It is with great sadness that we report that legendary juggler Rudy Cardenas passed away on December 16th, 2019. Rudy Cardenas was one of the brightest juggling stars of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The incredible Mexican juggler was born March 19th, 1926 and started his performing career around 1929. By the age of seven he could perform 5 balls and 5 bell sticks. He was known as the Little Rastelli. At 8 years old he became the first act ever to open at the El Patio, the largest nightclub in Mexico City. At 10, he was working at Rio de Janeiro’s La Urca, the most famous casino in the world at the time. Rudy had a wonderful and long performing career all over the world. His act featured large ball juggling, ball spinning, stick juggling, three top hats, small balls and billiard pockets, and shaker cups. He is perhaps best remembered for popularizing shaker cup juggling and for inventing the back roll while spinning three balls; one on a mouth stick and one on each index finger. He was the winner of the Rastelli Prize in Bergamo, Italy in 1967 and was the recipient of the International Jugglers’ Association Historical Achievement Award in 1995.
Instead of attempting to research and write a long biography of Rudy here, I will, instead, include an account of Rudy’s life written by the man himself in 1995. This autobiography first appeared in the Summer 1995 edition of Juggler’s World Magazine. I’ve included many newly-online photos of Rudy to go along with this account. If you want an in-depth examination of his life, please read this. Otherwise, you can skip to the videos that showcase his incredible talent.
I was born in Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, on March 19, 1931. My father was Domingo, and my mother, Rebecca. My mother’s side of the family, the Suarez family, had always been circus people in Mexico. My father was from a well-to-do family and he was in university studying to become an engineer. But he was very good at gymnastics, and put an act together to work with the circus during vacations. He met my mother, they fell in love, and he stayed.
The main family act through the generations was horses. My grandfather used to juggle on the horse and do foot juggling. My sisters were very good wire walkers. I learned to walk the wire, but I was as bad at that as I was good at juggling, so I didn’t pursue it. I was juggling three balls by the time I was three. It was very easy for me since all my family juggled. It was just something you did, not something you learned.
The first time I was in an act was with my sisters, Ophelia and Esther. One would take the others legs and hold her like a wheelbarrow. The one who was being held had her hands on a small wheel that rolled along the rope. Then they put me in a basket swinging underneath the wheel. They moved to the middle of the wire, and then I juggled three balls while I sat in the basket.
I was an assistant in my grandfather’s foot juggling routine in the first act I remember anything about. He manipulated a model battleship with his feet, and I was hidden inside that boat! At the end he would give me the signal, I would pull ropes and the boat would open up. Firecrackers would go off and I would stand up and wave the Mexican flag. But one time I fell asleep, and grandfather decided it was not the job for me anymore.
The first thing I remember well was at age four when I wore a pierot costume and my father threw picoretto hats that me and my sisters caught on our heads.
By the time I was seven I could do everything that a famous Mexican juggler named Meneses could do. I could do five balls well, five bell sticks, three hats and three ball billiard pockets. I used to do four plates and practiced six. But in Mexico civic clubs would buy most of the circus tickets when a show came to town. Since Meneses was high in the Masons, he kept me from working the big circuses. So my mother said, “Lets go to Monterey,” and found me a job in a variety theatre there. I caused a sensation in that show, and everyone started talking about me. But they said the only way they could find out how good I really was was to work in Mexico City.
The biggest thing in Mexico City was the El Patio. Meneses had worked there, but they let him go after only one show. That was typical of the El Patio with circus acts, none lasted long. My relatives thought I was too young and that I would certainly be let go, and that I shouldn’t even try to work there. But my mother had faith in me.
The first thing I had to deal with was that I had never worked with a full band. I walked in for rehearsal and they asked for my music. Well, I only had two pieces! The conductor, Ray Montoya, felt sorry for me, and he and the famous singer Pedro Vargas sat down and watched my act. In an hour they had arranged my music.
