One of the most influential American juggling families of the first half of the twentieth century were the Breens. Hailing from Lawrence, Massachusetts, Tom Breen made his debut in 1886 at the Weber and Field’s Theater in New York City. His wife stayed at home to raise their children and train them in dance and music, but she died young.
The Breen children playing violins
Tom remarried and had more children. In total, he had 8 children that survived infancy and he eventually performed with all of them. Forming as a family act in 1908, they were initially a comedy club passing troupe consisting of Tom, his sons Tom Jr. (Tommy) and John, and daughter Catherine, with the star being John. John was the first person to perform six clubs and juggled seven clubs in practice, using basket weave clubs. John was also the first juggler to perform a five club shower and juggled five clubs with another balanced on his forehead. A poster from around 1909 advertising the Breens can be seen below, highlighting John’s six club juggling.
Besides group club passing and John’s solo work with clubs, the early act also included Catherine juggling five balls while balancing a chair on her forehead. The family toured all over the world with their act and expanded to include more of Tom’s children. While strolling the streets Paris in 1908, Tom Sr. and John saw people beating carpets and had an idea.
They saw the wicker carpet beaters and bought several, thinking that they might be able to use them in some way. Eventually, the innovation-minded Tom realized that they could be modified to create a new prop. Tom removed the center part of the circular head and fitted a cloth pouch in its place. These new props, called Breenos, could then be used to juggle 5 inch diameter balls. Breenos could be used to juggle and pass balls in a variety of ways and became a part of the Breens’ act starting in 1910. The original Breenos were just the modified carpet beaters, decorated with colorful cloth and foil. The family later learned to custom make their Breenos themselves, using shaped cane. They made sure that the canvas cup in which the balls were caught was only half as deep as the balls’ diameter so that the balls would remain visible and not get stuck.
Below is a drawing from 1963 by Tommy Breen showing how the Breenos were made.
When John died of tuberculosis in 1912, the Breenos became the defining feature of the Breens’ act. Below are a variety of pictures showing the Breens with their unique invention.
Tom Sr. in 1914
The Breen Family performed together for at least fifteen years. In 1922, thirty year old Catherine married George Hanneford of the Hanneford Circus and performed with dogs and horses with the circus until her death at the age of 97. The other children eventually married and Tommy (Tom Jr) became a solo act.
Tommy then briefly worked with Harry Martine. In 1931, Tommy was asked to be a part of a new juggling group consisting of well-known vaudeville jugglers. This group, The Elgins, originally consisted of Tommy, Rose Sheldon (formerly of Fitzgerald’s Eight Juggling Girls, Paul Shultz’s Juggling Girls, The Tossing Tabors, The Throwing Tabors, and Baggett & Sheldon), Cal Kenyon (formerly of Kenyon Brothers and Allen, The Altus Brothers, and Mahoney & Auburn), and James Baggett (formerly of The Barretts, Frear, Baggett, & Frear, and Baggett & Sheldon). Tom Sr. even gave the group valuable advice at the beginning of their time together. To read a great history of the Elgins, click here.
After nineteen years with the Elgins, Tommy left in 1950, retiring from show business. He was a frequent contributor to the Jugglers’ Bulletin publications, sharing his vast knowledge of the early days of vaudeville. He passed away in 1972.
Several other jugglers have played with the general idea of Breenos. In the 1970s, Ira Mullin used Breenos made from badminton rackets with the strings replaced by a cloth pocket. Several jugglers, including Ben S., David Cain, Brian Pankey, Dave Kelley, and Ted Bowen, have used unmodified tennis rackets or badminton rackets to juggle balls or beanbags. Click here to watch Dave Kelly demonstrating quite a variety of tricks that can be done using rackets in place of hands. A number of jugglers, including Dale Jones, Picaso Jr., Mikhail Staroseletsky, Luke Barrage, and David Cain, perform acts where they hold a racket or paddle in one hand and bounce balls off of the prop. Click here to watch Mikhail Staroseletsky doing this with a tennis racket. Below is a video of Picaso Jr using a table tennis paddle.
Other jugglers, including Erik Aberg, Yam Eilon, Neta Oren, Stephen Bridge and Mica Paprika, have played with juggling balls in large spoons or ladles. Click here to see a Japanese juggler demonstrating this with ladles. Below is a video of Yam Eilon and Neta Oren’s wonderful act using balls and ladles.
Click here to see Mica Paprika’s interesting routine with a ball and two ladles.
The Cuphead clubs made by Renegade Juggling can also be used to juggle balls, as can be seen in the following video of Jackson Ford.
Click here to see Jay Gilligan juggle three balls with two Cuphead clubs while tossing the clubs as well.
Jani Suihkonen has created props similar to Cuphead clubs to juggle large balls.
If you’re looking for something different to try, why not play with Breenos or one of the related ideas. Using something in place of your hand is an interesting challenge.
Great article! Was not familiar with Breenos.
On the note of using something in place of your hand; I have done this before (usually around Halloween) using a fake severed arm. The hand is frozen open, so I can hold onto the arm and use it to catch and throw balls, then I can throw the arm itself up into a pattern.
I really enjoyed the material on The Breen Family Jugglers. Thank you for taking the time to help document and preserve the art form.