Salerno: The Inventive Gentleman Juggler

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I must admit that when I set out to write this article, I believed that I was breaking new ground. For, you see, in the time prior to the emergence of Enrico Rastelli, there were three jugglers who were the top names in their profession. The first was Paul Cinquevalli, about whom juggling historian Erik Aberg is writing a book for future publication. The second was the gentleman juggler Kara, who was the subject of a book by another juggling historian, Herman Sagemuller. The third of the “Big Three,” as author Francisco Alvarez called them, was the other great gentleman juggler, Salerno. I was not aware of any great research done into the life and career of Salerno, so I undertook research to write this article. However, on the day I started actually writing this article, I found that an excellent article about Salerno had been written by Herman Sagemuller and published in Juggle Magazine only 6 years ago, in the Spring of 2009. I was immediately disappointed, as I had done a reasonable amount of research about Salerno. However, I discovered that there were a several important tidbits of information and some pictures that I’d uncovered that weren’t in Sagemuller’s article. Therefore, I’ve decided to concentrate on five of Salerno’s more inventive juggling tricks / routines that were either omitted or only briefly touched on in the Juggle Magazine article. Interestingly enough, I’m not aware of any photographs of Salerno performing any of these five tricks or routines. At the conclusion of this article, I’ve included, as an added bonus, the first translation into English of an obituary for Salerno that was published in 1950, four years after his death. It was originally in German and was translated by juggler Gary Varney for this article. Much thanks to Gary for his hard work in doing so.

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A Brief History

Salerno was born Adolf Behrend on September 30th, 1869, in Königsberg, Prussia. He was the son of a carpenter and apprenticed with his father in that trade. It is believed that he learned to juggle during this time, although little is known about how he acquired his great skills. We do know that he began his performing career in 1886 and was performing in well-known theaters by 1892. He was quite successful and was famous not only for his extremely skilled and inventive tricks, but also for the very high quality of his performances. One review wrote, “Salerno is the star. Exactly what he does is not of so much importance here as is the record of the astonishing naturalness and ease with which he accomplishes his sport with inanimate objects. A worthy man is this Salerno.” His career was put on hiatus during World War I while he was a German soldier. He was captured by the Russian army and remained a prisoner of war until his release in April of 1915. He retired from performing in 1932.

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In addition to his performing career, he lived a very interesting life. He married a French woman named Louise and briefly lived in France before moving to Berlin for the rest of his life. He was an accomplished carpenter, watchmaker, inventor, and pilot. He was the seventh person to receive their pilot’s license in all of Germany, doing so in May of 1910. In his retirement, he devoted himself to the development and creation of various inventions. Unfortunately, he spent most of his savings on these inventions and was penniless by the year 1946. He was desperate enough to write to other jugglers asking them to send food so that he would have something to eat. His wife passed away in January of 1946 and Salerno followed her eleven months later on December 10th, 1946. There was no money available for his burial, so his friend and fellow juggler King Repp covered the costs.

Salerno’s Juggling Act

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Like Cinquevalli and Kara, Salerno used many common household items in his act. His routines used objects such as a hat, umbrella, gloves, cigar, cigar case, wine bottle, pool cues, drinking straws, drinking glasses, plates, bowls, newspapers, candles, candlestick, knife, fork, and dumplings. You can read about many of the tricks using these objects in Sagemuller’s article. Below are some pictures of Salerno performing some of these tricks.

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The Picture Frame Trick

One of the most famous of Salerno’s tricks is also one that he is rarely given credit for inventing. This is the Picture Frame Trick. Perhaps it is because we have no pictures or illustrations of him performing it. Nevertheless, it is a trick that is still performed today. The Picture Frame Trick features a large framed picture that is balanced on the juggler’s forehead on one of it’s corners. The juggler bends his head slightly forward and then up, causing the picture frame to slide so as to be caught in a balance just beyond the next corner.  Below is picture of the trick being done by Chinko, a contemporary of Salerno who copied many of his tricks.

