The Show Must Go On: Anecdotes of Mid-Show Mishaps – Part 2

As I stated at the onset of Part 1 of this article, “The show must go on” is an old show business adage that originated in the circus. It still applies today for most professionals.  We prepare and train in order to present the very best performances we can, but things often don’t go according to plan. In my thirty years as a professional juggler, I’ve encountered a wide array of unexpected or challenging situations and events during my shows. Here are a few more memorable ones from my career as well as a few others that I either saw firsthand or was told about.

Frosty The Juggler

Several years ago I was booked to do a show at a Halloween night event at a church. When I arrived, I found that they had set up a stage out in the parking lot. This was not a good sign for me, as October 31st in Ohio is not a particularly warm time of the year. To make things worse, this night was colder than normal. I got my props from the car and found the event organizer, who confirmed that my 30 minute show was indeed outside. I set up for the performance and pulled together a semi-acceptable costume for the chilly evening.  As the parking lot started to fill up with cars and families gathered in the stage area, the temperature quickly plummeted. Nevertheless, the MC took the stage as the sun set and before long it was time for my portion of the evening to begin. The first routine went fine despite my bulkier than normal costume and slightly cold hands. As I began the second routine, I felt something cold hit my face. It had begun to snow! The snow started out as just a flake here and there, but quite soon a near blizzard was upon us. I looked off stage to the MC, who just smiled at me. Despite completely numb hands and almost blinding precipitation, I kept going and finished the show as best I could. I was soaking wet and felt frozen solid as I stepped off stage. Ever since that show, I’ve always kept an emergency jacket, gloves, and hat in my car if anything like this surprise ever occurs again.  As the Boy Scouts say, “Be Prepared!”


The Wireless Mic

About 8 years ago I was flown all the way across the United States to perform a 30 minute stage show in Seattle, WA. In my contract I specified that I required a wireless lapel microphone. Ninety minutes before show time, I arrived at the venue, which was a very large arena that would shortly be filled with around 2000 audience members. I set up as usual and changed into my costume as the sound engineer and lighting technician arrived and powered things up. I then went on stage to check the lighting, which, as a juggler, is always my biggest concern. Once that was taken care of, I left the stage and approached the sound booth to get my microphone.  I asked for the microphone and the sound engineer handed me a wireless hand held mic. I laughed and said I needed a lapel mic. He looked at me blankly and told me that this was the only mic he had. I told him that I was a talking / comedy juggler and couldn’t hold a mic. I also informed him that my contract clearly stated that I needed a wireless lapel mic. He replied that he was just hired for the event and didn’t know anything about any contract. I asked if we could at least set it on a mic stand a few feet in front of me and crank up the volume. He informed me that he didn’t have a microphone stand either! I then spoke with the client, who apologized for not arranging for the proper microphone. We then brainstormed the best solution to our predicament. I found an extra diabolo string and tied both ends of it to the hand held mic, right under the ball end. I then proceeded to do a half hour show with the microphone swinging and banging against my chest. Both the MC and I informed the audience of the less than desirable set up and I was able to get some decent comedic moments out of it. It was, however, extremely irritating and uncomfortable to perform that way. As a result, I bring my own wireless lapel system to every booking, whether I drive or fly to it. That was one situation I never want to repeat again.


