John McPeak: A Serendipitous Adventure

Several months ago, writer / historian David Cain approached John McPeak about being interviewed for eJuggle. David sent John around a dozen questions. These questions framed the autobiographical narrative that John responded with. David also digitized a video of one of John’s television appearances for this article. Photos are courtesy of David Cain and John McPeak.

John McPeak is a retired public school teacher (32+years) and currently resides with his wife Bern in Las Vegas, NV (USA). 47 years ago he learned to juggle. He still does it everyday and loves it. Juggling was never a full-time career, just something he loved to do and “boy howdy,” he did a lot with it. Here is a brief synopsis.

(*Serendipitous: an adjective that describes accidentally being in the right place at the right time.)

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I was born in 1946 and graduated in 1964, the Baby Boomer Years. I grew up in western Washington and Oregon. It was a great era in which to live. I came from a split family and spent time with both. We were of a ‘working class’ mentality, I suppose. There were no extras and if we wanted ‘stuff’ we had to work for it. We were taught to be frugal, honest, clean, follow the rules, and go to Church.

I was the most average person ever. I was a C+ student and had no athletic ability or other talent. I did enjoy participating in school and church activities, Little League, theatrical plays and such.

The Beginning

In the Spring of 1967 (age 20) I saw my friend Gene Grass and my brother Steve juggling on the grass in front of our college dorm in Seattle. Why wasn’t I invited, was my first thought. I was fascinated. I ‘just fit myself in’ and actually taught myself to juggle 3 clubs without a lesson. Just throw up, drop, pick-up and do it again – a very simple philosophy that served me well.

Gene and I taught ourselves partner juggling with the clubs and we performed for fellow students and did a few Church shows for kids with Gene’s magic and our partner juggling. It was so enjoyable. I loved it. I dropped out of college that summer and joined the Air Force Reserves. Later, I got a full time job working midnights at the Boeing Company in Renton, WA. In the summer of 1968, I eventually went back to the University of Washington part time.

November 1968 – Las Vegas

My brother Steve did a unicycle riding publicity stunt for the new Circus Circus Casino opening in Las Vegas by ‘riding’ a 13 foot unicycle from Chicago to Las Vegas. His team would alert the press at different stops during his trip. The news clippings were mailed to Circus Circus, and the owners planned a huge celebration upon his arrival.

I drove to Las Vegas to see his triumphant entry to Circus Circus. I rode a 6 foot uni with him in the police escort from Downtown to the Casino.

JohnMcPeakUnicycleMy reading professor excused me from class if I would do a Show ‘n’ Tell (a gig if you will) when I returned. I gave a full account of my trip and juggled and rode a unicycle in front of my peers and maybe impressed one of the lasses. Ha Ha

June 1970

I graduated with my history degree and teaching certificate and immediately relocated to Las Vegas where my brother was still working with his high wire and unicycle act at Circus Circus (it wasn’t a hotel at that time).

An Ethereal Experience

Boy, the desert summers are long and boring when you are living in a little trailer house with 4 other people. I was drawing $70 a week unemployment. I had no debts so life was survivable, I was almost 24.

A movie came on the old black and white. I saw this juggler throwing balls high into the air and catching them in little pool-like pockets attached to a belt: one on the left and one on the right side and one in back. I was dumbfounded! How could anyone do that? What did I just see?

“Rings Around The World”

The next day I went over to Circus Circus and asked Vino Berosini (he did the sway ladder act with knife/sword balance with chandelier) if he had heard of this juggler. He said, “He works next door at the Stardust.” I actually walked over to the hotel, entered ‘backstage’ and there was Rudy Cardenas rehearsing ‘the pockets.’ Some days later, two college chums from Seattle came to Vegas to check out the action. I took them to see the midnight Lido de Paris show. It was $8.50 a pop. What I saw was: ‘the greatest show ever.’ Rudy was the opening act, followed by The Volantes- comedy unicycle act, Siegfried and Roy-magic novelty act and Dominic- comedy pickpocket act, the girls, the sets etc. I did not sleep at all that night. I dreamed of jumping through the curtains like Rudy. I wanted a ‘piece’ of that experience. My brother made me a set of pockets and I bought some actual shaker cups at a restaurant supply.JohnMcPeakPockets

Teaching and Practice

In September 1970, I started substitute teaching in town. I took my little handballs and set of clubs in a small suitcase and would perform for the kids (if they were good) most every day it seemed. I saw Bob Bramson at the Tropicana Follies, The Fercos at The Dunes, Albert Lucas – the boy juggler, and Rudy many times. Rudy asked me if I knew Bobby May and about the IJA? I didn’t but I would soon enough. I went to the ’72 IJA Convention in Wilmington, Delaware and competed in the Ball Competition and actually won!? It wasn’t like a world class competition but I received a medal that made me proud. I did it with handballs!

