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Remembering Todd Smith

The juggling community has lost one of its most popular members and prop makers, Todd Smith. His close friend Arthur Lewbel has been kind enough to write his obituary, found below. Following the obituary is a link to an old Juggler’s World article about Todd and a collection of remembrances compiled by David Cain from the juggling community.

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Todd Smith Obituary

James Todd Smith 4/3/1958 – 8/23/2020. Survived by three children: Walker, Maggie, and Jack.

In the late 1970’s, hobby juggling took off on a number of college campuses, including Hampshire college, where Todd Smith was studying economics. He mail ordered a set of juggling clubs, which took 9 months to be delivered. Realizing that the long wait meant demand exceeded supply, Todd disassembled his freshly ordered clubs, figured he could make them just as well himself, and started Todd Smith Products (TSP).

Within 5 years, while Todd was still in his twenties, TSP grew to one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of juggling equipment, featured in a 1984 front page article in the Wall Street Journal (the other big prop makers at the time, as discussed in the article, were Brian Dube,
Jugglebug, and the “small new” upstart, Renegade juggling).

Based in Cleveland, TSP had a booming mail order business, and wholesaled to magic and toy shops all around the country. He supplied juggling props to circuses, including Ringling Brothers and, later, Cirque du Soliel. TSP juggling clubs retailed everywhere from Klutz Press (makers of the “Juggling for the Complete Klutz” books that fueled the hobby juggling boom of the 70’s and 80’s) to the Smithsonian museum gift shop in Washington DC.

The business expanded out of his house and into a large brick building. Todd happily gave visitors tours of his shop, except for one room, named, “the big room,” that no one was allowed to enter. The secret of the big room was that it held the molds for making silicone balls, and was only the size of a closet.

Todd’s generosity as a prop maker was legendary. I was once with him on a business trip in Mexico, where a potential supplier offered him a deal for parts. Todd renegotiated the contract, saying simply, “you’re not charging me enough.” At juggling festivals, Todd’s employees sometimes chased him away from his vendor table to keep him from giving away too much merchandise to every wide-eyed youngster or old friend that passed by.

Owen Morse, Todd Smith, Karl-Heinz Ziethen, and Arthur Lewbel

Todd was unbelievably charismatic, befriending everyone he met. I recall seeing him in the restaurant at a convention hotel, where he had so charmed the staff with his banter that the desk clerk had upgraded his room and the waitress brought him free drinks.

Karl Hienz-Zeithen, Chris LaReau, Jon Held, Arthur Lewbel, Frank Vazzano, and Todd Smith

People flocked to Todd. In the evenings at juggling festivals, after his wares were put away, his vendor table turned into “Club Todd,” where all the best jugglers would pull up a chair, have a drink, and laugh the night away (professional performers can be very funny people). And yet, contradicting all the ‘cool popular kid’ stereotypes, Todd especially enjoyed the company of over-educated, socially-awkward geeks, which is how he and I became close friends.

Todd Smith and Arthur Lewbel

Alas, Todd’s later years were less successful, and he gradually became more reclusive. At one of the last juggling festivals he attended, a young juggler asked if there really was a “Todd Smith.” Todd smiled and kidded, “No, the name is like Aunt Jemima.”

Todd went though a difficult divorce, and struggled to keep up first when business moved to the internet, where success depended more on tech ability and less on old school salesmanship, and second when a newer generation of prop makers adopted production methods that were more automated and less handcrafted than his own.

Todd’s health deteriorated, and he was in and out of the hospital multiple times. I last spoke to Todd about a week before he passed. He felt bad about being too unhealthy to work, but was otherwise still positive and cheerful. He’d recently moved from an industrial to a residential part of town, and the last thing he said was how nice it was to see trees from his window.

Todd Smith and Arthur Lewbel

Todd was universally known as the “friend to jugglers.” But he was much more than that. He was absolutely one-of-kind, and that mold is now broken. He will be greatly missed.

– Arthur Lewbel, 9/11/2020

More About Todd

You can click here to read a Juggler’s World article about Todd written in 1984.

Memories of Todd Smith

“My memories of Todd and his juggling and juggling business are from Todd’s high school and college years. One of Todd’s high school teachers taught Todd how to juggle, and juggling soon became an art that Todd wanted to master. Clubs were not a sufficient challenge. Todd graduated to a wooden dowel with a wiffle ball at both ends, and bells within the wiffle balls, manipulated in the air using sticks.  Todd practiced by the hour, with the bells jingling all the way (yikes!). Todd then advanced to flaming torches …  thankfully used outdoors.  Todd would juggle outdoors beginning a dusk and continuing well past dark. All the neighbors knew Todd and enjoyed
the free show.