I was a child when I opened at the El Patio, just eight years old. I performed three and four bell sticks, a ball while jumping the rope, and three balls, three clubs, the pockets and the hats. After my act the first night, people stood and shouted and applauded and threw money all over the place! I was a sensation, shocking all my relatives except my mother.
Right away they asked me if I wanted to work in South America, because the biggest casinos were there. So I went there with Ophelia and we did a two person act in all the big casinos in Brazil. We used to pass six sticks, and I ended up juggling all six of them. By that time everyone thought I was a great juggler. I was working on rolling the ball all over my head. I could roll it either way, and stop it in any position. Then Ophelia got married when I was about 12, and I was lost for a while.
My father was working with Circus Beas, one of the biggest in Mexico. He saw that I was unhappy without my sister, so he sent me a telegram telling me to come back. I returned and practiced 7-8 hours a day for the next two years with my cousin Carlos Ricci. I was a real fanatic.
There were a lot of Russians in Mexico at that time, and all they talked about was Rastelli. I used to practice hours and hours, so the Russians used to call me The Little Rastelli.
They told me some amazing stories about what Rastelli could do. I heard that at the end of his act he would hold a candle in one hand and candle holder in the other. He would throw the candle up high, pirouette under the candle and then place the holder down on a table and be walking off the stage when the candle came down into the holder! That was one of the most incredible things in juggling I ever heard in my life. I thought it was completely beyond human ability.
When I met Bobby May, one of the nicest people I ever met, he told me it was true. Thinking about that trick and how Rastelli could have done it used to drive me crazy! Then the last time I was in the Lido I saw a movie of Rastelli and finally found out what he really did. He fooled everyone! He threw the candle up in the air, then caught it in the candle holder before he put the holder on the table. But he did it so fast that many jugglers and the public thought for years he put the holder on the table first. I wish I had a copy of that film so I could show it to the people who told me that story!
It’s certain Rastelli was a great juggler, but because his pacing would be outdated I don’t think he would make it today. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of him, and talked to many friends about him. All of them, including Bob Hope, told me he was a great juggler, but he was so monotonous! For his time he was the greatest, but today jugglers work very differently.
Then I went back to South America for the first time by myself. I was in Rio for six weeks on the show with the great Carmen Miranda in the La Urca night club, and then on to Buenos Aires. I was immediately arrested when I entered Argentina because I was too young to travel alone. Oh, the problems! They treated me well, but technically I was in jail! It was eventually worked out, and I did four shows a day in Argentina.
Before I left Mexico, though, I promised myself if possible I would work with the great comic Mario Moreno Cantinflas when he came back to work in Mexico City. I got the chance when I was 13. I told the people in La Urca I had to go and flew back to Mexico City right away. So I worked with Cantinflas at the Teatro Iris, and that was the most talented show I ever worked with! We had the magician and ventriloquist Paco Miller, who was the biggest thing in Latin America, three great composers there who had their own orchestras on the stage, two ballets… I’ve never seen a show like that! But backstage everyone was commenting on me because I was so full of energy and they never saw anything like me.
After that I went to Cuba for a half-year to work at the Casino Nacional, and that led me to America. My Cuban manager sold my act to the Olympia Theatre in Miami, which was owned by Paramount. They weren’t eager to have another juggler, but he told them if they didn’t like Rudy he would pay for me and send them any other of his top acts for free. They ended up keeping me for five years, and I was twice voted best novelty act for Paramount in late 1940s.
I was assigned to the agent Jack Davis, and they offered me a five year job. I joined a show in San Francisco with Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and traveled all around the country playing at Paramount Theatres. It was hard work! I only did six minutes, but in Chicago you did a minimum of five shows a day, and sometimes up to ten.
The only thing between the shows was a travelogue, so there wasn’t even time to eat. You lived in the theatre. Right after I finished working I would go practice. I lived in the theatre. I never knew anyone or met anyone outside the theatre. They said I was insecure, and that was why I worked so hard. I just thought that was what you did if you wanted to be a good juggler.
