Tuesday, March 15, 2016

John Pamplin, Minstrel and Juggler

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 insular colonials.

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 chin.

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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Theodore the Novelty Juggler

I found this tantalizing reference to Theodore, the novelty juggler in one of my old programmes.

The programme is from Newcastle's Victoria Theatre and dated 1911

I was thrilled to discover that Sydney's great magic historian, Kent Blackmore, had done some research about the mysterious Theodore.

Here's a link.

It's an interesting insight into early juggling in Australia

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Great Thurston

These souvenirs of American magician Howard Thurston are undoubtedly from his tour of Australia in 1904-1905.

The postcard below is of a quite young Thurston, looking suitably mysterious. This probably dates from his time touring Australia.

But perhaps of more interest is the letter below. It is addressed to scenic designer, Jack Ricketts on Thurston stationery and dated 7/9/05 from Melbourne. It may not be from the magician himself, the signature has been removed,  but it is a nice memento of his time in Australia.

The letter mentions the ferocious weather, the good houses and the help that Jack Ricketts gave at the Palace Theatre....I wonder what that was?

It's postcard fair time!

The bi monthly postcard fair was today and as usual I took a train to Croydon , Sydney, to see what I could find...

I had a very good day.

Firstly we have Rose Musgrove, daughter of George Musgrove who was J C Williamson's producing partner. George also had an affair with Nellie Stewart. Rose was the daughter of George's marriage and became a musical theatre star in her own right.

Next to Rose is Dan Leno. Dan was a very famous pantomime dame in London. I am unsure whether he came to Australia.

Below these two is one of my favourite Tivoli stars, Tom Dawson. Dawson joined the army during WW1 when he was well over 40 years old. He didn't live long on the Western Front. He was a Tivoli regular. I have written a story about Tom for Stagewhispers, so search their site to learn more.

Finally in this group of four is The Great Thurston. One of the world's most famous magicians. Thurston toured Australia in the early 1900s. I'm going to do a short separate post about Thurston soon.

In this group is La Sylphe, who was described as a continental dancer. She performed in Australia in 1907. Next to her is Florrie Forde, a very famous pantomime principal boy, who performed in Australia for many years.

On the second row is Beth Cole, from the Bohemian Dramatic Company. Next to her is Pressy Preston, who performed in vaudeville in the early 20th century.

This final group of three includes a double postcard of George Alexander and Irene Vanbrugh, English performers.

Below them is a very nice generic circus card.

Finally there is Daisy Holly, who I had never heard of before. She was a vaudevillian who performed at the Bijou in Adelaide.

I will be posting all these cards on my flickr account soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Art of Modern Juggling c1904

This amazing book was written by Anglo, aka Thomas Horton. He killed his wife in Adelaide in the early 1900s and was executed for the deed.

I have downloaded a pdf copy  of the book for interested readers.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A long ramble about Australian Juggling history

So instead of revising my PhD proposal I got caught up in writing this very rambling, incoherent account of Australian Juggling history 1860-1920. I've still got a lot of gaps to fill so this is preliminary research. Please consider it a draft and work in progress...

Juggling in Australia began as a part of circus performance, and circus arrived in Australia around 1842.  According to newspaper reports, many of the early equestrian performers had juggling as part of their act. For example, Mark St Leon in Circus the Australian Story, describes Indigenous circus man, Billy Jones, as a juggler. But Jones was also an equestrian, tightrope walker and acrobat. Juggling in Australia, was, presumably a part of other circus acts, but rarely a stand alone performance.

Juggling in the past was considered an odd, sometimes evil, occupation. Most 19th century stories of juggling in Australian newspapers were about Indian jugglers. Juggling was often identified as an occupation associated with the mystery and 'otherness', of the east. It was cast in the language of what post modernist author, Edward Said described as 'Orientalism', a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, "us") and the strange (the Orient, the East, "them"). (Edward Said, Orientalism)

The most famous exploiter of Orientalism in the early theatre was American magician Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson) Above is his very Anglo American assistant Dot dressed as Suee  Seen.

Early jugglers, employed by circus entrepreneurs, used this pervasive ideology and narrative to promote Indian jugglers in their circuses. A little later in the 1860s, with the opening of Japan to the west, early popular theatre owners capitalised on a similar view of juggling.

An example of the circus exploitation of  orientalism, is the case of brothers Mahomet Cassim and Mahomet Abdallah. Advertised by Burton's circus as being from the court of a Rajah, their props and acrobatic performances capitalised on the exotic nature of their origins. Their subsequent execution for murder of their compatriot on the basis on little evidence, is an example of how pervasive the 'orientalist' idea of the 'evil' east, was in the 1860s.

