Juggler's World: Vol. 43, No. 2

A Goofy Guy's Long Road To Comedy Juggling Fame

Daniel Rosen Fancies Himself Gomer Pyle With Props

by Dave Jones

The name Daniel Rosen is one that undoubtedly sounds familiar to a large number of the jugglers in the United States. He has juggled on numerous television programs, including the Tonight Show, Comic Strip Live, Evening at the Improv, and the Tracey Ullman Show. And he has also done his fair share of acting in television. He was a co-host for a while on The Late Show. He had a recurring role in "Head of the Class" for several seasons, playing "Scab" a remedial student with blue hair and a pierced nose. Appearances on the Golden Girls and other shows have also come his way.

But, apart from the people who have caught his act at a comedy club, Las Vegas club or other live performance, most jugglers have probably seen nothing more than a few brief minutes of Daniel in action. He competed at the 1981 IJA convention in Cleveland, winning the five club contest and finishing well down the line in the U.S. Nationals. But he has been out of touch with the IJA juggling scene for a number of years, which is unfortunate not so much for him but for the jugglers who have missed out on his entertaining routines and unique personality. Those who have seen him live have no doubt been greatly entertained by his comedic as well as juggling skills, not to mention his guitar songs, harmonica playing and first-rate banjo picking.

A typical Daniel Rosen show, if there is such a thing, includes comedy with three balls, three, four, and five clubs, knives, six-foot unicycle, guitar, banjo, and an interesting device known as the "Swiss Army Cat," which defies description beyond what the name obviously implies.

This summer his appearances include dates at the Comic Strip in El Paso (Aug. 13-17) and the It's Comedy club in Cleveland (Sept. 12-15). After a recent show, Juggler's World had a chance to talk with Daniel about his career, both where it has been and where it is going.

When did you learn to juggle?

I learned when I was ten. Actually I had already tried to teach myself. When I was eight I started doing magic shows at kids' birthday parties for five dollars and a piece of cake. And when I was ten I went to the renaissance faire in Southern California and there was a juggling school booth, where they would teach you for a dollar. And I spent the whole day there, I didn't even go to the rest of the faire, and they still couldn't teach me. So I went home and made beanbags and kept practicing and finally got it. Then I ran into the guy later, and by the way it was Martin Gray, who was president of the IJA in 1975-76, when the convention was in L.A. . . . He remembered me because I was the only guy who couldn't learn. And I showed him how much I had learned, and he gave me a job teaching for him the next year. He street performed and stuff, and he became sort of my mentor. I followed him around, and I started street performing. By the time I was 13 I was making a pretty good amount of money on the streets. When I was 15 I left home, and I was supporting myself completely.

What did your family think of this?

They've been pretty supportive. They've never pushed me to do anything other than what I wanted to do. And especially once they saw I could earn a living, even at 16, then they were real supportive.

When did you decide that you wanted to perform for a living?

I always liked performing, it was just that everything took me twice as long to learn as anybody else I knew. When I was 13 I met Edward (Jackman), and I met Peter Davison right around then, and we would all practice together. And I guess it was then, when I was 13, that I decided that was what I wanted to do full time. It was between that and marine biology, because I was into SCUBA diving. But it seemed like juggling would be more fun. And I always wanted attention, I was always kind of the geeky one in school, and I don't know what I thought, because it only kind of separated me even more. Also, I went to kind of a free-form school, where I got physical education credit for juggling, so actually I never learned sports or anything like that. I used to just juggle for hours a day. I also used to ditch school and I'd meet Edward at the UCLA gym, and we'd practice there all day long. I'd get to school and then I'd just leave.

Did you get in trouble for skipping school?

Well, I don't even remember. I didn't really care at that point because I knew what I wanted and it seemed like school was just holding me back. So, I honestly don't remember. But I was never there, even before that I was always ditching school and hitchhiking. A screenplay that I just finished not too long ago is called "The Sewer Club." I used to get in so much trouble hitchhiking with these two friends of mine when I was supposed to be in school that I started figuring out how we could get around the city through the sewers, without being spotted by the police. I was a pretty wild kid. Who knows what I'd be doing if I didn't learn how to juggle.

