The Historical Juggling Props Museum

Part 1: Getting Started

It all started with an email from Alan Howard. He remembered that I had said something years before about wanting to get a Van Wyck juggling club if one ever came available. Edward Van Wyck was the first maker of retail juggling clubs, starting in 1895. His workshop in Cincinnati, Ohio is about thirty minutes from my house. For both historical and geographical reasons, I’ve long wanted one of these very rare props. Alan was emailing to say that he’d been contacted by a juggler in California who had three Van Wycks for sale and wanted to see if I was interested. I jumped at the chance to obtain these tangible pieces of juggling history by contacting the seller and making arrangements to purchase the clubs. This was June 1st of this year. When I received the clubs a week later, I was quite happy. I know that may sound silly, but I had been through a tough year and was trying to take pleasure in the small things.

The Van Wyck clubs that started the collection.

I started thinking about how many clubs Edward Van Wyck had made over his forty seven years of prop manufacturing and how few had survived. In my thirty one years as a juggler, these were the first I’d ever seen. I recalled hearing many horror stories of vintage props being thrown away by the box full, used as paint stirring sticks, or just getting lost over time. This led me to the idea of combining my love for juggling history with my family’s experience with collecting. My father was a long time collector of coins, baseball cards, and fossils and built a number of businesses out of his hobbies.

I started by announcing my intention to build a collection of historical juggling props that I could show as an exhibit at juggling festivals and conventions. This was similar to what Paul Bachman had done at several IJA Fests with his fabulous collection. I posted this announcement on various online juggling forums, not knowing if I’d get any response. At the same time, I contacted various friends and acquaintances in the juggling community that I thought might be able to contribute to the collection. The response was immediate. Jim Ellison donated five Stu Raynolds clubs. Mike Chirrick agreed to donate a ball that belonged to his mother, Lottie Brunn, as well as some of his old props. Anthony Gatto donated two of his clubs, including one of his very earliest childhood clubs, as well as his father’s three wooden juggling plates. Tommy Curtin donated three Harry Lind clubs and two very rare Arthur Mann clubs. Dave Finnigan agreed to send a Lottie Brunn stick and a variety of rare clubs. The collection was off to a quick start.

Some of the rare clubs that can be seen in the collection

The next big step was an offer from Scott Seltzer to host a website for the collection if I would buy a domain name. I purchased www.historicaljugglingprops.com and quickly built a website showcasing the small but growing assortment of props with lots of help from Scott. This was the true key to building the collection, as the site became not only an online museum of rare juggling props, but also a way of honoring the jugglers who used the props. It demonstrated that the project was more than just a passing idea, but was instead a serious endeavor.

At the same time, I began checking ebay and other auction sites for items. I have been able to find some very rare items this way, but these purchased items make up a small percentage of the collection. Almost everything else has been donated free of charge, especially the props belonging to well-known performers.

Facebook was a key to contacting many of these performers or their descendants. When many jugglers or family members saw that this was an opportunity to preserve juggling history and honor the art form and artists, they were very receptive of the opportunity to contribute to the project. These same jugglers and family members were also a great resource for networking with other performers. The collection continued to expand and improve far beyond what I initially imagined.

I also continued to research juggling history and became a bit of a detective regarding ancestors, protégés, and mentors. This research led to more leads and props for the exhibit.  In September, I showed the exhibit for the first time at the Assembly of Awesome near Toledo, OH. At that point in time, it only consisted of two eight foot tables. When I showed it two months later at the Not Quite Pittsburgh Juggling Fest, it had grown to six tables. I’ve also converted a large room in my home into a museum for jugglers to visit when I’m not showing the collection at festivals.

Displaying the exhibit at the Not Quite Pittsburgh Juggling Fest

Part 2: The Collection

Realizing that the collection is only five months old, I’m astounded at what’s come in. There are fifty-eight vintage, rare, or innovative clubs including seven Van Wycks and many other extremely rare clubs, such as those made by Rob Leith (Gemini Juggling), Lee Letchworth, Jay Green, Arthur Mann, and Rick Bright.  I also have props from thirty performers, including iconic jugglers such as Francis Brunn, Lottie Brunn, Ernest Montego, Alexander Kiss, Bobby May, Rudy Cardenas, Gregory Popovich, and many others.  Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to have such a Hall of Fame-type roster represented in the exhibit, but the generosity and kindness of those in the juggling community has come through time and time again.

A side benefit for me has been the opportunity to become friends with some of the juggling legends who inspired me when I was starting out in the early 1980s. The very first such juggler that I ever saw, via a television program, was Ernest Montego. My love of ball spinning and combination tricks was sparked by my repeated viewing of his act from that recorded television appearance. To now be able to chat with him and his wife on a regular basis and know that he has entrusted me with five of his props, dating back as far as the 1950s, as well as his final performance costume and other items, blows my mind. Likewise, to email regularly with Gregory Popovich, another early influence, is a blessing I never imagined would come from this project.

The exhibit also contains ten early examples of mass marketed juggling props going back as far as the 1940s.  Finally, a small number of props used to break world records close out the collection. While my emphasis has been on props, I’ve often received pictures, books, videos, and costume pieces along with the props donated.  These additional items fill out my home museum set-up for those who stop by to visit.

Home museum set up, left wall.

Home museum set up, right wall.

Not all of my research and inquiries have been successful. Some performers or families simply have nothing left to donate, having either given them away to museums or other collectors, or having lost the props over time. One or two wish to hold on to the few they have left for quite understandable sentimental reasons. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the elderly gentleman in New England who has an entire basement filled with vaudeville era juggling equipment that belonged to his brother. This collection contains some amazing items, including three Bobby May clubs. After some discussion, he decided that he wants to hang on to everything in case his grandchildren and great grandchildren “ever want to play with the stuff”!

Part 3: Looking Ahead

The coming year holds many wonderful additions to the collection. Bob Bramson is donating some hoops. Dick Franco is sending me some items from his career. Tuan Le and Gina Shvartsman Cristiani are both sending in hats that they perform with so expertly. I’m also very excited to be told that props from Rudy Horn, Alberto Sforzi, Tony Fercos, Art Jennings, and Francisco Alvarez will eventually be heading my way. I’m also close to obtaining props from several well-known Russian juggling legends. Additionally, I’m sure to find or receive many unexpected props, including some I’m not even aware exist right now.

I’ll be showing the exhibit at next summer’s IJA Fest in Bowling Green, Ohio along with Paul Bachman’s collection in the History Lounge. I look forward to being able to share these wonderful props and their history with jugglers from around the world.

Jugglers viewing the exhibit

With everything that’s been donated, I’m no longer thinking that anything is out of reach. The Wish List page at www.historicaljugglingprops.com still contains plenty of names that I would love to have represented in the collection, including Enrico Rastelli, Massimiliano Truzzi, Trixie LaRue, Kris Kremo, Howard Nichols, and quite a few others. I’m also still in search of some rare clubs made by Claude Crumley, Harry Parker, David Booth, Jack Miller, and Homer Stack, as well as a club / beanbag hybrid Jester club made by Freaks Unlimited of the UK. Considering how many wish list items have been found already, the coming year could hold lots of surprises.

If you wish to donate any items, refer some possible leads, or donate money to help expand the collection, please visit the Support page on the website.  Any jugglers traveling through the Dayton or Cincinnati, Ohio area of the USA are welcome to contact me before hand to arrange a visit to see the collection.  You can also contact me regarding showing the exhibit at a juggling festival.  Finally, I want to thank everyone who has donated props or money, given advice or referrals, or just given moral support in this endeavor.  I can’t thank you all enough.

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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