Ladies and Gentlemen, in the Center Ring…
The New York Times
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 1997
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, IN THE CENTER RING…
AFTER DECADES IN THE SPOTLIGHT, LOTTIE BRUNN
TAKES TIME TO BASK
By CINDY MARVELL
Ask anyone who knows about the art of tossing clubs, rings or balls into the air–and keeping them there elegantly–and chances are you will hear homage paid to Lottie Brunn.
Ms. Brunn has not performed since the mid-1980‘s, but even now, at 71, she looks as if all she needs is a pair of spiked heels (in fact, she still wears them), some fishnet stockings and a sequined leotard to come theatrically alive in the spotlight of the center ring.
From her first professional engagement as a teen-ager in her native Germany through a career with the Ringling show and on the nightclub circuit, Ms.
Brunn became known for speed (her billing: “the world’s faster female juggler”), first in tandem with her older brother, Francis, and then later as a solo act.
How she came to live quietly in a trailer park here in Bergen County almost 40 years ago is merely the function of a life spent on the road: she had traveled to New York City in 1959 to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and needed a place to park. There were other performers in the park then, she said, and trailer life was always part of being peripatetic–if not trailers, then hotels, but rarely apartments or houses. Circus performers and vaudevillians often worked 11 months a year, seven days a week, two or three shows a day.
It has been 60 years since Ms. Brunn started practicing with her brother in Aschaffenburg, their hometown near Frankfurt. Francis, now 74, still performs, but Lottie, troubled by arthritis in her neck and wrists from a lifetime of juggling, has limited her involvement to occasional teaching and coaching.
In recent years she has taught or lectured at the State university of New York at Purchase, Ringling‘s Clown College and the Big Apple Circus School in East Harlem, as well as at local clubs. Teaching the technique is one thing; learning to deal with the inevitable–dropping things–is another:
“I had some shows, there were no drops, and I didn‘t think they were good,” she said, “Then I had some shows when I dropped a few times and the shows were great.” It’s all part of a day’s work, she said.
“If it happens in the middle and I do it again,” she added, “I get a bigger hand the second time” the trick is performed.
I first met Ms. Brunn at a juggling club in Hackensack, where she shook my hand with a grip of steel and insisted on watching me practice. (“It has to have a sequence, a meaning,” she said, “It has to build to a finish”).
But I had heard about her years before, when I was 14, an aspiring juggler toting balls, clubs, and rings to Falling Debris, a juggling club I belonged to in Manhattan. Mr. Brunn‘s picture was on the cover of Juggler’s World magazine. Wearing a black lace-covered leotard, with a headpiece cradling a ball balanced on her forehead and a ball in each hand, she seemed undaunted by the spectacle of two more balls hovering impossibly out of her reach.
She looked quite different from the jugglers I practiced with, a crew my mother described as “a bunch of 26-year-old guys in undershirts.” My father, a physicist, had learned three balls as a child for reasons nobody could remember; my aunt had taken juggling breaks while working on her doctorate. I had high hopes of forming a trio with my younger sister and brother and performing in my high school cabaret.
I was pleased to learn that Ms. Brunn did not originally come from a circus family, either. Her mother, like mine, had seemed a bit aloof from it all.
“My mother never wanted me to do it,” Ms. Brunn confessed. “We used to break everything in the house.”
Except for the miniature silver elephant on the railing outside Ms. Brunn‘s front door, there is no hint the woman who lives there appeared with the Greatest Show on Earth, or headlined at Radio City Music Hall, or toured with Spike Jones and the Harlem Globetrotters. To neighbors she is simply Lottie, the lively woman with the irrepressible smile who still moves with a dancer’s grace. But inside her home is a compact career museum.
On a recent visit there, I was met at the door by Ms. Brunn, whose feet were clad in her trademark high heels. Photographs of the Brunn Dynasty, as juggling historian Karl Heinz Zeithan has dubbed her family, decorate the walls.
Meet the relatives: there is Michael Chirrick, her son, spinning three volleyballs (one on a mouth-stick) while executing a backward roll. There is Ernest Montego, her half-brother, riding a unicycle as numerous rings circle around his body. And of course there is Francis, whose rigorous style of performance and endless devotion to the art have made him a legend in his field, caught in a rare moment of stasis.
Her husband, Ted Chirrick, pointed out that juggling is not a field in which one performer can ride on the coattails of another.
“When I see a magician, I think maybe he went out and bought the trick,” he said, “but in juggling, you have to earn it, and the audience knows it‘s hard.”
Ms. Brunn‘s regimen attested to that. “I used to practice five, six, seven hours per day,” she said. “The more I warmed up, the better I felt. Even doing two or three shows, I would practice the same.” On the road, when she was clocking about 45,000 miles a year, cramped quarters posed no problem. She practiced on her knees if there was not enough ceiling height.