Where all did you perform in those early years?

I started performing really anywhere I could. I did all sorts of mall openings and working on the streets everywhere and anywhere. Some of the first shows I did were at a Jewish summer camp. I was in the same cabin as Robert Lind, who was one of the Fly By Night Jugglers, and who now works with Sean Haines. He had just learned to juggle at the time, and the two of us made rings and all sorts of stuff in the workshop at the camp and we put on a show for everybody. I met Edward at the L.A. County Art Museum when I was 13 and he was 17, and we started working together there, and we worked on and off until I was about 16. Together we went to New York and did "Kids Are People Too," after we sort of got discovered on the streets in Westwood. We also worked separately. We would fight a lot, so we broke up a lot. It was like a marriage, like an ugly marriage.

What kind of stuff did you guys do in your shows?

All the stuff that all the teams are doing now, only we did it first. No, we did a lot of stuff with takeaways, and we would start with three clubs and work up to eight. At that time we were really starting to get more into comedy. I remember we didn't do a lot with fire, because Edward didn't like getting dirty. I would do the fire, I didn't mind it. I always had charcoal all over me, and my props were all crappy looking anyway. But his were always nice and clean... He would juggle three balls while I played the banjo. And a lot of passing stuff.

Were there many other jugglers around you then?

There was kind of a core of us in California. There was Peter Davison, Edward, me, Kit Summers, Jon Held, Jon Luker. There were five of us, actually, who were the L.A. Juggling Company for a while, we would do a lot of neat five-person stuff, but there's no money in that. It was me, Jon Luker, Edward, Peter, and Jim Richland. Out of all of us who would get together, Kit was the first one who really made it, like made it off the streets and was doing good stuff, like when he got into Atlantic City... We would get together and watch films of Ignatov and anything we got our hands on. Kit always had great films, and we'd slow down the motion. I remember we were all working on backcrosses with five clubs, and we would slow the film down frame by frame to see where Ignatov's hands were. And we would just practice with one club, Peter was the first one to start doing that stuff, just practice with one club for hours. Looking back, it was just so horrible. It was a full-time job, the practicing.

You mentioned Ignatov. What other jugglers did you look up to?

Albert Lucas, Dick Franco. Also, right around that time I had met Barrett Felker at the L.A. convention in 1976, and he was deciding whether he wanted to juggle full time. Also, Steve Mills was around, and he had done the Globetrotters tour, and Barrett did it after Steve. I remember really looking up to Barrett. And I used to go up to San Francisco and watch Michael Davis on the streets. I would watch pretty much everybody, go to every circus.

Why did you and Edward stop working together?

It happened in New York. I remember we were doing a show, and I think I walked away in the middle of the show, I was so mad, I just disappeared, and I didn't see him again for three or four months... I remember it had something to do with my wanting to do laundry, or something stupid like that. We were always fighting about little stuff. We used to get into fist-fights over who got to do the laughs and punch lines. We're friends now, but for a long time we didn't get along too well, mostly while we were working together.

What were some of the early highlights of your career?

The first major thing I did was the Ice Capades. We played sports arenas all over the country. I think I was 18 or 19 then. That was my first time to be on the road full time. Then I did Sugar Babies for a few years, after Michael Davis left. That was really great because we played all these real nice vaudeville houses all over the country.

What did you do for your part in Sugar Babies?

I did my act, and Mickey Rooney would stand in the wings and scream at me and tap his watch, like I was going way over time. He was very supportive. He couldn't stand to hear anybody else on stage doing well. There was another specialty act spot, which was generally a ventriloquist. Ronn Lucas had done it, then when I did it it was Jeff Dunham. But periodically I would do both spots, which would make Mickey Rooney even crazier. It was a great spot. It was the only contemporary thing in the whole show. It was just ideal. It was a real fun show.

How long did you do the Ice Capades?