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Chinko performing Salerno’s Picture Frame Trick

The trick was later done by gentleman juggler Felix Adanos, who can be seen doing the trick here. Modern day gentleman juggler Jeton currently performs the Picture Frame Trick with a framed mirror. Click here to see Jeton perform it. Salerno’s original version was quite clever. The picture showed a couple sleeping in bed, covered with a sheet and blanket. When the picture was slid to the other corner, the sheet and covers rolled down, revealing the sleeping couple in their pajamas. This always brought a good laugh from the audience and showed Salerno’s skill as an inventor as well as juggler.

The Letter Routine

One of Salerno’s more novel routines consisted of his assistant bringing him a letter, which he tosses into the air. While the letter was still in the air, Salerno would open it by cutting off the end of the envelope with a pair of scissors and catch the envelope with the other hand. After he briefly replied to the letter, he would throw the folded letter into the air and catch it back in the envelope. He would then toss the penholder behind his back to be caught behind his ear. Finally, he would throw the pen, which would stick in the padded backside of his assistant, who was walking away as to deliver the letter. You can see Adanos doing his own version of this trick by clicking here.

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The Pistol Trick

The Pistol Trick involved shooting a billiard ball from on top of a special pistol and catching it on top of a cue stick which is “balanced” on another cue stick which was balanced on Salerno’s forehead. We have no pictures of Salerno performing this trick, but an illustration of him doing it is featured in the poster at the beginning of this article. Once again, Felix Adanos copied this trick and can be partially seen doing it by clicking here. It was also performed by the Danish juggler Edy. The Pistol Trick is currently being performed by gentleman juggler Freddy Kenton, pictured below doing it.

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Freddy Kenton doing Salerno’s Pistol Trick

The Color Changing Lamps

Salerno is often cited as the originator of juggling with electrically lighted props. This is, however, not correct. Morris Cronin, the famous early American club juggler, took out a patent in 1897 for an electrically lit club. Edward Van Wyck, the first retail club manufacturer, sold “electric clubs” as early as 1900. The earliest reference that I can find to Salerno juggling with lighted clubs is from 1905, where they were referred to as “electric torches.” Amazingly, these clubs still exist today. They were eventually passed down to the Juggling Jewels, a troupe of five talented female jugglers. From the Juggling Jewels, they went to Bobby May, then Claude Crumley, and finally to Paul Bachman. One of these clubs can be seen below.

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One of Salerno’s early lighted clubs, from Paul Bachman’s collection.

What Salerno did invent were the first color changing lighted props. They were lamp-shaped clubs that changed from red to yellow to green as he juggled them. He ended the routine by performing continuous back crosses with them in the dark. It is known that he performed with these as early as 1912.

The Salerno Ring

SalernoRingThe trick that bears Salerno’s name, the Salerno Ring, was not mentioned in Sagemuller’s article, but was the subject of an excellent article by Alan Howard in the following issue of Juggle. You can read that article, which contains more information about Salerno, by clicking here. The Salerno Ring is a large ring / hoop attached to a pole which is balanced on the juggler’s head. A ball is rotated in a track inside the ring and is kept in motion by the juggler moving his body up and down. The juggler then juggles balls through the center of the ring without disturbing the rotating ball. This is usually done via a four ball shower, although the only depiction of Salerno doing it, shown above, has him juggling six balls. The Salerno Ring was also performed by Kara, Adanos, Edy, and Caral. Today it is occasionally performed by Jeton. Many other jugglers have performed versions of the Salerno ring that didn’t involve juggling objects through the center of the ring and sometimes didn’t even include balancing the pole. These include Walter Houc, Charles Carrer, King Repp, and Angel Bojilov.

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Walter Houc

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In addition to Jeton’s traditional version, several jugglers are currently working on adding the Salerno Ring to their acts. These include Matthew Tiffany, who can be seen using the prop here, and Shay Wapniaz.

