I did a great deal of juggling at RPI, something else I learned from Jesse, both having fun in the club and in various performances. It reached a point that if I meet someone who went to the same college as I did at the same time, I ask:
“Did you juggle or do a radio show? Otherwise, I'll have no idea who you are."
I continued doing juggling shows after graduation, mostly because I missed the writing and performing of Laughter Hours. As I got older and slower, I found I could still pull off the same quality show, but the recovery time was a great deal longer. The fact that I have continued writing regularly owes a great deal to keeping up those feelings of creation and getting reactions to my creations. The greatest and most addictive drug in the world is applause and laughter, whether real or virtual.
Granted, I was nervous enough in my first solo juggling show that the shaking of my hands almost turned my card trick into “52 Pick Up.”
Aside- I know one really cool card trick. The most impressive thing about it (to me) is- I figured it out on my own after watching a bartender do it. He did it well, I noted what he was doing not by seeing what he did, but based on , "Logically, this is the only way that trick is possible." Then I had to make up a method to achieve it and practice the details. It was at a “get to know the other interviewees after the information session” mixer in the hotel the day before a job interview that didn’t pan out at all.
But, hey! I know a cool card trick!
By doing multiple variations of it, I have ensured it looked like I had a different card trick every time I did my solo juggling show. By stating I had absolutely no magical skills as a juggler, and therefore the trick was performed by “Manuel the Psychic Frog” it ensured the crowd thought I was nuts and didn’t pay attention to the details too much anyway.
The reason I wasn’t used to doing shows alone is- we always did them as a group with the RPI Juggling Club. (He said, finally sauntering around to the topic at hand.)
We also did impromptu performances before each of the three screenings when our gang was the club sponsor of a movie in CC308 (the biggest lecture hall) one Saturday night per semester.
Let’s face it, successful shows are poor suppliers of comedy material.
The disasters, on the other hand, are pure gold mines.
I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that, given his history of performing experience, the biggest disasters were when Jesse was on co-op, went to his girlfriend’s (now wife) for the weekend, or had graduated.
Before getting to our disasters, as evidence of the effect of his being gone, I'd like to go over the talent show Jesse participate in at "Mother's Wine Emporium." That was the name of the "coffee house" in the Union. It was the compliment to "Father's,' the little convenience store. Adorable, no? The names and the old Mother's sign are still there after refurbishment.
Jesse's show was fantastic, and at least half straight stand-up which I'd never seen him do before. The funniest part, for me while doing the music, was the stunned, extended silence of the crowd when he opened with, "My name is Jesse and I'm here to DANCE DANCE DANCE!!" Once the juggling, original song parody ("Downtown" about night life in Troy) and other banter surfaced the crowd was with him the whole way. I was amazed at one bit of slight of hand, and asked how he made it look like he pulled a tiny harmonica out of his belly button. His answer was less amazing, "I put a tiny harmonica in my belly button."
To keep with today's theme, I should mention some of the other acts in that show:
There was the woman who sang, "Wind Beneath my Wings" prompting Nyra (Jesse's now wife) to proclaim to us, "You really shouldn't sing that song unless...
you're Bette Midler."
One band covered "Purple Haze' in a mass of loud, distorted imprecision. The lead singer punctuated his lyrics by thrusting back and forth...
While his fly was open.
Finally, another band performed Pink Floyd's "One of these Days, I'm Going to Cut You Into Little Pieces." As Brian would violently proclaim to anyone in earshot for years later, that the song is an instrumental number with "ONE LINE...ONLY ... ONE... LINE!!!" When the band reached that point in the song where the title is that one line, the lead singer growled poorly into the microphone,
"ONE OF THESE DAYS...
I'M GONNA PUNCH YOU RIGHT IN THE FACE."
We had to restrain Brian to keep him from doing just that to the singer.
