Carl Baggesen – The Clumsiest Juggler of All Time

Carl Baggesen is not a name known by many modern jugglers, but he was a star in the days of vaudeville. Baggesen was born in in 1858 in Odense, Denmark and initially began performing as a contortionist, using the stage name of Klischnigg. In the early 1890s, he came to the United States to perform in vaudeville and soon developed an act as an inept comedy juggler. Within a few short years, this act made him a star.

The act opened with Carl’s wife Sophie (stage name Sapphira), who was from Hamburg, Germany, dressed as a maid and juggling three oranges. Carl then entered the stage dressed in a ragged, and far too large, tuxedo. He ignored his wife, walked to the front the stage, and proceeded to simply stand there, not even noticing the juggling maid or the audience. Through out the act he maintained a witless blank expression that would later be made famous by Buster Keaton. To get his attention, Carl’s wife put down the oranges and began juggling three plates, soon dropping one. A startled Carl noticed the maid and decided to help her. This began a comedy of errors that reviewers would describe in the most poetic and artistic of terms. Carl Baggesen would juggle, fumble, and smash a virtual mountain of plates, flower pots, and other crockery, all while appearing to be the gentlest and most timid of men. At one point he would find his hand had accidentally landed on a piece of fly paper, which would remain stuck to his palm for quite some time while attempting to save various pieces of china. He would at times have a tower of plates in his arms, wobbling and leaning from side to side, just on the edge of falling, but kept upright by the juggler’s skill. Then some small thing would happen to make the pile crash on the stage, with Baggesen holding one lone piece of dinnerware. At times he found himself in seemingly impossible positions that only a contortionist of his skill could attain. In the end, Carl would be found center stage, surrounded by 300 or more broken plates, with the juggler joyously holding a single plate that he managed to save. In his celebration, alas, even this last plate would fall and shatter on the floor.

Without ever saying a word, Carl Baggesen held audiences in rapt attention and continual laughter. Although his act was indeed a juggling act that did show glimpses of the actual skill involved, it was Carl’s acting and clowning that sold it so perfectly. His career was wildly successful. At the beginning of their career as jugglers, Carl and Sapphira found success in Chicago in 1895, London and Berlin  in 1898, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Munich, Nuremberg, Brussels, Vienna, and Paris in 1899, Berlin and Leipzig in 1900, and Frankfurt, Berlin, and Copenhagen in 1901. Success continued for many years, and they gave their final performance at the Wintergarten in Berlin in February of 1927. The couple retired to the Danish island of Thuro and Carl passed away on May 21st, 1931. Sapphira, who was in born 1864, died in December of 1943.

Baggesen’s act was copied by many others and became a standard routine of circus clowns for years to come. Just after Baggesen’s retirement, a brief version of it was included in Charlie Chaplin’s film The Circus in 1928. Many clowns and jugglers, including David Larible, have performed versions of it over the years, but never with the commitment and success of Carl Baggesen. It has been estimated that Baggesen broke around six million plates on stage during his career, which would surely make him the juggler with the most on stage drops in the history of our art. While the Baggesens were usually advertised as comedy jugglers, they were sometimes billed as “plate destroyers!”

A review from the Los Angeles Herald from 1907 had the following high praise for Baggesen’s act:

“The cleverest acting of the week is found at a theater where acting per se is not ordinarily at a premium. It is at the Orpheum, and the actor is a man billed as a comedy juggler. His name Is Carl Baggesen. He may be a juggler but he mercifully refrains from juggling. He just acts. The juggler we have always with us, but the real actor is a rare bird. Hence this paean to Carl Baggesen. Baggesen can act standing still. Without moving a muscle of his own he can set all yours shaking with laughter. And the best authorities will tell you that to communicate mirth without motion of speech is the greatest manifestation of the actor’s art. He wanders onto tho stage while the other Baggesen is doing her childish juggling stunt. You behold a shambling red-nosed man in an impossible music hall disguise. He is shabbily genteel and quietly, unobtrusively soused. His is the kind of jag which knows it is but thinks itself so well behaved that nobody else is wise. You expect him to start some funny “business,” but he doesn’t. In a quiet way he is conscious of the audience and resolved to maintain a nice, “respectable” appearance. He is furtively anxious about his white cotton gloves. They dangle on his hands as hopelessly as though they, too, had been too oft to the wash. With feeble alacrity Baggesen steers respectfully clear of the large juggling lady, and after one or two experiments strikes a modest, demure pose with eyes timidly fixed on the gallery. And though there is not a trace of the grotesque or exaggerated in that pose the house explodes with glee. Why? It’s character. Character sticks out all over the great Baggesen. You behold a feeble-minded wreck whose clouded consciousness is wrapped up in the small vanity of not doing the wrong thing and earning the displeasure of his wife. All this he conveys to you without a movement or a gesture or a grimace. It is the acme of the ludicrous. Baggesen does much more as the act progresses, but he never smiles nor loses a particle of the original quiet simplicity of his creation. He gets into difficulty with a fly paper and is deeply ashamed before the audience as he plucks it furtively from one hand, only to find it a moment later adhering to the other. In that and many other hopeless difficulties he brings laughter to a climax by the sudden resolution with which he ambles off the stage to find a solution of his troubles. The fun becomes more active and complicated toward the end. The stage is strewn with broken crockery— but not a word is spoken. In one of his extremities the solemn Baggesen proves himself to be a bit of a contortionist. But you don’t want him to controt-you just want him to act, because it is only once in a lifetime you see such acting as his. The Herald artist has caught Baggesen in a characteristic attitude. If you have seen him this picture will draw tears of joy to your eyes. Every one who has seen the Baggesen act will cut out this sketch and pin it on the wall as a cure for the blues.”

The Berlin variety and circus agent Robert Wilschke wrote about the famous couple, giving us insight into how the act came about. “Who has not laughed at the Baggesens yet? Their scene played in the kitchen, they handled plates and mountains of dishes that were always in danger of slipping out of their hands and then falling into ruins. If Baggesen was carrying the mountain of plates in his old, far too wide tail coat, when the mountain of plates was sinking and Baggesen tried to regain his balance through dislocations of his body, then a screaming laugh passed through the house. The housewives, who knew from their own budget, shouted what the plates cost, the children screamed, the men laughed at the top of their lungs – one can say that the Baggesens were the number with the most shouting laughter in all the houses of the continents broke out. The tragicomedy of breaking crockery was something everyone had somehow once experienced in themselves, that was the secret of the success of this number. Then there was the cheerful episode with the fly paper. If Baggesen had messed up his plates again, then the mischief of fly paper that stuck to his fingers came. If he scraped it from one hand, it stuck to the other again. If he had freed his hands from it, it would stick to his coat or pants or face, and finally the fly paper was to blame for the whole kitchen going to pieces… Chance had invented Baggesen’s number. Originally he was rubber man. Once, when he dined in an artisan restaurant, he witnessed a waiter walking through the bar slip a whole pile of plates off his arms. The sight gave Baggesen the idea of ​​building a number out of it. This is how a world success came about.”

The Baggesen’s are almost completely forgotten, which is a shame, as their act was wildly successful despite their limited juggling ability. Carl inspired many later eccentric jugglers as well as clowns and comedians. His name and reputation should not be forgotten.

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 twenty-six books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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