The one subject that I have most often been asked about during the last few months is the origins of comedy juggling. I will begin by saying that it is next to impossible to say who the first comedy juggler was. Thus, I will not attempt to give an inadequate answer to that question. Instead, I will share what I’ve been able to find on the subject.
It is quite likely that jugglers included some bits of comedy since the Middle Ages, but I’m not aware of any hard proof of this. The earliest juggler I know for sure that included humor was Old Malabar (Patrick Feeney), who was born in 1800. Beginning his performing career around 1822, his act was described as “manly and graceful,” with ongoing patter that was modest and humorous. He mainly worked as a street performer, but did work on some stages during his long career, which ended in his death in 1883. You can click here to learn more about Old Malabar.
With the popularity of Vaudeville in the United States and music halls in Europe in the late 1800s, comedy juggling would start to develop into its own genre. Although they weren’t considered comedy jugglers, juggling icons such as Cinquevalli, Kara, and Salerno included comedic elements in their acts. Cinquevalli would humorously threaten the orchestra leader and was assisted by a comedic foil, Walter Burford. Kara also employed a comedic assistant. Whenever the assistant would mess something up, Kara would exclaim, “Tonight, everything has gone wrong!” Likewise, Salerno’s humor was often at the expense of his assistant. During his famous letter routine, Salerno’s assistant would deliver an envelope to the juggler, who would toss it into the air and cut off the end with scissors while it fell. He would then write a reply with a pen, toss the letter into the air, and catch it in a new envelope. Salerno would then hand the envelope to his assistant to deliver. As the assistant walked away, Salerno would throw the pen like a dart into his assistant’s padded backside.
Kara and assistant
While the “Big Three” of Cinquevalli, Kara, and Salerno had small comedic bits to go along with their amazing feats, other jugglers made comedy the focus of their acts. Various jugglers claimed to be the first to do a talking comedy juggling act in Vaudeville, including Fred Pelot, Edwin George, and Jim Harrigan. You can click here to read more about Fred Pelot.
Jim Harrigan was certainly the first comedic tramp juggler. He began his performing career as a juggler in 1887. The story behind his invention of such a character is an interesting one. Here is his account of the incident.
“I was getting a small salary, doing an ordinary juggling act. One day I received an invitation from the Baltimore Press Club to spend a day at their camp on the Ohio river. I was greatly troubled in mind, as to how I could raise a little money for a contribution of fruit, cigars or some other gift that was customary for visitors to offer. An appeal to the manager of my company for salary in advance did not meet with success so I pawned my stage dress suit to get a little money. When I returned at night, the situation was decidedly awkward. The manager stormed and I hastily borrowed odd garments from the other performers, mussed my smooth hair into a tangle, put on a half-inch beard with a handful of burnt paper and rushed on the stage as a tramp. My turn made such a hit that I was greeted with the emphatic words of the manager “If you ever get that dress suit out of pawn, I’ll shoot you!” So I remained a tramp behind the footlights ever after.”
You can learn about Harrigan’s act by clicking here. Harrigan’s tramp character was copied by many others, most famously by W. C. Fields, whose fame far surpassed Harrigan’s. Below you can see some of Field’s juggling from much later in his performing career.
Vaudeville juggler and historian Tommy Breen had the following to say about his knowledge of talking comedy jugglers.
“Derenda and Breen was the first act to do comedy with clubs and back in 1897. Every one tried to tell them that club juggling was too pretty to get any comedy out of them. But McIntyre & Heath saw the possibilities and made them do the comedy and gave them many gags that jugglers are still using today. Another first that could be credited to this act is that they were among the first to do talking while juggling. They were the first double act to talk but they gave Jim Harrigan the credit for being the first talking juggler. They did a talking act until they worked the Dewey Theatre in New York and one night while they were talking, Leo Derenda, the straight man, laughed and his false teeth fell out on the stage and he would never talk on the stage after that.”
Derenda and Breen originally met at a club swinging competition in New York. They decided to form a club passing team and were a big hit. They would start their act with one of them jumping out of a life-sized poster and would change which one did this each performance. They were quite skilled with their heavy wooden Van Wyck clubs, passing six back to back and passing eight while facing each other while each juggler stood on a pedestal. Some of the comedy of the act would come from temper tantrums thrown by Derenda when the duo would make a mistake. This anger would result in the juggler tearing apart a large chain or ripping one of their pedestals apart with his teeth.
Derenda and Breen
A lengthier account of Vaudeville comedy jugglers was written by the Great Weiland in 1909. You can read it, along with a short autobiography of Weiland, below.
The Great Weiland
Weiland mentions Zarmo, whom I’ve written much about here; Tom Hearn, whom my brother Scott wrote about here; and Charles T. Aldrich, whom I will write about in an upcoming article. Not much is known about George Fielding other than that he was a comic/clown juggler and was known to be the first juggler to perform six balls. He also juggled bottles.
Frank Le Dent
While much is still unknown about the origins of comedy juggling, hopefully this article can at least act as a resource to those who want to know more and a starting point for further research.