Described by various writers in Australia as ‘beautiful’
‘pretty’ ‘ladylike’ and the ‘lady Cinquevalli’, Ma’mselle Florence Rhodesia was
one of the first female jugglers to perform in Australia.
Florrie was born around 1885 in England according to a US
census. This means that she was a bare 15 years old when she came to Australia.
It is, however, entirely possible that Florrie may have ‘fudged’ her age a bit.
She made her debut in the antipodes in 1900, when she toured Australia and New Zealand with Fitzgerald
Brothers Circus. The brothers, Tom, and Dan Fitzgerald, called her Rhoda.
According to an interview she gave in New Zealand, she began
her circus career at 8 years of age as a slack wire walker. When her apprenticeship
ended she toured South Africa with Fillis Brothers and began juggling. Whilst there
she met Cecil Rhodes and acquired the name ‘Rhodesia’. She then returned to England and began
juggling on the variety stages where the brothers Fitzgerald found her and asked
her to tour Australia.
Rhoda toured for several years. Her act
incorporated several skills that Cinquevalli had introduced to the Australian
stage. Florrie turned herself into a billiard table and rolled balls around her
body until they slipped into the pockets of a specially designed coat, she also
did ‘everything Cinquevalli did’. However, most contemporaneous accounts
focused on her looks and ladylike demeanour, with one Australian newspaper saying,
‘the lady is personally very attractive which is a feature unto itself.’ For a
publicity shot in 1902, Rhoda wore male attire, including pants, a suit coat, and a shirt, she also had a top hat by her side. This
costume placed her firmly in the tradition of gentleman juggler and contributed
to her appeal, particularly to male audiences.
Rhoda was well liked by her peers and when she left Australia in 1903 she was farewelled with a cart full of bouquets, the music of the circus orchestra and a gold medal from her employers. They also penned her a note,
Dear Rhoda, as you
are now leaving Australia, we must express our sincere regret at your
departure. You have behaved yourself always in a ladylike and graceful manner
and you leave behind you many true friends and well-wishers. We consider you a
true artist, and a credit to your profession- T and D.
According to a contemporary newspaper, Rhodesia was the only
lady juggler ever seen in ‘these parts’, probably referring to Australia and
In 1905 Florrie wrote a letter to friends in Sydney
announcing that she had married Mr William Seeley in Capetown South Africa.
Seeley had performed in Australia on the Tivoli circuit as one of a team called
Seeley and West, it is possible that the pair met during Rhoda’s Australasian
Florrie returned to Australia, as Madame Rhodesia, with her
husband in 1907 and performed at the Tivoli. However, this time her act was not
as widely applauded. One newspaper dismissed her show saying the only unique
part of it was that she was female. Time and imitators had apparently eaten
away at her novelty.
Florence continued to perform with her husband, primarily in
the United States. In 1910, Florence and William settled there.By the late 1920s Florence was the proprietor of an Inn in
Suffolk New York. Genealogical information suggests that she passed away around
1938 in the same area.
Some information about early club juggling on the Australian Stage. References available upon request.
Indian club swinging was well established in
Australia by the turn of the 20th Century. However, although club
juggling was common in England and the US in the 1880s and 1890s, it had not
reached the antipodes. It was not until 1902, according to Charles Waller, that
the first club jugglers performed on the Australian stage.
Although it is probable that clubs were juggled in the country before
1902, the first theatrical performance occurred that year at the Tivoli Theatre
in Sydney. The performers were two Americans, Derenda and Breen, who were
comedic jugglers and carried Van Wyck clubs.
The two men had met at a club swinging
tournament in New York and from this meeting they developed a music hall act.
They were the first club jugglers to incorporate comedy and patter into their
performance despite their peers saying that club juggling was ‘too pretty’ for
In Australia they
began the act by one of them leaping out of a life size poster.
Every night it was a different juggler who leapt from the backdrop, keeping the
audience guessing as to which one was alive and which a representation.
They incorporated a
great deal of humour into the act and showed an amazing dexterity on stage.
Their show involved juggling three Wyck clubs back to back, and the climax of
their performance was the pair mounting pedestals and throwing eight clubs at
Breen, Australian Town, and Country Journal 18 January 1902 p.22
. Derenda was well known for his
temper tantrums when the clubs misbehaved.
Derenda made a miss, his rage became a thing awful to behold. Sometimes he
would snap a mighty chain to pieces; sometimes with his teeth, tear lumps from
the top of a wooden pedestal.’
The arrival of the
juggling club on the Australian stage led to a contest between club users in
the country. Indian club swingers scoffed at the club jugglers, and the
cultural space occupied by the club was contested between the athletes and the
Whilst Derenda and
Breen were entertaining the crowds with their version of club juggling, well
known axe and Indian club swinger, Jack Harrison, challenged them to a match.