Flame Goes Up

In 1990 I was touring in a circus. I performed my juggling act in the second half of the show, but I was also part of a fire act in the first half. A fire eater opened the act and then I would take over. The fire eater would light both ends of my fire devil stick and then exit as I began my routine. At the end of my devil stick work, an assistant would bring out my torches, which I would light with the devil stick before handing it and my hand sticks off to this fellow performer. The assistant would then take the burning prop backstage and extinguish it. One evening we needed to have a different performer act as my assistant, so I recruited another juggler in the cast to fill the roll. As normal, he brought out my torches as I finished the fire devil stick routine. I lit the torches and handed him the devil stick and hand sticks. I then began my torch act, which consisted of chin rolls, chops, pirouettes, flourishes, and back crosses with three. Very shortly into my act, the audience started laughing and kept it up for most of the routine. I finished as normal, took my bows, and ran through the back curtain. I extinguished my torches and then asked what the audience was laughing about. My fellow cast members informed me that my new assistant had attempted to carry the flaming devil stick vertically instead of horizontally. When the bottom wick began burning his hand, he turned it 180 degrees so that the other end could burn him. At that point, he angrily slammed the prop to the ground before coming to his senses. He then picked it up, holding it horizontally and sulking back through the curtain. Now this particular juggler isn’t dumb by any stretch of the imagination. He was at the top of his high school and college graduating classes. Apparently, though, he was unaware that flame goes up! I like to remind him of this fact when I see him all these years later.


Utter Darkness

I was once booked to perform at a YMCA in one of their gyms. Despite a thunderstorm outside, the show was proceeding as normal up until my final routine. I like to end my act with some “danger props,” which, for me, is a knife, a stick with a set rat trap on it, and an ungimmicked running hedge trimmer!  It was while I was cascading these three items that the power went out. The gymnasium was windowless, so the room was cast into complete darkness. Fortunately, I had the hedge trimmer in my hand, but the knife and rat trap stick clattered to the ground, the rat trap going off as it hit. There were some shrieks from the crowd, followed by absolute silence except for the sound of the garden tool in my hand. I informed the crowd that I was okay and very carefully found the kill switch and turned off the hedge trimmer. I found the knife and rat trap stick with my foot and put them back on my prop stand. I then just went out close to the audience and told jokes and anecdotes until the power came back on. I’ve had some really bad lighting situations over the years, but that one takes the cake.


Cramped Hands

Last year I performed a ninety minute stage show at an end of the year school event for students and their families. That’s a very long show with a lot of juggling for a solo performer. It was also the fourth show I’d done in three days, so I was quite tired and ready to head to my hotel for some much needed rest. As I finished the show and was breathing a sigh of relief, the MC thanked me and then told the audience something that I was not prepared for and certainly wasn’t up to doing. He told the rather large crowd that I would be available to sign autographs afterward for anyone who wanted one. I placed a smile on my face, found a pen and a table and chair to sit at, and started what turned out to be an hour of non-stop autograph signing. My hands were cramping by the ten minute mark, but I had 150 people in line, so I kept going.  I made it through, but had to have help packing up. I was very glad that I didn’t have to drive home that night, because I don’t think my hands would have been able to hold the steering wheel!

Unattainable Expectations

A few years ago I was greeted with a very interesting sight as I arrived at the very large church where I was performing at that night. The church had a very large marquee out front to inform the community of its upcoming events. Well, the giant sign was advertising that night’s program with the following text:

Appearing Tonight 7pm

Michael Caine

Free – All Are Welcome

Apparently the person in charge of the sign mistook “David Cain” for the English film star Michael Caine. Well, I set up as usual and waited for the audience to arrive and the show to start.  The MC didn’t say anything about the marquee, so I decided to bring it up right off the bat. I started out by saying, “Well, if anyone showed up tonight expecting to see the actor that plays Alfred in the Batman movies, I’m sorry to say that I’m not him.” This got a good laugh and I went on with the show. I still wonder if anyone really did show up expecting to see the Academy Award winning actor and got a Christian juggler instead. If they did, I hope they had a good time anyway.

Michael Caine image

This Show is On Fire

About fifteen years ago I was performing an outdoor show at noon during the summer. It was very hot and very sunny. During the middle of the show, the audience started to chatter as I performed my ball spinning routine. When I turned back to my prop table to get another ball, I saw what the murmuring was about. My table was on fire! At first I couldn’t figure out how the small area of flame had begun, but I quickly surmised the cause. I use a large table covered with a very nice black cloth. I also use a clear contact juggling ball in one of my routines.  This ball had acted as a magnifying glass and had focused the sun’s rays onto the black table drape, catching it on fire. I quickly put the small fire out and covered the ball with a diabolo so that the noonday sun wouldn’t start another blaze. From that point on I’ve always kept that ball in its bag while performing outside. I like my show to be “on fire,” but not literally.



