Vaudeville Era Tambourine Spinners and Banjo-Playing Jugglers

Previously, I’ve written about performers who combined juggling and playing musical instruments. I also wrote an entire article about the famed banjo juggler Franco Piper, whom you can read about by clicking here. In this article, I’d like to examine some other banjo playing jugglers and some jugglers who specialized in the rare genre of tambourine spinning!

Franco Piper

The Howard Brothers

The Howard Brothers performed from at least 1899 to 1917. They were accomplished banjo players who ended their act by passing 6 banjos and plucking out a tune while doing so. One review wrote the following about them in 1907:

“The Howard brothers do a really phenomenal banjo juggling act in which they keep six of the twanging instruments flying back and forth through the air, and playing tunes upon them all the time. It is both amusing and interesting to note how these musicians juggle the instruments with such dexterity from the beginning of the act to the finish. In the straight banjo playing they are really wonders. They fairly make their banjos talk, in fact, they do give one of the cleverest imitations of a phonograph that has yet been accomplished on any musical instrument.”

This review reflected what was often said of them; they were highly accomplished banjo players as well as jugglers. Below are photos and illustrations of the Howard Brothers. As you might note, a number of the photographs showed the brothers passing eight banjos. However, every mention of their act I am able to find only mentions them passing 6 banjos while playing them. Perhaps they passed eight without plucking out a tune.

It would appear that at some point, one of the brothers quit and the other formed an act with a female partner.

Not much personal information is known about the brothers, but their act must have been a sight to behold.

The Ader Brothers

The Ader Brothers of Philadelphia, PA (USA) started out as performing club swingers around the turn of the century when they were young boys. Eventually the became talented club passers and eventually put together a musical juggling act that included passing six trumpets while playing them, passing six banjos while playing them, and ball juggling that included bouncing the balls off of a wooden xylophone called a bellaphone, playing a tune through the bouncing.

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Another type of musical juggling act of the vaudeville era was tambourine spinning. This is best understood by viewing pictures and illustrations of the four best known tambourine spinning acts; The Freeze Brothers, Tambo and Tambo, The Great Austins, and V.P. Woodward.

The Freeze Brothers

The Freeze Brothers began performing at least as early as 1894 and claimed to be the inventors of the genre. The founder of the troupe was Billy Fries, who had been performing as a solo tambourine spinner at least as early as 1892. Sometime in the mid-1890s, he took on a partner and formed the Freeze Brothers, performing in blackface in minstrel and vaudeville shows and spinning up to 32 tambourines at a time. They performed up until at least 1910. Billy had at least two different partners, one named Lawrence and one named Frank.

 

Tambo and Tambo

Tambo and Tambo were a very similar act to the Freeze Brothers, but didn’t perform in blackface. Tambo and Tambo were actually August and Walter Kliendienst. They also claimed to be the original tambourine spinners, but this is doubtful.

August Kliendienst had been a solo tambourine spinner as early as 1895 before forming Tambo and Tambo with his brother.

August Kliendienst as Original Tambo

The Great Austins

The Great Austins were William and Helene Austin. I’ve found references to William performing as a solo tambourine spinner in 1904 and Helene doing so in 1902. They started performing as the Great Austins by 1905.

V. P. Woodward

The most famous solo tambourine spinner was V. P. Woodward.

There were other tambourine spinners during the vaudeville era, such as Tambourine McCarthy in 1894,  Senor Navarro in 1895, and Winfield in 1897. By the mid-1920s, tambourine spinning seems to have disappeared from the stage, never to be revived.

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

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