Juggling in the late 19th and early 20th Century

Charles Waller is perhaps the only person in Australia to make a contemporaneous attempt to document juggling in Australian popular theatres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Waller 
( and I know some jugglers will not like this) was a magician. In 1941 he attempted to list every magician who had visited Australia and describe their performance. This quickly grew to a project which included jugglers, protean artists and ventriloquists.  Waller came to Melbourne in 1895 and his accounts of performances from that date rely on personal recollections. After his death, his work was passed to Charles Wicks who in turn passed it on to Gerald Taylor who turned it into a book called Magical Nights at the Theatre. All three were magicians and members of the Australian Society of Magicians, and it is thanks to them that there are some eyewitness accounts of early jugglers in Australia.

According to Waller some of the first jugglers to perform on an Australian stage were Japanese. He says that  The Tycoon troupe, a group of Japanese jugglers and acrobats performed in Melbourne in November 11 1867. Not only were they possibly the first juggling act to perform on an Australian stage, they were also one of the first group of Japanese entertainers to perform outside Japan.

The juggler in this troupe was named Herconuske, he performed sword balancing and brick manipulations. However, the main attraction of the troupe was top spinning . The whole performance was framed with a broken English explanation of Japanese customs, including a discussion of the quality of tea. This framing focused once again on an orientalist idea of the mystic east.

Other Japanese troupes followed through the late 1860s and early 1870s.

The late 1880s saw the arrival of Clark's all star American speciality group and its associated juggling performers. These included Japanese jugglers, and Sylvo, a balancer and juggler.  He used goblets, umbrellas and other common objects, balanced them and rearranged them in startling rapidity. Sylvo's performance clearly showed the influence of the great French performer Trewey, and introduced a European influence into the art of juggling in Australia.

Of course the most influential juggler in early 20th century Australia  was Cinquevalli. It was he who firmly established juggling as a popular theatrical art in this country. Cinquevalli made four trips to Australia and at one stage considered settling here.

His first performance was in 1899, he dressed in traditional circus attire, silken tights, and juggled common objects.

Cinquevalli juggled salt and pepper, tea cups, tea pots and sugar. His juggling always had a clever  denouement. He would juggle the tea items and end up pouring a cup of tea, or he would juggle a knife, fork and potato and halve the potato as it fell. Of course his billiard ball trick was a long time favourite with Australian audiences.

Cinquevalli introduced an everyday flavour to the art of juggling. He once said that he hoped that an audience member, after witnessing his performance, would go home and try to juggle the kitchen utensils. Cinquevalli was a juggling evangelist, and one of the first people to introduce common object juggling to the Australian populace. ( he is also my hero)

After Cinquevalli came a wave of 'drawing room' jugglers and the early 20th century can be seen as the high point of vaudeville juggling in Australia. W C Fields arrived with his silent tramp act. Selma Bratz and Lucy Gillet also toured in the early 20th century.

In the wake of Cinquevalli's successful and profitable appearance, juggling became a popular feature for the managers of the large variety halls such as the Tivoli and National Amphitheatre in Sydney. Australian jugglers were given more opportunities to show their skill on the stage and become regulars on the bigger circuits.  It was at this time that the Kavanagh boys( rackets and hoops)  made their first appearances at the Tivoli (1911) and the Lentons (hat jugglers) also made their first appearance.

Another form of juggling rose simultaneously, club juggling. This originated from the Indian club swinging movement of the late Victorian era. Australians were apparently very keen on this form of exercise. Famous Australian bush poet, Henry Lawson, was an exponent, and the world champion of the sport was also Australian. The national obsession with sport and competition undoubtedly influenced the popularity of club swinging and perhaps the sporting aspect also influenced some of the early club jugglers in Australia.

One of the first Australian club juggling acts was Lennon, Hyman and Lennon who appeared in the Sinbad the Sailor pantomime in 1906.  After a long career as jugglers, the Lennons became theatre entrepreneurs in Adelaide. Ted Lennon established one of Adelaide's first cinemas, and his showings of silent movies were interspersed with vaudeville acts, which presumably would have included some club juggling.

In the 1920s one of the most famous club juggling acts was the Littlejohns, who juggled patented 'diamond studded' clubs and were well known in the famous variety halls. They also toured independently in regional areas and their itinerant shows brought juggling to a wider audience.

With the advent of the talkies, juggling, as with other vaudeville and circus arts, fell into decline. But it was a large part of the Australian popular theatrical experience for a very  long time and of course continues to be enjoyed by many (strange, odd, eccentric and mathematical) people today. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

WC Fields again!

A rather fetching picture of W C Fields from an Australian theatre magazine of 1903.

Here he is without makeup, looking young, dapper and very much the gentleman.