Paul La Croix (Paul Murphy) was born in 1878 and began his career as a vaudeville juggler around 1895. He performed until at least 1915. While he got good reviews on the vaudeville circuit, he would be almost completely forgotten except for his invention of a juggling trick that is still performed today. This trick is known as the “bouncing hats,” “bounding hats, or “dancing hats.” It involves juggling three hats and bouncing them off of the rims on the head of the juggler before each hat settles onto the head. This can be done to create a wobbling of each hat or can be done so that the hat turns 360 degrees between each hit and change of direction. To see this trick performed by Kris Kremo, click here, by Dieter Tasso, click here, by Kristian Kristoff, click here, and by Shirley Dean, click here.
Paul La Croix was advertised and known by many titles. Here are some of them that I could find.
Handy Hat Hustler
Comedy Juggler of Nimble Fingers
Eccentric Hat Juggler
Handy Handler of Many Hats
Classy Hat Juggler
Originator of the Bouncing High Hats
The Man with the Educated Hats
The Mad Hatter
The Famous Eccentric Hat Juggler
The Tramp Juggler
The Screamingly Funny Juggler
As I stated earlier, Paul La Croix’s reviews were quite positive. Below are three examples of such reviews.
“Paul La Croix is a hat juggler who is probably without a peer in his special brand of ping-pong. He works with three hats and keeps them moving. They dance and leap and play tag with each other. In fact, they do most everything but talk.” – The Salt Lake Herald, March 8, 1909
“Paul La Croix added much comedy to an eccentric and skillful juggling act. He has dragged apt alliteration’s artful aid into the naming of his set, calling him self the “handy hat hustler,” or some thing like that. He received and deserved hearty applause.” – Omaha Daily Bee, November 17, 1908
Several decades, later, the following was written about him in a popular juggling book.
JUGGLING HATS MAKE PAUL LA CROIX BALD
Los Angeles Herald, March 2, 1909
PAUL LA CROIX, who juggles hats at the Orpheum, is only 30 years old, yet he is nearly as bald as a man of 60. Hats did it. They wore down the top of his cranium by sheer force of friction. La Croix juggles nothing but hats. The time was when he manipulated other things, quite in the fashion of most jugglers. But one by one he eliminated these other articles, till he retained only the hats. Now, he generally is known as “the handy handler of many hats” and they are almost human in his hands. “They seem human to me,” said La Croix, speaking of them. “‘Some are cranky, and some are good-natured. Some are easy, and some hard. Some do as I want them to and others are too refractory for any use. “I always use new silk hats in my act, and my first duty in a town is to go out and buy a dozen or so, depending upon my stay. I get good ones, but of course at wholesale rates. Then I go over each hat with a small hammer and soften it up. .”Why? Because a new silk hat is stiff, and like so much tin. It cannot be manipulated; there is no resiliency in it. I make a hat dance, bound off my head, whirl about almost as I wish. I can’t do that if the hat is harsh and stiff. The second-hand hats are useless, because they, are too soft. They have been broken; they give way and are not true in shape, hence cannot be depended upon. I want new hats that I have hammered. “A hat lasts two and sometimes three performances. I use three in my turn, hence need a new set almost every day. During my two weeks here I will use about four dozen hats. Good thing for the hatter, ‘eh? “They are an interesting study, are hats. I took up juggling when I was 9 years old up in San Francisco, and tried all sorts of things before the hats struck me as the best. Then I used to practice with derbys, soft hats and silks, and with new and second-hand ones. Finally I had to give up all but new silk ones, and I’ve stuck to them ever since. I use a tramp makeup just because people take to the eccentric rather than to the artistic. And I always have music when I juggle. Somehow the music is a great help; the rhythm makes the motions almost exactly the same all the time, which is the secret of juggling. A fraction of a second slow, or too far away, and your trick is gone. The music gives you a swing, and you soon get to working unconsciously. “Oh, yes; my hair began to go early. Think; It gets unnumbered raps all the time, twice a day. The friction simply wore it away. I know, because when I cease juggling for a spell it comes back— thinner and thinner all the time. I’m a hopeless bald head, I’m afraid; only qualified for the front row at a burlesque show.”
I have been unable to locate any photos of Paul La Croix, but the three following illustrations show him in his tramp juggler costume.
One reason that La Croix didn’t become more famous might be that his bouncing hats act was quickly copied by Frank Le Dent, who was a more talented and better known juggler. I’ve found references in newspapers comparing the hat juggling of the two, with some saying that La Croix performed the act better while others saying that Le Dent had improved upon La Croix’s invention. Nevertheless, Le Dent certainly became quite good at the routine and was able to combine it with his incredible ball and plate juggling skills to surpass La Croix’s fame. Fortunately, there was never any real doubt among journalists at the time that it was La Croix that was the first to perform the skill.