One of the most unique juggling acts of all time was performed by juggler and musician Frank Bamber “Franco” Piper. Piper was born in 1877 in Redbourn, Hertfordshire, England, but moved to South Africa in his late teens and lived there for many years. He was a child prodigy at playing the banjo, but wasn’t content to simply play the instrument in a standard way. Piper constantly experimented with methods that allowed him to play multiple instruments at the same time. As a result Franco learned to play his instrument of choice while juggling or spinning multiple banjos.
The following article, published in The Royal Magazine in 1901, explains many of the methods that the then 20 year old performer used.
The methods used by Piper are difficult to imagine. The fact that he used a carpeted platform suggests to me that the carpet hid special connectors that allowed the banjos to spin for long periods of time without falling over or to travel a path while spinning, as the article also suggests. In regards to how Piper actually played the juggled or spun banjos, that’s difficult to say without the benefit of seeing such a performance. The juggling and playing of 6 banjos surely seems to be hyperbole. Certainly the photo does not show a realistic juggle of the instruments, so the facts of the article should be taken with a certain grain of salt.
Nevertheless, Franco Piper was a success. He was popular throughout South Africa, England, and Australia, at the very least. He was also popular enough that he was paid to endorse at least one product; Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People.
Piper’s reviews were consistently positive. The following newspaper clipping from 1910 claims that his appearances were “Absolutely the Strongest Vaudeville Combination ever presented to a Perth (Australia) Audience.”
Franco Piper had a successful career, living for most of his adult life in England. He married his assistant, Norah Cavanagh, in 1904. He retired from performing in his early fifties, when his wife became ill and he was forced to place her in a nursing home. Unfortunately, Piper fell into a deep depression over his wife’s illness and because he missed performing so much. On May 8, 1933, Piper drove to a secluded spot near Edburton, England and ended his life with a self-inflicted gun shot.
Franco Piper wasn’t the only vaudeville era act that juggled and played banjos at the same time. Performing from at least 1899 to 1917, the Howard Brothers were accomplished banjo players who ended their act by passing 6 banjos and plucking out a tune while doing so.
While we don’t have film of the Howard Brothers’ work, Dr. Hot and Neon (Bill Galvin and Steve Mock) did create a routine in the 1980s where they juggled banjo ukuleles and played a tune while doing so. You can see an example of this below.