The passing of Robert Nelson

My heart has joined the thousand…

My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped juggling today.

Sadly, it is time to retire IJA Life Member Number 83. Robert Nelson, the Butterfly Man, died on August 27, 2012. His passing leaves a void on stages and pitches around the world.

I first met Robert at the 1980 IJA convention in Fargo, North Dakota, when he joined our table for dinner. It quickly became apparent that the meal was no longer going to be old and new friends getting better acquainted. Our repast had turned into one of many impromptu shows by and about Robert. His storytelling dominated the conversation and captivated our hearts.

That get-together in Fargo was the sixth of what was to become a four-decade run of annual IJA festivals/conventions that benefitted from Robert’s experience, wit, and generosity. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all profited from Robert’s workshops, performances, and twisted perspective. Even if you haven’t become a better performer from watching Robert, you’ve seen someone who has.

The Butterfly Man emceed the public show at the 1986 IJA convention in San Jose, California. While he executed his usual, excellent job at this official event, it was as host of the late-night, t-shirt fashion show that week that created several legends. One was to further the reputation of the Butterfly Man as a dominant performer and chased-after-by-fans star; the other was the birth of the Renegade Stage.

More than just an IJA member, the Butterfly Man shared his experience at juggling festivals and busker fests around the world. He was also a valued contributor to all of the MotionFests that were offered on both the east and west coasts. As was his custom, he contributed more than his share by agreeing to emcee the first public show ever produced by MotionFest and setting a high bar for those who followed.

The IJA recognized Robert’s service to the juggling community by presenting him with the Bobby May Award in 2004. This joins his other achievements as Performer of the Year in venues such as Pier 39.

An accomplished unicyclist and juggler, the Butterfly Man routinely juggled a seven-ball Reverse-Cascade in his show. “I do it backwards just to piss off other jugglers,” he would explain to the audience.

In addition to being a great juggler, Robert was a captivating storyteller. Here’s one:

The television show LA LAW was holding auditions for an episode that involved an older vaudevillian who was suing a younger performer for stealing his material. Contemporary jugglers were lining up to audition for the part of the younger performer.

Robert’s audition included a rant of him exhorting the producers to cast him in the role of the older performer. “All of those jugglers you’re seeing today, they did steal my material.” he shrieked.

Several years ago Robert retired to the big island of Hawaii to become a gentleman farmer. He proudly explained, “I’m going to put in as much time and energy with this new career as I did to become a successful performer—three hours a day, three days a week.”

Once settled in Hawaii, it was hard to get him to leave. His string of consecutive IJA festivals—beginning in 1975—lasted until 2004. Even though his attendance at the annual IJA festival lagged these last few years, his loyalty and support to jugglers and performers continued. Knowing his time was limited, Robert donated his collection of juggling props and memorabilia to deserving young jugglers, the IJA auction, and the IJA archives.

As a young man Robert Nelson studied to be a research chemist. He even wore a white lab coat for a short while after he was graduated. Fortunately for us, he left that profession to become a performer. He started out playing clubs and small gigs in Nashville, Tennessee.

After that he traveled to New Orleans to see how it felt to stop strangers on the street, entertain them, and ask to be paid for it.

It worked. Robert Nelson became the Butterfly Man.

In the 1980s both of them moved to San Francisco where the Butterfly Man flourished as one of the stars of the growing street-performing scene. Working the lines at the Ferry Building led to holding court on the main stage at Pier 39. The management and crowds loved him there. Not only did he act as the booking agent for other entertainers, he won the Pier 39 Street Performers Competition three times. His unofficial title among many was the King of Pier 39.

Around that time he started touring, performing at colleges around the US. His act was well-received on campuses and he won the NACA award.

He also journeyed to Europe, Australia, and Japan. Not content to collect postcards or traditional souvenirs of he travels, on one of the Japanese trips he met and wooed Kumi, whom he married.

His global successes during this time prompted other performers to bestow on him the title King of the Eighties.

He is succeeded by his wife, Kumi, and his son, Koleman.

Robert, if there is such a thing as an IJA Afterlife Member Program, I look forward to sitting at a celestial dinner table of juggling luminaries as you continue to weave more incredible stories.

P.S. I had the opportunity to send a draft of this obituary to Robert. His comment was,
“First, I love the idea of proofreading my own obit… how cool is that?!”

He then went on to criticize me and the obit. He wanted it to be more specific in places and chastised me for not being funny enough.

Robert concluded his feedback with, “I’d actually like the reader to know how close we (you-me) are/were and perhaps some anecdotes about things we did.

I dunno, but I have a strange feeling my obit will someday be considered a classic. Of course, it just might be the tumor speaking.”

I’ll write up some of the stories when I get a chance. Right now I’m going to stop for a while and cry some salty tears.

Aloha, Robert, and Mahalo

Uncle Todd

Todd Strong has always found a certain amount of comfort in an oft-quoted line from "Man and Superman" by George Bernard Shaw."He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

Comments 5

  1. I never knew Robert well – but he was a much anticipated “fixture” at every IJA fest he attended. He was friendy to new jugglers and willing to share (his hecklers workshops were great). He was hilarious and could be cutting – but was also generous and kind. And he could be one darn good heckler himself. He was cutting edge – so many late night Renegades…. He seemed bigger than life – and I believe he is! He will be missed…..but never forgotten. Within the juggling community – a group known for “characters,” – he was unique.
    Thanks Butterfly Man!
    Bob N.

  2. Robert was the best street performer I ever saw and a truly nice guy. So many memories, so many laughs — as when a heckler yelled something incoherent and Robert said, “Sorry, man, I don’t speak Quaalude.”

  3. I also didn’t know Robert well, but enjoyed a few of his workshops, and rubbing
    elbows. He was helpful in my becoming more creative, funnier, and taking some risks.
    He was unique, and will be missed.

    Al Grout

  4. I saw Robert at my first IJA festival in Newark, DE.I had spent some time juggling on the streets of downtown Manhattan late that spring and had driven over from Duluth for the festival in Fargo (1980). That was when I saw and heard Robert’s rant. He was loud, funny and original. Juggling was his way of meeting the public toe-to-toe, and they loved it. I met him at many other festivals through the years, but began to miss him after he moved to Hawaii. I had the good fortune in Winston-Salem this year to get his phone number from Bob Nickerson,and in mid-August called him on one of his “good days”. We reminisced about our six-week sojourn at the Antic Arts Festival at SUNY-Purchase where pain and laughter were dealt out by Michael Moschen, Fred Garbo, and Bob Berky. Robert spent a good deal of his off time plastering Tiger Balm on his sore muscles. In many ways he was at his funniest grinding it out. Robert was one-of-a-kind. His loss is Heaven’s gain.

  5. Thank you, Todd. Woke up thinking about Robert and needed to read this again. It’s a beautiful piece.

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