King of buskers – Butterfly Man

How often do you ever get to see an armed security cop getting beaten with a styrofoam boffer by a baldheaded clown crowned by a butterfly tattoo? It was the Renegade Stage at the 1986 International Juggling Festival, in San Jose, California, and l watched in awe as the disbelieving audience became overwhelmed by tears of joy and raucous laughter. I got to hang out with some extremely hilarious people during my travels in the early 1980’s but none were as funny and unpredictable as the Butterfly Man (aka Robert Nelson)

A former research chemist at Vanderbilt University, Robert Nelson quit the world of science to pursue a dream of making people laugh. He was known as the street performer’s street performer. He was fast, funny, charming and extremely rude but could then produce a smile that melted hearts. He was a fine juggler and unicyclist, but it was his personality and persona, more than his tricks, that made him legendary in street performer circles. 

We’d met earlier in 1986 when Charlie managed to get him out of San Fransisco to attend our second Hawaiian Vaudeville Juggling festival. He was like God for all the wanna-be young buskers, always looked for laughs but performed a very creative three mile island act in our nuclear-free benefit show. Luckily for us he loved Hawaii and our group of anarchistic jugglers who founded Bellyacres and returned often.

Later that year, while staying for a few days in his Panhandle flat, I watched a few of his shows at Pier 39 and was impressed. He asked me to join him on a driving trip from Amsterdam to the European Juggling Convention in southern Spain. It was Butterfly’s first trip out of the U.S., without his parents, and he knew he needed help. A 1,600 mile road trip with the king of street performers sounded like it should be a blast so I eagerly agreed. I was soon to learn a big lesson about the strength and the fragility of performing artists ego’s.

After a quick trip back to Hawaii to refuel l flew to Europe and met Butterfly in Amsterdam, city of tulips, red lights and cannabis café’s. We picked up a Mercedes camper van he’d bought from Frank Olivier, another great juggling busker. After enjoying the tastes and sights provided by our Dutch juggler hosts we headed off into the great unknown.  

We drove first to Paris where, by chance, my friend Don Moody from Hilo, Hawaii was visiting.  I’d taught him to juggle after performing in the “Comedy of Errors” show he directed and so he traveled with us via the Tower of Pisa and the beaches of Portugal to this surreal gathering of Europes jugglers. I was really glad we had a third crew aboard the bus because Butterfly’s on stage humourous personality wasn’t easy to live with off stage. When he was moody, irritable and often damn rude, it was good to have Don to hang out with. Butterfly had a seriously hard time letting go of his stage persona and just relaxing with his true self. Like many performers he was insecure, not liking or trusting his real life personality. I found this weird because, like many other friends of his, I grew to love the caring and considerate Robert Nelson who lived behind the butterfly mask.

In front of the leaning tower of Pisa

At Castellar de la Frontera, Jugglers began to arrive several days early and formed a campsite on an open space beneath the castle walls. The hellish journey took its toll in many ways. The Balls Up Jugglers from Cardiff not only had stuff stolen, but the thieves set fire to their van. The charred remains of unicycles on the camping ground at Castellar was a very sad sight.

One evening a group left to perform in the prison in Algeciras. It took a long time to pass security checks as the guards carefully examined every mysterious juggling prop we brought with us fearing we would bring in something to help lift the spirits of our captive audience. They needn’t have worried, our audience absolutely loved the show, clapping and cheering heartedly through it all. The Butterfly Man “boffed” a prison guard, a magician pulled coins from the ears and pockets of the prison governor, and a human pyramid of jugglers showed inmates a way out over the high wall. I discovered how much they had appreciated our visit after we got outside the 20’ walls, heavy guard doors and steel railings as Cotton Mcaloon giggled gleefully saying “who’s got the rolling papers.”  He then produced the biggest hash ball l had ever seen, saying one of the inmates gave it to us as a reward for the show. That night a lot of very mellow, happy jugglers played in the castle.

