By: Rex Boyd
I learned to juggle sometime in autumn 1982 I think. My friend John Lehr used to work in a restaurant and would juggle lemons when there was not much to do. John soon taught me and only about 2 or 3 days later we were off to the open mic night at a comedy club in Kansas City, both of us being die-hard show offs and very confident on stage from our Speech and Drama training at high school.
(Photo from Spring or Summer of 1986 when I was a student at the University of Kansas.)
I used to spend all my spare time at university practicing juggling. There was an excellent juggler named Greg Myer who was also a student and also worked at the Kansas City Renaissance festival where John Lehr and I had met many other excellent juggling acts to inspire us. Occasionally while practicing with Greg at KU, he and I would also see Stevie Getz, a street performer from Lawrence, Kansas who came home to visit his family but who had also already been off travelling in Europe as a busker. I can remember Stevie saying to me once at the Renaissance Festival when he was also working there “Rex, you gotta get out of Kansas”. In reality, Kansas wasn’t so bad. In fact, it’s a pretty good place but the exotic allure of far away Europe and being around a regular street performing scene was an idea that got planted in my head.
The Kansas City Renaissance Festival
I first went to the Kansas City Renaissance festival with my mom and sister in about 1979 or maybe 1980 I’d guess. In the autumn of 1983 I ended up working there as a roving character with my friend John Lehr. We spent all of our time watching the big stage shows from people like Brian Wendling, Danny Lord, Puke and Snot, SAK theatre and many others. In between their stage shows we would practice juggling with those guys and really loved being there soaking up the bohemian atmosphere.
(This photo is from probably autumn 1987 when I was back at the Renaissance festival and this time doing my own solo show on the big stages.)
Key West Buskers Festival
In 1986 we didn’t have the internet but I did have a subscription to Juggler’s World magazine. I saw a notice in the magazine about the first ever Buskers Festival in Key West being organised by Will Soto. I contacted Will and ended up being offered a place in the festival. There were no promo videos or the like in those days. I just managed to talk my way in somehow. I was 20 yrs old but had already had 3 or 4 years of experience performing in comedy clubs and at the Renaissance Festival in Kansas City. Being in Key West was a huge influence on me wanting to carry on with being a performer and take it further. I met people like Gazzo, Joey Joey, Robert Nelson, Avner the Eccentric. Love 22, and many, many more. Other young bucks there like myself were Brian Hulse and Micky O’Connor. I remember very well being at a party one night and listening to Gazzo telling amazing stories about Covent Garden in London and legendary performers like Chris Lynam. I’m sure that is one of the big reasons that I later went on to live in London for a while.
In July 1988 I set off for a quick tour of Europe mostly sightseeing but also doing a bit of busking here and there. I meandered about to wherever on my travels but all along knowing that I was going to end up in two specific places, Covent Garden in London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Both of these places completely shaped the next few years of my life.
My friend Stevie Goetz from Lawrence, Kansas had suggested that I should visit Europe if I wanted to be a street performer. I knew a bit of French and a bit of Spanish but I also at that time had already been working in comedy clubs in the States and figured that London would probably also have some comedy clubs that I could work in, so I decided that I would end up in London. On my travels everyone who found out that I was a performer would tell me that Covent Garden was the place to go. It turns out that they were right. My high school performing buddy, John Lehr, had also told me that the Edinburgh Fringe was the place to go since he had been there previously with a student theatre production. It turns out that he was right as well. The people I met in both of those places ended up being my extended family over the next several years that I spent busking my way around the world. I could head half-way around the world to a country that I had never visited before and within hours I would meet up with friends of mine that I had met in either Covent Garden or Edinburgh.
(Performing with Haggis McCloud in Cangas, Spain)
A few weeks after meeting Haggis McCloud in Edinburgh he asked me if I could fill in for his normal juggling partner, Charlie Dancey on a gig they had in in tiny, remote town in North Eastern Spain called Cangas. For a mid-western Kansas boy on his first trip out of the States most places in Europe had seemed amazingly novel and exotic to me. This trip to Spain was even more so. I loved the time-travel feel of stepping into another world that seemed to be set somewhere in the past. On my way to the airport to meet Haggis I underestimated the amount of time that it would take to travel by underground train to the airport and we were minutes away from not being allowed to board the plane. Then while in Spain we couldn’t find appropriate fuel for our juggling torches and ended up having to use normal car petrol/gasoline. I can still remember the un-removeable smell of that petrol/ gasoline after it had leaked from it’s container into our prop bag. How we ever managed to be allowed back on the airplane to London I’lll never know.
Spring 1989 busking in Bath, England during the British Juggling Convention. I also performed in the public show at the convention. Here I am juggling a 16 pound bowling ball along with two white juggling balls. This was one of my signature routines from my comedy club background and was an unusual routine to see on the street – probably mostly because that thing was a real pain to carry around on public transport. It kept me fit though.
My friend Fergus Aitken, aka Mr. Fungus. This is a photo of the juggler’s parade through the beautiful city of Bath when hundreds of jugglers were in town for the British Juggler’s Convention in Spring 1989. Fergus is from New Zealand but lived in London the whole time I was living there. A while later it was a great pleasure to be able to visit him in his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand on two different trips that I made to that beautiful country.
The Edinburgh Fringe is the world’s largest theatre and arts festival. The whole city is taken over during the month of August with every conceivable type of show and performer and spectacle and party atmosphere imaginable and I absolutely love it.
This photo was taken on Fringe Sunday when the indoor shows all head to Hollyrood park just on the edge of the city to try to entice the public to come see their indoor productions. It’s also an amazing day for the street performers like myself to just get on with doing shows as opposed to trying to promote an indoor show with ticket sales. This was taken in 1989 I think, so my second year at the Fringe but it reminds me of the previous year when I was doing team shows with my new-found temporary partner Haggis McCloud. Haggis and his wife Arabella were in Edinburgh with their very young baby, Jessica. After passing our hats all day long doing probably four or five shows we had managed to collect quite a heavy load of coins. These coins were put into lower portion of Jessica’s baby pram and were so heavy that it broke the pram – a sure sign of a good reward for a hard day’s work.
This picture is from the Edinburgh Fringe in 1989 – back for my second year, much more confident. I was hanging out on the Mound doing shows all day, every day in the month of August with my street performing family and then having a really fun social life at night going to the Fringe Club or seeing indoor shows at the festival, staying out late partying and then up early to queue for more shows the next day.
I went to street perform at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992(maybe, can’t remember), 1994, then many year’s later had a farewell fling in 2009. In the first 2 or 3 years I became fairly well known for doing this climb the pillar stunt. The only the thing is that this stunt was really the routine of Scottish juggler Andy Beattie. Andy always used to just go to the fringe for the first week or two and make use of the architecture of the art galleries on the Mound for his finale.
When Andy had left the festival each year, the urge to do the same stunt was too much for me to resist. I never did the trick when Andy was in town and Andy never complained to me about carrying on the tradition. Doing this trick takes a couple of important requirements, firstly having legs the correct length and secondly having very good strength and balance. Andy and I were both the correct height. Andy had the strength and balance from climbing Scottish mountains. I had the strength and balance from taking ballet lessons at the University of Kansas.