For our Juggling Club shows we did have an ample number of performers to fill out a decent roster. Bringing folks into Juggling Club usually happened as a result of specific newspaper ads at two points in the semester. We ran an ad every week, but those two really pulled 'em in. The first was always an early one when we’d point out one could, “Get Gym Credit!” As we were coded as an “athletic club,” it was allowable as a one-time credit for physical education. This was in spite of my presence as an officer.
We had to come up with a definition that was A) Quantifiable per the RPI Union standards and B) Flexible, to entice people to try it with various experience levels. We settled on “Show measurable improvement from the beginning to end of the semester.” That meant people who came in cold had to be able to do a basic cascade by the end, and experienced jugglers had to pick up a new prop, or tricks or…whatever.
Usually, it was the newcomers who wanted the gym credit anyway. We saw the whole range, from two ladies who spent the semester using one arm each and juggling together, barely doing a solo cascade to get credit at the end, to Chris, who went from nothing to three clubs on a unicycle in half a year.
Between that and the other reused ad, we usually had one or two “keepers” from every group that would reach performing level.
The other ad that pulled them in by the bushel?
“GRAB YOUR BALLS AND RUN to the RPI Juggling Club.”
A show that went mostly fantastically, and was the point of my realizing I should stop being afraid of public speaking, was for the Married Students Association. We didn’t think about the reason most married students were living in that housing with their spouse was because they came to our school from abroad.
Wanna see a joke die?
Tell it to 70 eight to ten year old kids who don’t speak the same language as you.
They were fans of our juggling skills, though. We threw a basic list together of what everyone was best at and kept swapping who was in front of them on the field near their apartments to keep them interested. We performed, the kids applauded and a great time was had by all. As a bonus, we got two HUGE laughs from the crowd.
Neither of which was intentional.
At the end of the show, Scott and I, being the only ones comfortable enough with the idea that we wouldn't kill each other, passed torches without inflicting damage on ourselves, the other juggler or the surroundings.
Then, we couldn’t blow them out…
This made the kids laugh, and we started cracking up, which didn’t help the blowing. The old standard, “Is anyone six today?” fell flat, but our huffing and puffing was a crowd pleaser.
The biggest laugh though, came earlier in the show. I was doing the classic bit of eating an apple while juggling it with two other balls. It is a wholly “audience trick.”
Aside: That means it gets great cheers from the inexperienced but has little technical difficulty. Example- high throws. Its opposite is a “juggler’s trick” which bores standard crowds but makes fellow performers lose their minds. Example- Weirdly numbered patterns that you won’t know and don’t look much different than other things but make jugglers' heads explode.
I was crunching away on the fruit, when I let out an insanely loud, high-pitched scream, then did a little dance while howling and shaking my hand between throws. The kids went bananas, rolling on the floor in hysterics at my gag, hooting and clapping. I gathered my props, bowed and ran “back stage.” I yelled at Randy, “Go juggle something!” He stood by, since I was supposed to continue, laughing and telling me how funny the gag was. I growled at him through gritted teeth, “GO JUGGLE SOMETHING!” He continued to laugh and talk about what happened waiting for me to go back on.
After several more iterations, he either understood my tone of voice, or saw the blood dripping off my pinky.
His eyes widened and he said, “You really bit your finger.”
“YES, I really bit my finger, go juggle something!”
Another short and not sweet fiasco came during the Grand Marshall Week campus Gong Show. I may have been the same GM week of the Gomez Addams incident. In college I was at the top of my technical level of juggling, though more performing skills would come later. Scott was better than I and could do a five ball cascade in performance. He and I worked up a better than decent routine, then the fates dumped all over us.
I was theoretically hung over. I say this because I didn’t get hangovers before, or for years following that night. After reviewing what happened- I fell over backwards while running in a park the night before, smacked my head on a rock, threw up and my invulnerability to cold disappeared- it is more likely that I had a concussion. It was proof that I had bonded with good and trustworthy friends in college, as they helped me through it and got me home. Waking up the morning of the performance still in my clothes with a dried bloodstain on my pillow was a rough indication of how the show would go. It is also why I cannot drink Vodka to this day. Once again leaning on a Pete Puma impression, “It gives me a headache.”
