The Sad Tale of Signor Vivalla: P.T. Barnum’s Juggler

Whether it’s through the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus or via the recent movie “The Greatest Showman,” most readers will recognize the name of famed promoter P.T. Barnum. Barnum lived from 1810 to 1891 and hailed from Connecticut in the USA. While much has been written about his later years, few people know that Barnum started his show business career promoting a juggler named Signor Vivalla, whom he first saw in Albany, New York sometime in late 1835. The juggler had previously worked under the name of Signor Antonio, but Barnum changed his name to Vivalla for some unknown reason. It may have been because the juggler had apparently not bathed in several years! After a long bath and a change of name, Barnum was determined to make his juggler a star. Little is known about Vivalla’s background, although we do know that he was from Italy. He was not just a juggler, but was also a talented stilt walker and tight rope artist. Barnum would take Vivalla to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, New York City, and Bridgeport, CT, among other stops. Barnum signed Vivalla to a one year contract, which paid the juggler $12 a week plus expenses. Barnum made $50 the first week as Vivalla’s manager and $150 the second week. Barnum had found his calling.

While appearing at the Walnut Theatre in Philadelphia, Barnum heard a hiss from the audience when proclaiming Vivalla’s greatness. The source of the hiss would turn out to be another juggler, who was named J. B. Roberts. As Barnum later wrote, “This hiss, I discovered, came from one Roberts, a circus performer, and I had an interview with him. He was a professional balancer and juggler, who boasted that he could do all Vivalla had done and something more. I at once published a card in Vivalla’s name, offering $1,000 to any one who would publicly perform Vivalla’s feats at such place as should be designated, and Roberts issued a counter card accepting the offer. I then contracted with Mr. Warren, treasurer of the Walnut Street Theatre, for one-third of the proceeds, if I should bring the receipts up to $400 a night–an agreement he could well afford to make as his receipts the night before had been but seventy-five dollars. From him I went to Roberts, who seemed disposed to ‘back down,’ but I told him that I should not insist upon the terms of his published card, and ask him if he was under any engagement? Learning that he was not I offered him thirty dollars to perform under my direction one night at the Walnut, and he accepted. A great trial of skill between Roberts and Vivalla was duly announced by posters and through the press. Meanwhile, they rehearsed privately to see what tricks each could perform, and the ‘business’ was completely arranged. Public excitement was at fever heat, and on the night of the trial the pit and upper boxes were crowded to the full. The ‘contest’ between the performers was eager, and each had his party in the house. So far as I could learn, no one complained that he did not get all he paid for on that occasion. I engaged Roberts for a month, and his subsequent ‘contests’ with Vivalla amused the public and put money in my purse.”

After J.B. Roberts left the show, Barnum continued to advertise that Vivalla would give $1000 to anyone in America who could copy the juggler’s feats within 6 months.

Eventually Barnum hired other performers and created “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater,” where Vivalla was the featured attraction.

At one point during the tour, the theatrical company was passing through a Creek Indian territory in Georgia. Among those in the troupe, only Vivalla expressed a lack of fear of the Native Americans. He bragged that even if he met 50 of them, he would give them “one devil of a licking.” As a result of Vivalla’s bragging, the rest of the troupe decided to put the juggler’s courage to the test. While Vivalla was out out hunting for a squirrel, the company’s clown and magician, Joe Pentland, dressed up in some genuine Native American garb that he owned. He covered himself in war paint, grabbed a musket, and went out after Vivalla. When he found the juggler, Pentland spouted gibberish and frightened Vivalla so much that Vivalla fell to his knees and begged for his life. The fake Native American took the juggler’s purse, containing $11, and tied him to a tree with a handkerchief. When the rest of the company found him, Vivalla insisted that he had been ambushed by 7 Creek Indians and had no choice but to surrender. The company of performers let Vivalla tell and retell the story for a week before telling him the truth of their deception. The juggler was mortified by the entire ordeal.

Vivalla and Barnum parted ways in Nashville, Tennessee in May of 1837. From there, Vivalla traveled to New York City to perform before eventually sailing to Havana, Cuba. The two did not meet again until 1851, when Barnum brought Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind to Cuba. In Barnum’s own words, Vivalla was “in great distress, having lost the use of his limbs on the left side of his body by paralysis. He was unable to earn a livelihood, although he still kept a performing dog, which turned a spinning wheel and performed some curious tricks. One day as I was passing him out of the front gate, Miss Lind inquired who he was. I briefly recounted to her his story. She expressed deep interest in his case, and said that something should be set apart for him in the benefit which she was about to give for charity. Accordingly, when the benefit came off, Miss Lind appropriated $600 to him, and I made the necessary arrangements for his return to his friends in Italy.” A few days later, Vivalla brought his dog and spinning wheel and visited with Lind and Barnum as an expression of his gratitude to them for their help. Vivalla’s dog performed for Lind and Lind sang and played piano for the juggler. Vivalla left the meeting overjoyed. Unfortunately, he passed away a few months later before being able to sail to Italy. It was reported that his last words were about Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum.

An illustration of Barnum, Jenny Lind, and Signor Vivalla

While the above information is all that we know of Vivalla’s life, we do know a bit more about his act. He was primarily a plate spinner, or as he was advertised, “the celebrated Professor of Equilibrium and Plate Dancing.” He performed a variety of tricks with plates and bowls and was advertised to perform the following tricks: he would toss plates ten feet high from sticks and catch them back spinning on the sticks again. He would spin plates on sticks in each hand, toss the plates high, and catch them on the opposite sticks. He would also balance one stick with a plate spinning on it on his face while spinning two others. He would spin plates and bowls on swords and would elicit sparks from a metal washtub while he spun it on a sword. Vivalla performed a trick where he spun a plate on the hilt of a sword. The tip of the sword was inserted into the handle of a fork, which was balanced, tip to tip, on the tines of another fork, which was held in Vivalla’s mouth. The plate/sword/fork assemblage then spun on the other fork. He also did an almost identical trick, with the spinning assemblage consisting of a plate spun on the top of an opened parasol, which had the hilt of a sword inserted into the parasol’s handle. This all spun on the fork held in the mouth. We know he also balanced pipes, which was a common trick of the day. His finale was quite incredible, for he would spin ten plates on ten sticks which were attached to a long table. Once all ten plates were up and spinning, The table would be lifted up and Vivalla would balance it on his chin and fire a gun with blanks in it. Not only is this a very impressive sounding trick, but it is also by far the earliest reference of a juggler performing plate spinning that utilized a rack or table, which became very popular in the second half of the twentieth century and is still done today.

Below is the only known illustration of Vivalla demonstrating his skills. He is shown performing the first of the two fork mouthstick tricks described above.

Signor Vivalla 1836

We know very little about jugglers of the early 1800s, so this glimpse at one such performer is a valuable opportunity.

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-six books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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