Although Francis became her partner, mentoring started with her father, Michael, the owner of a restaurant and a gymnasium. He taught himself to juggle in a French prisoner of war camp during World War I. Inspired by a touring circus, Michael Brunn practiced juggling with stones and later moved on the apples and oranges.
Francis was sent to Berlin to attend a special acrobatic school and wrote letters home charting his progress. “He wrote that he could do three balls in one hand,” Ms. Brunn recalled. “I said: ‘That’s impossible. I can’t even do three with two hands!”
Eventually, she mastered four rings in each hand-simultaneously, at age 14. When Francis returned, the duo practiced with an exuberance that set spectators buzzing, and local fame led to the start of their professional career in 1939.
“A small stage show came to our village, lots of acts,” Ms. Brunn said. “Somebody knew we were practicing. They came out to the farm and asked would we be in the show.” Their performance so electrified the audience that they were offered a contract on the spot. “From this day,” she said, “we never came back.”
Their first major engagement, in Vienna, is one of the few performances to survive on film, and Ms. Brunn reluctantly pulls out the tape. “Juggling on video–boring,” she said. “You have to have been there, you have to have seen it.”
Still, one can see the start of Ms. Brunn‘s development from a mild- mannered assistant to a fiery superwoman of the stage. In the early years, Francis seems ready to burst out of his skin as he rushed forth to demonstrate the tricks that make him famous. Ms. Brunn seems more tentative, as if reluctant to draw attention away from her brother. Only at the end, when they take their final bow, do they seem to be true partners.
Though beloved by European audiences during the war, the Brunns always dreamed of continuing their career in America. In 1947 John Ringling saw their act in Spain and helped arrange their immigration. Ms. Brunn still has a gold Statue of liberty charm dated 3–23-62, the day she became a citizen.
“When I made my American Citizenship here in Hackensack, I studied,” she said. “I was pretty good. They had my whole file, everything. It was such a kick when I said, ‘I‘m more nervous now than when I opened at Radio City!”
The radio was playing, and Honeysuckle Rose came on. “This is the music Lottie used,” Mr. Chirrick recalls. “It’s too slow. Just bring it up a bit and it’s beautiful for juggling.” He ought to know: Mr. Chirrick (who met his wife backstage at a circus where he was assistant stage manager) crafted her special clubs and saw to it that her music was played correctly. Ms. Brunn practiced until the night before her son, Michael, was born in 1952 and resumed performing as a soloist six weeks later at the Big Top Sealtest Show in Camden.
Later, she hit the nightclub circuit.
“I played the Savoy in London,” she said. “I played every number one club in this country. Every town had beautiful clubs, and the newspapers came. Spokane, Portland, Montreal, Cleveland, Tommy Dorsey‘s show. Everything is gone. It‘s all finished now.”
Ms. Brunn kept a clipping from her favorite review, which appeared in the Montreal Gazette when she performed at the Bellevue Casino. Not that she needs proof-she still remembers it word for word: “Miss Brunn, sister to the well-known Francis, has all the speed and fire of her brother‘s act plus some definitely attractive features of her own. The Brunns are, without much doubt, the fastest catchers and tossers in show business and watching either one perform is an object lesson in what constant practice can do in the way of split-second timing.”
Ms. Brunn was such a hit in clubs that she almost rejected the chance of a lifetime.
“In 1957 they asked me to come to Ringling,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, no, only nightclubs. I can‘t work a circus alone.’ Before that, I only performed solo when Francis was sick.” In the end she accepted and stayed almost a year. To this day she remains the only female juggler to have performed solo in the center ring for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.
Watching a rare video of her solo act, it is apparent that she has come into her own style. Her hair is short now, highlighting the sharpness of her features as it does today, and for all her “frantic” athleticism the object seem to fall into place of their own accord. She juggles three rings in one hand and three balls in the other with a graceful, poetic quality which seems to transcend the complexity of the patterns. As she moves around her clubs and balls, she becomes part of the image without either distracting from the tricks or losing herself behind them. Her own assessment is characteristically simple and direct: “The way I worked, the way I moved, that made the impact. It doesn’t matter who I follow because of my speed, because of the way I work, because I am a woman, I am different.”
Of all her solo performances, Ms. Brunn‘s opening night at Radio City in 1959 tested her confidence and skill most acutely. “I was standing there, feeling like a little needle. I tried to practice, but I could not juggle three clubs. I was paralyzed.”
Her manager reassured her that every juggler who played Radio City felt that way, but Ms. Brunn was still sick with nerves. Lines stretched around the block for the opening of the feature film “North by Northwest.” Finally, the Brunn moment arrived: “I went on stage. Curtain opens. Rockettes went on. There is a big draft when the curtains open. I went out. I felt I was in heaven. The spotlights were like clouds, the violins–I did the best performance I ever did. I was there for eight weeks. I went from 94 to 87 pounds.”
Cindy Marvell is a juggler with Lazer Vaudeville, an acrobatic troupe that has performed throughout the United States and will appear in Red Bank next Sunday.