At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, a very popular type of juggling act was done by “Restaurant Jugglers.” Restaurant jugglers did their act in the setting of a high class restaurant, with both the customers and waiters eventually juggling anything and everything on the stage, including the food, plates, utensils, and even the furniture.
The Price Brothers
Despite what most juggling history books say, the first Restaurant Jugglers were the Price Brothers. Consisting of John, William, Adolphe, and Ferdinand Price, they were the sons of famed British clown Carl James Price (1801-1865). The brothers were clowns, acrobats, rope dancers, comedians, and jugglers. They first became famous for a musical act where they played violins and flutes while balancing on unsupported ladders and did contortions and tumbling while playing violins. They later did an act called the Musical Kitchen, where they created music using utensils and pots and pans. At some point in the 1850s, they created what would be their most enduring act, Dinner At Maxim’s. In this sketch, two of the brothers played a couple dining at a fancy restaurant, with John Price dressed as a woman. The other two brothers played waiters. As the act progressed the waiters began juggling and eventually all four performers were tossing a wide array of food, cutlery, plates, and furniture about the stage. By the end of the sketch the entire restaurant scene was in complete shambles.
In 1879, French juggler Henri Agoust teamed up with the Hanlon Brothers of the Hanlon-Lees troupe of acrobats. The Hanlon-Lees were successful performers but simply did stunts on stage. Agoust persuaded them to stage their performances in a more theatrical setting. The eventual result was a production called A Trip To Switzerland, which has been called “perhaps one of the most significant productions in the history of popular entertainment, for in it a wide range of circus techniques, stage music, and dazzling scenic work was incorporated into a dramatic context and performed by a group of the world’s most talented acrobats, jugglers, and clowns.” This almost sounds like a modern description of a Cirque Du Soleil production! The production had three acts, with the third act being more or less a copy of the Price Brothers’ A Dinner At Maxim’s sketch. The Hanlon-Lees’ production was a huge hit everywhere it was performed and Henri Agoust was given much praise for both his insistence that the troupe become more theatrical in their presentations and as the star juggler in the famous restaurant scene. Unfortunately, he also took or was given credit for the creation of the restaurant juggling act, leaving the Price Brothers, who were obviously his inspiration, as merely a footnote that was almost completely forgotten until recently.
In 1886, Henri Agoust left the Hanlon-Lees troupe to become the ringmaster of the Nouveau Cirque. While the Hanlon-Lees Troupe continued to perform the act, it wasn’t as successful without Agoust. Around 1890, Agoust hired Wallace and Mrs. Havelock and Bill Talent to form the Agoust Troupe. They recreated the restaurant scene from A Trip To Switzerland and had great success with it for more than twenty years. Below are two pictures of the Agoust Troupe.
Amazingly, a short film of the Agoust Troupe from 1898 still exists. It’s one of the oldest films of juggling still in existence. See it below.