The 1990 U.S. Nationals Championship will undoubtedly go down in the books as one of the best overall displays of juggling talent. Eight competitors each performed high-quality shows and entertained the audience with a wide range of props, styles and personalities. The champion, Mark Nizer, became king of the hill for 1990 by using the talent he has developed during the last 15 years and, more importantly, the experience of more than 10 years of performing.
"The real advantage I thought I had was that I am a professional and I perform every day," he said. "I do a lot of stage shows so I'm used to that environment and I immediately felt at home. But I think the points in performance were more important than anything else because, obviously, everyone was doing all this fantastic stuff."
Performing well in the competition and rising above the others was a difficult task for Nizer, one that was made even more taxing by the fact that he did not decide to compete until two days before the championship. Using only a few of his props and a borrowed Janet Jackson tape (a contrast to the classical music he normally uses) he was able to get through the preliminaries and into the show.
Nizer said he had little difficulty deciding what to use for his seven-minute competition routine. "You know what jugglers like. And I wanted to do a little talking because it makes me relaxed, and it takes the bite off the audience," he said. He opened with three balls, performing a smooth, jazz-inspired routine to classical music. Next came a headroll routine which began by throwing one of the three soft balls high into the air straight to a series of head bounces. Perhaps the most impressive trick of Nizer's show came next. He performed a backroll while spinning a ball on each of his index fingers and another on a mouthstick.
Nizer followed the backroll with a routine inspired by one of his juggling idols, Trixie Larue. He juggled four rings and a volleyball, performing a series of head bounces with the ball, and placing the rings around his neck.
Nizer wanted to perform the trick as something of a tribute to Trixie, but in hindsight, he admits that may have been a poor choice. "That was a bad move. I shouldn't have done it, because it's pretty new and I'm not really confident with it. But, I got lucky." He ended with three clubs, a decision which was inspired by the fact he'd been working on a cruise ship for six weeks, which had left his four-club routine and all of his high tricks quite rough. The one exception though was the backcross pirouette which he used as his final trick. "I hadn't done that in six weeks, but I had to do it because I gagged it in '84," he said.
The desire to win and avenge his loss in 1984 added a little pressure to the competition for Nizer. But what added even more was what losing might mean, given his status as a professional performer. "My ego was on the line. It's really scary, when you're doing this for a living, to put your reputation on the line and compete. That's why I think a lot of professionals don't enter, because there's a big risk if you don't win," he said.
But while the competition may have been somewhat stressful, Nizer's overall experience at the festival was anything but. Having been away from the scene for six years, he was pleased to renew and start friendships. He said, "A lot of these people I've known for 12 years. It's really strange to see them, and how we've all changed through the years, and how we haven't changed. It's like coming home to a big family."
He was immediately interested in getting caught up on the development of the organization, and is very interested in the discussion of changing the format of the championships. "The IJA was my whole reason for juggling when I was a kid," he said. "I juggled for the championships, so that I could do better and compete."
Since the competition fueled his desire to practice and improve, he naturally questions whether the proposed "showcases," which would not involve competition, would similarly inspire young jugglers of tomorrow. He commented, "I think that would be great if it would work, because I agree that it's hard to judge who's better than who, and what trick is better than what."
It is not at all uncommon to meet professional jugglers who are primarily concerned with their own careers, and who have little or no interest in discussing juggling as an art, let alone what is going on in the IJA. Mark Nizer is very much the opposite. He spends a great deal of time thinking and talking about juggling on a level beyond tricks and routines.
"I think the great jugglers all have something slightly wrong with them. It's an obsession to really want to be that good at something," he said. That statement describes well his own relationship with the art of juggling. When you see him perform, the talent that he displays provides ample evidence of his dedication. But when you meet him offstage, his love for juggling and many of its practitioners becomes more strikingly clear.
Nizer learned to juggle 15 years ago at the age of 13. His mother enrolled him, his sister and brother in an adult education juggling class to give them an outlet for their excess energy. While his siblings never got hooked on it, learning to juggle had a profound effect on Mark, one which he is not sure his mother has liked. "I think she regrets it, in a small way as she didn't realize what would happen when she did it. I was well on my way to being a generic all-American child," he said.
