Juggler's World: Vol. 42, No. 1

Nino Frediani

Circus Juggler Finds Happiness in Las Vegas

Interview by Roni Lynn

Juggler's World: You're back in the City Lites show at the Flamingo Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas now at least until August. Didn't you actually open this same show many years ago?

Nino Frediani: Yes. It's sentimental to me because I opened it in 1981. It was my first time in America and first time in Las Vegas. My dream for 20 years was to come to Las Vegas. The opportunity came out of the blue with a one-week contract, and I ended up staying for five years. I was the longest running specialty act in the show when I left in 1985.

JW: How did you end up in Las Vegas?

NF: All European acts have a dream about Las Vegas, though most of them won't admit it. Las Vegas is the Mecca of show business. I had offers to come to America for many years, but never made it because the money wasn't right or the show wasn't right.

Then in 1980 I was working on the island of Rhodes and Reagan got elected. The dollar shot up and the boss cut my pay. It was traumatic, and I ended up leaving. I went back to London and began looking for work. My agent in Los Angeles, Simone Finner, said she had the opportunity to send me to Las Vegas for six weeks. She asked me if I had a videotape and I sent it. But it was a French system and she erased it as she was previewing it!

She sent the tape to the entertainment director of the Flamingo and he called her back and said, "What's this, the invisible juggler? We open in ten days!" But on her recommendation he said he'd give me a one-week contract. The pay barely covered my airfare, but being a gambler I figured I didn't have anything to lose.

So I got there the day before we opened. I was nervous and was dropping everything in rehearsal. On the second call I even knocked my prop table over. Nerves! The next day I did another rehearsal because the stage manager was getting very nervous because I was the opening act with this brand new City Lites revue. But everything was so rushed he forgot about me until two hours before the show, and by then he couldn't replace me.

He came back in the dressing room and said, "Mr. Frediani, if you do OK I'll keep you the week. If you do good I'll give you six weeks. If you do bad I don't care if I have to go out there and do five minutes myself, you're out of the show!"

Well, I went out there and brought the house down and did even better the second show. At 2:30 a.m. they gave me a year-long contract with $300 more a week!

JW: What's it like to be up there on the big stage in Las Vegas?

NF: There's pressure working in Las Vegas. And you're alone on stage. When you screw up it's you. There's always somebody big in the show and you want to do well. Mike Tison was in one night, Siegfried and Roy, Liza Minelli with 25 people in a front booth... It's a lot of pressure because a lot of people want to work here. Las Vegas has something special about it. These hotels are great and the money's good. If you imagine all the jugglers there are in this world and only three or four of them working in Las Vegas. If you are there you want to stay there.

But I like the pressure. I'm a very nervous person and I like the tension. I did the St. Jude charity show for Frank Sinatra and a lot of top stars there - Diana Ross, Paul Anka, Bing Cosby, Sinatra, George Burns, Dionne Warwick, Charleton Heston. You rehearse with all these people and you're mixing with them and it's building up and it's building up... and then you go on for your seven minutes. It's something very filling. I get anxieties but I love it.

JW: Describe your show for us.

NF: OK. It's a 14 minute act. Most times I do two shows a day with a day off every week. So that's 48 shows a month. And I don't take any vacation time off! I open with a three ball routine - very, very fast - it's about 20 basic tricks in 30 seconds, but very visual. I use that opener to state the fact I'm a juggler. I come with bang, bang, bang, and the audience says, "OK, this guy's a juggler."

The three soccer ball routine is the same way. I could do much more work with it, but I just do the visual tricks - head rolls, arm rolls, stop one ball on my foot and spin one on each finger. Then I kick up the one on my foot and bounce it on my head. I also do one with three balls bouncing them off my head from one hand to the other continually in a sort of shower pattern. Next is a soccer exhibition, hitting the balls with my knees, foot, the side of the foot, and stop it on head for head rolls. Again I bounce a ball on my foot while I spin two balls, then do a kickup to a double spin on one hand and single spin on the other for the finale of that part.

JW: How did you come by your claim to be the "world's fastest juggler?"

NF: In about 1972 they invited me to the world juggling competition in Bergamo for the Rastelli Prize. I couldn't go because I was going to Japan, but they showed a clip of my act and gave me a special prize for being the fastest club juggler.

There was also a six-part TV show in England that they named, "You'll Never Believe It - The Nino Frediani Show." It was all about reflexes, and they used me in three episodes and the introductory segment for all episodes. It was all very scientific. They put a casque on our heads to measure reflexes - me, the Formula 1 driver Nicky Laude, a lady knitting, a boxer and a bunch of other people. They selected 30 people in all and I came out in the top three in reflex speed.

And that's the style I use in my club routine. I only use the tricks that can be done fast. All my tricks are close to my body - under the arm, between the legs all three ways, behind the back, the shower, things like that. But I do all this with one spin only. That means you have to do it fast to make it look good. I also do doubles very fast. It's about 2-1/2 minutes non-stop. At the end of the club routine I cross the stage with kickups.