Jack called the pair ‘fancy club swingers’. A term that implied a derogatory
attitude towards the art of juggling.
The antagonism between
the Indian club swinging community and club juggling continued during the early
1900s. One article published in a Queensland paper compared the health effects
of club swinging and juggling as follows.
‘I am aware
that the artistes ‘on the boards’ execute some marvellous and intricate
evolutions but their work savours more of jugglery than legitimate club
swinging. As a rule, they use extremely light clubs, in fact were you to offer
them ones weighing 3 or 4lbs they would be unable to do their wonderful finger
swings catches and changes. This stage trick- club work looks very pretty and
is indeed clever, but it does not bring any appreciable development, as the
clubs being mostly held with the finger tips confine the muscular work to the
fingers, wrist and forearm.’
This description of club jugglers as ‘artistes’ who performed
‘jugglery’ dismissed the skill involved in juggling. The author clearly
considered juggling inferior to swinging. By 1910, this disdain of club
juggling had spread, and Indian Club Swinging competitions were posting rules
stating, ‘no juggling allowed’. This indicated that club juggling had spread in the general
community and was infecting the athletic halls of Australia. Another indication of the spread of club
juggling occurred in 1906, when an Australian club juggling act was incorporated
into the annual pantomime.
Australian born trio, Lennon Hyman, and Lennon, were experienced acrobats
before encountering the juggling club.
They began their career with touring companies presenting a comedy
contortionist act called ‘The Three Waiters.’ After a tour of New Zealand, they
took the act to England, and returned to Australia with some Van Wyck juggling
clubs. Their encounter with juggling clubs changed their status in the
theatrical community and ensured a successful career.
and Lennon (Authors Collection)
They were comedians, and their costumes were similar in style
to those of Derenda and Breen. Modestly dressed on stage, the three men passed
clubs between them at a dizzying rate.
'The first turn was a display of juggling with Indian clubs which
they handled with remarkable proficiency, exchanging flying clubs with one
another, and sometimes surrendering three clubs in mid-air with an air of
perfect nonchalance…. the varied manipulations
were really astounding, the concluding turn in which the nine clubs were kept
twirling in the air created the greatest enthusiasm.'
In 1906 they performed in the annual William Anderson pantomime, Sinbad
the Sailor, suggesting that club juggling had become a popular feature of the
Australian stage. If you are interested in current day juggling in Sydney, try Sydney Juggling for information.
While in Florence earlier this year I did a little postcard hunting at the local flea market. It was an interesting place. Not many postcards, but some fascinating objects. So here are some postcards from Italy and some others that turned up during my Easter cleanup.
Paulino and Zeze- I know nothing about this card. If anybody has any information please post it.
Fregoli- This is a reproduction of an original. Fregoli was a quick change artist, very famous during the vaudeville era
A 1993 Festival in Italy.
DeWitt, Young and Sister- The College Boy Juggler. I suspect that there is a very interesting story behind this card. Young was a very famous juggler, DeWitt is a very famous name in Juggling, and 'College Boy Juggler' was a very early juggling skit. This card is an American card dated 1908 and sent to Ohio- a hotbed of early American juggling. Somebody, somewhere will have a story about this one, I'm sure.
I found this one while cleaning my house. Judith Anderson, a very famous Australian actor, in a Criterion Theatre Sydney production.
Another Italian festival.
On the back of this picture postcard it says, ' Doris and Dessy' Danceurs......acrobatique" Obviously French. It looks like it's been taken from somebody's photo album and I picked it up in Florence.
Easter cleaning has led me to some interesting rediscoveries, including these lovely prints of Maggie Dickenson and Harry Clay.
Maggie was a very famous Australian Dancer who featured in many pantomimes. I wrote an article about her many years ago and in response received a letter from Dr Tony Gough, whose mother performed with Maggie.
Dr Gough also sent some prints which I rediscovered in a drawer this weekend.
Dr Gough's mother, Nancy Chapman aka Nancy Leigh, performed with Maggie as one of the Whirl of Girls pictured above.
I also found some prints of Australian entrepreneur Harry Clay, which were given to me many years ago by one of his descendants.
Harry Clay managed many small vaudeville theatres in the Sydney suburbs during the early 20th Century, including one which sat where the old Newtown Hub theatre was.
These are beautiful pictures and I am very grateful that people shared them with me.
Just a brief and rough account of John Pamplin in Australia.. References upon request..
In 1899 juggler
extraordinaire Cinquevalli opened in Sydney. He caused a sensation. However,
another, equally talented ,juggler was also appearing in the city. He caused
barely a ripple.