One very long 10-month season. It was horrible. It was really good experience, performing in those big places, and I really learned how to project. That's what makes you be really good is having to perform under horrible circumstances, whether you're sick or tired or sore, or angry. But, it was freezing all the time. We went up into Canada during mid-winter, Nova Scotia in January. It was just brutal. And all the skaters were alcoholics. And they paid us lousy, and most of the skaters made such bad money that they had to sleep four or five to a room. I would keep my food in a wastebasket with layers of ice and towels, and pour the water out every few hours, like Albert Lucas' father Al Moreira taught me. It was really a pathetic life. All the skaters had such bad morale because of the way they were treated that they would trip each other during production numbers. It was very odd. Also, there were four of us who were not gay. Like I say in my act, I left the Ice Capades because Poppa Smurf wanted me to be his girlfriend. And he was big and blue and wouldn't take no for an answer. It was a really good experience though. I used to fall a lot too. I rode a unicycle with spikes in the tire, and I fell off it all the time. And anytime I'd drop something on ice, the clubs or whatever would slide all the way to the far ends of the rink, and I'd spend most of the time skating around trying to pick them up.

What did you do in your Ice Capades act?

They would announce this juggler, and there was a lovely assistant standing there, and the music and lights would come up, but there was no juggler, and the assistant would stand there looking confused, then make a motion to cut the lights and music. Then you'd hear the music rewind, and the announcement would go again, and still no juggler. Then I would come out of the audience, I was a popcorn vendor. And I would save the show, because I just happened to be wearing a microphone and skates. I'd say 'Hey, I can juggle' and I'd start juggling Cokes. Then I'd get down on the ice and I'd do popcorn boxes like cigar boxes. The reason I put those at the beginning of my act was not because I was great at them, or that I thought they were that entertaining, but it was so freezing that moving around that much would get my hands warm. Then I would ride the unicycle with the spikes in the tire, and be all out of control grabbing the curtain and the assistant. Then she'd say, 'Wait, I know you, I've seen you backstage,' and she'd pull my coveralls off, and I had on the flashy, rhinestone, spandex, see-everything suit. It was so tight it looked like I was trying to smuggle grapes into the country. It was pretty hideous. Then I would juggle three, four, and five clubs, then, I think six rings, then three and five torches. With the five torches, I had the double wicks and they put out such a huge flame that I had to keep skating backwards so I wouldn't get all burnt. And I still would never have any hair on my hands or my arms. Once my suit caught on fire, which was actually kind of neat. The spandex burns a funny color, it was like blueish-green. I let it burn for a minute because I was so bored.

How did you get the job with the Ice Capades, and why did you want it?

Bobby May really inspired me, because he had done skating shows, and I really wanted to do it. I started taking ice skating lessons, because I had a feeling that Albert Lucas was going to leave the show, since he'd been with them for so many years. And I learned how to skate from Donna Atwood, who had been in the Olympics and had also worked with Trixie Larue. So she helped me put together my act. But the rink wouldn't let me do my act when other people were skating, because of insurance, and I couldn't afford to rent the rink. So I made friends with the night manager, and I would come in at like two in the morning and get him real drunk and he'd pass out. Then I'd do all of his night work, like zamboni the ice, put all the hockey equipment away and sweep up. Then I'd get to practice from about 2:30 to 4 or 5 a.m. every night. That was when I really put together my act. At first I put together a real serious act, that had no comedy at all, it was all to music. I had torch swinging, and a lot of other really technical stuff. I'm glad I didn't end up doing it, because I couldn't have been consistent on the road with it. But, they had an audition for me, I don't know why, at 8 a.m. one day, and I had been up until 4 a.m. that morning practicing. And they hired someone to write different music for me, so I didn't know the music, and I ended up dropping everything and falling. I thought I had lost the job. I had also lied to them, by saying I was working all over the place, when really I was just street performing. And that weekend I was in Venice, and I was setting up to do a show and I saw the producer from the Ice Capades walking by. So I hid behind a tree. After about a half and hour I figured he was gone, so I set up and did my show. And when I got on my unicycle at the end, I looked out and there he was. So I thought I'd definitely lost my chance then. But he really liked the comedy I was doing. So he had me come into the Ice Capades offices and do my show, and they liked it and decided to do something really experimental and give me a microphone and have me do comedy in the show. They had never had anything like that, so it was pretty neat to do something really different. Originally, they wanted to give me Albert Lucas' music, his old costume, I mean it was really creepy. I didn't want to be Albert Lucas. One Albert Lucas is enough.

