According to legend, when granted permission to organise the 1986 European jugglers festival in Castellar de la Frontera, Spain, Fritz Brehm exclaimed, “So, another soap bubble is launched!!!” The location, inside a hilltop Roman castle overlooking the straights of Gibralter, was as bizarre and eccentric as Fritz and his comedic lines. When this fragile dream became a brief reality, Fritz and his zany friends created a new thread of myth in the huge tapestry of the castle’s 2,000 year history.
It was late September and the air was hot and sticky sweet when Butterfly Man and I arrived after our long drive from Amsterdam and I set up my tent. What a party it was! Along with the regular all night juggling sessions, meeting old and new friends, hilarious renegade shows, and crazy antics, we were blessed with flamenco dancers, great guitarists, and mind-altering substances. Although there were foreign residents living in the village, and both goat-herders and intellectuals amongst the Spanish people in the bar, this was clearly an eclectic community and far from any typical Spanish tourist resort. This was a jugglers heaven on earth!
When asked how he was able to convince the residents of the castle to allow hundreds of crazy jugglers to take over for a week Fritz said, “No problem, it was an inside job, my friend Hermann Klink lived there and told other residents some hippies will come and juggle, and won’t bother us.” But when they saw the first buses, campers and cars arrive “ almost everywhere, you could see little cafés and bars pop up, in front of the houses, in private living rooms or just in the street, serving food all day and night thanks to the Spanish and their talent for improvisation.” And, while the residents made a killing with cake, coffee, sangria and hashish sales, Castellar still holds a festival record for the most people just coming and staying without paying. “Nobody cared” Fritz told me, “that´s the way to run a festival…… once!” A popular myth lives on that jugglers are still very welcome in Castellar village today. We apparently left our legacy!
Fritz and fellow director Toby Philpott were renegades arranging the festival in such a radical location. This was not the typical indoor, air-conditioned, controlled environment for juggling. It was the real world, medieval street-juggling territory, with few flat and level places – just cobbled alleys and plazas. The local wildlife was occasionally annoying. Feral pigs regularly ransacked rubbish bags, and mischievous mules were always on the lookout for a camping bus with an open door or a camping stove that had something good cooking on it. Castellar offered many rewarding compensations – the ever-changing light, mountains vanishing in the haze, the wide sky, millions of stars and moonlight you could juggle by.
Some people stayed in the cheap Spanish “pensiones” in nearby villages, some stayed with people in the village itself, while others parked their vans and buses on the uneven spaces by the road to the castle and the rest slept in tents pitched on the dusty, rocky ground. There were a few practical problems like getting fresh water from a spring down the hill and questionable rudimentary toilets but jugglers are adept at improvisation. The castle became the place for many unexpected sights and happy reunions, with a surprise around every corner!
The highlight event was a show presented in the Algeciras prison. We went through seriously slow drug searches on the way in. The guards carefully examined every mysterious show prop – fearing we would bring in something illicit to help lift the spirits of our captive audience. They needn’t have worried, our audience absolutely loved our performance, clapping and cheering heartedly through it all. The Butterfly Man “boffed” a prison guard, Michael French pulled coins from the ears and pockets of the prison governor, and a human pyramid of acrobats showed inmates a novel way to scale the 20′ high stone walls.
We discovered how much they had appreciated our visit when we emerged from the heavy steel gates and climbed aboard our bus. Cotton McAloon giggled gleefully saying “Who’s got the rolling papers?” He then produced a chunk of hash the size of a tennis ball that one of the inmates had given us as a reward for the show. That night, there were lots of very mellow, happy jugglers playing high in the castle. Those were some very good days…
Castellar was the best festival l ever attended outside of Hawaii. It was a great location with great food and beverages, great hash, and a great opportunity to network with a selection of international jugglers and castle invaders. The party continued on the beaches of southern Spain where a bunch of us camped out and juggled…naked!
The next year, Fritz visited me in Hawaii and we became lifelong friends. He loved our festivals and our renegade lifestyle and later joined us as a member at Bellyacres. As a post-war child, he had played in the bombed out ruins of Frankfurt. His parents owned a pub and he loved swimming and water polo. After graduating school, Fritz was conscripted in the army for two years, then worked in advertising before qualifying as a teacher – one of 60,000 teachers unemployed in Germany! He drove taxis until juggling changed his life.