It is during this formative period of a juggler's life that Nizer thinks adversities can have a very inspirational effect on one's future. "In my case, the year I learned to juggle, my father died. And I kept asking myself 'did he really live for the moment?' He never did what he really wanted to do, because he was trying to switch jobs. So as a kid, I just said 'I'm going to do it, I'm going to live for the moment.'"
Since then, Nizer has definitely lived for the moment, with juggling as the key to the experience. He describes himself as a person who could be content staying in the same place, doing the same thing his whole life. "But, I can't do that, my job has forced me to be constantly changing," he said.
Nizer grew up in Massachusetts, and his first inspirations came from performers in that area. He would go to the MIT juggling club and watch various jugglers, including Dario Pittore, one of the first jugglers who inspired him. He also admired the Fantasy Jugglers and Slap Happy, who performed in Boston.
The real inspiration, however, came after he went to Boulder, Colorado, one summer to street perform with a partner, Alan Streeter. The time he spent in Boulder was invaluable and the people he met - including Airjazz - influenced him greatly. "It hit me at just the right time in my life. It brought the performing of the East Coast together with the technique of the West Coast," he said.
Perhaps Nizer's most important connection made that summer was meeting Barrett Felker. Working out and learning from Felker "opened a whole floodgate of potential." Nizer is quick to point out that jugglers need inspiration from other jugglers whose abilities are within the realm of possibility. He says that someone like Sergei Ignatov does not work as an inspiration for most jugglers because what he does is too far out of reach. But someone like Dick Franco, who was an inspiration to Barrett Felker, is within more people's reach. "Dick Franco inspired a lot of jugglers because he was the connection between Ignatov and three balls. He was the semi-reachable goal," Nizer said.
After that summer in Boulder, Nizer's next big step came when he transferred to San Diego State University and began street performing in Balboa Park. He worked the streets of San Diego for five years, a period during which he learned a lot about performing. When he started, he was "a scared little kid who just screamed every line." But he did improve. "You cannot beat that for training... It made me find my character, slow down, and start writing a lot of comedy."
He did not do it all on his own, and had help from seasoned street performers like Ben Decker. "Ben helped me learn to write. He took me to San Francisco, and showed me all the street performers... And he taught me to be original, which I think is the most important thing in any show."
Also during this time, Nizer learned a great deal from Edward Jackman, another juggler with whom he worked, performing together for two years in Balboa Park, as "Two Guys Who Juggle." They dressed in blue gas station attendants outfits, and frequently performed two new shows a day. "We would do one show, then decide it stunk and come up with a new one."
Since those days, Nizer's career has carried him to many different places. He has worked in Atlantic City, performed at Lincoln Center, opened for stars such as Ray Charles and Bob Hope, done comedy clubs and cruise ships, and many college shows. Recently, he has also begun to hit it big in the television market, an accomplishment which he feels is partly the result of getting a manager. "It really helps to have someone speak for you, whether you need it or not," he said. "The fact that someone else believes in you enough to speak for you, I think makes a big difference in television." Appearances on Arsenio Hall, Comic Strip Live, Good Morning America, and Everyday with Joan Lunden are some of his recent television gigs.
Even more enjoyable than the performing successes of the past few years has been the chance to meet some of his juggling idols, including Francis Brunn and Trixie Larue. He said, "Francis Brunn is the greatest juggler that has ever lived and ever will live, as far as I'm concerned. Even as he gets older, he still practices like a total maniac... What he loses in speed over time, he makes up for in style and control. He is so friendly and open... It's inspiring when you meet your idols and find they are just as great, if not greater than you hoped," said Nizer.
Despite the great history that juggling has, and the long line of talented performers like Trixie and Francis Brunn, Nizer is quick to remind us that outside of the juggling community the art is not so highly respected. "Juggling really does have a bad connotation to it in the entertainment world," he said. "A lot of people, as they grow as jugglers, get further and further away from calling themselves a juggler." He points to a comment made by Pat Sajak, on his since-cancelled show. Sajak said "If it weren't for mimes, jugglers would be the lowest form of entertainment."
"Whether we like it or not, that's what the public thinks," Nizer said.
Well, despite what the general public may think, we know that juggling is the greatest thing on the planet. And, with people like Mark Nizer performing and bringing the skills to the attention of the masses, there is still hope that someday everyone will come to the same realization.
Dave Jones is a Juggler's World staff writer who lives in Allentown, PA