Frank Le Dent – The (Almost) Forgotten Juggling Legend

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Frank Le Dent

Frank Le Dent (1886 – 1948) of Philadelphia, PA (USA) is a juggler who was almost completely forgotten for many decades. Juggling history books barely mention him or completely ignore his existence. An article in a Juggler’s World magazine from the 1980s referred to Le Dent as the “mysterious American” because next to nothing was known about him. It remains a mystery why history has mostly ignored him. He was not only a successful performer, but he performed things on stage that were beyond what others would become famous for doing only in practice. For, you see, Frank Le Dent performed 11 balls in his act, at least as early as 1907, as can be seen in the newspaper advertisement shown below.

LeDentAdvert1907

Note the “Watch For The 11 Balls” in the ad. The following advertisement from 1908 again mentions the 11 balls included in his act, this time promoting that he is “the only man in the world juggling 11 balls at one time.” Note that he is now billed as the “World’s Greatest Juggler”.

FrankLeDent1908Variety

A year later, at the age of 23, he was still performing 11 balls, as evidenced by the following advertisement.

LeDentAdvert

Our evidence of Le Dent performing 11 balls is not only through advertisements. Fellow jugglers saw and testified to the fact. Vaudeville comedian and juggler Fred Allen wrote, “When I saw the really great jugglers – Cinquevalli, Rastelli, Kara, Chinko, and others – I was discouraged. I could juggle four balls, Frank Le Dent juggled eleven.” Well known vaudeville and post-vaudeville juggler Tom Breen wrote that “Frank Le Dent still has all jugglers stopped by juggling eleven balls. Some jugglers claim he only “flashed” them – that means throwing them all up just once and catching them, but any one knows that jugglers have to be able to do a trick better in practice before trying it on the stage before a critical audience.” Larry Weeks, who just recently passed away, wrote that Le Dent flashed 11 balls in the book The Manual of Juggling by Max Holden. Even more impressive is the description by old time vaudeville juggler George Kenyon. He wrote in a 1952 IJA Newsletter, “I saw Le Dent twice at the Old Keith Theatre in Providence. He started with three balls and juggles four, five, six, eight, ten and eleven balls. He crossed 11 balls, six in one hand and five in the other, about twice around and caught all of them close to his body.” This sounds like a qualify of 11 balls, but we can at least be assured that he flashed them. Additionally, an article in a New York Clipper Newspaper from November 6th, 1909 mentions Le Dent performing 11 balls and says that he was a big hit.

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Frank Le Dent’s passport photo from 1915

It is likely that he only performed 11 for a few short years, as other jugglers only noted him juggling up to nine balls. A review in Variety magazine in 1907 read, “LeDent, juggler, marvelous exhibition of jugglerly, keeping nine balls in the air at one time.” Since the first advert shown above in this article is also from that same year, we can surmise that this was when he started performing 11 balls. Vaudeville juggler Jack Greene wrote, “Frank LeDent specialized in balls. His manipulation of three, four. five, seven and nine balls was something to marvel at.” Vaudeville era juggler George W. Russell included Le Dent in a listing of jugglers he had seen that was published in the Juggler’s Bulletin in 1945, stating, “I have since witnessed the following feats, Enrico Rastelli juggled eight plates, Paul Nichols juggled seven hoops, Frank LeDent juggled nine balls.” Just as Jenny Jaeger performed 10 balls for only four years due to the continual practice it required, we can assume something similar of Le Dent’s 11 balls. Certainly by 1916 he was back to juggling “only” 9 balls, for a review from that year stated, “LeDent opened the show. The juggler missed frequently, but managed to score on his tossing of nine balls. His dancing hats at the finish sent him away nicely.”

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Frank Le Dent was born to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Le Dent on January 24, 1886 in Philadelphia, PA (USA). His father worked in the restaurant business. It is unknown how Frank learned to juggle. He was short in stature, standing about five feet five inches fully grown, and had a very boyish appearance. He obviously learned early, for as a teen he was already performing nine balls, five plates, and hat juggling, as can be seen in the picture below, which is published here for the first time. (From the collection of David Cain.) This flyer is most likely from around 1907, as a review in The Beaver (PA) Daily Times of that year says, “Le Dent, the Real Juggler, performs a number of very difficult tricks, such as juggling five plates, a feature trick and juggling nine balls, which is the world’s record.

LeDentPoster2

The three props shown above (balls, plates, and hats) were his three signature props. George Kenyon reported seeing Le Dent perform nine plate juggling, which, if true, is a record that still stands today. The following advertisement from February of 1908, when Le Dent was 19 years old, boasts of his prowess with plate juggling, stating “The Keith Circuit will juggle your dates, but Le Dent will juggle his plates. He is a young man still in his teens. Next week is in Boston juggling beans.”

LeDentPlatesAd1906Variety

Another advertisement from 1908 specifically promotes Le Dent as juggling 7 plates in performance. It can be seen below.

LeDent7Plates1908

The picture below, also published here for the first time (from the collection of David Cain), shows a 22 year old Le Dent with a prop stand holding 12 balls and a stack of plates. Note that he is billed again as the “World’s Greatest Juggler”.