The speed is the only real gift I have. Everybody can juggle, but at that speed my peers agree that I'm the fastest juggler today.

JW: What's next in the routine?

NF: Next and last is rings, and we come to a routine that I have created. Kris and Bela Kremo and Schweitzer all do the three hat routine where they take them on and off their head constantly. Well, I do it with rings, which is more difficult because the rings go over the neck while a hat rests on the head. It's now known as the Nino Frediani ring trick.

There's another one that I got from watching people catch a ball from the audience on a mouthstick. Firmin Bouglione taught me this one when I was at Cirque D'Hiver in Paris practicing in 1958. They had a big thick carpet and I would kick up my ring drops and catch them on my neck. Firmin said, "Why don't you do this trick in your act?"

Then I was working in 1968 with Blood, Sweat & Tears at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. It had an open top and was very windy. One guy threw a drop back to me, I caught it around my neck and my most famous trick was born. Now it's the highlight of my act, and I get a lot of comedy out of it. I'm not a comic, but there's a lot of comedy in the audience participation that goes with it.

I give rings to four people and ask them to throw them back so I can catch them on my neck. On good nights when it builds up and I'm running all over the stage to catch them the people are screaming so loud it's like a football stadium. I always dive on the last ring, whereas I just get to the others. If I get guys who throw them too well I miss on purpose. My diving catch is the end of the act. I toss them away, take a bow, and as I run off I bang into the wall. It's an old slapstick circus trick but the people love it.

JW: The name "Frediani" is big in circus, is it not?

NF: Yes. The Fredianis became famous in the 18th century in Italy and Spain. They were the first and last to do a three-man high column standing on a running horse with no rigging. My father was on top. They're still in the Guinness Book under Human Achievements for that trick.

JW: Then you grew up in the circus?

NF: I was actually born in the dressing room of a Portuguese Circus in 1940. My mom was working with my dad in the ring when she felt the first pain and I was born in the dressing room. The war didn't affect us much because we were artists and didn't mess with politics. We came and went pretty much as we wanted. My dad spoke nine languages, and obviously everyone wanted someone who could speak like that.

But after the war when I was a kid things were not going too well with us. I remember working as a street juggler in Italy, Spain and France, going around in pubs and passing the hat. I grew up wherever I was with no permanent home. I appreciate now the places I worked then - places like Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Russia and Bulgaria.

By the time I was eight years old I was doing five acts. I worked on the trapeze, I did a free-standing ladder act with my sister, I did a rola bola act, an acrobatic act, I rode elephants and worked horses with the Bouglione Circus. But the two things I did most were acrobatics and juggling.

My dad made all the decisions. It was like, "OK, the flier's hurt, so get in there on the trapeze." Jogging's the only thing I do now that he didn't teach me!

JW: How did you decide on juggling?

NF: I picked up juggling at age four or five along with everything else. But when I decided I wanted to be a juggler it was forced on me. When I was 18 we took our acrobatic act to the 1956 World Exposition in Brussels and I juggled underwater! Jacques Cousteau had a big exposition with a team of divers and a very big water tank where they worked and everyone could watch. As a joke one of those divers asked me if I could juggle underwater. They gave me a suit, I got some heavy, steel petanque balls and I did it. They thought it was funny and talked to the manager about having me in the show. I was working with my family in the Palladium, then I'd go across to the exposition and do a routine in the water tank. I did rings, also, and they actually bought some clubs for me and filled them with lead so I could juggle those, too!

My dad got sick after the Exposition. My sister went to Italy to double for Gina Lollabrigida in a movie and I was pretty much on my own. I began to realize that juggling was the only thing I could do by myself, and that it was going to be my bread and butter.

The juggling started off as a handicap, though. The Frediani family was one of the top circus families in Europe, and is a very heavy name to carry. I felt obligated to do a great job with the juggling to uphold the family name. But the Fredianis were always known as great acrobats and horses riders. When I started juggling I felt like people expected me to be a star like my father and my uncles, but juggling is very competitive.

JW: Looking back, you were obviously capable of carrying the load on your own.

NF: Once the family act broke up I went to nightclubs when I was 18 or 19. I wanted to develop a fast act that would go well in small places with low ceilings.

Then I did variety in England and toured with people like Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Matt Monroe and Sammy Davis Jr. After that it was a mixture of high-class night clubs and variety theatres. I toured 5-1/2 years with the Black & White Minstrel Show, a very popular show in England. I did two Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium, a lot of TV shows, and worked in some East bloc countries like Hungary and Romania. I worked in China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Thailand and New Zealand. I entertained the American forces in Saigon in 1967 with Bob Hope, Trini Lopez and Brenda Lee, then did 11 months in Australia. I was in Tel Aviv during the Six Day War that same year. I was in my room one night when it got shot up and I got covered by plaster. We stopped working for four days.

