Thursday Night Fever: The Jugglers Let Fly

The New York Times

SUNDAY, MAY 28, 1995

The City


Thursday Night Fever: The Jugglers Let Fly

Why One City Gym Is a Showcase for Aerial Glitz


Tennis balls, pins, beanbags, blocks and hats are flying like Jiffy Pop all over the gym, but the sweat-drenched exercise bikers keep their eyes on their newspapers, and overhead, on the balcony track, the joggers are oblivious. After 10 years, the after-work athletes at the Carmine Street Recreation Center have grown used to the Thursday night meetings of the New York Jugglers Club.

For the jugglers, on the other hand, the weekly sessions are the centerpiece of New York’s juggling scene. And New York’s juggling scene, they are quick to add, is the center of the country’s.

“New York City has six champions and is really the center of juggling talent in the U.S.,” said Tony Duncan, the International Jugglers Association reigning national champion. “There’s a tremendous amount of talent and creativity in the gym.”

And there is. On any given Thursday at the gym, at Seventh Avenue and Clarkson Street in the West Village, you can find Cindy Marvell, who became the first woman to win the International Juggling Championships in 1989; Mark Nizer, the 1990 national champion, and Gail (Sky) King , a composer for “Sesame Street.”

“Juggling is a small world,” explains Paul Fryd, a 40-year-old lawyer and amateur. “There aren’t that many jugglers in the city who can earn their living at it. Our members range from the world-class, who are practicing every day anyway, to beginners who come just as much to socialize.”

Of course, New York isn’t the only place in the country that collects juggling talent. Other bastions include San Francisco, which has a scene similar to New York’s, and Las Vegas, Nev., and Atlantic City, resort areas that offer nightclub engagements. But New York combines the best in work possibilities with a certain legitimacy. In a city where street performance is a tradition and acting is a reputable profession, juggling is even taught for credit in schools (like Harbor Junior High School of the Performing Arts on East 109th Street) and colleges (N.Y.U.’s acting department).

“In Chicago, it’s illegal to work the street,” explains Bill Lee, a street performer and club veteran appearing regularly on “Showtime at the Apollo” and MTV. “In L.A., there’s only Venice Beach.”

There are opportunities in Broadway shows, and lucrative street spots. Ms. Marvell says the street scene makes a good backstop when the gigs dry up. And Bill Lee, a club veteran, says, “If you really hustle, you can support yourself with just local work.” Josh Weiner, one such case, earns his living by doing sidewalk performances (sunshine required) at the Central Park Zoo and the South Street Seaport. The Seaport is such a choice spot the jugglers have to file a space request a month in advance.

“New York is bigger and there is more work available than most other cities,” said Mr. Duncan, who moved to New York City from San Francisco in 1981. “There’s also a lot of work in L.A., but it’s mostly movies and television and harder to get.”

For jugglers willing to travel, there is also work on cruise ships, corporate parties, conventions, resorts, and the like. To land those jobs, jugglers benefit from access to New York’s army of booking agencies.

Much of the current vitality of New York’s juggling scene is traced to Washington Square, which saw a peak in the early 80’s in the wake of a post-60’s college campus revival. That revival was linked to general student interest in Renaissance culture, of which juggling was a part.

Mr. Duncan’s wife, Jaki Reis, recalls a downtown scene that was outright competitive. “There was a core of about 15-20 jugglers and performers and, if you couldn’t hold the crowd, they would not let you back in.”

Philippe Petit went from performing juggling and comedy on the center fountain in Washington Square to walking a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Will Shaw, a professional juggler, tells the story of Paul Binder and Michael Christenson, street jugglers who founded the popular Big Apple Circus. Even a Broadway show, “Sugar Babies,” in which Mr. Duncan performed, featured juggling.

It was during this active period that Ms. Marvell helped found the juggling club’s precursor, Falling Debris, which met in Central Park in the early 80’s. “But every time it rained, practice was cancelled,” she recalled. When Bill Wachspress, who was then practicing with a few friends in an N.Y.U. Law School dormitory, found the gym, they moved indoors.

“Bill negotiated for the space at Carmine Street,” said Brian Dube, one of those originals, and the owner of Brian Dube Juggling Equipment, at 520 Broadway, the only store in the city devoted to juggling equipment. “We’ve had that spot ever since.”

Eventually, police crackdowns and stand-up comedy stole some of juggling’s street thunder. But now, looking around the Carmine gym, New York juggling seems to be bubbling over.

Mr. Fryd, the lawyer, is lobbing a shower of balls overhead; for him, space is the key. “The ceiling – you need air space,” he says. He misses a ball. “There’s also a certain feeling in practicing nearother people who are passionate about juggling.”

Standing an arm’s length from the weight room is Russell Davis, who, when he is not writing plays, is teaching circus arts, specifically juggling and unicycling, at Harbor Junior High. We may get up to 30 people,” says Mr. Davis. “National Champs next to first-year beginners.”

Ms. Marvell, the 1989 champion, is missing a few sessions. She’s on tour with a high-tech variety show called Lazer Vaudeville. “I practiced at Carmine Street the week before and the week after I won the championship in Baltimore,” she said, on the phone from the West Coast. “Before this tour, I never missed a night.” She stressed the importance of the club for networking: “Dancers can always work with each other in class, but many jugglers might just run off to their gigs and never see each other.”

Gail King says: “There are some serious cats here who are world champions, and there are beginners who nevertheless practice it with the same degree of determination. When I tell people I’m in the club, they laugh and say, ‘Oh, you want to be a clown?’ But they don’t understand the level these people have taken juggling to – it’s truly an art form.”

And even some of the amateurs are pretty good. Taking a breather from his practice regimen, Roy Pomerantz recalls the week when he received letters of acceptance from both Ringling Brothers Clown College and Harvard Law School. “My parents,” said the 33-year-old lawyer, “were relieved when I chose the latter. My mother is a professional magician, but my father is a businessman and he wanted me in the family business.”

“It was a tough decision, though,” he said, retrieving an errant beanbag. “Ringling Brothers is actually more selective.”