Billy Tirko (1906-1998) was an American juggler who performed from the 1920s until the 1960s. He specialized in club juggling, combination tricks, and ball and mouth stick work. Dick Franco wrote a long biography about Billy that was published in the Winter 2009 issue of JUGGLE Magazine, so I won’t repeat what was written in that excellent piece. Instead, I want to share the photos of Billy that are found in the archives of the Museum of Juggling History as well as photos of many of Billy’s props that are found in the museum. The reason that these props are important is that almost all of them were purchased by Billy from Edward Van Wyck, the famed prop maker based in Cincinnati, OH. To find clubs made by Van Wyck is a very rare occurrence, but to find other Van Wyck juggling props is even more so. You can see examples of Edward Van Wyck’s catalogs by clicking here.
Let’s start by taking a look at some illustrations from Billy’s early promotional advertisements. These have never been published to the best of my knowledge. They show the type of work Billy did at the beginning of his career, sometime in the mid to late 1920s.
Note that the above illustration is one of the earliest depictions we have of a named juggler performing ball spinning.
Here is a photo of Billy from around that same period.
Some of the props in the above illustrations will be shown later in this article. Here are some later photos of Billy from the museum archives. Many of these photos have never been published before.
As you can see in the next three photos, Billy Tirko was quite talented at complex combination tricks.
Note in the above two photos that Billy could spin a ring on the leg he was standing on while spinning another ring or two on the leg that was in the air. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anyone else do that.
You will see two mouth sticks that Billy used for the above trick later in this article.
Below are some of the Billy Tirko props that he acquired from Edward Van Wyck.
The above mouth stick is the first mouth stick ever made by Edward Van Wyck. It has Billy’ teeth marks on it. Edward and Billy weren’t sure how to make the part that went into the mouth. Later, they changed the mouth section to the shape you can see in the three mouth sticks in the next photo.
These three mouth sticks have been borrowed and copied by current jugglers Thom Wall and Chuck Clark. Below is another Van Wyck mouth stick that was used by Billy and recently acquired by the museum.
The following two mouth sticks were used by Billy to spin rings on them. You can see one in use earlier in this article and can see the thin wooden rings that were spun on them below.
The following photo shows a metal plate that Billy purchased from Van Wyck and that Billy toss juggled in his act.
The throwing knives below were purchased by Billy from Edward Van Wyck. Billy apparently tried performing a knife throwing act around an assistant, but was too scared to continue doing it.
The following photo shows Billy’s wooden diabolo. It is not known for sure that this was made by Van Wyck, but the craftsmanship is similar to his other work and Van Wyck did make and sell diabolos, so it’s likely that it is one of his creations.
You can see the balancing stick pictured below being used in the first illustration in this article. It was balanced on a mouth stick and held a ball.
It is not known what the following pedestal was used for. It is a bit small for a head pedestal, but may have been used as a balancing prop with a large ball on each end.
The final prop, seen below, is the head pedestal used by Billy in three of the combination tricks that were pictured earlier in this article.
There are many other Billy Tirko props in the Museum of Juggling History, but they were made by Harry Lind or others. To the best of my knowledge, Billy Tirko’s mouth sticks, pedestals, diabolo, and throwing knives are the only existing such props that were made by Edward Van Wyck. That makes them very rare and a true treasure for us to still have. Thanks to Rick Reppert and Al Grout for their donations of Billy’s props and photos to the Museum of Juggling History.