JW: You're just 5'4" and about 130 pounds. Is your small body an asset or a problem for your juggling?

NF: It's an asset for what I'm doing now, because it's so built for speed. I always thought strength hurt juggling because of the bulk of the muscle, but I did six years of amateur boxing and it developed my reflexes and built my body. Now I do pushups and pullups regularly.

JW: How much do you practice?

NF: If I practice every day regularly at the same time it begins to feel right. I discovered that lately, actually. I practice with the same props I perform with. I don't practice much during the day, but before I actually go on stage I do the act three times, from the beginning to the end, and then from the end to the beginning so I'm ready to go out there and start. My act is 5-1/2 minutes of juggling in 14 minutes on stage. The rest is the audience participation, so I can do a good warmup in 20-25 minutes.

JW: What are the most impressive tricks you've seen other performers do?

NF: I like very much a routine with six big balls I saw Ignatov do in Paris. I was very impressed with the height he used, and he did them with perfection. And I've seen Sforza in Italy do 11 rings on a unicycle. That was really something! He did about 20 minutes, running around the ring with five and six small batons, four soccer balls with one bouncing on his head. He's a fanatic, he practices all day. But when you do all that stuff in an act you do drop a lot. He juggles for himself and doesn't care much about the audience.

JW: Are there tricks you would still like to learn?

NF: I'd love to learn a trick I saw Rastelli do in a movie. He did a routine with five billiard canes, single, then double. He stops four and throws the fifth one very high to catch in a balance on his foot. To finish that he throws it up and catches it in a balance on the tip of his nose. That man practically invented juggling! He made jugglers what we are today. I'd like to do that for myself. I don't think the audience would appreciate it, but it's very difficult.

I also do little things for myself, like throwing a cigarette and catching it in my mouth and juggling three long wooden matches when they're lit.

JW: Where do you figure your career is headed from here?

NF: I think I can do this for another 10 years because physically I feel very strong. But eventually I'll have to do more gags. Soon I want to start some kind of charity work. I want to get together with some other entertainers and form a kind of association to raise money for charity.

I've traveled all my life by myself, and to tell you the truth, you get very lonely. I had to do three months in Turkey once and I'd quit show biz if I had to do that again! Eventually I'd like to do an act with a friend, someone like my son or Pepito Alvarez, who I grew up juggling with.

JW: You have a son who juggles?

NF: Yes, Romano juggles, but he's 16 and wants to be a graphic designer. He's got personality to sell because he grew up around show business. He goes on and gets a standing ovation every time he works. He did a few shows here in Las Vegas. He's got so much personality! Now he's working the boxes like Kris Kremo. He looks straight at the people and says "Come on!" He's really got it! I could offer him a lot, too, because I know a lot of people in the business.

JW: What is your formal education?

NF: Traveling. That's been my education. I never went to school except for six weeks in school once when the police came after my father. But my mom and dad taught me to read and write. I speak 6 languages and mess around with Japanese. I read and write Italian, French, Spanish and English. My father never went to school and my grandfather never went to school. But we learned to speak different languages, traveled the world and never needed much of anything.

JW: Do you have any other career skills?

NF: Boxing. I was young, 19 or 20. I did this on my own for macho side of myself. I just came out of the circus and was full of energy. You have to do something with your time. I did 19 fights. I also played soccer a lot, and had two operations on my knee because of it! I played with professional people for a long time. I like swimming and I like jogging. I took part in some races in London and Paris.

JW: Is it true you have some sort of eye trouble?

NF: In fact I have a dystrophy of the optic nerve which doesn't allow me to drive or play golf. It's from birth - the nerve that connects from the eye to the brain never developed. I'm very shortsighted and only see peripherally. It probably pushed me toward juggling because you have your hands and props close to you. Soccer's never been a problem either because the ball is big.

JW: Do you have any great juggling stories you like to tell on yourself?

NF: In London with the Black and White Review I used to do summer concerts. One morning we came back so late I left my two bags on the porch after a night concert. The next morning the trash people came and threw my two bags in the truck!

I got up early in the afternoon and got ready for the night show and was looking everywhere for my props. I finally came to the conclusion that I left them outside, and checked with the trash people. I eventually got in touch with the workers, who told me they thought the bags were trash. But all my musical arrangement, costume and props were in there - my whole show was in there! So I called my boss and he said there was no way he could replace me within two hours. I ended up using three toilet plungers taped with gold paper, three lacrosse balls and five oranges. For balls I picked up two soccer balls and a plastic ball I found in my back yard. And the rings were old rings three different sizes! I bought myself a pair of jogging shoes and worked as an athlete. That's how I worked for a week until I got some props sent in from Paris. I was concentrating so hard that I dropped less than with my own props! That was some experience!

Nino Frediani / Index, Vol. 42, No. 1 / jis@juggling.org
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