The Show Must Go On: Anecdotes of Mid-Show Mishaps – Part 1

“The show must go on” is an old show business adage that originated in the circus. It still applies today for most professionals.  We prepare and train in order to present the very best performances we can, but things often don’t go according to plan. In my thirty years as a professional juggler, I’ve encountered a wide array of unexpected or challenging situations and events during my shows. Here are some the more memorable ones from my career. In part 2, I’ll share more of my stories and a few others that I either saw firsthand or was told about.

“You Can’t Juggle”

My second paid gig ever was at my local public library. I was 13 years old and prepared to do a 15 minute show for about 30 people, including some family and friends. I had my props set up on a table behind me and the audience seated in front of me – kids sitting on the floor and adults in chairs behind them. We were in a small meeting room, so I didn’t have a microphone.  I was introduced and walked to the front of the room. I picked up three balls from the table and began my show.  Immediately, a young boy of about the age of 5, seated directly in front of me, began repeating a mantra that still haunts me to this day.  “You can’t juuuuuuuuggle! You can’t juuuuuuuggle!” For the next fifteen minutes, as I attempted to entertain the audience with fairly basic juggling skills and super generic comedy bits, the young man sitting four feet in front of me never stopped repeating the words “You can’t juggle” in a long, drawn out manner that was more distracting than any heckler I’ve encountered in the thirty years since. While I don’t imagine that the kindergartener was a master of circular breathing, it seemed to me at the time that he never took a breath as he repeated his refrain. I looked around for a parent or other adult to whisk the young man away, but no one came to save me. I can’t recall anything about that show other than those words, but I was unfortunate enough to have my twin brother in attendance, for he never let me forget them. Ever since that show, he’s found opportunities several times a year to mimic the young man while I’m attempting to juggle. I’m sure that child has no memory of me or my show, but I doubt I’ll ever forget him.

The Microphone Incident

When I was 21 years old, I was booked at a Christmas event in rural West Virginia where needy families could come and see a show. Then their kids could visit with Santa and receive an age appropriate present. The show consisted of me doing 45 minutes followed by a magic duo doing the same length. During the tech rehearsal before the show, the sound engineer told me to not touch my lapel microphone; he would unmute me when the curtain opened and would mute me when the curtain closed. I told him that would be fine. Well, the audience was less than attentive. The children were rowdy and the parents were apathetic. My jokes didn’t go over too well with the Appalachian audience. Nevertheless, I plugged on and did my very best. When my 45 minutes was over, I took my final bow and stepped behind the closing curtain as the MC came on to give out some door prizes and introduce the next act. That act, husband and wife magicians, were setting up their props as I was striking mine. They asked me, “How did it go? I responded, “That was the worst audience I’ve ever had!” As you’ve probably guessed, the sound tech hadn’t muted the mic as he’d promised. The entire audience heard my proclamation as clear as day. Needless to say, I was packed up with paycheck in hand and on the road before the magicians took their final bow. I’ve been super careful with microphones ever since. Lesson learned!

Mic

The Rolling Ship

Juggling on a cruise ship comes with its own unique challenges. During my first cruise ship booking, we had smooth sailing all the way up until the day of my show. That’s when we hit choppy seas. I went on at my scheduled time and had a good-sized audience, but the ship was rolling slightly.  I dealt with it well, nevertheless.  I then got to the boomerang portion of my show, which features a finale of me tossing a boomerang out and catching it in my mouth when it returns. The moment I threw the boomerang for this trick, a huge swell hit the boat and the entire ship tilted. While my orientation changed, the boomerang, which was already in the air, didn’t.  I thought there was going to be no way to catch it, but just as it returned, the ship tilted back the other way and I caught it perfectly in my mouth. The audience recognized the difficulty and gave me a good ovation for it. Practice is important, but I’ll take a lucky break whenever I can as well. I ended the show with only one drop.

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Outside the Carnival Imagination, the first cruise ship I performed on.

The World’s Tiniest Stage

Being the “Juggler For Jesus,” I got booked to be the opening act for Bibleman, a Christian superhero portrayed in a series of popular videos by actor Willie Aimes of the television shows Eight Is Enough and Charles In Charge. The live action stage show featured an impressive array of set pieces as well as complicated lighting and pyrotechnics. The stage was almost completely filled with one item or another. I was given the task of performing a twenty minute show while standing on a box of pyrotechnics that was the size of a piano bench! I wasn’t allowed to leave that 14 inch by 29 inch box during my set. Now, I usually ask for a ten foot by ten foot area to perform in, so this was quite a challenge. It was also a challenge knowing that my stage was more or less a bomb waiting to go off. I’ve performed on some weird stages during the past 31 years, but that one takes the prize as the weirdest.