I stopped in Euclid, Ohio to see Bobby May and listened many hours to his wonderful stories.

I also attended a Unicycle Convention and visited Chicago and met Ken Benge and Paul Bachman and Lou Folds, an old vaudeville juggler. He had these shaker cups that Paul borrowed, had duplicates made and sold them for $10 each. I bought 8.

The Summer of ‘74

I took a 2 week ‘teacher tour’ of London and Paris. I went to every show I could and met one of Bobby’s friends. I used to dream about flying to Europe and working in one of those shows. Back in Vegas, I would meet Rudy between shows for coffee and he invited several times to see his home. Rudy told me, “You’ll never be a classical juggler.” It was never my intention to be a professional juggler. I was a teacher, period. I had a full time position now and liked it – a steady paycheck.

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Rudy Cardenas and John McPeak

I formed a juggling club at school for 6th graders. We met once a week for Activity Day. At the end of the school year, Rudy came by one afternoon and performed for the kids. It was in the local newspaper. I went over to the Review Journal and got a glossy black and white print and gave it to Rudy. He didn’t seem too thrilled about it.

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1976: Whoda Thunk, Not Me!

I am fuzzy on the exact order of events. It went something like this……..

In late ’75, my brother’s unicycle and highwire act was booked (Simone Finner) in a PAL circus at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Steve got me a gig as one of the jugglers. I couldn’t believe it. A retired musician had written some music charts for me. There were 3 rings of jugglers and since they were using ‘my music’ I insisted on being in center ring. OK. I did a 3 ball routine, 3 clubs, some ball manipulation, the pockets and the shaker cups.

This is so funny. This was my 1st professional show. I was doing my little tricks….and I heard this clapping…

I’m thinking wow, they love me! I looked to my left there was Boy Foy on a unicycle juggling!!!

Oh, the agent booked me for $75 as a background juggler in a scene for The Streets of San Francisco TV show (she got $225) they were taping at the Cow Palace. Bobby May saw it! I was so proud!

That summer my brother got me 3 circus engagements as a juggler/prop man (he was the highwire artist) in Utah. I was supposed to be in my summer Masters Program at UNLV, but what the heck, right? When the circus closed and was packing up, I saw the prop boss and ran over to his truck as he was pulling out, “Are you going to pay me?” “Oh,” he opened his wallet and handed me $50. ha ha…true story. Then I had to ask my brother if he was going to pay me as well as I helped do the rigging! Aw, Show Biz at its best!

At the Convention Center in Vegas, I did several days and met El Gran Picaso. He told me to ‘get rid of those baby balls and get bigger ones.’ I saw Picaso perform at the MGM, I was in the front row and during his act, I said, “Picaso,” and he acknowledged me! Wow!

I also met Dick Franco passing through town on his way to begin his legendary career in CA. We did a gig together at Child Haven and we practiced together at the YMCA. He was doing 5 clubs – dang.

I attended the IJA Festival in Los Angeles and won 2 medals this time: ball juggling tricks and ball manipulation.

It was a summer evening at Jerry’s Nugget Casino and I hit like a $700 jackpot. My brother was performing at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. I packed my juggling stuff with my ‘cute’ new outfit I had custom made and drove over to see Steve. I juggled several days on the street corners in Santa Cruz and SF and passed the hat. A young Santa Cruz college student wrote a story on my street busking and got it published in the local newspaper.

That Fall, the local Theater Club in Vegas was doing Carnival, the Broadway play. They offered me the juggler spot. Some guy told the producer that I had been on Merv Griffin (national talk show) a couple of times. No, I auditioned at Caesars. Picaso did the gig. After one of the shows a guy gave me a card and said to contact this burlesque agent.

The Letter

Out of the blue as they say, a letter had arrived from Amsterdam. What’s this all about? In it were contracts to work in clubs in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Holland, East and West Berlin, Germany, and Switzerland.

An act I knew that also rehearsed at the ‘Y’ had (on his own, without my knowledge or permission), written to this European agent about this fabulous juggler and ‘to grab him.’ I was stunned!!! (I don’t mention any names, but this guy was trying to patronize me and use me later for his own selfish reasons. He asked me to recruit some of my students to work in his act. I don’t do that. He later went to prison for crimes against kids.)