Aside: Scott was also there for the worst hangover I had in my life. Oddly, no alcohol was involved. We found a different park taking a walk one night with Ben and Linda that had one of those metal, manual push, spin till you die merry-go-rounds. All four of us were unwell the entire next day.
At the Gong Show, my brain damage was the least of our problems. We showed up on time, at the same CC308 giant lecture hall where we performed before movies, and practiced in the hallway to get warmed up. Then the schedule went out the window and there was a huge delay in the heavily over air-conditioned room.
Yes, they “iced us.”
Our hands were numb when we had to go on. We knew the special spotlights would blind us so we asked them to use the lighting set up that matched how it was when we juggled before movies. They either didn’t listen, or didn’t care, and turned up all the house lights. Illuminating the audience made them feel it was their time to shine, leading to talking, moving about, and yelling things at us.
As the final poop in our party, one of the three judges was the current President of the Union, known for her innate hatred of jugglers. I have no idea why this was the case, but she made her inclination abundantly clear any time we performed at an official function.
The Juggling Club often used the line, “In juggling, they say if you’re not dropping you’re not learning, and we learned a lot here tonight.” Our show went well beyond that being funny anymore. We took our low range scores, and then watched the entire membership of the Chinese Students Association pack into the performing area for a choreographed lip synch to C&C Music Factory’s "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” that brought the house down and won the day.
In hindsight, Scott was right. We should have picked up our clubs after dropping them, used one to gong ourselves, and strutted off stage with our dignity intact.
Scott was key in yet another show that flirted with disaster twice, though the performance itself was fine. Four or five of us were booked to juggle at a Cub Scout meeting. No problem right? An audience that is focused on being Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent was expected to be a pleasant experience. (This one was, I wouldn’t have my young innocence shattered until I did a solo show after graduation for a troop near home. They were loud, rude and annoying the entire performance, breaking into a chorus of “YOU SUCK” when I intentionally dropped a club for a kick up.)
Yes, the show the Juggling Club did itself was brilliant. Before and after…weeeeeeeeeeell, not so much.
My car, an over a decade old, maroon, 1978 Pontiac Grand La Mans named Crimson Thunder, had reached an age where it was plagued by constant electrical and brake problems. In short, it either (A) wouldn’t go, or (B) wouldn’t stop. That night, after we all piled in to get to the gig, it was in full (A) mode.
I have no memories of what happened next. Scott informed me of the following events when nothing occurred after turning the key:
I grabbed the wheel in silence with the appearance of the intention of tearing it out of the dashboard as my back and shoulders began to expand, Hulk like. Scott decided to snap the mood before I started howling out a combination of profanity and animal noises, by blurting out that we could take care of the car later and had to get to the gig.
We all poured out of my car, emptied all the props and went flying over to (other) Brian or Shadow's vehicle.
The vehicle in question was a small, import pick-up truck. With the show in Albany proper, the dangers drilled into my head for all of my childhood, and all of our crap back there, putting anyone in the bed was out of the question. Instead, we jammed into the tiny cab. There was lap sitting, multiple people in single seatbelts, and poor Scott, who had kept us on track, was balanced between the two seats straddling the gearshift. He spent the entire drive yelling, “DON’T GO INTO SECOND!”
Miraculously, we arrived at the show unscathed and did a fun and fulfilling performance for the group, who applauded and cheered the whole way through. Woo hoo!
As a celebration or our success, the parents suggested a photo of the scout troop with our merry juggling band. We stood among the grinning and happy children in a moment of great pride.
Pride, however, vanished in a swell of anarchy. One of our less experienced members thought it would be cute to hand his clubs to several of the cherubic children. When the opportunity to hold props became a possibility, the cherubic children erupted into a satanic stampede, running toward our bags of supplies, while screaming,
“I WANT THE KNIIIIIIIIVES!!!!!”
Somehow, with a great deal of running and screaming, we gathered our stuff, fought off the kids, posed for photos and headed home…avoiding second gear the whole way.