I traveled a lot with a lot of famous stars with Paramount, it was quite an experience. But I worked like a slave, there was no time to do anything else. Eventually I met Joy and married her. If I hadn’t met her I don’t think I would have stayed. I would have returned to South America or Mexico.
We married over Christmas in 1950. Her family was from the Bible-belt South and she was a student, visiting an aunt in New Jersey when we met. I flipped over her and not long after that we got married. No one had hope for the marriage because I was young and she was younger. They said it wouldn’t last a year, but it’s been 45 years so far!
We have a son, Dolf, who was a Green Beret with three tours in Vietnam and is now a scientist. Our daughter, Melissa, rides horses professionally on the World Cup Grand Prix circuit.
Joy traveled with me most of the years we were married while Dolf studied in England and Melissa studied in Paris. Dolf said all his friends had fathers who were diplomats, generals and admirals, but he was a big novelty because his father was a juggler. They both finished school in Las Vegas when the Lido show moved here from Paris in 1960 and I came with it. Neither of my children ever expressed any interest in juggling, though. I don’t think I ever saw either of them even pick up a prop.
I never tried to teach them or anyone else to juggle. I believe the greatest teachers of jugglers aren’t great jugglers. My father taught me, and he was not a juggler. He wasn’t even from the circus, but he developed a lot of innovations that circus people never thought about, like my shaker cups.
My first time in Las Vegas was 1948 when I was at the Flamingo Inn for the Lido show for 12 months. It was the last hotel on the Strip, and was so far away from anything that we never had more than 10-12 people in the house. In the Frontier, where I worked also, there was a small stage surrounded by tables. They’d have a name, two variety acts and a line of girls. That was it.
There was nothing in Las Vegas then, only three or four casinos on the strip – The Last Frontier and the Rancho, and later on the Thunderbird and the Sahara. It was too expensive for me to stay in the hotel, so I stayed in a motel a quarter mile away. There was very little to do in the beginning except gambling. That first time I came I was only 18 or 19 and wasn’t even allowed in the restaurant because it was surrounded by gaming machines, and you had to be 21 to gamble. They were very strict about that. It was very monotonous. But now… my goodness!
The first big show I remember was the four weeks I spent opening Frank Sennes’s Minsky Show at Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn. Everyone thought it was crazy because it had strip tease! It actually caused a sensation, and people from California came in from all over to see it.
I started doing my 14-minute full act when I started doing just two shows a day in Reno and Las Vegas. It was easier to do a long act than so many shows. I still warmed up for two or three hours, and practiced the spots in the routine where something went wrong.
One of the things in my act was tricks while I jumped rope. First I jumped a small rope in time to the music, changing to a big rope, and jumped it while I bounced a ball on my head. Then while jumping I stopped it and rolled it in circles around my head. I caught it on the back of my neck, threw it high and jumped the rope again.
I was the first to do the three ball spin – one on each finger and one on a mouthstick and do a back roll-over. In the last couple of years I did two roll-overs. That’s difficult because you have to do the second turn very fast or the balls will stop. I can’t do that one any more, though, because of my bad leg.
For a long time I did seven balls with billiard pockets. For a finale, when all seven were coming down I would catch the first six in my hands, then do a pirouette and catch the last one in my back pocket. It has to be so right, it was very hard and unpredictable.
I went to six balls later because it was slower and more sure. I did up to eight cocktail shaker cups. Meneses used to do three. My father, who was an engineer before he joined the circus, designed cups that were easy for me, and that’s how I was able to do eight. We worked on 10 and I could do them, but not consistently.
