Subsistence juggling

These bosses with the hot tosses are full-time all-balls-in-the-air professional entertainers. Four of these rare lucky ducks live in Germantown.


Originally published on Wed, Apr. 18, 2007 by The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Karen Heller, Inquirer Staff Writer
Photo Credits: MICHAEL BRYANT / Inquirer Staff Photographer
comedy juggling in philadelphia

Perhaps as a young child, say of 7 or 8, you saw your life laid out before you, a magical existence filled with bowling pins and unicycles, funny hats and enchanted crowds.

"When I grow up," you might have declared to your parents, "I'm going to be a juggler."

Well, as absurd as this sounds, some children grow up to do precisely that.

Not occasional jugglers throwing rings on a spare Sunday, but full-time practitioners with Web sites. Men who write "juggler" as their occupation on tax returns.

There are enough dedicated jugglers, professional and amateur, to form the Philadelphia Jugglers Club, which meets Monday nights at Boathouse Row's Lloyd Hall to toss a few.

Germantown Jugglers

In a pocket of Germantown, "the heart of the Philadelphia juggling community," as one entertainer puts it, live four professional jugglers: Dave Gillies, Nick Gregory, David Smith and Greg Kennedy. They're so successful, they have set up a studio on Greene Street. They're jugglers with an office, business cards, and a couple of shingles hung out.

"There are probably only 10 or 20 guys who do this full time professionally on the East Coast," Kennedy says. "Four of us happen to be in Germantown."

Gillies, the undisputed dean, says "there are as many professional jugglers as there are professional poets."

He took up juggling as a way of motivating his students in the Upper Merion School District. It's hard to be mad at someone flinging clubs into the air. He began as a street juggler, working at Second and Pine, a location long occupied by Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller.

Gillies and Gregory form the Give & Take Jugglers, together for 30 years. They've been doing this so long that their Web address is simply jugglers.com.

The Give & Take Shingle

The team performs 200 events a year. "We're trying to work less." adds Gregory. (He's the tall one - 6-foot-5 - making Gillies look like an imp at 5-foot-10.)

Give & Take's trademark is juggling a bowling ball and an egg, finishing with the egg getting scrambled.

Juggling can get you on television, as it did Smith, a semifinalist on America's Got Talent last year - but it won't make you rich.

"There's no David Copperfield of juggling," says Smith, who is 6-foot-6. However, there are acknowledged masters: Thomas Dietz of Germany, the reigning World Juggling Federation champion; Michael Moschen, winner of a 1990 "genius" MacArthur Fellowship; Russian siblings Vova and Olga Galchenko, who can pass a record 12 clubs between them, Vova currently ranked second by the WJF; and Jason Garfield, the self-professed "bad boy of juggling" and the Galchenkos' coach.

Smith, with a waterfall of black hair, bills himself as the "One Man Sideshow," prone to eating fire, bending himself into a pretzel, and resting on a bed of nails. He learned to master the last trick in a matter of minutes.

David Smith balancing a ball

"The truth is anyone can do it," he says in a moment of historic understatement, "it's just not that many people do."

Smith rents an apartment in Gillies' home, sometimes fills in as a Give & Take "associate," and borrows their studio for practice, as does Kennedy.

Kennedy, "the innovative juggler," has twice won the International Jugglers Association Championship gold medal. Each friend has his strengths. Gillies is an old-fashioned strolling juggler. Gregory, an athlete, is an excellent tennis player. Smith offers the sideshow element, the only fire-eater in the bunch. Kennedy uses his engineering background to produce a kinetic show with balls bouncing inside a cone or a skateboard-like ramp.

Kennedy prefers not to talk during his show, while Smith is prone to chatter. The Give & Take Jugglers come from a venerable clown tradition. Funny hats are a given.

Smith and Kennedy are not about hats. Then again, they have excellent hair.

The hardest part about being a juggler is not the juggling. For Gregory, it's hauling the equipment: "Basically, we get paid as movers. The show is thrown in free." To Smith, "it's being in the service industry. We work when other people don't - holidays, weekends, parties." Weekdays tend to be dead.

Nick Gregory balancing a club

Kennedy has more juggling in his personal life. He's the only Germantown juggler with children, three under age 5. His wife, Shana, is an aerialist, who sometimes works with him.

The Kennedy kids are going to kill at future parent career days.

The innovative juggler has toured 40 countries, though there's less international travel now with the family. He averages 10 appearances a month.

The jugglers admit that juggling itself isn't hard. After all, a child can do it.

The trick is to turn juggling into a viable 45-minute piece of entertainment.

"No one gets paid to juggle," Smith says. "You have to be an entertainer. Without a show, it's boring to watch someone juggle."

Back to our Main Page
Copyright © The Give & Take Jugglers 1998-2009