There are many methods that jugglers have used over the years to promote themselves among the press. One of the most popular of these in the past was the “reward challenge.” This was a challenge put out to other jugglers to equal or better the feats of a specific juggler. Those who could do so were promised a substantial financial reward. These reward challenges would be published in newspapers as a way of promoting a juggler’s act. Let’s take a look at some of the challenges that jugglers and/or their promoters issued.
The earliest known example of such a reward challenge for juggling was created by famed promoter P. T. Barnum. Barnum started his show business career promoting an Italian juggler named Signor Vivalla, whom he first saw in Albany, New York sometime in late 1835. Barnum signed Vivalla to a one year contract, which paid the juggler $12 a week plus expenses. Barnum made $50 the first week as Vivalla’s manager and $150 the second week.
While appearing at the Walnut Theatre in Philadelphia, Barnum heard a hiss from the audience when proclaiming Vivalla’s greatness. The source of the hiss would turn out to be another juggler, who was named J. B. Roberts. As Barnum later wrote, “This hiss, I discovered, came from one Roberts, a circus performer, and I had an interview with him. He was a professional balancer and juggler, who boasted that he could do all Vivalla had done and something more. I at once published a card in Vivalla’s name, offering $1,000 to any one who would publicly perform Vivalla’s feats at such place as should be designated, and Roberts issued a counter card accepting the offer. I then contracted with Mr. Warren, treasurer of the Walnut Street Theatre, for one-third of the proceeds, if I should bring the receipts up to $400 a night–an agreement he could well afford to make as his receipts the night before had been but seventy-five dollars. From him I went to Roberts, who seemed disposed to ‘back down,’ but I told him that I should not insist upon the terms of his published card, and ask him if he was under any engagement? Learning that he was not I offered him thirty dollars to perform under my direction one night at the Walnut, and he accepted. A great trial of skill between Roberts and Vivalla was duly announced by posters and through the press. Meanwhile, they rehearsed privately to see what tricks each could perform, and the ‘business’ was completely arranged. Public excitement was at fever heat, and on the night of the trial the pit and upper boxes were crowded to the full. The ‘contest’ between the performers was eager, and each had his party in the house. So far as I could learn, no one complained that he did not get all he paid for on that occasion. I engaged Roberts for a month, and his subsequent ‘contests’ with Vivalla amused the public and put money in my purse.”
After J.B. Roberts left the show, Barnum continued to advertise that Vivalla would give $1000 to anyone in America who could copy the juggler’s feats within 6 months.
Charles Hoey, the first person to juggle four clubs, issued the following challenge in 1881. “I hereby challenge any man in America to swing and juggle single, double, triple and quadruple Indian clubs for from $100 to $500 a side, in New York or Boston.” At another time, Hoey’s promoter, the famous club swinger Gus Hill, issued a $1000 reward for anyone who could juggle 4 clubs better than Hoey. Charles Hoey famously was unable to collect the four clubs without dropping, so the curtain would close on him while he kept the clubs aloft.
James Darmody, one of the earliest five club jugglers, offered a $1000 reward for anyone who could equal his club juggling skills in 1899.
The Juggling Johnsons issued a reward challenge of $10,000 in 1899 for a troupe who could equal their group juggling.
A series of monetary challenges were issued between German strongman jugglers Paul Conchas and Paul Spadoni during the winter of 1904 and 1905 as the two performers were performing in New York City. You can click here to read about their feud and the accompanying challenges they put forth.
In 1908, Gentleman juggler Salerno offered the reward of $1,000 to any juggler who could copy his trick of balancing a cue stick topped with a billiard ball, a piece of billiard chalk, two more billiard balls, another cue stick, and a tray; all in a tall vertical tower. Charles Hera, a contemporary of Salerno, performed the exact same trick in his act, but it’s unknown if he ever claimed Salerno’s reward.
Charles Hera performing Salerno’s trick
British juggler Zarmo (1868 – 1943) was so confident in his skill level that he advertised that he would pay 1000 British Pounds to any juggler who could match his tricks.
Such reward challenges mostly died off after the first decade of the twentieth century, but they were not completely gone. The Juggling Jewels had a challenge for any person who could match a variety of their feats, as you can read below. It comes from the Nov. 26, 1949 issue of Billboard.
The Juggling Jewels
Juggling reward challenges disappeared completely until 1998, when Jack Kalvan issued one. He advertised,” If anyone can duplicate the feats presented in this show, I will gladly pay $10,000 for the pleasure of seeing it.” No one took him up on his challenge.