I was a very famous child juggler in South America, but when I came to America I couldn’t speak English at all. But I was friendly with everyone and they were nice with me. I worked with the Harlem Globetrotters on a European tour in 1953 the second time I was in the US, and made good friends with one of them. Later in Las Vegas my friend was there and I invited him to come see me and Sammy Davis Jr. in a show. But he begged off and I couldn’t understand it. Then Sammy’s uncle, who was traveling with him, explained to me that black people couldn’t be in the room. And I found out that Sammy and his uncles had to live in another part of Las Vegas because weren’t allowed to stay in the hotel. That was a very big shock for me.
Another big shock was taxes. When I arrived in Miami I had $14,000 in travelers checks. That was a lot of money. Then at the end of the year they told me about taxes. I had never in my life heard of taxes. So I went to an accountant and he told me he needed to consult with someone in the IRS. They decided I had not made enough money that entire year to pay what l owed the government!
It was because I had no residence anywhere in the America. We used to travel every single day, and since I had no residence, I had no rights to deduct any of my expenses. And in those first years I was making an awful lot of money, about $750-$1,000 a week, with extra pay after five shows and it wasn’t unusual to do seven!
The IRS said they were going to sue me. But one of the heads of Paramount said he had a friend in Washington. My agent went with me along with someone from the company to Washington to see one of the IRS people. My agent described the problem, and the IRS man looked at all the numbers. He told me I made as much as the president of the USA! He said two words only, “Pay it!” After he figured it out and I paid up, I had less money than when I arrived!
After that I declared a residence with a friend, and from that moment on it was much better. But my first two years when I lived in the theatre were terrible. The third year my company said they had a gift for me, and gave me a Lincoln automobile. Where I came from, though, no one had a car! The only people who had cars were professional drivers. I had never driven in my life, and with all the traffic here I didn’t want to learn. I told them I didn’t want it and they sold it.
The first time I worked with the Harlem Globetrotters in Europe there were five jugglers, a bicycle act and someone who did a one-finger stand act. I was the last juggler to appear, and it was very hard to make an impression after the audience had seen four other jugglers.
Then I went back home and worked for the Paramount again, working a lot with Frankie Laine. They sold the Frankie Laine show to the Palladium theatre in London in 1957. They weren’t anxious to have to me because they said there were so many jugglers there. But I ended up being on the front page of three newspapers, and got standing ovations even from the orchestra.
When I arrived in the U.S. I was very good, but I needed something else. The key to my success came in Cincinnati at the Beverly Hills Club, where I worked with producer Don Arden. We became friends, and when we were working in Vegas later he said to me one time after rehearsal, “Rudy, may I talk to you?” I said “Sure.” He said, “Sit down. You know Rudy, when you do something, do it two or three times, not more than that. You lose the sensation of moving from one thing to another. If they see it once or twice is enough.”
I was so mad with him I could kill him. But I practiced like that and before you knew it it made a tremendous difference. Rene Friday, the head of the lido, told me one time when we went out to see a juggling competition, Why do jugglers think that just because they juggle one more hoop or ball it will make any difference? People don’t care, they just want to be entertained.
He was absolutely right. I used to balance a ball on my heel and head while I juggled five sticks and turned around in a circle very slowly. But I never got much applause for it and stopped doing it when I came to the States. It’s all in the performance, not the props.
You have to have an act that’s more than tricks. You have to keep in mind that you’re working for an audience. Its nice to talk about what you can do, but it doesn’t pay your salary. The person I was most impressed with was Francis Brunn. He was a ball of fire! Another of the most impressive things I have ever seen was Rudy Horn’s three ball routine. To me his speed and dexterity is unmatched.
The performance with Frankie Laine was my first appearance in Europe, but after that my time was split between Europe and Las Vegas. I went back to Mexico every couple years to work for short periods at the El Patio. I would always sign contracts for the run of the show wherever I was, but the last time I signed for the run of the show, it was at the Lido and the show ran for six years, 1974-1982 (including time they were closed to move to a new building). The first five years I didn’t have a single day off! Then they passed a new law that said everyone got four weeks off, so for the first time I had a vacation. Then my last time at the Star Dust in Las Vegas I was there for three years.
