The Elgins were the best known American juggling troupe throughout the 1930s and 1940s. They team consisted of a number of well known jugglers from earlier teams. Before we examine some videos of the Elgins, you may want to read a history of the troupe, written by one of their members, Tommy Breen. This was first published in a series of IJA Newsletters in 1958. I’ve inserted a variety of photos from my collection in with this history.
PERFECT TIMING IN A VAUDEVILLE WORLD – The History of the Elgins
by Tom Breen
The team of Baggett and Sheldon retired around 1929 to run their bowling alley in Brooklyn. They were successful but missed the applause, footlights and greasepaint. So in the fall of 1930 they went over to New York and spoke to their former agent, Eddie Riley, about returning to the stage in a larger act. Riley said, “Perfect, get eight or ten girl jugglers with Jim Baggett, and put on a big act”
The act opened as “The Juggling Aces” and had Jim Baggett, Rose Sheldon, George Dewey, Alice Percival, Hattie Bamberger and Flo Innis. Mrs. Innis quit after two weeks. After a few weeks tryout, agent suggested more men in the act to carry the main tricks. So Baggett, through Jack Jordan (another agent and former juggler) contacted Ben Mowatt and Tommy Breen. Mowatt had just started a new act with John Beahan, so he turned down the offer. Breen was working with Harry Martine and Harry wanted to work with his wife, so Tommy entered the set.
After ten days rehearsal, they opened for a Sunday date at a Rockaway Beach theatre on April 29, 1931. Hattie Bamberger quit the act on April 20. The opening show had quite a few critics to look the act over. (No matter how long a group act is rehearsed in a gym, when it gets before the footlights there are bound to be mistakes.)
The father of Tommy Breen was there and was asked his opinion. He said, “It is not an act for jugglers, it is strictly good entertainment and that’s what any act should be. Remember, between the five of you there is nearly 200 years of show business in back of you, so how can you miss?”
Everyone in the act had been on stage since they were kids. He, “Pop” Breen, also advised them to get out of New York to break in the act. They took some New England time to iron out the wrinkles.
Before going any further, I should describe the act. It opened with the hat routines which were arranged and figured out by Jim Baggett, Rose Sheldon and George Dewey. Baggett was to my mind about the best hat juggler that ever lived, and Dewey topped them all in being a fine fellow.
After the hats we went into club routines which were staged under the supervision of Jack Jordan, formerly with the Juggling Jordans. He knew the troupe tricks. Sheldon and Breen were the only two out of the five people in the act that had ever done troupe work before. If we did the tricks Jack Jordan wanted us to do before we started out, we would have been in the gymnasium today. But the happy combination of the hats for novelty and clubs for a sock finish made a nice act.
Most jugglers could not see the hat routines, but they were the main selling point of the act. After six weeks around Boston, a wire came saying “Showing date set for New York but you must change the name. We have too many Aces, Kings, Queens And Jacks on the books now. How shall we make out the contract?” Everyone in the act tried to think out a name, even tried splitting up ours and putting them together, but could not figure what we wanted.
While in Portland we were working on the criss-cross trick with clubs. Joe Piche, one of Baggett’s former partners,, showed us how to do it, throwing every club instead of every other one. This later proved to be the trick that gave the act the name of Elgins. It had to be perfect timing and as we were walking along the street, we saw a sign in the window of a jewelry store “Perfect Timing With An Elgin.” Alice Percival said “There’s the name – The Elgins (perfect timing)!” We wired N.Y. this and used Baggett and Sheldon’s former billing “Enjoying Themselves.” And I don’t think any act ever enjoyed themselves as the five of us did.
In those days an act had to “show” in New York. Bookers would look at it and discuss the possibilities of booking it. Then they set a salary. The act was seldom asked what they wanted. If you did not take the offer you would argue or not work. R.K.O. even had a consultant named Janette Hackett. When they offered you work she looked the act over, said how she wanted it dressed and kind of stage setting R.K.O. wanted. When she saw the Elgins at the NY Hippodrome, she said, “It’s the only act I’ve ever seen that I could not make at least one suggestion”
After a while on the road, Jim Baggett suffered from double vision. While doing club tricks, he would see five or six clubs coming towards him instead of one. He did not know which one to grab, and when the right one hit his hand it was just luck. After a few attacks (they only lasted an hour or so) he saw an eye specialist who said it was just nerves and ordered complete rest.
