One of the most enjoyable aspects of digging through the archives of juggling history is becoming aware of props and routines that have fallen out of fashion.
Although some of these arcane bits of juggling may still be practiced here and there, they are in large part exotic artifacts of juggling archeology.
Boomerang hats and plates, spools, gun spinning and Swiss flag swinging are a few examples that might bring glimmers of recognition.
But what about juggling soap bubbles using woolen mittens, rug spinning or fire bowl and chain spinning? Who still practices "the human pool table" routine with balls tossed into pockets attached to the performer's suit and rolled and popped to other pockets?
Although still around today, the diabolo has seen its heyday. At the turn of the century, McSovereign of Germany, billed as "Meister in Diabolospiel," performed a diabolo act second to none. His spinner climbed a 30 foot string to a windmill attached at the top. He bounced it between upright, angled mini-trampolines, had the diabolo climb a string over the audience to the balcony, and employed a complicated, loop-the-loop device that brought it back to the string after its gyrations.
One of the greatest losses in juggling has been the disappearance of ensemble theme troupes. More than a group of jugglers, this old vaudeville standby was a playlet of actors juggling around a central theme.
Some of the most interesting of these ensembles performed hoop rolling. Every other woodcut from the 1870s and 1880s seems to show a boy rolling a barrel hoop along the sidewalk with a stick. This was the forerunner of a precision effect where special hoops were rolled and spun and wobbled along the stage with a dozen different angles and methods of English, giving them a life of their own. The hoops were often prime players in the troupe's playlet, taking on personalities of their own.
Of all the great hoop acts, one stands out. The Kratons, popular in 1908, set their stage as a small town with stores, churches, factory, saloon, school and other buildings. The hoops showed individual personalities of people in the town.
Singly, in pairs or in groups, the hoop people would roll out of a store and into a house, or leave home for church or the factory. One hoop came out of the saloon, staggered around, and landed happily against a lamppost, friend of all drunkards. When the school bell rang, a passel of kids rushed out the door in every direction. When the factory whistle blew, the worker hoops headed for home, some making detours to the saloon.
Hoop couples danced. A girlish hoop dropped a hanky and a courting hoop, with the aid of a pin embedded in the rim, raced along to pick it up and follow her behind some stage scenery. At the finale, the lights dimmed, the church bell rang, and families streamed into the church where a hymn was sung and the curtains lowered.
Until that moment there hadn't been a single person on stage. Only then did the Kratons appear for their final bows.
The great solo hoop manipulators of the past included The Wilfred Mae Trio, Howard Nichols, Francis Wood, Raymond Wilbert, The Alpha Troupe, Belmont Brothers, Conners Brothers, William Everhart, Knetzger, Frank Gregory and the Nichols-Nelson Troupe. More modern proponents have included Paul Bachman, Carter Brown, Bob Bramson, Kit Summers and Larry Weeks. The opening of Berky and Moschen's "Alchemedians," using spinning (and talking) steel bowls is a lovely echo of the old thematic hoop rollers.
There were several standard routines in hoop rolling. One of the most visual was the back roll, in which the performer would stoop over and feed a continuous roll of hoops over the shoulder, down the back and up through the legs.
One of the most comedic stunts was the tent roll. Several hoops would be rolled across the stage and circle and open tent one or more times before angling through the flap and in. The hook on this routine was the last hoop, which was back spun directly to the opening where it skidded to a halt. As if defying the juggler, it tipped over at an angle, rolled back around the tent, and then, losing speed, fell reluctantly through the tent flap.
The performers often combined the rolling with tossing and passing the brightly colored hoops, which were far larger than today's rings. There were also intricate floor rolling patterns, such as four or five hoops traveling in a circle, then four or five being added in another circle.
Everhart, who is credited with originating hoop rolling, sent seven hoops across the stage. They returned one by one to roll around him, pass between his legs, crawl up his back and then roll down his extended arms to be caught and sent out again.
Perhaps the most difficult routines were performed with the use of strings, held either by assistants or attached from the performer to a stationary object. The hoops (bicycle rims) were spun out onto the lowest of several strings, then bounced to other strings. By controlling the slack or tightness of the strings, the juggler transformed the hoops into high wire performers. Although the gyroscopic forces of the spinning hoop aided the juggler, the least bit of wobble was fatal.