Ben Beri was an American juggler popular from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. He performed in a tuxedo, exuding an air of elegance, but included a great deal of comedy that bordered on slapstick at times. He was taught to juggle at the age of 6 by well-known vaudeville juggler Jack Greene. Below are three descriptions of Beri’s act by contemporary jugglers who saw and knew him.
“Ben Beri billed himself as “The Juggling Zani” and his manner was indeed clownish. But he was also very elegant. One of the most polished performers of his time, Beri worked with clubs, balls, parasols, and tambourines. Although his comedy almost reached the point of slapstick, he never lost his sense of elegance and dignity of characterization. Ben Beri worked the best theaters during his very successful career.” – Francisco Alvarez
“Ben Beri was the greatest with non-stop comedy, and flawless club and ball work. Comedy and technique without a spoken word! His several tours with Gene Krupa’s band had to be tops in sound effects and music timing. Resin string and whistle effects by Krupa brought down the house for Beri. Ben was also in great demand by the circuit of classy hotel show rooms.” – Bob Blau
“Ben Beri is another juggler who can be classed as an object juggler. Ben is also a comedian. Anyone who has seen Ben work will agree with me when I say he is distinctive. Not only does Ben carry himself well but his delivery is exceptional. He is not of the tramp variety comedian but more or less the gentleman juggler with a dash of subtle buffoonery that goes over great. Beri does balls, clubs, and tambourines.” – Jack Greene
Ben appeared in two Broadway shows in the early 1940s: Hellzapoppin and Sons o’ Fun. He also performed in USO shows during World War II, including a performance on Iwo Jima not long after it had been captured by American troops. Beri’s tambourine juggling was done in time to patriotic music, which obviously went over well throughout the war era.
Ben kept extremely busy during the 1940s and even won a prize for the best variety act of the year at the Olympia Theater in Miami, Florida in 1946. Ben’s reviews were almost always very positive. Below are two such reviews.
Bobby Jule reports that Ben sometimes billed himself as “The Juggler With Hair,” which was a put down to fellow juggler Bob DuPont, who was balding and with whom Beri had a long running feud. Beri had stolen the now famous medal gag (pulling a medal out from a pocket or other location after performing an especially good trick or routine), the juggling of tambourines, and several other comedy bits from DuPont. You can see a medal used in the medal gag hanging from the breast pocket in three photos in this article. Bobby Jule also has stated that Beri was not the most amiable fellow, having discouraged Bobby from a performing career after seeing that Bobby was quite talented and might prove to be competition for bookings.
Below is a video of two of Ben Beri’s performances filmed by Bobby Jule. Thanks to Bobby for allowing us to make this video public for the first time as part of this article.
HOW TO BECOME A JUGGLER by BEN BERI, Juggler?
There is an old adage credited to George Bernard Shaw as follows: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” My purpose in writing this article is to teach you how to juggle. Have you ever felt that urge to juggle something? If so why not give in?
Pick up the nearest thing at hand, start tossing it around. If you happen to be drying dishes, so much the better, especially if you don’t like to dry dishes. Soon you won’t have to dry any dishes. There won’t be any. If while juggling, a plate seems to be coming towards your head it is advisable to duck. But the same time look around to see if your wife is there, as the plate may have come from a foreign source. Of course you know your wife better than I do. I don’t even know your wife, I don’t even know you. But, if you read this missive, watch out, I’ll be in your hair – so will your wife. So will the plate. Unless you wear a toupee. If you don’t like people in your toupee, put it in another room then people can get in your hair and still not bother you. It is advisable not to try juggling your toupee.
Now, suppose you live over someone – you’re dropping things, making a lot of noise – don’t let this worry you. When they come up to complain just look him in the eye and say, “Look what I can do!” Before you can say kronkiziecable he will be so interested he will want to learn too. Then, when he practices the party under him will complain, so on all the way down to the janitor who will be stuck as there is no one under him. So, he has to go next door and start throwing things against the ceiling and this time the same thing works in reverse all the way up to the roof. If you live in a one family home I suggest you go over to your next door neighbor and bounce things against the side of his house. This will create a neighborly feeling. One young man became so enthused he even tossed in bed. In fact he got his arms so twisted up one night he had to become a pretzel maker. He made a lot of dough but it drove him crazy – he’s now donuts! Back to your neighbors. When enough of them have become interested in juggling instead of a community sing, you can have a community jug. A community jug is great to put people in the right spirit, especially if the spirits are in the jug. It will also serve as a good excuse to get out of the house. Under no circumstances carry your props in your pockets as this will give them a mumps effect. Also, there is danger of a fashion designer noticing the effect and creating a new design in men’s clothes – although some men’s pockets already have this mumps effect. Beware of knives tearing large holes in the pockets. This can prove exceedingly embarrassing, especially if it happens to be the hip pocket – it also creates a draft.
Speaking of knives, this is the most dangerous period of an embryo juggler’s life. It is a wise student who keeps a jar of glue handy to rejoin fingers that have been cut off. Extreme caution must be taken to glue fingers back in the right position. One poor fellow replaced his fingers upside down and being a piano player he has to play standing on his head, causing him no end of trouble as he gets many complaints from neurotic people who object to footprints on the ceiling. Personally, I think these people are very narrow minded. Now, what normal person in his right mind could possibly object to footprints on the ceiling as they could move the piano from place to place and create a very intriguing design on the ceiling. But, this is their problem – not mine – as I have my own ceiling footprints to contend with, which reminds me not to hire that particular piano player again.
Here’s a little jingle to sing to yourself while practicing- Sailing, Sailing, over the bounding main What goes up Must go back up And then come down again
Now don’t worry if where you put your hand the object that is coming down, isn’t, because you have to train your props just as you would if you had a dog. Of course, you don’t have to take your props for a walk. If you should become cross-eyed while practicing think nothing of it. It’s only a matter of two or three weeks ’til they become normal again. I know one man who juggles three and sees six. Of course, when you juggle three it will seem like six to you too. Supposing you were tossing oranges around, when you get through just strain them through a sieve – it saves all the bother of cutting them in half and squeezing them. Juggling is the quickest way to make orange juice. Warning – I don’t try to toss heavy cannon balls around. One youngster became so enthused he threw one way up in the air. It came down with such force it knocked him through the floor into a lady’s bathroom. Fortunately, or should I say unfortunately, the lady was taking a bath at the time. If you ever see a man with a cannon ball in his head you will know that is the fellow I’m talking about. We call him ballhead. Then there is the fellow who juggled four things the first time he tried it – of course, he had four arms. I think this is a very unusual case though, don’t you?
Now we come to music for your routine. I once walked out on the stage with three Indian clubs in my hand and some brilliant wit yelled, “Four Dumbbells.” So, ever since I have used very loud music. Let this experience guide you.
Now, it is also a very good idea for you to invent a machine that you can wear under your coat that will hand a match to someone, because just when you have your hands full some very funny person will always say, “Hey, you got a match?” You can readily see the necessity for a match handing machine.
If you have followed my instructions carefully, I absolutely guarantee that you can learn to juggle in exactly the time it takes you to learn.