Trixie is one of the most beloved juggling icons of the 20th Century. Martha Firschke was born on June 14, 1920 in Budapest, Hungary into a circus family. Her stepfather, Oscar Firschke, was a German juggler, animal trainer, perch pole balancer, and horseback rider. As a juggler, he performed impressive routines with up to seven rings, five tennis rackets, balls, and hats under the names Friskie or Frisky.
Her mother, Antonia (Toni) Klaus Firschke, was from Austria and performed acrobatics with her sisters under the name Geshwester Klaus (Klaus Sisters). After marrying Oscar, she was featured in the perch pole balance act, performing tricks at the top of the pole balanced by her husband.
The Firschke family owned Circus LaForte, which is still in business today, though no longer connected to that family. The family called Vienna, Austria their home, and Martha was trained at an early age as an acrobat. She chose juggling as her focus by the age of 11 and took on the stage name Trixie.
She and her stepfather saw Enrico Rastelli perform just before his death, and when it came time to train Martha, Oscar taught her many routines in the style and using the same types of props as Rastelli. Trixie was a very quick learner and achieved a high level of skill within just a few years of training. As a young teenager, she performed statue tricks similar to those of Rastelli.
She also learned highly technical routines with plates – performing a four plate routine, an extremely impressive six-plate juggle while bouncing a ball on her head, and seven plates. She juggled five large balls, bounced two balls off of her head with great control, and performed a superb routine with a mouthstick and ball. She also was quite the acrobat, doing handstands while spinning a ring on one leg and one arm, and doing various flips and handsprings.
Trixie performed in Europe in various venues including circuses and variety showcases, and before a number of heads of state and royalty. She had a command performance before Hitler, and he presented her with an autographed box of bon bons. Demonstrating early on that she was a good judge of character, Trixie stated at the time that she didn’t like Hitler and was scared by him. She was so successful at a young age that other top flight jugglers came to see the child prodigy. The following photograph shows a 13-year old Trixie surrounded by some of the best jugglers of the period, including Felix Adanos (in the back directly behind Trixie), Bela Kremo (to the right of Adanos), Howard Nichols (second from the left), Rob Carry (far left), and Mary Blank of The Joseph Blank Company (just to the right of Trixie).
In some (but not all) editions of the 1936 book Circus Parade by John S. Clarke, 16 year old Trixie is featured with two full pages of photographs. She got more coverage than either Paul Cinquevalli or Enrico Rastelli in some editions of the book. Note that this is one of the sources to incorrectly claim that Trixie was trained by Rastelli. While Trixie’s father did see Rastelli in person, it is not believed that Trixie ever did, nor was ever trained by him. Click here to read another article, later in Trixie’s career, that also perpetuates this (as well as other inaccuracies). It is believed that this Rastelli connection was merely for publicity.
*** A montage of various film clips from 1937 that was made available recently via British Pathe features Trixie at 17 years old while still in Europe. Click here to see this rarely before seen video.
In 1938, the entire family planned to come to the United States together, as Trixie had been booked for performances there. However, Martha’s youngest sister Lola was ill, and her mother and Lola stayed behind in Austria, with plans to join the others soon. Unfortunately, WWII broke out and the family was split apart and not reunited again until 1949 – an 11 year separation. Toni worked a solo act with Circus LaForte during the war years, while Oscar, Martha (now Trixie), and Hilda were in the United States.
Trixie played some of the better venues toward the end of Vaudeville after arriving in America, and had major bookings at the Roxy Theatre and Radio City Music Hall in New York City, where she received rave reviews. She also played at music halls and nightclubs.
In 1940, Trixie appeared in the Fred Astaire film Broadway Melody of 1940, and showcased her magnificent skill with a solid 90 catches of six-plate juggling, some ball spinning, and a lot of ball and mouthstick work. Numerous video clips of this performance are online, with the following being the clearest version.
*** While the above video is very popular and well known with most jugglers, and the best overall footage of Trixie juggling, her other film performance has until now been rarely seen and unavailable online. In the 1944 movie My Gal Loves Music, Trixie is shown performing her four-plate routine, bouncing a ball on her head while jumping rope, and her ball and mouthstick routine in a nightclub setting. I was able to obtain a copy of the movie and it is available here for the first time online.