American John Pamplin was performing with Orpheus McAdoo's
Georgia Minstrels at the same time as Cinquevalli. He was an African American
artist who was an accomplished juggler, sleight of hand expert , gun
manipulator and club swinger.
Before coming to Australia, Pamplin worked with the Georgia
Graduates Company, which was a variety group active between 1895 and 1897. In
the former year they toured the north of the United States and followed this
tour with a transcontinental run in 1897. One of the lead performers on that
tour was Ernest Hogan.
In 1899 Hogan, one of the earliest proponents of rag time,
decided to take a minstrel group to Australia. Unfortunately, he had been
beaten to the country by Orpheus McAdoo and the Georgia Minstrels. Hogan quickly saw that there was not enough
business for two minstrel tours, so some of his group joined Mc Adoo . This could be how John Pamplin
ended up touring Australia with The Georgia Minstrels .
Pamplin was, by all accounts, very talented . Unfortunately,
contemporary reviewers did not describe his turn in any detail He was part of a much larger ensemble
including Ferry the Frog, a contortionist, and a group of singers led by Flora
Batson. Pamplin's feats were
overwhelmed, not only by his fellow minstrels, but by the focus of the media on
Cinquevalli. In 1899, there was only room for one juggler, and that juggler was
the Polish, and white, Cinquevalli.
Of course, Australia at that time was considering
federation. And one of the planks of the Commonwealth was the White Australia
Policy. Racism was a major part of the Australian psyche. The desire to keep
'undesirable elements' off the precious island was paramount. Pamplin was not
only fighting a fellow juggler for attention, he was fighting a whole culture
imbued with racist ideology.
The popularity of the minstrel troupes in Australia was
somewhat surprising. Historian Richard Waterhouse has described the early
popularity of minstrelsy in Australia in terms of 'romantic racialism'. Waterhouse
argues that in the early 19th Century, the image of African Americans as
portrayed in minstrel shows was either of a childlike servant of a kind master
or an exploited Christian slave to an evil landholder. This image of submission
and infantilism was embodied in sentimental ballads of plantation life. Many
early minstrel troupes played to this image successfully.
Waterhouse further suggests that by the turn of the century,
when McAdoo and Pamplin toured, that this image had changed to one where the
infantile slave had become a threat to
white supremacy. In Australia, this was embodied by sinister images of African Americans and Indigenous Peoples, and legislated with The White Australia Policy.
The McAdoo tour of 1899/1900 neatly combined both images of
African Americans. Firstly, the songs concentrated on sentimental ballads.
However, these were combined with new innovations such as the cake walk and rag
time, to produce novelty. The troupe was very popular, but their tours
concentrated on the smaller areas of the country. They visited provincial towns
such as Goulburn, Bathurst and the smaller cities such as Fremantle and
Adelaide. In each area, Pamplin's juggling was applauded.
So how did John Pamplin create a juggling act that appealed
to predominantly white racist colonial audiences in Australia? The details are
sparse, but there are some descriptions which give a clue to his success.
Firstly, it's clear that he was a very skilful and talented
performer . He juggled, he balanced, and he also did some sleight of hand.
His act played upon projecting a foreign appearance, and
combining it with a dangerous edge. Pamplin was in many ways, embodying the fears of the
He dressed exotically, sometimes in a Zouave uniform, a garb
that included a colourful jacket and unusual
headgear. At other times his persona was
that of an Egyptian or Nubian Prince. A royal from Africa. This was a trope
which had been successfully employed by Indian jugglers in the mid 19th
Century, and it obviously had continuous appeal to Australian audiences.
The main part of Pamplin's act was gun manipulation. He also
caught a cannon ball, a trick that Cinquevalli was performing in the larger
theatres. There was balancing and further juggling, but it was his expertise
with rifles which brought the most comment.
A very clever item was
some gun juggling by John Pamplin who, clad in Zouave uniform, makes first one
and then two guns fly around and all over him in most bewildering style.
Pamplin toured with the Georgia Minstrels in Australia for
some time and then returned to the United States. There he continued to perform
with minstrel troupes. In 1912, with Allen's Minstrels his persona was 'his
satanic majesty, the devil.'
There are records of him performing with a Wild West Show in
1929 where his finale was balancing a revolving table on a pole attached to his
Pamplin died on February 27 1935 in Danville Illinois. His
death was recorded by the Chicago Tribune as follows;
John M Pamplin,Noted
Magician, Juggler, Is Dead
Danville Ill,. Feb 27-
John M Pamplin, 60, colored, who had an international reputation as a magician,
juggler and knife thrower, died of a heart attack in the Danville business
district yesterday afternoon.