Early 20th Century Juggling was dominated in the Western World by the amazing Cinquevalli. Many people were inspired by him to take up the art and most of them were men. However, many women also responded to Cinquevalli's example, including the mysterious, and relatively unknown, Lucy Gillet.
Berlin born Lucy arrived in Australia on June 4 1913 for a three month tour on the Tivoli circuit. She was just 18 years old and was accompanied by her parents, Zelma and Fred. Both were 'dumb show' performers who had retired 18 months earlier to support their daughter's career.
The family travelled from Southampton, and apparently the tour of Australia was part of a longer world tour for Lucy. However, it seems that England had long been their base, as there were reports of Lucy performing in English provincial theatres as early as 1908, when she was described as a child acrobat and juggler. Lucy told the Australian press that she had been juggling since she was 10 years old, so it seems safe to assume that Mr and Mrs Gillet may have been an early 20th Century version of stage parents.
At 18, Lucy was, according to Charles Waller, 'a pretty girl, pleasantly plump and fair'. She was also a fan of Zeppelins and longed for the day when everybody travelled on dirigibles. She had resented the long sea voyage to Australia because she couldn't practice juggling on a steamer.
Lucy opened at Sydney's Tivoli Theatre in June 1913. Her act was part of a long line up of vaudeville fare which included the flying Banvards, an acrobatic troupe. Lucy was unfortunately competing against some huge names in the legitimate theatre during her stay, including ballerina Adeline Genee and contralto Clara Butt, who was very popular with the locals because of her Australian husband.
However, Lucy was considered a unique performer in vaudeville circles, primarily because of her high skill level and her gender. Her balancing and juggling was often compared favourably to her male peers , and in Adelaide she was described as a 'lady Cinquevalli'
Her act in Australia was carefully constructed to emphasise her femininity. The set was a kitchen and the props were primarily domestic utensils and equipment, including plates, chairs, tables, lamps and pot plants.
A typical performance began when the curtain parted to reveal Lucy sitting on a chair in a Dutch themed blue setting, then she quickly blew out a lamp and began to juggle. Lucy was a skilled foot and hand juggler. She balanced a candle on her foot and threw it to her forehead. She juggled three chairs and in a particularly clever trick she perched a table on her forehead while juggling five balls in two hands and then in one, she then tossed the balls into receptacles sitting on the balanced table. The finale of her act in Adelaide was balancing a round table on two poles, letting it fall to her feet and juggling it.
One of her most astonishing feats was almost destroyed by a wit in a Sydney audience. Lucy was balancing a pot plant on her forehead, supporting revolving plates with her mouth, juggling other plates with both hands and holding a reading lamp on her left foot. This left her with only the right foot to balance on. Suddenly a sarcastic young man in the audience yelled, 'What about your other foot Miss?" drawing much laughter from the crowd and probably some angst from the juggler.
And Lucy was a very serious juggler. Her attitude was approvingly commented upon in Adelaide where a reviewer said that 'she gives the impression that the only thing that matters on earth to her is juggling.' In Sydney she arrived promptly on the Tivoli stage every day at 10 am for a two hour practice session. Lucy was passionately devoted to her craft and was adamant that 'people who juggle cannot afford to be nervous.'
Lucy performed in Sydney , Melbourne and Adelaide and left Australia in August 1913.
Although she did not make a lasting impression on Australian audiences, her feats were incredible for the day. There were a number of female jugglers at the time but few displayed the skill level and artistic appeal of Lucy Gillet.
Note on sources;
Details of Lucy's age and her parents names come from shipping records in Victoria. I assume the Fred and Zelma mentioned are her parents, who the press stated were accompanying her on the tour.
The physical description comes from Charles Waller as quoted in Magical Nights in the Theatre. Waller was so impressed with her that he only devoted a sentence to her act in his scrapbooks. His remarks may have been representative of the typical male spectator at the time. He described her turn dismissively as 'a nice little show.' In contrast his scrapbooks devote copious space and detailed attention to Cinquevalli.
The Zeppelin story comes from the Adelaide Mail. There was more coverage of Lucy in Adelaide than anywhere else. The paper seems to have interviewed her, about Zeppelins of all things! The same source also provided information about her practice sessions and details about her act.
The story of the wit in the Sydney audience comes from the Referee, June 1913.
There's also a really badly aged photo of Lucy in a Sydney newspaper which I haven't included here. I will be investigating other sources for a photo.
There are some suggestions on line that Lucy went to the US in the 1920s. I looked at the records on Ancestry and I'm not sure if it is the same Lucy, it's possible, but I haven't really looked at much else other than the Australian tour.
Further correspondence about Lucy is welcomed. Drop me an email.