Here is a photo of Trixie with her stepfather and sister Hilda (who would also perform as a juggler for a short period of time) while still separated from their mother and youngest sister:
Trixie’s juggling technique included a couple of things not seen typically. Despite her small size, she started her six-plate juggling with three in each hand. Apparently, neither Enrico Rastelli nor Massimiliano Truzzi started their six-plate juggles in this manner, rather starting with one in their mouth and five in their hands. Also, Trixie was quite skilled with getting a ball spinning with either her head or a mouthstick to land back onto the head or mouthstick. Both of these skills are demonstrated in the Broadway Melody of 1940 video.
In 1942, Trixie made a career move that brought her steady work for the next two decades by performing her act in ice skating revues. Trixie debuted with Ice Capades in 1942 and seamlessly transferred her stage routines to the ice. She continued performing her six plates with a head ball bounce, ball and mouthstick, top hats, ball spinning, boomerang hat juggling, lasso spinning, and routines with either three and four tennis rackets or three and four clubs. She also did her one handed handstand while twirling a ring on one arm and one leg, and a series of back handsprings across the ice. Trixie rarely dropped, and it’s been reported frequently that those on tour with her would keep count of her drops for an entire season, and usually on one hand! There are times that she played other characters in the show as well, including Bozo the Clown, a Harem Girl, and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. Here’s a great color video of Trixie from Ice Capades.
Click here to see another (brief and blurry) video of Trixie juggling in Ice Capades.
Because Ice Capades updated their souvenir program each season, there are numerous photos of Trixie from this era, such as those below:
If budding juggling historians want a quick and cheap way to start their collections, many Ice Capades programs are available on Ebay for less than $10 each that feature Trixie in the program, including photographs. Be sure to look at the photos or performer listings (when available) to ensure that Trixie was in the show at the time, as there were a number of companies and Trixie did take some tours off. Years that featured her (at some points at least) in the program include ’43, ’44, ’45, ’46, ’47, ’48, ’51, and ‘52.
Here are a couple of my favorite photos of Trixie performing on ice. The first is found in the 1951 Ice Capades program, with her juggling 6 plates. The other is from the 1950 Howdy Mr. Ice program of her spinning two balls.
Trixie’s expert and unique skill, natural beauty, and skating ability made her a favorite of photographers. She was featured with the lead photo in Life Magazine in their coverage of Ice Capades in their May 20, 1946 issue. You can see it (if you scroll up slightly) by clicking here.
Trixie was the focus of a publicity stunt featured in the April 17, 1944 edition of Life Magazine where she hung upside down by her skates contacting with a huge industrial magnet. The story and photo can be viewed here.
It was subsequently reprinted in the February 1946 edition of Popular Photograph Magazine, as seen here.
Advertisers also adored Trixie. She was turned into a moving electric light sign for Schaefer Beer in 1946. The advertising piece depicted Trixie juggling four plates, doing her ball and mouthstick routine, and a series of handsprings on ice skates. If anyone has a picture or video of this, please share it with us. In the 1940s and 1950s, she was featured in a Camel cigarette ad, with both a cartoon Trixie and a real-life headshot promoting the product.
Trixie performed on and off with Ice Capades from 1942 through 1957. Trixie’s sister Hilda performed in Ice Capades as well for at least one season as a chorus skater. Hilda had also been trained as a juggler, and performed in nightclubs briefly before getting married and giving up showbiz. When Trixie’s mother and sister Lola finally got to America, Oscar tried to train the now 13 year old Lola as a juggler as well, but she showed little interest or ability, and chose a very happy “normal” life instead. Here is a photo of Hilda, Lola, Hilda’s son, and Antonia together after the reunion in America:
It was also in Ice Capades that Trixie met her future husband. Escoe Larue (born William Albert Escoe – 1904 – 1995) was a Native American from Oklahoma who performed as a comic skater (and often not in skates, but rather wearing spikes), and was sixteen years her senior. The couple married in 1946 and “Trixie” became Trixie Larue. Here’s a photo of Trixie juggling five small balls with Escoe looking on, as well as publicity shot of Escoe (also frequently referenced as Esco in Ice Capades programs).
In a number of the Ice Capades programs, Trixie’s photo is next to that of her husband (even though they were in different routines), as they are in the one below.
In the following photo, Trixie is in the front standing row between the two skaters with “13” on their shirts. Her husband Escoe Larue is third from the right in the same row.
