When John Ringling North, then president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, saw a pair of German jugglers and acrobats perform in Spain, he immediately invited them to join “the Greatest Show on Earth.” A brother and sister team, Francis and Lottie Brunn would astonish audiences. In 1950, theater critic Brooks Atkinson called Francis “the greatest juggler of the ages. Not many people in the world are as perfectly adjusted as Mr. Brunn is. He will never have to visit a psychiatrist.” If physical grace and balance are reflective of one’s state of mind, maybe he was right.
When Lottie left the act in 1951, Francis went on to popular fame and even more hyperbolic acclaim. “After he performed before the queen of England in 1963, The Evening Standard called his show ‘almost painfully exciting,’” Douglas Martin writes at The New York Times.
“Trying to describe Brunn’s act is like trying to describe the flight of a swallow,” writes Francisco Alvarez in Juggling: Its History and Greatest Performers. He became a regular performer on The Ed Sullivan Show, “played the Palace with Judy Garland,” notes Martin, “and went twice to the White House, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed him the best juggler he had ever seen.”
None of this should bias you toward the television performance, above, of course. (How many jugglers could Eisenhower have seen, anyway?) Judge for yourself. By way of further context, we should note that Brunn was known for perfecting “an austere but demanding minimalism. He was fascinated by controlling just one ball, and virtually compelled audiences to share this fascination.” Or as Brunn put it, “it sounds like nothing, but it is quite difficult to do properly.” As anyone (or virtually everyone) who has tried and failed to juggle can attest, this description fits the art of juggling in general all too well.
Brunn made it look laughably easy: “Large numbers of objects posed scant problem. He was believed to be the first juggler in the world to put up 10 hoops,” Martin writes. He also liked to incorporate flamenco into his act to compound the difficulty and the grace. “I do not consider myself doing tricks,” he said in 1983. “There is one movement for eight minutes. It’s supposed to be, let’s say, like a ballet…. I would love if the audience is so fascinated that nobody applauds in the end.” Brunn, I suspect, never got to hear the sound of stunned silence after his act.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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