Just A Stage He’s Passing Through

Although it’s not ideal, I sometimes find myself performing on the same level as my audience. This lack of a stage or any barrier lends itself to a common challenge; the wandering toddler. A couple times a year, as I’m performing, a young child will wander into my performance space during the middle of a routine. While this is occasionally irritating, it usually allows me to use one of my favorite comedy lines; “Don’t mind him, it’s just a stage he’s passing through!” This always gets a great laugh and I go on with my act. However, sometimes the child gets a bit too close while I’m juggling knives, a running hedge trimmer, or tasers. Then it’s a bit more dramatic for all involved!

Slippery When Wet

I used to juggle in an ice skating show.  Ice skating revues have a long tradition of using jugglers in the show. Many well-known jugglers such as Bobby May, Trixie Larue, Serge Flash, Albert Lucas, Tommy Curtin, and Steven Ragatz have performed on ice.  Most skated while juggling, while a few, like myself, wore cleats onto the frozen surface.  Even with the cleats, the ice can be treacherous due to chunks taken out by the skaters or by its obvious slippery nature. The first time I performed on the ice, I learned this the hard way. I was performing a five ring routine that ended with the common pull down, pull down, pancake flip, pull down, pull down, catch pancake throw on your head sequence. (By the way, this type of pull down was first done by Dick Bird.) As I threw the pancake throw, my feet came out from under me and I went down hard on my rear end.  I still had the sense to pull down the two rings in my hands, but I gave no thought to the ring flipping in the air. Once again, luck was on my side, as the ring flipped an extra time and landed perfectly over my head to end the routine. The audience applauded like it was planned and I got up and continued the act. I got better cleats later that day and don’t recall falling again on the ice. One bruised tailbone was enough for me.

IceSkatingShowCostume

Backstage at the “Broadway On Ice” show at Kings Island Amusement Park in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1991.

A Short Intermission

Several years ago, I found myself facing a challenging weekend.  I had bookings Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night, all in different cities. This would be challenging enough by itself, but on Friday morning, I became a victim of food poisoning. Nevertheless, “the show must go on.” I packed up my things and added a vomit bucket next to me on the front passenger seat and took off on my journey. Other than general queasiness and frequent bathroom stops, I did okay through the first two shows. As I set up and did tech for the Saturday evening show, I was feeling more queasy than before. Still, I charged ahead. I finished show prep, got changed, and waited for the audience to arrive. My show started on time and went fine until about half way into my 45 minute program. At that point, I could feel that something very bad was about to happen. I finished the routine I was performing and calmly said to the audience, “Folks, we’re going to take a quick 7 minute intermission and then we’ll proceed with the second half of the show.” I quickly walked to the nearest exit, stepped out the door, and promptly vomited nine times (yes, I counted). When I had nothing left inside of me and felt slightly better, I slipped back inside, found a restroom, cleaned up, found a breathe mint, and went back to finish the show. The rest of the show went fine and I apologized to the client afterward for the unexpected intermission. When I explained the reason, we were in agreement that it was the best option. The rest of the weekend was still filled with an uneasy stomach and such, but at least no more unplanned intermissions were necessary.

vomit

Showing Off

When my twin brother and I were 16 years old, we were booked to perform in a vaudeville style show produced by a barbershop quartet association. All the acts were barbershop quartets except for our juggling act and a dance number by an attractive gal our same age. Being a 16 year old boy, I decided to show off for her backstage shortly before the show started. Picking up three real machetes, I began juggling and said the following fateful words. “Hey, watch me try a trick I’ve never done before!” I proceeded to attempt backcrosses with the very sharp, very long bladed, short handled, not-balanced-for-juggling machetes. Well, one of my left hand throws didn’t flip correctly and the result was a gash across my right index finger near my top knuckle. As the blood poured, my brother dashed into the audience to find our mother. She came backstage, told my brother that he’d have to go on without me, and took me straight to the emergency room for stitches. Now my brother started juggling later than me and had never done a solo show in his life. He had about two and a half minutes of material and an eight minute spot to fill.  The audience that night became quite familiar with that two and a half minutes of material, for they saw it three times in a row that evening. As for me, I got four stitches and a very unpleasant tetanus shot. My brother, on the other hand, got the girl. He ended up dating the attractive dancer for about five months. I guess showing off doesn’t always pay off like we expect it to.

Machete

*****

The next two anecdotes tell the stories of the two worst bookings of my entire career. If ever circumstances aligned to create a perfect storm of bad conditions and situations, these bookings epitomized them.