What about my teaching job, my place, my cat, and plethora of other things? What am I going to do? My mind was in a quagmire. There were some sleepless nights for sure. I am not a ‘juggler;’ I’m a teacher.

In November, my brother was doing his 40 foot unicycle on the highwire for the Guinness Book of World Records. Somehow he got me booked to set an endurance record of juggling 6 hours on the stage at Circus Circus. I did the gig, it was on TV and was never put in the Book. (Charley Charles did his bike balance as well) For a number of years after that show, jugglers would call me and tell me they were going ‘to break my record.’ Ha ha.

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John McPeak setting the Guinness World Record for longest time juggling.

During student conferences at my school, I met Stanly Mallin, one of the owners of Circus Circus. He got me an audition at ‘his hotel.’ I performed wonderfully but Joe Halsey, the Entertainment Director, didn’t offer me a contract.

I also performed all over town for the Marines’ Toys for Tots that December. At age 30 years 3 months, I actually quit my steady day job, packed a steamer trunk (that was so dumb), bought a ticket and left for Amsterdam. People couldn’t believe it, especially me!

This Ain’t The YMCA Baby

I arrived in Amsterdam on Dec. 30th. It was dang cold and I had no winter clothes! I checked into a prearranged ‘pension’ (retirement living quarters for old people). The stairway was narrow and straight up! I had to unload my stupid trunk and hand-carry my stuff up to the 4th floor. There was a single bed, a sink and thankfully a little gas heater and NO fire escape. Dear Jesus……

The next day I went to see John Wardell, my ‘agent.’ He drove us over to the Club to look around and on the way, a guy ran a light and struck the passenger side (me) of the car. I was nearly killed in an accident on show eve! Dang! What else can go wrong?

Opening Night Jan. 1, 1977

It was so many years ago, an event one tries to erase from the subconscious, but I will try to paint a mental image of this surreal experience.

The club was what they called a cabaret or strip club. Picture a small intimate grotto, a tiny dance floor with little round tables on the floor’s periphery. To one side is the bar adjacent to a small elevated stage for the live band. It was late at night, I changed into my cute outfit in the kitchen and waited and waited. For years I had rehearsed ‘my act’ at the YMCA gym. Tonight was my big moment. Finally, I was introduced and calmly sashayed onto this small dingy dance floor lit by colored spot lights. I told the Filipino girl band to play something jazzy.

Loud men were drinking their $200 bottles of champagne and smoking at these little round tables, the band was to my back, and my prop table to the left of me. I started doing my ball juggling. I was looking into these colored lights and I dropped and I dropped. I just kept dropping my props, I was discombobulated – in panic mode. I couldn’t see anything in front of me. What the hell is going on? In total confusion, I knocked over my prop table with my shaker cups clanging to the floor strewn everywhere. It was freaking awful!! During the 2nd show which was going much better, I spied my agent at the bar. Uh oh, I knew it subconsciously…you know the feeling!

The Juggling Titanic had sunk! The Vegas Juggler, conquering hero from America, sunk like a bowling ball dropped into the Atlantic to the depths of despair. The prop boy said, “Call your agent.” (Yep, I got fired.)

Reorganization

It seemed like I slept a long, long time. One of the ‘girls’ from the Club knocked on my door ‘to console me the following day.’ ha ha.

Using the IJA address list, I looked up some Dutch jugglers. They hooked me up with a community center in which to rehearse. They so befriended me and I love the Dutch people forever for what they did for me. I prepared in earnest (by practicing baby) for the upcoming months in East and West Berlin. I flew to Berlin in February 1977 and yes my luggage was lost/delayed. What an ordeal that was (it was later recovered). I met historian Karl-Heinz. He lived in the West, but I was in the East sector of the city.

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As awful as Amsterdam was, Berlin was heaven. The Friedrichstadtpalast was a huge name and equally huge theater and show seating 3000+ nightly. A friend later mentioned from one of my letters that I stated, “I didn’t know how happy life could be.” Other than one lousy show on Press Night, I was a great success there. The Stage Manager told me that I was the first juggler to do the cups and pockets! “We are happy to have you!” Is that luck or what? They clapped heartily every night. I did a 3 balls, 3 clubs, ball manipulation, pockets and cups for the 8 minute act. What can I say? People liked it, I was no Francis Brunn or Rudy Cardenas. I never pretended to be. I enjoyed the after-show fraulein camaraderie immensely. A touch of heaven! Literally.