The next three anecdotes involve other jugglers. I witnessed the first two myself and was told the last one by a well-known juggler who’s been retired for quite some time. In the first two cases, I’ve chosen to leave out the names of the jugglers involved to avoid any potential embarrassment.


The Purple Interruption

Many years ago I had the opportunity to see a young juggler do his first stage show at a mall not too far from my home. He was a very talented young man with a wide array of skills, so I was looking forward to seeing his performance.  The stage was just outside of the mall’s food court, situated between the up and down escalators. The show went quite well other than the performer having a difficult time doing a two ball spinning stack. He actually called me up from the audience to do the trick that he seemingly couldn’t get on that particular day. Nevertheless, it was a nice performance. For his finale, he was going to do a nice combo trick that included ball spinning, plate spinning, toss juggling, and unicycling. However, the most unexpected and unnerving of interruptions happened before this could be accomplished. As the juggler was preparing to mount the unicycle, he noticed that the large proportion of the audience under the age of 7 was pointing and shouting toward the escalator over his right shoulder. He turned to see the cause of the commotion and was met with a sight that told him that his show was over.  Gliding down toward the side of the stage was Barney, the purple dinosaur! For those who aren’t familiar with Barney, he was an extremely popular (and irritating) television character for preschool aged kids. The children of the audience quickly left their chairs and crowded around the costumed interloper.  The juggler said a quick thank you and good bye to the few people remaining in their seats. I asked him afterward if he was aware that the purple behemoth would be making an appearance and he told me that it was a complete surprise to him. This was one case where the show couldn’t go on!


This Audience Is On Fire

More than twenty years ago I worked in an ice skating show, wearing cleats and juggling during the middle of the show to give the skaters a chance to change costumes and catch their breath. Many ice shows employ jugglers and other variety acts in a similar capacity. While visiting a different ice show, I got to see another juggler as the “middle act.” I wasn’t familiar with this juggler, but I thought I’d watch the show and then try to get back stage afterward to introduce myself. I was excited to see the show as he did his act wearing ice skates, a more difficult task than I was used to. The show was going great until the last routine, which featured three flaming torches. He did some nice moves with them, but then, as he was skating forward, he hit a spot on the ice that had been damaged by one of the other skaters making a spinning landing earlier in the show. The toe of the juggler’s skate caught in the hole and the performer lost control of the torches, sending one out into the audience! Fortunately, this was in a dinner show venue, so the torch landed on a table rather than in someone’s lap. A stage hand quickly ran out and retrieved the torch and put out the small fire that had begun.  The juggler quickly finished the act and went back stage. During the final curtain call, I could see the embarrassment still etched on the juggler’s face.  I decided not to try to talk to him, as that might be like poring salt into an open wound.


Go Out With A Bang

Legendary juggler Bobby May wasn’t immune to mid-show mishaps. Here’s a story of one show that ended in a most unexpected way. Bobby was doing the final routine of his act, bouncing balls off of a drum while balancing upside down on a head pedestal. To top off this amazing feat, he was keeping the beat to the music that was being played by the live orchestra in the pit just in front of the stage. Showing that even the greatest of jugglers isn’t perfect, one of the balls struck the rim of the drum and shot forward, landing in the orchestra pit. It bounced twice before striking the lid prop, the long piece of wood that keeps the top of a grand piano open. The lid prop was knocked out of place, resulting in the heavy top of the large piano slamming down onto the rest of the instrument. This resulted in a thunderous noise that stopped the entire orchestra and frightened much of the audience. Bobby, still balanced upside down up on the stage, righted himself, looked into the audience, and said, “Ta-Dah” as he took a final bow. The audience slowly began laughing and clapping as Bobby left the stage with a smile on his face.


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 16 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).

Comments 0

  1. Great article! Those are some funny stories, hahaha.

    Thought I’d add a few of my own.