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He eventually became known mainly for his act with bouncing (or dancing) hats, where he would juggle three top hats and catch them on his head in such a way as to have them bounce on the brims in a controlled manner before landing on his head. He was sometimes noted as the inventor of this act, but in truth he was probably the second to do it, with Paul LaCroix being the originator. However, Le Dent was likely better at it and gained more fame with the act. Below is a picture of Le Dent on stage with his hats.

LeDentStage (768x544)

Frank Le Dent was also well known for his comedy. His most famous bit was the use of a screen with a sign on it that read “Swearing Room.” If he dropped or struggled with something, he would go behind the screen and yell incomprehensibly before coming back out to try again. Many later jugglers copied this bit.

It is also known that Frank Le Dent performed with color changing torches. These torches still exist today. One, which was on display in the History Lounge at the 2013 IJA Festival, can be seen in the picture below. It is owned by Paul Bachman.

LeDentTorch

Le Dent first went to Europe in 1909 and apparently was a hit. A London newspaper clipping from that year stated, “Frank Le Dent, the American comedy juggler, opened at the Alhambra this week and was successful.” It was on this trip that 23 year old Frank met and married 17 year old Flossie. He would make many international trips during his career. It is known that he performed in the USA, Canada, the UK, France, Australia, and on the African continent. He was billed as “England’s Foremost Juggler” in 1916 and as a “European Juggler” as can be seen in the following advertisement from 1927.

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You might note that here his last name is spelled “La Dent” instead of “Le Dent” or LeDent.” “LaDent” was also sometimes used. Such variation in the spelling of his last name has made for complicated research.

It remains a mystery why Frank Le Dent didn’t become famous for juggling 11 balls in performance, especially considering that Enrico Rastelli would later become well known for flashing 10 balls in practice. Some have argued that it was because Le Dent was a bad performer. However, reviews of his act were consistently very positive. Here are a few such reviews.

“They have had jugglers at Chase’s, a good many of them. Some were very fair, too, but the jugglers who follow FRANK LE DENT will have hard sledding, for that boy is a wonder, and he received what seldom happens at Chase’s, and that was long and loud applause all through his act.” (1908 in Washington, DC)
Le Dent, a comedy Juggler. the first entertainer on the program, manipulates balls and plates with amazing dexterity, and performs a novel feat with bounding hats that has not been seen here before. (1908 in Richmond, VA)
“La Dent, the quaint juggler, has a comedy act that both amuses and surprises.” (1908 in Pittsburgh, PA)

“Frank LeDent, burlesque juggler, will please theatergoers with something new and novel in the juggling line. His comedy is excellent.” (1909 in Spokane, Washington)

“Frank Le Dent is known on the circuit as “The Juggler With The Drunken Hats.” Mr. Le Dent introduces considerable comedy with his act, thereby making a most pleasing departure from the many acts which comprise juggling stunts only.” (1909 in Portland, OR)

“Frank LeDent; in a class by himself as the World’s Greatest Juggler. What LeDent did to them in Toronto, Detroit, and Philadelphia they will never forget.” (1912 in Variety)

“World-Renowned Juggler” (1916 in Wales)

“Frank La Dent, the comedy juggler, gave his customary smooth performance , aided by a sizable bunch of props. La Dent is a capable juggler, manipulating a wide variety of objects with ease and precision. There are plenty of good laughs in the set, which on the whole, shapes up as a first rate example of a standard vaudeville number.” (1918 in New York City, NY)

“Frank LaDent has a juggling act quite out of the routine. His feats are fast and astonishing, for Mr. LaDent knows no limitations to his juggling ability and he makes free with every sort of an article that can be juggled.” (1918 in Portland, OR)

“Frank La Dent – Juggler opens the bill. His work is fine and he gets good applause.” (1918 in San Francisco, CA)

“Frank LeDent & company, American jugglers just back from sensational European successes, is another of the big feature offerings.” (1925 in Shamokin, PA)

“Frank LeDent, Sensational Comedy Juggler” (1946 in Lebanon, PA)

I believe that it was his ever changing identity, rather than his lack of success on stage, that may have prevented him from becoming more famous. At various times he was billed as the “World’s Greatest Juggler,” “The Crazy Juggler,” “Comedy Juggler,” “The Juggler With The Drunken Hats,” “World-Renowned Juggler,” “The King’s Jester,” “Burlesque Juggler,” “American Juggler,” “European Juggler,” “England’s Foremost Juggler,” “The Boy Wonder,” “The English Juggler,” “The Quaint Juggler,” “The Clever Juggler,” “The Great LaDent,” “The Real Juggler,” and “The Juggler Who Never Sleeps”

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Advertisement from 1913, saying that Le Dent was booked solid for the next five years and proclaiming him as the World’s Greatest Juggler. From the collection of Erik Aberg.

He definitely went from being known for his ability to juggle many balls and plates to being an expert with top hats. Another reason for his lack of universal fame could be the fact that he was, despite his tremendous skill, primarily a comedy juggler, even from his early days of performing. This may have prevented many people from giving his achievements the respect that they were due.

Frank Le Dent was still performing in 1946, just two years before his death at the age of 62. He and Flossie had no children, but his memory lives on through his achievements, and hopefully through this newly discovered information about him.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of sixteen books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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