Oddly, one of our largest successes was also the biggest disaster, and also occurred with most of the the same group as the scouting show.
I think we had so many shows that year because Chris had a local relative in the area. A nearby high school had rented out a mall for an “After Prom” to keep the kids safe following the dance. They decided to have a Mardi Gras carnival theme with acts and games. The kids could easily ignore the games and us, which they did, since all they wanted to do was hang out together, don beads and cheap masks, and dance.
We were certainly happy to oblige them, and were ready to spend the night mutually ignoring the well-dressed prom gang while we enjoyed practicing in a public setting. The other acts they brought in presumably were paid and wanted to be more noticed.
When we arrived at midnight, we noticed a hobo faced clown already there. “Crusty” as we would shortly refer to him for reasons that will be obvious, was tentatively juggling three beanbags. The DJ paused between songs to announce our arrival as “The RPI Juggling Team!” (Close enough.) We waved and immediately all began juggling clubs and performing tricks, which the prom goers ignored. Crusty did not, and silently put away his beanbags and skulked off.
The tone for the night was set almost immediately when (other) Brian came up to me and yelled, “ASK ME WHY I’M JUGGLING BEAN BAGS!!!!! GO ON, ASK ME! ASK ME!” I inquired, “Uh…why are you juggling bean bags?”
“BECAUSE I DROPPED MY CLUBS IN THE FOUNTAIN.”
We were generally amusing ourselves in the wide-open space. There was room for large passing patterns and for those with the skill to unicycle about. Occasionally one of the prom goers taking a break from dancing would watch us for a bit. Scott got a thumbs up from the “girl in the purple dress” for a particularly difficult trick, which raised his estimation in all of our eyes.
Crusty, alas, was not thrilled with being upstaged by us and ignored by them. He scoped us out for a while, and selected out our least experienced performers. Then he’d stand directly in front of their pattern, pestering and distracting them until they dropped.
Scott and I were the senior members, and quickly set up a demonstration. We enlisted Crusty’s assistance and passed clubs around him…
Very closely around him.
Scott had the handles of his clubs brushing against Crusty's large foam nose while I kept mine close enough to his noggin to ruffle his hat and prevent him from stepping back.
Crusty steered clear for a while, but returned to his old ways shortly, trying to creep up on jugglers. Scott states what follows was unequivocally an accident, and I completely back him up on that. Crusty was sneaking closer and closer behind Scott during an intricate three-ball pattern. Scott did a high throw to pirouette under, when Crusty had gotten far too close. The clown caught one of Scott’s high speed spinning, beanbag holding fists, directly in the stomach.
Crusty doubled over and left us alone for the rest of the morning.
There was another paid act there; one we had crossed performance paths with several times in the Capital District, including the Victorian Stroll. Like many magicians, he wore a tuxedo matching the mystique of his profession. Like many single’s bars attendants of the 1990’s he had his shirt unbuttoned to show his hairy chest and gold chains, matching the heavily sprayed mullet and bushy mustache that adorned him.
There is only one thing that high school prom goers are less interested in than strolling jugglers and that is a static magician. He was performing some side magic, mostly for us, but the organizers stopped the dance floor for him to do his full act on stage. The well-dressed gang grudgingly came over, but the more tricks he performed, the more high school students wandered back to the dance floor. The crowd became loud and boisterous enough that the DJ gave up and started cranking out tunes again.
The point where the tunes cranked was EXACTLY the moment our unbuttoned magical friend had gotten himself completely buckled into a strait jacket to perform his finale level escape routine. As he looked to the heavens for guidance to extricate himself, the last dregs of his audience ran off to the dance floor.
In what may be the most desperate plea for attention in a New York shopping center in history, the magically golden-chained one insisted a chaperone bring his enwrapped self over to the center of the dance floor, stop the music, and force everyone to watch his escape.
A huge cheer erupted after he freed himself…
Once he got the heck off the dance floor...
And only after the music started up again.
We drove home just before sunrise, confident that our mutual ignoring policy had made us the most popular act of the evening.