typical male juggling skills, and she did this in a scenic display. As the curtain opened Braatz was reclining in a hammock reading a book. Her assistant handed her tennis balls and a racket, and Braatz balanced the racket on her forehead and juggled with the three balls.
Standing up, she juggled three balls in her right hand and two in her left, then switched without stopping into a standard five ball cascade. She also mastered six balls with great ease. She juggled simultaneously a top hat, gloves and umbrella, and showed several combinations whereby the hat landed balanced on her nose and on the tip of her umbrella. Next she juggled with an open umbrella, hat and gloves, eventually tossing the hat on top of the umbrella which she balanced on her forehead. Then she knocked the umbrella to the side so that the top hat landed on her head.
Her extensive repertoire also included the Japanese Awata act with two short sticks and a wooden ball, and she used one of the sticks for mouthstick manipulation. She juggled three color-changing lamps, passing them in solid back crosses at one point.
Billiard cues were popular props of the day, and Braatz performed many difficult balancing and juggling tricks with them. Expertly she juggled with three billiard cues and tossed one to a balance on her forehead. She also tossed a billiard ball up into a balance on top of a cue balanced on her forehead, then juggled three balls. She would the drop the one from the top of the cue, continue balancing the cue and juggle four balls.
Another three cue trick was to balance one horizontally across the tips of two which stood in a vertical balance on her chin. She then moved her head so that the top cue fell, and she caught it in a head balance while grabbing the other two away.
Braatz juggled professionally for 35 years, then retired in 1937 at age 53 to tend to her daughter, Mickey, who worked in an acrobatics act. Selma Braatz left Berlin in the mid 1950s and lived in New York, where she worked as a book for a while, and attended several IJA conventions. She and Lotte Brunn became close friends, and Braatz reminded Brunn that they had met 20 years earlier in Berlin when Lotte and he brother, Francis, were just beginning their own juggling careers.
Braatz lived a quiet life alone in an apartment near the George Washington Bridge. Brunn said she didn't talk much about her performing career, and kept almost no publicity material about it. But Brunn said she was happy, and the large number of greeting cards she received each holiday season from performers around the world indicated she was far from forgotten. Braatz had been friends with most of the great jugglers of the early part of the century, even learning some of her tricks from Salerno himself. When Brunn met Milton Berle for the first time in a Las Vegas show, the first question the comedian asked her was, "Do you know Selma Braatz?"
Braatz died at age 88 on July 23, 1973, and was buried in a simple grave without headstone in Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, N.J., in the Villa Palmeras section (tier 9, grave 78).
The IJA launched a campaign in the late 1970s to raise funds for a proper headstone for the grave of this great juggler. About $500 was donated then, but was not enough to do the job. However, it is a good start toward the current cost of $1,200. The IJA is rededicating itself to the task now, and invites all interested parties to send checks made out to IJA (Braatz Fund) to Box 3707; Akron OH 44314.