Trixie performed in other venues, on stage and in ice shows, as well during the Ice Capades years. She was featured in several seasons of Howdy Mr. Ice, a skating show at the Center Theater at Rockefeller Center, on and off from 1948 through 1950, and toured with Ice Cycles of 1953, a co-production between Ice Capades and its rival Ice Follies . She also performed in nightclubs, as an opening act (including for Eartha Kitt in Chicago in 1954), and on television. Some of those TV appearances included Super Circus on ABC in 1952 and the Spade Cooley Show in 1955.
Trixie and Escoe had six children together. Their first child, Linda, was born in 1947, but passed away after only six weeks. The other five were born between 1950 and 1964 – Kathy, Vicky, Mecko, Mike, and Christie. Trixie and Escoe had help from relatives (mostly Escoe’s family) in raising the children, since they were also managing their performing careers and the related travel. Her children recall their mother performing at a PTA event for their school – what a treat that must have been. Some of Trixie’s children assisted her in her act on ice, serving as skating prop assistants at times.
Here’s a photo of Escoe, Trixie, and Escoe’s mother with kids Kathy, Mecko, and Vicky.
After leaving Ice Capades in 1957, Trixie’s performing was more limited, but did include a few additional ice shows, such as performances with the Jack Kelly’s Ice Frolics in 1960 and 1961 and a brief appearance in California in 1963 with Ecstasy on Ice, a Vegas style skating revue. She did some shows around Oklahoma as well that allowed her to be closer to her children, and even performed with oldest daughter Kathy accompanying her on the piano at times. For the most part, however, Trixie returned to being Martha (though she still enjoyed being called Trixie too), mom, and housewife, and the family lived in Muskogee, OK. All five of her children have enjoyed careers outside of the entertainment field, and though none of them pursued juggling, they all are proud of her accomplishments and remember that she was generous, compassionate, and helpful with other jugglers, and with everyone in general.
Trixie was honored in 1991 with the International Jugglers Association (IJA) Historical Achievement Award, the first such award given by the organization. She and her husband came to the IJA Convention that year in St. Louis (the festival that also featured performances by both Sergei Ignatov and Anthony Gatto). At that time, she stated that she hadn’t juggled in a long time, but did thrill the crowd during a workshop with some brief ball spinning and demonstrating glimpses of the flair and grace that accompanied her performing career decades earlier.
Martha “Trixie” Firschke Larue passed away on September 22, 2001. She left behind a wonderful legacy of juggling, some of which is still being discovered through new videos, photos, and stories that are found and shared. Those who saw her juggle got to see a graceful, strong, and humble performer, some of the best juggling around, and a woman with a sparkle in her eye. Her influence on jugglers today remains strong, and she will continue to inspire many for years to come. Trixie’s children want the juggling community to know that their mother enjoyed juggling, gave her best effort whenever performing, was proud of her accomplishments, and would be happy that today’s jugglers are keeping the craft alive. They also said that if she had lived in a bigger city and could have stayed more involved with juggling, she would have loved teaching others.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, I’ve written much more about Trixie in a new book, which you can order by clicking here. It contains many photos and stories not found in this article.
For the history buffs out there – My initial research on Trixie was done in pursuit of finding a prop that she had owned and used in my role as assistant curator and researcher for the Museum of Juggling History (www.historicaljugglingprops.com). I knew that at least five of her swirl designed plates, plus a mouthstick, are owned by various juggling collectors (see below photo for an example). The DVD entitled Trailblazers – Women Who Juggle includes a close-up examination of one of Trixie’s plates and a discussion on her career as well. As I conducted research about Trixie, I kept finding tidbits of information that I had never read, so I started making notes and keeping a list of websites with additional information. I eventually knew that I had to make this into a full article. In regard to her props, I learned that most of her remaining items were lost when a storage unit housing them went unpaid and the contents were auctioned off (to someone likely not knowing the historical significance of the props). Her family, including her sister Lola and Trixie’s children, were consulted for this article and support seeing Trixie represented and honored via the inclusion of a prop for the collection. If anyone does possess a Trixie prop and is willing to donate it, or can provide a lead on some of her props, please let us know.
I’d like to extend a big thanks to Christie Koressel, David Cain, Lola Meyer, Vicky Escoe-Kelly, Mark Nizer, Jack Kalvan, Paul Bachman, Richard Bachman, Kathy Escoe and all of Trixie’s family for their help with the research, references, and materials for this article, as well as to the photographers of these various photos.