Butterfly performing at the 1986 prison show

At the festival I had a much needed break from the intensity of Butterfly thanks to Bente, a beautiful Danish friend. I’m still kicking myself for stupidly declining her invitation to travel back to Copenhagen with her. Why I chose to share a small van with an eccentric busking celebrity with a butterfly tattooed on his baldhead I’ll never know! Despite our many issues the long journey back to England from Castellar proved to be a bonding experience for me and the reigning king of California buskers. Being just the two of us it proved to be a huge lesson in resilience for us both. Butterfly was legendary for his abrasive wit and short fuse that could explode at totally unforeseeable times, like when the van totally broke down. He was also an obsessive and compulsive neat freak which drove me nuts and gave him cause to make my life hell because l was a dirty jungle dweller living by different standards. 

He dressed meticulously in black and white with socks and real shoes and a floppy clown hat or a fancy fedora until the day he died. I wore the same tye dye shirt and short shorts with yellow or black sneakers for days until Robert ordered me to change clothes and shower. Every little thing l left out of place or not arranged in perfect symmetry was potential for him to complain and for me to tell him what a jerk he was. I was no stranger to sharing a small space with others, having lived on boats for long periods of time, and I considered myself to be fairly neat but Robert’s ‘standards’ were above and beyond ‘reasonable’.  Our trip had started off with us co-owning the van but ended with him insisting on buying me out so that he could be captain and dictator of all decisions. 

Long before we crossed the channel to England we had basically stopped talking. We stayed at my parents house one night and then he bolted for London. I wrote him a critical letter to California and he sent me a card entitled ‘I gotta be me.’ He apologised saying “I guess there are two of me, but everyone has an asshole, I just have one that talks.” So true!

The next year I flew to the European Festival in Saintes, France while Butterfly and my friend Carl drove in the bus and had a very similar experience. On the journey they picked up a young Scottish busking lass – Aileen – who was hitchhiking to the Festival. Ironically Carl and Aileen both became Bellyacres members but Robert never did. Despite being highly admired as a performer Butterfly was never going to be a good candidate for anything collective. He was strictly a one man show and for the next 25 years while he was a huge supporter of our Bellyacres experiment he never ever wanted to join as a member. He was a smart man and it was a relief for all of us! 

In 2005 Butterfly and his wife Kumi relocated to the Big Island and chose to live very near Bellyacres. He told me he envied our rural lifestyle, took some permaculture courses and started to grow a garden and live more sustainably in his own fashion. He was a frequent visitor, especially to our weekly pot-lunch dinners and became a huge supporter of my HICCUP circus program. He discovered, like a lot of professional performers, that teaching young children was a lot harder than he ever imagined so he supported us in other ways.

We organised two or more circus training camps annually and the basic cost of the camp was $250 but hardly anyone in Puna had the ability to pay that much. Thanks to regular contributions from Robert and Kumi, Lorn and Kristen we consistently give scholarships to kids in need so no-one was ever turned away. For our Malama Ka Aina community show Butterfly became the fire chief, choreograph our fire show and to kept us safe. It worked!

In 2010 the Waikaloa Development Company was opening the Queens Marketplace in Kona and called me for entertainment. They booked a clown, a juggler, a unicyclist and a stiltwalker in carnival costuming.  I persuaded Butterfly to take the gig and with Ari, Robin and Marcellus we drove over the island. It was a memorable event because it was the last time the infamous Butterfly man performed his street show and it was as good as ever. I felt really privileged seeing the grandmaster do what he did best, entertaining young and old while sharing his unique brash, brand of professionalism with our HICCUP performers.

After struggling bravely with cancer for three years Butterflyman finally passed away at his home and I got to to say a final farewell to my dear friend sat in his bed dressed in his Busker Hall of Fame T shirt. He made us promise not to have a memorial event which I felt was a huge pity. Our following HICCUP summer camp show was dedicated to Robert Nelson. It was fitting tribute for this wonderful, world renowned, performer who contributed a lot to our HICCUP vision. I hope future students will all get to watch Butterflyman video’s, some time in their lives. They will then appreciate how much he influenced HICCUP performances throughout our history and how his renegade busking spirit lives on in future generations. Videographer Alan Plokin produced an amazing tribute video chronicling the life and times of the Butterfly Man. Well worth checking out!

In his final years we saw much more of Robert and less of the Butterfly Man and realised that inside the angry, brash facade of the ego-driven performer was a kind gentleman whose calling was to help others and serve his community. One of my most treasured, but undocumented memories of Robert, is seeing him regularly picking up garbage along the roadside by his house. He became his own renegade volunteer civil servant and I miss him dearly.


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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

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