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Oh No, Not Again

Leaving Berlin by train, I headed for the Rotterdam gig. I was booked into the Mayflower Club. The stage had white furry material with huge colored lights all around. I was to put on a professional juggling performance with sloped 7 foot ceiling. The manager informed my agent that I was an amateur. I left! I called my friends in Amsterdam and they took me in!! After regrouping in Amsterdam, I took the train to Paris and looked up an agent advertised in ORGAN, a theatrical monthly. Did I get lucky or what? I walked in and walked out with a 2 month contract working in Israel at the Caravan Club on the Mediterranean Coast. It was fabulous! A magician, me, and 2 strip acts.

Holland

When I returned to Europe, my friends booked me with their clown troupe called Strip and Zipper (I had since parted ways with John Wardell). We went from town to town doing shows for the locals. I returned to the USA on Thanksgiving 1977 – almost a full year had elapsed.

Now What ?

The first thing I did with the help of my brother was to design the perfect shaker cup, one that would give me consistency. It was a revolutionary design. I had new music made using the Shaft theme (TV Show).

Speaking of TV, I saw the Gong Show. I wanted to be on that. Simone Finner booked me into a Los Angeles theater. I was a substitute teacher as well to fill the days. The teacher next door was Joe Haynes. I asked Joe, “Do you think you could ask your brother Marcus Haynes (basketball Hall of Famer, heck of a nice guy) if he could get me booked on the Harlem Globetrotters?” Yeah right! The LA theater gig was a smash, Simone Finner brought the VP of the Trotters to see me work. I came home with a contract for the European Tour with The Harlem Globetrotters! Come on!

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The Gong Show

I did 2 auditions for the show and got booked. When I told agent Simone, I was going to be on the show, she said, “Don’t, it’s amateur.” I taped the show doing 90 seconds of the pockets and cups and received a phenomenal reaction! When I didn’t get all 10s, the crowd went nuts. Chuck Barris looked at me in disbelief. It was amazing how many people saw that show and the reruns over the years. I have no video of it and will give someone $1000 for DVD of the performance!

The Globetrotter European Tour was grinding and arduous. Riding the bus was tough on my bad back with a different town and bed every day, it seemed. The late Walter Wasil was the hand balancing act on the tour. One of the greatest guys I’ve ever known. He helped choreograph my presentation, especially slamming the shaker cups down in the 8 cup finale. Also, get rid of that ‘cute outfit’ and dress like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. While in Copenhagen, Walter and I went to see a booking agent and the guy asks me if I’m the juggler related to Francis Brunn? True story.

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Paris

We did 2 weeks in Paris at the Palais de Sport. I personally invited and got tickets for Rudy Cardenas. After the show he came to the dressing room and said, “These aren’t cups, mine are very difficult.” He never spoke to me ever again! I was crushed. I got a fabulous review in France-Soir. Come on!

OH NO Not The ‘F’ Word

In Zurich, Switzerland, I’m on center court with the big rubber ball on my neck ready to roll it down my back and kick it over with my heel back into the juggle. The ball went off awry and into the audience. I was so angry I tensed up and said the ‘F’ word to myself – so I thought. When my act was over I went to the sideline and Walter said, “John, you never say a bad word like that!” I didn’t think anyone heard me. NO! Would you believe the big shots from The Globetrotters were in the audience? (The Trotters never reengaged me.)

Alaska

I was so mentally exhausted and depressed over this sudden ‘no work’ that I went for a 4 month respite in Alaska. My dad was building his big store and most of the family were there helping. Biggest mistake I ever made. The whole time I was in Alaska feeling sorry for myself, letters from Parisian agent Albert Tavel offering me contracts and my brother (who was living at my place) didn’t bother to send them or alert me. Dang it all! Bad Luck!

Simone Finner called me in Alaska and said a producer needed a replacement juggler but I had to audition. I said no, I wanted a guaranteed contract before flying to Reno and all. She never spoke to me again. Bad decision on my part!

Vegas Baby

I returned to Vegas. That’s when I first met Michael Chirrick. What a great guy he was and I always honor him for being kind to me. He saw in the entertainment gossip column, a novelty act was needed at The Treasury Hotel. I went over and would you believe I got hired? They just needed someone now….that’s good luck!

Kris Kremo and Karl-Heinz saw me work. The act was hot. My cups and pockets were dynamite. The show director sent me to Guadalahara, Mexico with a Vegas Revue.

When I returned, agent Leonard Green called the house looking for my brother Steve to do a fair date in San Rafael, CA. Steve was in South America at the time and I talked myself into a stint with Emmett Kelly Jr. Circus. That’s good luck. Of the 10 acts in this theater circus show, I had the greatest applause. It was shocking, really. I was actually great! When Emmett paid me, he said I needed a little comedy in the act! I couldn’t believe it. I met Gil Miller, the Chicago based agent that attended the final show.