Todd’s frustration with buying clubs motivated him to make his own clubs.  Friends saw the results and asked Todd to make clubs for them. More and more requests were received, and Todd realized the business potential. Todd Smith Products was born during Todd’s college years and continued as a full-time endeavor after graduation. Todd enjoyed the challenge of designing new products and perfecting his designs.

Todd was always quick with a joke.  At Christmas time, when Todd would gather with his five siblings, there were joke telling marathons, with Todd being a leading contributor.

Kids have a way of surprising their parents.  Todd said he wanted to go to Clowning School.  What’s that?  Todd convinced his parents, and off he went to learn to mime and to juggle while riding a unicycle and wearing grease paint on his face.  Todd earned more money as a street performer in Cleveland in a few hours than his siblings earned working all day.

Todd adored his own kids, Walker, Maggie, and Jack.” – Cindy Smith, Todd’s sister.

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“Todd was a friend, and one of the most colorful, interesting people in the world of juggling (which is saying a lot)! With a few exceptions, Owen and I have used his clubs for our entire career, and were in fact anxiously anticipating a shipment of 20 new clubs from him any day now, so we had been in regular contact. I knew he was having heart problems, yet I was hoping for the best. IJA conventions have lacked a key character in recent years since he stopped coming, and I was always hoping for the time he’d be back, and we could sit behind his table and laugh over some beers, share some meals, and catch up again. I will miss his kindness, his humor, his warmth, and his cool! And yes, I will miss the clubs! The juggling world just lost a giant.” – Jonathan Wee of the Passing Zone

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“For never having actually met Todd Smith, the friendship that we’ve formed will be so greatly missed . Todd would share my work on social media with the kindest of praises. Sent me juggling props to try out and play with, and remind me to sleep on time knowing that I never do. He was a mysterious, abstract yet kindest and sweetest soul. His presence and friendship is greatly missed by me.” – Gena Shvartsman Cristiani

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“We’ve lost one of the greats. Alex and I used his juggling clubs exclusively throughout our careers because everything he did was with integrity, commitment to excellence, and genuine love for the art of juggling. Honorary GOLD for Todd Smith!” – Nick Karvounis of Doubble Troubble

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“One of the original OHIO BOYS…. Todd was a great guy…superb props.” – Dick Franco

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“Todd was such a wonderful man. There was always a party at his stand at the IJA. I’m truly sorry to hear of his passing.” – Christian Harel

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“Well there was my 1994 Cascade of Stars Show where I performed the Dinner of Death and had 6 jugglers holding me up on a slack rope, and Brian Dubè and Todd Smith were both up and I made sure to put them on opposite sides. Then Bill Giduz took me too seriously and I got flung on the air and landed on my back!” – Tony Duncan

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“I considered my first set of Todd Smith clubs as the first true professional props I owned. I had worked for years as a performer and gigged with other clubs, but always held Todd’s among a select few models that represented truly world-class examples. My choice was influenced by seeing The Passing Zone using his one-piece European clubs. They were perfect, wide and highly visible in the air, and durable. I have had nine of them and they are my #1 clubs for shows or practice. Todd, the man, was also quite a character. Eccentric, but dedicated to his craft. I will miss his voice in the juggling community, but his legacy and impact on club juggling is rich and enduring.” – Bill Hart-Davidson

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I was shattered to hear about the loss of Todd. I loved him dearly, and treasure every moment I got spend with him. The last time I saw him was in Cleveland about 5 years ago. We were having drinks in the hotel bar (and he insisted on ordering – and getting! – stuff that wasn’t on the menu from the clearly charmed waitress). At closing time we were both in our cups when he asked me if I could drive him home. I demurred (being too intoxicated) and said I’d get him a cab. Then the waitress strolled up behind us and said to him, “I’ll drive ya home.” And off they went. And now he’s gone.
– Steve Westren

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I bought my Todd Smith clubs after seeing The Raspyni Brothers use them during a Carson appearance in 1986. Always loved them and the sound they make when I catch them.” – John S. Harris

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“Todd, you made a difference.” – Bounce Margil

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“I used to call him Charlie from Charlie’s Ángels because I only knew his voice, but he called me three times a week on Skype even to my cell when I was working internationally just to check on me in good times and bad times. Todd began making my equipment in 1990, and when I lost everything after hurricane Katrina, he sent me over 2k in equipment to get me back on my feet. I loved him.” – Peter J. Loftus

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“As a Juniors competitor in Las Vegas, I arrived with my first set of Todd Smith European clubs. I always used the same club as the 4th to juggle because it had a loose piece of wood inside that rattled. I loved those clubs, so I persisted in using them to compete – and the 4-club segment was dropless!