A Lasting Legacy

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Salerno continues to be an influential juggler, 83 years after he left the stage. Of all of the jugglers I get asked about, Salerno remains one of the most common topics of discussion. Just in the past few months, I’ve been contacted by jugglers wanting to learn the Salerno Ring and the Picture Frame Trick. Jugglers are still performing four of the five tricks or routines discussed here. Color changing clubs are a fixture in the acts of many top jugglers. When jugglers visit the Historical Juggling Props Museum (www.historicaljugglingprops.com), they are often quite surprised to find that the collection contains two of Salerno’s juggling plates. These are two of the most valuable items in the museum and just a small way of honoring Salerno, one of the greatest and most inventive jugglers of all time.

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Salerno’s Plates from David Cain’s Historical Juggling Props Museum

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Adolf Salerno

Juggler – Airplane Builder – Watchmaker

On the fourth anniversary of his death (Dec. 10, 1946)

By Walter Ulrich, Stuttgart (Translated by Gary Varney)

       Four years ago, on Dec. 14, 1946, only a few friends were present to shepherd the juggler Adolf Salerno (who died Dec. 10, 1946) to his eternal rest at the old parish cemetery in Berlin-Pankow. The Berlin press also barely took notice of the death of one of the most famous jugglers of his time; it wasn’t until the beginning of January 1947 that an In Memoriam to Adolf Salerno appeared in the Berliner Zeitung. Today, we cannot determine why the death of this divinely gifted artist, of this kind man, of this esteemed fellow, was passed over in silence. But let us accept, to his friends’ and admirers’ credit, the difficulty and excitement of those times which Berliners had to live through as a reason and excuse for this.

            Salerno, whose real name was Adolf Behrend, was born in September 1868 in Königsberg (Prussia). In his early youth he juggled for fun, as a pastime (for he never thought that he could one day become a juggler). He juggled plates, cups, sticks, and any objects he could get his hands on. In order to put an end to this “nonsense,” his parents sent the ever-juggling and ever-experimenting Adolf to an apprenticeship with a simple craftsman. Adolf did not like it there at all, and he ran away in secret to join an English circus troupe which had just performed in Königsberg and who then took the young man to Berlin with them. There he underwent difficult but good training as a tightrope artist, contortionist, and dancer, and in his free time honed his skills in juggling. He could perform as a solo juggler by the age of 17 and could go into business for himself.

            When his parents heard of Adolf’s successes and of the high fees he was already commanding, they reconciled with their son.

            He continued to work diligently and tirelessly, and by the middle of the ’90s he was regarded as one of the best and highest-paid jugglers. He kept devising new tricks (he worked on some for four or five years!) and was the first to juggle flaming torches.

            Salerno celebrated his greatest triumph at the Wintergarten in Berlin. Hundreds of thousands were inspired by his art when he performed 54 nearly incomprehensible tricks on the stage in fifteen minutes. And so it was in Paris and London, New York and Rio, Madrid and Brussels; in short, everywhere this slim, lithe master juggler appeared with his marvelous, delicate hands that had acquired a fortune for him – this master juggler who still seemed young even in his more advanced years.

 But these delicate, sure hands juggled not only on the world’s variety stages but they also continued to work in the free time that Salerno enjoyed. It’s now been 45 years, but these never-resting hands had built airplane models in his factory in Nürnberg, and later real airplanes were built based on these models. One of these flying machines even won the Lanz Award in 1910! In addition, Salerno’s adroit fingers also got watches running again which no watchmaker could fix. He was a Renaissance man, and a modest one at that, truly noble at heart, helpful, and blessed with a sunny sense of humor. 

A good indication of his helpfulness was when he sent juggling equipment to his great colleague Kara when he had returned from French captivity in 1919, impoverished, so that Kara could once again start from scratch. 

In 1943 Salerno returned to Berlin from France, joyfully welcomed by his many colleagues and friends. 

In the last years of his life he found himself, like many others, in a bad financial situation. Several days before his death Harry Barley sent him a handsome sum of money in an effort to ease his financial troubles, but this magnanimous gesture to his friend came too late. 

Salerno took his leave from this world modestly, as modestly as he lived his life – in his little room on Trelleborg St. in Berlin on Dec. 10, 1946. Our dear friend has now tarried in artists’ heaven for four years; it is certainly true that he has received an especially good place there, and that none of his colleagues and friends will ever forget 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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