    What are you doing here?

    A while back I was able to setup a juggling program at a local recreation center. Before the class started, they invited me to come perform at one of their family fun nights to raise awareness and interest in the juggling program I would be teaching. So I get to the fun night, and they stick me in a side room to juggle for people passing by. But after about 20 minutes, not a single person stopped by that room, so they moved me in front of the registration desk to juggle. This new location though, was very non-conducive to juggling, as it was at the corner of a hallway. People kept walking by the desk and nearly running into me because of the blind spot, so I was trying hard to look cool while juggling, but also trying not to inadvertently smack anyone in the face with a club as they were walking through. Finally, the employees realized that both of these were terrible locations, and asked me to juggle during halftime on the basketball court during the youth game that everyone was watching. A nice open space with plenty of people; a great combination for guerrilla marketing a new class offering! They told me to go out there, perform for a few minutes, then they would announce the details about my upcoming juggling program over the PA system as I was walking off before the game resumed. So I went out there during halftime and starting juggling right in the middle of the court. For whatever reason, most of the children decided to stay on the court to practice shooting hoops during this downtime. Not only were they completely unimpressed with my juggling, but they seemed annoyed that I was standing in the middle of their practice session. To make things even more awkward, the parents that were sitting on the bleachers watching their children, were now staring directly at me, not with a look of people who were being entertained, but more with a look of people who were confused as to why this older guy just invaded their children’s basketball game and was juggling right in the middle of it. I finished my routine and waited for my employee contact to announce my juggling program details on the PA to give my appearance context. Unfortunately, the PA system was malfunctioning, so instead of a well articulated and informative announcement, the audio came out more like “Ladies and csssstttt….you’ll notice we have a juggcccccssssttt, he is starting a csssssttttt, beginning on cssstttttt….” I looked around for some form of acknowledgement after the announcement attempt, and was met with a complete lack of response. No applause, no smiles, just a crowd of parents and kids staring at me with a complete sense of bewilderment. Needless to say, I politely thanked my employee contact and got out of there quickly.

    Juggling Program

    I was able to successfully start a juggling program at the aforementioned location. The program was promoted and setup. For whatever reason, the building I was going through chose to hire me as an actual business employee to teach the class instead of as an independent contractor. Didn’t really matter to me, as I was just looking forward to the class. However, the turnout was not what I expected. I showed up for my first day to teach after the program had been promoted for several weeks, only to find out that not a single person had signed up! I waited around however, in case there was a couple last minute sign ups, of which there ended up being two people. So I went to the designated room to teach my two students, and I was a little surprised by the diversity of the class, which consisted of: a ten year old boy with tourettes syndrome, and a 60 year old woman wanting to learn a new skill. They were both great students, mind you, but the extreme difference in demographics was very striking. Unfortunately, that was my only class at that place because it was immediately canceled due to a lack of interest after the first class. My taxes will now have me listed as being a formal employee at this business for a whopping hour and a half during the calendar year.

    Getting There

    Recently I was booked with my partner to perform at an outdoor carnival party for the elderly. It was out of town, but we left with 20 minutes of time to spare. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, this day was the day of the big Michigan/Notre Dame game and we were driving right by the stadium that hundreds of thousands of people were descending on. Needless to say, we got caught in traffic. After waiting at a stoplight for nearly a half hour, I was finally able to turn off and detour, only it was difficult to find any feasible route since traffic was coming into the city from nearly every road that led nearby. Finally after backtracking and coming up with some creative directions, we managed to pull into the gig- a half hour late. We apologized to our contact (who was thankfully understanding) and immediately setup outside to perform. I pulled out my clubs to start juggling, and I noticed that they were slimely and had some sort of goo on them. I examined by prop bag, and noticed that a bottle of sunscreen that I had inside had burst open on the way and gotten all over my props. This made them hard to juggle, as they kept slipping out of my hands. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, it then started to rain. We only performed for about a half hour total and I left wet and with a a prop bag in need of cleaning. Hardly one of my finer moments, hahaha.

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