I went to college in Oberlin, OH near Cleveland, but only got to know Todd as a real person at the Amherst convention at his alma mater, Hampshire College. All three of Todd’s offspring attended great colleges and this was very important to him. He was himself a follower of Harvard’s grad school classes online.

At that mini-convention, Todd came over to me and put a set of clubs in my hands. He said I’d get addicted and in no time I was! I stuck with those clubs many years; the same used by the Passing Zone in competition the year we all won. That was a great year for Todd Smith Products, I like to think! Though these clubs were not popular enough to continue the line, he offered to replace mine from time to time.

Sometimes his company sent me clubs to test out, such as can be seen in my Bix act at cindymarvell.com. My Lazer Vaudeville club solo had Todd’s signature clubs. The handles didn’t have much give but they were airborne and had a floaty quality which came to define my style. Later, I attributed his aerodynamic design ability to his experience as a sailor in Cleveland.

In recent years, Todd became my “big brother” online offering family advice. Did he ever have some! Though I knew he had health challenges news of his death was incredibly sad and unexpected. We kept planning to visit each other in our complicated lives. No one could chat with me like Todd. And he read my film script having contributed to the name of a flying dinosaur causing some chagrin. There was a lot of humor and intensity between us need I say as jugglers.

On this day of September when we are remembering so many I’m just coming to grips with Todd’s final ascension. May he fly high and always be there to catch up with.” – Cindy Marvell

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“I am anguished to hear of the passing of my good friend Todd Smith following apparent heart complications at the age of 62. Todd manufactured juggling equipment, and if you have ever seen me juggle you have seen his products. Though he was ten years older we had an immediate connection because we both were from Ohio. We were friends for 35 years. He very strongly supported me and encouraged me, and I can attribute a tremendous amount of my success as a professional juggler to his credit. In the summer of 1987 I stayed with him for a few weeks helping him make props in preparation for the International Jugglers Association Festival in Akron. He had an amazing offer for me, some pay in cash, and another amount of compensation in juggling products. I remember like it was yesterday spending a whole morning carefully wrapping tape on juggling clubs. After I had done about twenty of them I asked him to inspect them. To my surprise, I had done every single one of them wrong, either taping going the wrong direction or not lining the tape up perfectly with the seam on the body of the club. He went on to explain that every single prop had to be perfect, every single time. He was incredibly funny, humble, generous, and kind. He had a way of making you feel like the most important person in his world. One of my happiest memories was hearing him speak at my wedding reception in Mexico City, he was eloquent and dignified and the entire room was very impressed with him. His hands made equipment that made other hands applaud, and for that I will be forever grateful. I will miss him very dearly.” – Joel Heidtman

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“I was juggling in the gym at an IJA once. I can’t remember the year but the place was Reading, Pennsylvania. I was just training some tricks. Was very careful because I was a little shy. Suddenly I noticed a guy watching me and after a while he came up and introduced himself as Todd Smith. We chatted for a while before he invited me to his pop up store where he gave me 5 brand new silicone balls. They where great balls and for a couple of years after that he would send me new balls for free. He was the reason I, for the first time, I felt like a professional juggler. With my own sponsor and all. Very grateful for that. The balls of course. But also. That he saw me and thought I had something worth supporting. Sad to hear that Todd has left us.” – David Eriksson

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“Todd Smith sponsored Jay Gilligan and myself by providing the clubs that we used to win the IJA Teams Championships in 1994. As a testament to his craftsmanship, I still use these same clubs in my act every show, even though they’re 26 years old. I remember a few years ago that I had told Todd that I was performing in Cleveland. He said he couldn’t make it. The day after the show, he emailed me and told me everything I performed in the show. He had sneaked in wearing a disguise and left right after the show. That was Todd in a nut shell.” – David Cain

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of twenty-four books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

Comments 1

  1. My treasured Todd Smith moment: I was hanging around Todd’s vendor table at an IJA fest, and watched a slick businessman-type Dad working his no doubt formidable negotiating talents to wrangle a deep discount on props for his juggler son. The guy very casually leaned back in his chair and asked what Todd would take for a dozen large silicone balls. Todd, in turn, leaned back in his chair, and asked his helper, just as casually, “What’s 12 times 45?” The slick businessman nearly spit out his dentures.

    – Jerry Martin

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