Keith Nelson Juggles Sponsors and Spoons, Patrons and Plates

This summer Keith Nelson took The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and produced The Flatbed Follies. Keith created the BFC together with Stephanie Monseu in 1995. Flatbed Follies is a traveling version of the show using two flatbed trucks and a calliope. They play free performances all over the five boroughs of New York City and suburbs plus the Tri-state area and Upstate.

But if he doesn’t sell tickets and they don’t pass the hat after each show, how does he pay his 15 performers and 4 roustabouts?

The city pays.

Its a match made in heaven. The city is always being pestered to provide more free entertainment for children and families. But what do bureaucrats know about riggings and clowns? But Keith does and he presented a proposal and schedule and obtained sponsorship from the Department of Transportation. They have a budget for cultural events.

With 15 performers on board for the season (and a roster of hundreds of back-up clowns, jugglers, magicians, and acrobats if needed) the show goes on and each performance is different.

The show at Plaza de las Americas in Manhattan included Ermiyas Muluken on rola bola. He built a five level tower hopping from one level to the next. He also finished with a five cylinder stack. In the second half he did a free-standing-ladder routine and also joined Keith and Dexter Tripp in a three person club juggling act that included take-aways, a line, and a feed.

The other juggling act was performed by IJA member Kyle Driggs who had a solo routine spotlight in 2016 in Cirque du Soleil Paramour. Kyle is known for work with umbrellas, but outdoor venues with unpredictable winds prohibit certain props such as scarves, rings, and umbrellas. Instead Kyle performed with three, four, and five beanbags with numerous patterns, 360s, and head rolls. He catches them in his hat and throws them out again and does a 4 ball Mills Mess. Then an extended 5 ball cascade and half reverse cascade at various heights. He is very graceful and employs subtle dance steps. It’s good contrast to the other acts which are more flashy and colorful.

Between acts was the broad comedy of the Bindlestiff Clown Alley. They make it a point to get the audience involved especially the children. The dozen clowns on Keith’s roster make up the largest Clown Alley in the country. Each show features 3 or 4 clowns. The show I saw included Joel Jeske, Deborah Lohse (who also teaches at Lincoln Center), Cynthia Rauschert, and Mariko Iwasa (clown).

The Ring Mistress, Miss Ya Ya, is enthusiastic and energetic. Some of the notable other acts were Andrea Murillo on Hair Suspension; Dexter Tripp with his live dog act (all rescue animals); local girl, Ellie Steingraeber, on Lyra (aerial hoop) and hula hoops; and Logan Kerr on high-wire who has been performing since she was 13-years-old.

Keith does his plate spinning act in each show. He manages to get eight plates spinning on thin wooden sticks, then just before they run out of momentum he tosses eight soup spoons into eight drinking glasses at once.

The show lasts an hour and 15 minutes and ends with the children enjoying getting to meet the stars and take pictures.

Flatbed Follies was the natural progression for Bindlestiff. Last year Keith approached The Mayor’s office of Media and Entertainment and got them to agree to help finance the project. He then sent proposals and was accepted for funding by the New York State Council on the Arts and NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

Keith also organizes the New York Unicycle festival every year. This year the event which includes games, competitions, workshops, and shows will take place September 1st-4th(see for more info).

He also organizes the Cavalcade of Youth variety show together with Stephanie Monseu and Viveca Gardiner. This year the event which is open to all talent under the age of 21 takes place on Coney Island on October 16th.

So if you want to get sponsors for your own show follow Keith’s lead. Keith had this advice to give, “Like everything in life, it is about relationships, perseverance, and sometimes a twist of luck. Grants, government support, corporate sponsors… are not a quick way to make things happen. It is a very long game. Start creating something that matters, start letting the world know, start doing your research, and start reaching out and accepting rejections. Grant writing is a skill that is learned. Let people know your dreams. You never know who will open the next door that matters.”

Raphael Harris

Raphael Harris was the proprietor of the Jerusalem Circus School for Children for over ten years. He has performed "Sir Juggley's One Man Circus" over a thousand times. He appeared in the Guiness Book of World Records twice and the Record Setters Book of World Records three times. He lives in New York.

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