What is your favorite place where you've performed?

The Tonight Show. That was the best audience ever. But, this year I've hit a lot of goals for myself. I'd always wanted to be at Radio City Music Hall, and I got to be there. I wanted to be at Caesar's Palace, and I worked there with Julio Iglesias. Sugar Babies, though, every night was incredible. Every night it was like a standing ovation.

How did you come up with the Swiss Army Cat?

I was really really mad because James Marcel had been on That's Incredible, I think, and did chainsaws. And for a while, everywhere I worked, I'd be doing five clubs, and other hard stuff, and people would say 'Do chainsaws.' I kept getting so angry, because I didn't see what the big deal was. It didn't seem that difficult. The difficult part is owning chainsaws. So I wanted to do something to kind of make fun of guys doing dangerous things.

Like a lot of other jugglers who hit it big, you are starting to get away from juggling and more into strictly comedy and acting. Why are you going this direction?

Because I don't know where else I can go with juggling. I've achieved all the goals I had, and I want to keep moving forward. I mean, I don't want to keep doing the same thing, I want to keep growing. I really enjoy my act, but you get burnt out after a while, and you want to do different things. I don't think I'll ever totally stop doing the juggling, but I want to grow. I've done a lot of television stuff, I've had that recurring role on Head of the Class, and other stuff, and I hope someday to have my own series. And a major reason I have that as a goal is that then I can have a big show that I can do live, and I can headline places like Caesar's Palace instead of opening for people there. I could have Julio Iglesias opening for me! I'd be able to sell tickets based on name recognition, which I would never be able to do from just juggling. Plus, it's fun doing comedy and doing other sorts of things. I really admire people who do amazing juggling stuff, but I think if it's just juggling, people don't know that doing 11 rings is any harder than doing three chainsaws, or doing one chainsaw and two guavas.

How did you develop the goofy character you used to use, and why are you not using it anymore?

It was kind of a caricature of me, because I was working all these big places and I had to do myself a lot bigger. It ended up being kind of a cartoon thing. Then, after I'd been working on it quite a while, Pee Wee Herman hit and I started getting compared to him a lot, and that bothered me, because I don't want to be compared to anyone. Then, when I was doing the Late Show it didn't really work for other people to interact with me, because I was not like a regular person that you could communicate with. So I've slowly gone back to being more just myself on stage. But I'm still kind of like that, because it was all based on my real personality. One of my idols has always been Gomer Pyle, and I'm just that kind of personality, I guess. And I think the audience wants to get an idea of who the performer is, which, by the way, is something you don't get at all with somebody who's just juggling. They're just doing tricks.

What do you do when you are not performing?

I do a lot of writing. And I take acting classes. And I collect lunch boxes. If anyone knows where to get any old metal or vinyl lunch boxes, I'll buy them, especially a Beatles Yellow Submarine or a Soupy Sales. I build weird inventions, and I mess around with my computer a lot also. I play the guitar, and the banjo. Anything but practice juggling.

What advice do you have for people interested in performing?

I would say work anywhere you can, anytime you can. I worked in so many lousy places. I did shows in a hardware store once during a big sale. They had me do my act in the aisles, but I had to keep stopping my act because the sale was so good that people wanted to get through. I did shows dressed as a giant beer can another time. Work anywhere you can, and try to keep everything original. And try to get as much of yourself into the act as you can. I think that's the most important thing. And remember that what you want to do more than anything else is be entertaining.

A Goofy Guy's Long Road To Comedy Juggling Fame / Index, Vol. 43, No. 2 / jis@juggling.org
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