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.