We summered up at Rose Sheldon’s place at Mendon, Mass. While there, another girl, Lillian Millar, was added to the act. At first she did only the club tricks, so it was bewildering to the audience and managers to see the five Elgins do the hats with three men and two girls, then the clubs with three girls and two men. One manager came backstage and pointing to George Dewey said, “You must be the one who dresses as a girl for the club tricks.” If Baggett and Breen had not interfered there would have been one less manager around, as Dewey could not imagine himself dressed as a girl. After two years, George Dewey and Alice Percival left the act to form the Three Deweys with George’s brother, Bill. Cal Kenyon was called upon to take his place. With Cal it took us only five days to get back into the swing to things and on the road. With Kenyon came a lot of improvements in the hat tricks and then we changed from sport clothes to full evening dress suits.
It was with this combination – Jim Baggett, Rose Sheldon, Lillian Millar, Cal Kenyon and Tommy Breen – that the Elgins won the Billboard Award for the best liked and most entertaining act in the outdoor field. This included fairs and circuses. Rose Baggett has the plaque and scroll at her home in Mass.
While playing Chicago, Breen complimented Rose on looking so happy that day. Three weeks later, Rose and Jim told us that the day Breen said this to Rose they had just come from City Hall and were married.
Lillian Millar left the act that summer and was missed because on and off the stage she was so much fun. Olive Walton took her place for a year. During a layoff, Olive played some dates with the Juggling Jewells. When the Elgins bookings came up, Miss Walton said she will be back in six months. But Breen and Kenyon insisted Baggett’s eyes were okay and we continue with the four. It took a lot of talking, but Cal and Tommy won, so the Four Elgins went on until we broke up.
Tommy Breen left the act after 19 wonderful years. I think George Moran took his for a short while and then Bill Moran steppe in for a season until the act dissolved.
There was lots of fun and heartaches with the act. The biggest hit and the biggest flop the act ever took happened in the same week. We signed a seven day contract with a Boston agent, six days at Blinstraubs in Boston and one day at The Auditorium in Lowell. Four small-time acts were on the bill at Blinstraubs Cafe and each one stopped the show. The Elgins closed and we knew we would go over, but we had a surprise coming. We did not get one hand, or even a giggle during the entire act. And that went on all week, 12 shows, and we did a perfect act each show. The act decided it was through and for the Sunday date in Lowell, did not invite any of their friends from nearby. It was a terrific show of headliners, with the Elgins right in the middle, and we stopped the show and even had to do an encore, doing shoulder throws with Billy DeWolf standing in the middle.
Again playing a night club in Cleveland we went over big. The owner who was also M.C., loved to get into the act and insisted on an encore. Baggett said “Get the hats, Tom,” and asked the audience would they like to see Herman Pinschner, (the owner) juggle hats. So Herman was on. We explained to him what to do and it was a big laugh. After that, the owner insisted that was to be a part of the act. He got someone from audience to act as stooge, and when they were through, he gave them a bottle of champagne. That was how our audience participation bit was started.
The Elgins played vaudeville theatres, circuses, fairs, hotels, night clubs, burlesque, club dates and five years with ice shows. They did not do their act on skates, they just ran out on the ice. The reviews always mentioned that, without skates, the Elgins were one of the outstanding hits of the show. Can you imagine what they would have done if they were on skates?
One time, after playing 12 weeks of one- night stands and traveling every night, Baggett said “This was tough. I’d haves to be real hungry to do it again.” One year later the Elgins received telegram, “Please get hungry, we want you back again.”
The act played continuously for 20 years. I believe that’s a record for a troupe act to play continuously.
Below are videos showing the Elgins hat routine and their club passing act. The hat routine video is placed online here for the first time.