I got a call from a burlesque agent in Vegas I met 4 years prior. Steve Rossi needs a juggler at the Nevada Palace. When I finished the 1st show, he hugged me and asked if I knew Rudy Cardenas? It was at the Nevada Palace that I became the first juggler to throw and catch 10 shaker cups on stage. (My 10 shaker cups performed 1st on stage was put in the 2014 Guinness Book of World Records. Thank you Alan Howard!) The act was fabulous.

JohnMcPeak10CupsFrom late 1979 into 1980, I worked in 3 of his lounge revues. I got rave reviews. Between shows, I’d walk around on the Strip and see the flashing lights of the Stardust Hotel knowing Kris was working there and I’m in this small time lounge show. Future doesn’t look promising, that’s for sure.

June 1, 1980 Hollywood, CA.

Gil Miller called me and said there was a new talk show in LA and the star, John Davidson wants to do a juggling gag. I spoke with the producer and asked if I could do some of my act. I brought my balls, pockets and cups. I did a music rehearsal and John must have seen me closed circuit as he invited me into his dressing room to chat. That was so cool. I waited in the Green Room. It was a 90 minute taping and I was scheduled last if they needed to cut someone due to time. Finally the moment arrived. “Come with me and stand over there, you are on after commercial break.” I told the guy I wanted to ‘jump through the curtain’ and he looked at me funny. OK. Like Rudy Cardenas exactly 10 years prior, I jumped through the curtain and did the single greatest performance of my life! The audience went absolutely berserk. John Davidson said (to the audience), “John, you are so good, have you ever seen anything like that?” I also taped his show at The Las Vegas Hilton two months later. I remember Michael Chirrick saying, you’ve done it twice and I can’t get it once! I had a studio copy of the show sent to Gil Miller, the agent. I called him, “Have you seen the tape?” He actually said, “I am just too busy.” Bad Luck.

I taped the TV show CIRCUS in Toronto. Biggest payday I ever received. I remember when the guy was paying me, “Great act, great act.” (All I did was the pockets and cups – one take only.) I turned down the Bozo Show in Chicago.

Epilogue

Gil Miller sent me a contract for one year tour with Circus Vargas. I signed and was on my way, or so I thought. Then I get a postcard from Gil, “Cliff decided on a juggler with 2 acts.” In the meantime I had turned down a job in Japan through Albert Tavel. I was double screwed so to speak. I sent my tape to Simone Finner and she returned it!

Life is about Good Luck and Bad Luck. I had a lot of both. I came close. I had a wife, a child, a mortgage and I needed stability. I was now 35. I should have started this at age 5, not age 30.

A friend and educational mentor rehired me back into the Vegas School District. Teaching was an extraordinary career full of awards and fond memories. Several times I filled-in for different acts in town including 5 days with Circus Vargas in Las Vegas. My last hotel revue was in 1993 at The San Remo in Vegas 21 years ago. In 1996, a local agent booked me in The Fremont Street Experience. It was 2 hours a night from 6-8 PM. I did 4 shows in different spots at $100 per hour. I’m working full time as a teacher and I’m getting this on side. My thoughts, I’m going to get wealthy. It lasted 3 months. That’s Show Biz.

In the meantime, I started dabbling in magic to increase my minutes of entertaining, as I would do an occasional assembly at school for the kids. Eventually I created JuggleMagic: quite simply, a birthday party show for kids. I advertised in the Yellow Pages. I got a call the first week it ran. On my way baby!

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My wife Ms. Bern joined me 6 years ago and we call ourselves JohnAndBernMagic. We have a comedy magic+juggling act with my wife’s famous balloon sculptures. We are #1. Best Kids’ Show in Vegas. We also teach Abracadabra Magic, a 5 hour course of magic for kids. This has been very successful for us.

JohnMcPeakSwordBalanceAt age 68, I’m in unbelievable physical condition and work every weekend with our show. I owe all the current success to The Lovely Assistant Ms. Bern. Juggling has been so wonderful to me. I never had a mentor or anyone to rehearse with. I am completely self-taught by looking at other performers and my own innovations. I am happy for everyone that is successful in the business. I’m their biggest fan.

I plan to be like Dieter Tasso, just keep working. By the way, I met him at Treasure Island waiting in line to see Mystere. I really like Wally Eastwood, Ivan Pecel and Niels Duinker. I saw Anthony Gatto twice in the ‘V’ Show. 

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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