Carl Thorson was born into a large family on August 1, 1894 on his family farm, located five miles outside of Madison, Wisconsin, (USA). When he was old enough to go to school, he walked five miles each way. This undoubtedly kept him in peak physical condition, which is something he was known for his entire life. At some point during his schooling, he picked up three rocks and taught himself to juggle during his daily trek to and from school. At the age of 14, he began performing as a juggler and a year later he went on the road with his act. Carl Thorson advertised himself as the Jestering Juggler for his entire career.
Originally he juggled lightweight, hollow cannonballs, which were a common prop of the day, as you can see from the 1900 Van Wyck advertisement below.
In 1917, he started using solid steel balls and in 1922 he switched to even heavier 10 pound balls. Cannon ball juggling would be the signature part of Carl’s act from that point on. He would juggle the 30 pounds of steel and end by dropping two of the cannonballs while doing a neck catch with the third. He would then flick the heavy ball into the air and do the neck catch again. To prove that the balls were truly heavy, he would drop one on a large slab of metal on the floor. Also at another spot was a heavy square of wood. Both drops made a noise that sounded as if the balls weighed at least a ton. His finale consisted of doing arm rolls and the neck catch, followed by dropping the ball to the floor for one more noisy landing.
Carl’s most famous trick was to balance a 40 pound cannonball on a long stick on his forehead. He would knock the stick away and catch the cannonball on the back of his neck.
1922 is the year that Carl’s career really took off. For the next 55 years, Carl toured the United States and Canada with circuses and performed in Vaudeville shows and fair shows. For fifteen of those years, he only worked in circuses, which included the Sparks Circus, the John Robinson Circus, and the Sells-Floto Circus.
Carl wasn’t limited to just juggling with heavy cannonballs. He was also known for his work with plates, balls, and clubs.
In addition to his cannonball juggling, another juggling skill that set Carl Thorson apart from his peers was his diabolo work, which was uncommon at the time. He was said to have invented many diabolo tricks.
A Billboard Magazine review once said the following: “Carl Thorson, novelty juggler, is the outstanding act in the show. His uncommon skill is marked by smoothness and precision, and he impresses as big time. His juggling of six different objects simultaneously, including a 40 pound steel ball, is the highlight of the evening and leaves patrons with jaws dropped.”
The International Platform Association Talent Magazine said the following: “Carl Thorson, the Jestering Juggler, shows his dexterity as a great master of the art of juggling, and held the audience in rapt attention. Especially spellbinding was his manipulation of a large steel ball, which he tossed up and down over his head with an adroitness that seemed miraculous.”
Carl, who settled in Chicago, IL, was once featured on the ABC television program You Asked For It during the 1950s, juggling with his cannonballs. As her got older, Carl took work performing school assembly shows.
Some might doubt that the steel balls that Thorson used were actually as heavy as he claimed, but there is ample proof that they were. Carl was a frequent attendee at early IJA Conventions and would bring out his cannonballs for others to try. It was consistently reported that they were indeed quite heavy and the other jugglers were astounded with what this now older gentleman could do with them. In fact, it wasn’t until Carl was in his 70s that he decided to stop using the cannonballs and concentrate on the lighter props in his repertoire.
Harry Otto, Carl Thorsen, Harry Lind, Bobby May, and Mel Ody
Carl served in many official capacities with the IJA, including the following: President 1956-1957, Vice-President 1954-1955 and 1960-1961, Honorary Director 1955-1956 and 1961-1962, Director 1963-1964.
Carl’s business card, now a part of the Museum of Juggling History archives
Below are two videos of Carl. The first shows him performing and the second shows him juggling at several early IJA Conventions.