Robert Nelson aka “The Butterfly Man”

I first saw Robert perform in a dark corner of San Francisco’s Pier 39 in 1979, just after it had opened. There was no stage, no lights, few tourists – with an audience of about six drunks held at bay by a torch juggler. My film partner, Kim Hoeg, and I were amazed at how well he handled the non-stop heckling. He actually seemed to encourage it and of course eventually worked it into his act. He would pass out props and have the audience throw them back at him, often out of control. He would also bring up volunteers and “abuse” them, both physically and verbally. They loved it.

Pier 39 was not a big tourist attraction at that time – Old time street performers like Ray Jason worked the Cannery and other areas around Fisherman’s Wharf. The owner of Pier 39, Warren Simmons, appreciated Robert and agreed to build a stage for him in the center of the pier. Robert began drawing large crowds and soon was filling time slots with many of his friends: The Fly By Night Jugglers (Frank Millitello, Robert Lind, John Park, and Michael Goudeau), Frankie Olivier, Scotty Meltzer, Fred Anderson, Ned Kelly, and Marty Coffey. Years later, when Pier 39 had become one of SF top tourist attractions, I interviewed Simmons and he raved about how Robert had been instrumental in its success.

Robert, Ned, and Marty lived near Golden Gate Park and on Sunday afternoons would meet up in a meadow with other performers and amateurs like myself. We grew into a family of 50+ jugglers who would improvise all day and then share a meal at the Sacred Grounds Restaurant in the Haight. Robert would invariably hold court, a bit like the Dickens character Fagin preaching to the street waifs.

Kim and I decided there was a unique story here and started a film company Strider Productions, eventually producing the film “Juggling.” We filmed many of the acts at Pier 39, including the 1st Annual Pier 39 Street Performers Festival in 1980. We also filmed many of the sessions in Golden Gate Park, which was often visited by out of town performers like Tim Furst (The Karamazov Brothers), Peter Davison and Kezia Tenenbaum (Airjazz), Eastman Webber and Mark Chesbrough (Jet Set Jugglers), Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell, Allan Jacobs, Benji Marantz, and Tom Murphy (Murph) visiting from the East Coast.

Robert stood out from all of the other performers and we featured him in our film. We interviewed him while he was shaving his head to expose two butterfly tattoos. He had a great sense of humor à la WC Fields, but he was very serious about performing. It was often hard to tell when he was kidding and when he was serious, just like on stage when he was yelling at the audience.

We made a promo film for Robert which helped him get work at festivals, comedy clubs, and colleges across the country. He started spending a lot of time in Hawaii in the 1980’s where he and I were both involved with Graham Ellis and the early days of Bellyacres and the Hawaiian Vaudeville Company. Robert retired there a few years back with his wife Kumi.

I hadn’t seen Robert for awhile and was saddened to hear that he was in poor health. I was fortunate to talk with him on the phone last month and reminisce about happier times.

Robert used to end his act balancing a rose on his nose while reciting:
“It matters not the job you’ve got
as long as you do it well
Things that are made by plans well-laid
The test of time will tell
But you cannot count or know the amount
Or the value of a man
By the show displayed or the beauty made
By the touch of the jugglers hand”

Bob Crossley

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