*****

Step Right Up

One August I received a phone call from a gentleman who was the director of a festival at a nearby town. He told me that this was the first time holding this festival and that they were looking for someone to do some street shows and who would be willing to pass the hat. Well, I informed him that I usually get paid up front for what I do, but since the festival was close by, I had the date open, and hadn’t had an opportunity to busk in quite some time, I’d do it. Well, that was a bad, bad mistake. Shortly before noon on the day of the booking I arrived at the address I’d been given. However, I found nothing resembling a festival. The address appeared to be a closed warehouse.  I drove around a little bit and found nothing at all, so I went back to the address. I pulled in and drove to the side of the building, where I found about twenty cars. I parked, unloaded my bag, and headed for the rear of the building. There I found the “festival.” It consisted of three of the lamest carnival games I’d ever seen, about thirty metal folding chairs that were surely blazing hot in the noonday summer sun, and a wrestling ring. As I looked around, I noticed that I was the only male in the entire place wearing a shirt. I also noticed a sign at the entrance written with marker on a piece of cardboard that read “Backyard Wrestling Festival.” At this point, I knew that my day was not going to be a good one. I told the woman at the entrance that I was performing and she let me in and pointed me toward the festival director. Now, when the person in charge of the entire event doesn’t have a shirt on, you know you’re in for an interesting time. I introduced myself and asked him where he wanted me to be. He told me to pick anywhere I wanted, perhaps a shady spot somewhere. I looked around at the site and silently sighed. We were standing on a blacktopped parking lot with no trees at noon in August in the USA. There wasn’t a shadow to be seen, let alone the shade of a tree or building. It was about ninety degrees. This was going to be unpleasant. You see, I’m not exactly what you’d call “outdoorsy.” In fact, I hate being outside. I have severe allergies (grass, pollen, etc.) and severe asthma, of which I almost died when I was young. I’m also bald and pale. Therefore I sunburn quite easily. This was not looking good. Now, I must say that the target audience for my comedy and material in general is not the same audience that would be likely to attend a backyard wrestling festival. Nevertheless, “the show must go on.” I found an open area on the hot asphalt and plopped my bag down. I thought the best way to draw a small crowd would be to crack a whip several times, so I took out my eight foot bullwhip and cracked it twice. This definitely got everyone’s attention. I then shouted, “Juggling show in three minutes. Juggling show in three minutes. Gather around.” Almost immediately, as people started to converge on my location, I sensed something all too familiar. My throat started to close up, triggering my extremely sensitive gag reflux. I was having an asthma attack. As the gag reflex intensified, I knew what was coming. I promptly vomited all over my performance area as my potential audience gathered around. What a perfect way to start a show! Someone got me a bottle of water and when I could speak, I told the assembled audience that I’d be back, in a different location, a bit later. It took me about 30 minutes to get over the asthma attack. I then went out again and did two shows, passing the hat both times. Both times the hat returned completely empty. I learned many things that day. One was that vomiting is not a good way to start a show. Second was that you should always get as much information as possible about every gig to better prepare yourself. Third is that I’m glad I’m the “Juggler For Jesus” and not the “Backyard Wrestling Juggler!”

Wrestling

Not my ideal audience, especially after a vomiting asthma attack.

Thinking Ahead

Shortly after I began specializing in doing programs for churches, I was booked to perform at a church banquet in a nearby town. The client sent me directions and everything was set. Unfortunately, the day before the gig I was struck with food poisoning. (I seem to be a magnet for it.) Being the professional I am, I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of doing the booking. I set off for the event with plenty of time to set up and warm up before the show, or at least so I thought. What I didn’t account for was that the client had sent me incorrect directions. In this day and age of GPS, that wouldn’t be a big problem, but this was before that luxury was common. I got hopelessly lost. I finally stopped and asked for directions (yes ladies, some men will do that) and made it to the church five minutes before start time. As I pulled up, someone greeted me and whisked me to the basement, where everyone was finishing up the meal. Now I’ve performed in many church basements over the years, but this one was “special.” It wasn’t intended for actual use as a meeting place. I know this in two ways. First was the fact that the floor was bare bedrock. Second was the fact that the ceiling was only 6 feet tall. This was a storage cellar and nothing more. Now keep in mind that I’m 5 feet, 11 inches tall.  Also keep in mind that they had booked me to do a full length juggling show. I had five minutes to set up for a 45 minute juggling show that I’d have to do mostly on my knees while dealing with food poisoning. While the food poisoning part of the situation was beyond anyone’s control, the rest was preventable or at least something that would have been good to advise me of beforehand. I quickly set up and did the world’s lowest juggling show for the packed cellar. It was also the most uncomfortable show of my career, as the continual kneeling and standing up I had to do due to the low ceilings exasperated my upset stomach to a great degree. I completed the performance and quickly ran the restroom, immensely grateful that this gig was over. Ever since then I always make it a practice to find out how much ceiling height I have for each show, because that gig taught me that not every client thinks ahead.

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).

Comments 0

  1. Penn Jillette points out that the last thing in the world that must go on is the show.

    The heart transplant must go on. The airplane maintenance must go on. But if the show doesn’t go on what’s the worst thing that happens? 1200 people have a nice evening talking with their friends.

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