I won the Rastelli Prize for jugglers in Bergamo, Italy, in 1967, but to me it was no competition. It was an exhibition. Really the greatest award I ever received was the Cantinflas Award in 1975 in Mexico. That is an extremely hard award to win, and when you receive it you are almost automatically nominated to be buried in the Cemetery of Illustrious Men in Mexico City. That’s where the actors, scientists, politicians and others of whom Mexico is most proud are buried. If I receive that honor, I will be the first circus person buried there.
In 1949 I was also part of the first color TV show ever broadcast. They picked up certain acts from all over and brought us to Washington. They put us together in a show that all the dignitaries and President Truman saw. I used to do black hats, but they told me to do color so it would show up on the new TV. I’ve done colored hats ever since.
Richard Nixon was also a big fan of mine. I performed for him three times in Washington, then the last time he was in France, he came to see me at the Lido with his wife, Pat. He said he heard I was there and wanted to see me. I was very honored, he stood up and interrupted my act twice to speak to me and shake my hand! I also worked three times for Charles de Gaulle, and performed at three inaugurations of presidents of Mexico. In about 1985 President Echevarria of Mexico invited me to be in the welcoming ceremonies for the Queen of England when she visited I was also with Bob Hopes last show in Vietnam.
You know, I’ve had my share of misfortunes. It happened when I was working at the Riviera in the Splash show. I didn’t exactly want to work there because the stage was so small, and there was water all over it. But they insisted I try, and I agreed to do it for a few weeks. The third or fourth week I slipped and did an involuntary split and damaged my left leg. It was practically paralyzed. I thought I had pulled some muscles and went to see a chiropractor and several doctors, but they couldn’t do anything.
I knew there were some famous doctors of soccer players in Spain, and I called friends of mine there to get me an appointment. In Barcelona the moment that doctor saw me walk he said it was my hip. He said it wasn’t that bad, that I didn’t need a hip replacement, but that I should do different exercises like riding bicycles. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
But sometimes when I watch TV and see an athlete with an artificial hip I wonder whether I should do it. I was in Paris when Francis Brunn had his hip replacement, and went to see him in the hospital. From what I understand he has done very well after that operation. I’m confused about the whole thing. I can do most of my act without pain, but the stick and ball is very difficult.
To tell the truth, I feel the same now as I did when I was 14, but my bones and legs know the difference. The doctor told me I am a model of fitness, but said I worked too hard and am in danger of abusing my body.
Still I practice 4-5 hours every week day. I have a very big 24 x 26 room at home, but I can’t throw things high there. For that, I go out to the tennis court very early or late in the day so the sun doesn’t get in my eyes. I don’t practice the stick and ball much because it hurts my leg, but I practice the hats and the billiard pockets. You need to practice the pockets or you lose your timing.
You must practice no matter how good you are. Rastelli said if you don’t practice one day you’ll know the difference, if you don’t practice a second day other artists will know the difference, and if you don’t practice a third day the audience will know the difference because of all the props on the floor!
I’ve turned down several jobs here in Vegas and in Palm Springs because I don’t want to work if I’m not at my best. I don’t mind working in Japan for a few weeks, but I’m not going to work here for a long run unless I’m in my best shape. I’m not retired, though. I’m still looking for the doctor who can fix my hip. If someone can do that, within five months I’ll be doing everything I used to do!
In 2009, Rudy moved into an assisted living home in Missoula, Montana, where he lived the rest of his life. The Museum of Juggling History has many of Rudy’s props on display.
Below are 5 wonderful videos of Rudy performing.
Rudy Cardenas was considered one of the most energetic, skilled, and innovative jugglers of all time. He was a master of many different juggling skills. He was also a loving husband and father and a friend and mentor to many jugglers. Joy, his wife of over 60 years, preceded him in death in 2014. Our condolences go out to his family.