Welcome to this series of interviews that originally appeared in Rubber Chicken magazine. Editor and publisher Peter Aubery has made them available for the Kids Entertainer Hub audience.
They include … Charlie Frye, Jimmy Carlo, John Kimmons, Bill Abbott, Michael Diamond, Paul Daniels, Sylvester The Jester …
How did you get into performing?
Well my father and my grandfather were clowns, you know growing up. At around 6 or 7 years old I was doing parades with them. I learned to unicycle and pick up skills that I could pick up. I taught myself to juggle as a kid and always was into magic and like everybody else, I got my 1st magic set around 6 years old. So I was a clown first and self taught as far as I could. Then I joined a circus around 1979 and joined Ringling Brothers, and that’s where I met Sherry. Sherry was an aerialist and a dancer and she has a strong ballet background. People don’t realise that on stage because she makes it look easy, but there’s nothing easy about being in character and having flawless timing and all that stuff.
Was it all smooth or did you have moments when you thought “I cant do this?”
I have that every day. I grew up practicing and fantasising about being a performer – looking at old magic magazines and reading columns about nightclub magic and imaging what it would be like to perform in a nightclub. Seeing old movies about Vaudeville and fantasising about that and about being a circus clown, and then growing up and finding out that vaudeville died before you were born. In the circus I would practice my big skills like my juggling etc during the day in the arena and then at night in my little 4 x 6 cubicle on the train that I shared with 17 other clowns, I would practice my sleight of hand. Doug Henning was such a big influence. His first special (Doug Henning’s World of Magic 1975) changed so many lives, mine included. His illusions didn’t mean as much to me as his beautiful sleight of hand stuff. Close up was getting really big at that time – there was talk of Paul Harris’s work etc. So I was doing sleight of hand at night and juggling skills during the day and always working on routines. I would warm up the audience before the show started ,and that’s where I came up with some of the big stuff that I still do today, to get them really applauding.
So, I left the circus, worked the streets of New York for tips, sometimes worked with a partner, but we were too much the same so we went our separate ways. Sherry and I started putting our act together. George Carl was a great friend and a great clown. I worked with great clowns and great people.
So was Vaudeville your main inspiration?
Well we’re 50% vaudeville, 50% circus skills, 50% silent movie and also really bad at maths. Those are the 3 ingredients that we mixed together and where our inspiration comes from.
So what do you think sets you apart from other jugglers out there?
I guess it’s just that I’m not THAT into juggling – I have learned as many skills as possible to create new material – it’s a professional pursuit rather than a hobby. Magic is more of my hobby – I could do card tricks all day long.
So do you sit down and write a script or do you practice and ideas come to you?
It depends what Im working on – if I’m doing sleight of hand and there is premise to it then I’ll write a script and I’ll start with everything I can think of that has something to do with this trick – I’m doing a dice thing with a dice cup at the moment and I write down anything I can think off; black holes, teleportation etc, to come up with some ideas. For my visual material, normally I have an idea of what I want to do, so I start working on the skills and then it’s a hard thing to figure out the music that I want to go with it. And then the integrity of mixing the music and the skills so that it’s choreographed so you have the right feel. I write a lot – I have 52 journals of ideas – I have verbal routines, silent routines, routines for cards and coins. If I get a new idea or need a gag I sleep on it – I went to sleep with a bowling ball in my hand and in my sleep I had seen someone do a gag and when I woke up I thought “I wish I had thought of that gag. Wait, I DID think of it!” and so that was a nice surprise.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever juggled with?
I don’t do chainsaws etc and the reason I don’t is because it’s other peoples material and it’s a bit old hat to do that. I did learn to juggle sink plungers because I didn’t have any clubs and didn’t know where to get them and a sink plunger is a funny thing so I learned to juggle them while on a 6ft unicycle. Later I saw a guy knife throw sink plungers and I really wish I’d thought of that!
When did you know you’d made it?
I haven’t gotten there yet
(Sherry) He still doesn’t think that – he questions himself every day.
(C) Yes every day – I’m professionally bipolar. Sometimes we’ve got a nod of approval from people that really meant a lot. And then sometimes you’ll get screwed for something and then you’re banging your head against a brick wall, thinking “we are trying as hard as we can”.
I guess in your job you face similar problems as we do as children’s entertainers?
Yeah, of course. I hear people who are embarrassed to admit they do kids stuff but I have so much respect for people who do it, like David Kaye – I have so much respect for him. You guys are out there making a living doing it. I love doing stuff for kids. We do charity stuff in town for kids etc and that’s what we love doing.
(LOUD CRASH IN BACKGROUND Tom Rolfe Just dropped a set of linking rings – Ed) Oh excuse me, I dropped my wallet.
If we could retire, I would just do things like Magicians without Borders (www.magicianswithoutborders.com), and things like that. Sometimes I feel like people say “Oh I’m just a local guy” but hats off to you- I’ve seen great people working on the streets for tips and I have seen absolute rubbish who are big names on the stage at Las Vegas. Also a lot of them are paying for the room to be in Las Vegas but they are deeply in debt.
(To Sherry) Do you ever get annoyed with all the focus being on Charlie?
(S) It doesn’t really bother me. It does happen but I guess I don’t care that much – I’m here for him and we’ve been working together for 30 years.
Do you ever get on each other’s nerves working together all the time?
(Sherry) I just don’t talk to him any more (laughs). Will you tell him I’m still not talking to him?
When you are at home do you have a cut-off and stop doing magic, ie. When you go on holiday?
No I’m practicing every day. I do card stuff all the time – I always have a pack of cards in my hands. And we never go on holidays! Because we travel so much we don’t really need holidays – being at home is our vacation because we are there so infrequently. We work all the time.
We are experiencing a big recession over here and work is harder to come by. Is it the same in the States?
(S) Oh god, yes. That’s why we travel so much. You would not believe what some people are making in Vegas. Only $100 for an evenings work
(C) You have to rent the theatre, pay for advertising and it’s a really good way to lose a lot of money. It’s not like the old days with Sigfried and Roy where it was “Here’s $30m dollars, give us a great show”. Some of the big shows are still making good money, but not the performers in it necessarily.
Who is the most famous person you have ever worked for?
Oh I don’t know. I guess Liza Minelli. She is a gypsy, she’s an entertainer. She would be more at home here surrounded by magicians than she would being “Liza”.
(S) I know its contentious to say around magicians, but we worked with Uri Geller and we absolutely loved him – he was so kind and generous to us and we loved him – he is the nicest man and genuinely interested in people.
C) Oh and Tom Hanks. He hired us for a week to work on “That Thing You Do” – we had a week on the set hanging out with him he was directing it, he personally hired me, he wrote me into the script. It was a neat but weird experience.
On a TV Show I did a guest bit on a soap opera as a plate spinner to tell a lady how to manage her life.
Has there been a gig you’ve taken on that you’ve just thought “This is a big mistake”
Well funny you say that, but just last week. We were in a gymnasium where they’ve put a stage up and there is sawdust on the floor and our dressing room looks like a prison shower, and you’re going to try your best of course but you’re thinking “what are we doing here?”. And then they were the most fantastic crowd and all the problems just melted away.
One last question – which sock do you put on first, the right or the left?
The right, of course!! And I put my underpants on over my head – I have a weird way of getting into them!