At the ripe age of 35, sitting on the dock of a bay in Crete, Fritz started his performing career with three stones. Two weeks later, he still couldn’t juggle, so he switched to spoon hanging and nowadays can hang 21 spoons on his face but claims he only juggles six balls???!
Fritz met Ray Reyes Jr., an acrobat from a Filipino circus family, and joined Las Piranhas, a trio, sometimes a quartet, and in 1990 they became a mighty comedy juggling duo. Fritz performed in Canada, Japan, the UK Glastonbury Festival, the QE2 cruise ship, the Casino in Monte Carlo, the major variety theatres in Germany, plus a zillion minor clubs and bars.
In his classic comedy club passing routine, he removed his raincoat while his trousers slid down to his ankles and, while a volunteer helped get the trousers back up, they added a cigar, a shoe, and two hats to the exchange. Fritz claims his grandest shows, on the QE2, were really hot – primarily because the temperature was in the high 90’s!
At Bellyacres, Fritz bought the house that Benji built and made the long journey from Frankfurt to Hawaii at least 45 times, including three trips in one year. On one visit, we celebrated his birthday in true vaudevillian fashion at the Bellyacres potluck party.
Building lava trails became Fritz’s obsession, along with eating chocolate cake. His sweet tooth earned him the nickname of “Desert Man,” but he loved the lava. A flow from the 1955 eruption came close to our property and, from the barren black rock, there was a spectacular uninterrupted 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. We built a couple of remote rustic platforms, for sitting and sleeping, but the access across 600 metres of razor sharp a’a chunks involved risking serious bodily injury, until Fritz took up the challenge and saved us. It was tough work and required a lot of energy.
After the sledgehammer team, led by Waldo, had created a rough, circuitous route from our land to the platforms, Fritz purchased the first of several large truck loads of red cinders. For more than a decade, every time he revisited Bellyacres, Fritz laboriously carried buckets back and forth along the winding ankle-snagging obstacle course slowly extending the walkable trail. He regularly updated members on the number of bucketloads and trips still needed to complete the task. Did I mention that Fritz, being a Maths teacher, also had an obsession with numbers…as well as sweet deserts?
Fritz’s hard work paid off one day when he enticed the beautiful Hilary to join him on a romantic walk to the tiny, flimsy platform on the lava trail. It was there that a group of friends balanced precariously on the overburdened deck while the Reverend performed a rapid marriage ceremony. Rushing such a sanctimonious event apparently jinxed the connection established because their matrimonial bliss was sadly short-lived, although their friendship has endured the decades and distant separation.
Fritz is one of the most renegade jugglers I ever met. He was excellent with conventional ball and club skills, but preferred to perform his flagship three umbrella routine or his unique spoon-on-the-face balancing act. His dry, poignant, germanic humour is legendary.
On many of his trips to Bellyacres, Fritz shared his juggling expertise with HICCUP Circus students and entertained at many of our shows with his umbrella and spoon face antics. He was always a very popular fellow with our kids and all our community members and he even taught my 85-year-old mum to juggle rings…well almost!
In 2010, I was struggling with local government officials who wanted to shut down our sustainable Bellyacres community experiment and was desperately seeking solutions. Because Fritz’s house had been built right on our property line, he magnanimously agreed to let me tear it down in an effort to appease the authorities. With help from our interns, I dismantled his precious home in paradise. It was all very sad, but Fritz handled it like a hero. It was a huge challenge for both of us to suppress our renegade spirits and undertake this demolition: the officials never understood the sacrifice that Fritz made and today, I wish that I’d remained a true renegade and refused their request.
As Fritz and I aged gracefully together, we established our own achievements as geriatric jugglers during his last visits to Hawaii before my eventual exile to the U.K. We haven’t yet made it into the Guinness Book of World Records…but we haven’t given up yet. Here’s our Juggling For Seniors video made in 2010. I bet we could do even better today at a combined age of 143!
Now that Fritz and I live closer, we’ve met in Denmark where we celebrated visiting Henrik and his mum, Inge, as well as playing a bit of pickleball.
Fritz now lives with Bahman in Frankfurt taking long walks along the river, meeting friends for “kaffee und kuchen,” and writing short, hilarious editorial letters to local newspapers in his own unique renegade style. His legacy of lava trails remains intact on Hawaii Island.
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