Walking through downtown Waikiki in Honolulu, one balmy tropical evening, I was drawn like a moth to the crowd circling a Burger King joint. I discovered they weren’t there looking for a big whopper deal when a blaze of fire burst above their heads. It was a street performer and as I elbowed my way to the front I recognised the trio of costumed clowns. On a previous sailing trip to Maui I’d seen them perform under a monstrous banyan tree in the old whaling port of Lahaina. Was it a coincidence or fate?
Hawaiian based buskers Benji, Jeanne and Robertino made a decent living as the One Ring Vaudeville Circus with a show that featured juggling, unicycling, stilwalking, acrobatics and a load of laughs. I was impressed by how much more fun this was than my job of producing and selling jars of macadamia nut butter. They invited me to their apartment in an upscale mansion and later hooked me up with two visiting Maui clowns Stanley and Roberto. Everyone juggled and so on my frequent sales trips to Honolulu or Maui we spent hours on the beaches and in the parks practising new tricks and refining our chops. Thanks to Benji I also had some great fun playing with the Waikiki Acrobatic Troupe with whom he won two gold, two silver and a bronze medal at the National Sports Acrobatic Competitions in 1984 and 1985.
On one of my visits, I think it was Benji who casually suggested that we should try and get all the Hawaiian jugglers together in one place. Because no one else spoke up, I volunteered to make it happen in Puna on the Big Island. Little did we know at that time that our mini festival would soon become world famous and we would have top class international jugglers visiting for the next 20 years to play with us in Hawaii. And so this was how the seed for our future Bellyacres community was sown, from me stumbling across a busking show in Waikiki.
I booked our first ‘Hawaiian Vaudeville Festival’ for a weekend at ‘Kalani Honua’ located along the Red Road in lower Puna. It was a fledgling ‘non profit’ retreat center struggling to establish a business in one of the most remote places in the U.S. I attended the grand opening in 1982, got to know some of the staff and watched it slowly take off to eventually become the biggest employer along the Red Road and a formidable community resource. As a brand new 20 acre clearing into the Jungle visitors had to deal with ant and mosquito issues and although there were four nice dormitory style buildings, a sauna and a small swimming pool, life was still very rustic which kept many mainlanders away. Our bunch of traveling jugglers didn’t mind too much, we were used to roughing it and as long as we kept juggling and sweating the mozzies and ants didn’t bother us too much.
The 1985 Festival was attended by Benji and Jeanne from Oahu with Marcus Marconi, tagging along. He was a young native Hawaiian juggling enthusiast who had become obsessed with the dream of becoming a street performer. Stanley the Clown, his girlfriend Venus and Sean Minnock represented Maui. Scotty Pruitt, and me attended from the Big island and a new friend Marco and wife Michealle came from Kauai. They became our most consistent festival visitors attending seventeen in a row. Their son Zak was a regular too and had attended 14 festivals before he was 13 years old! Charlie Brown hooked us up with Tom Kidwell and John Keeler from the infamous Renegades, juggling prop makers from Santa Cruz, who by chance were visiting Hawaii at the time of our event and decided to drop by. Many of this group became Festival regulars and founding members of Bellyacres and joined us in loads of performances.
Benji was one of our early pioneers to camp on the land and we shared many fun adventures together. In 1989, when I was away traveling he was involved in a serious power struggle with another member to replace me as leader. It resulted in a strained stalemate and I was left to build peace and fill the role when I returned. Together with Stanley the clown we built a deck for our new play yurt under a magnificent mango tree that just loved to grow. Later the yurt succumbed to falling fruit and branches and as it gradually rotted away we discovered what a crazy idea that had been. There were many other ideas just as crazy. We worked hard but it was all trial and error.
In 1990 Benji built the first real house on Bellyacres with his two brothers Steve and Eric. It was beautiful, two stories high and set a standard for other construction. For all the main post supports and bracing they used native Ohia trees harvested from our land. They were strong but not straight and so when combined with milled lumber it was hard to make walls weather proof. We also had trouble because Benji believed in using untreated non poisoned lumber which became yummy food for termites who eventually invaded the house and consumed it veraciously. Another problem arose years later when we discovered the house was built right on the boundary of our land and tragically had to be demolished.
Benji was at the center of all our Bellyacres communal activities. He was the life and soul of our parties, eternally on-stage entertaining members and guests alike. He’d divorced Jeanne and was pursuing new women. One day a timid young stranger arrived from Alaska and said she was waiting for Benji to return from touring. It became a very awkward situation especially when Benji called asking me to tell her to leave because he’d found another girl friend.
In early 1991, Benji’s new wife moved in and everything changed. They stayed in his ‘Monkey Major’ house, rarely came to the communal kitchen, missed meetings, and he only worked at his own house site. Stanley said he’d been bewitched by the ‘wicked witch of the north’ and the label stuck. Tensions grew as we mourned the loss of our brother. We proactively asked them to rejoin the party and be part of our group again. Then, on December 5th, 1991, Benji announced he was leaving Bellyacres saying, “I need to focus in on me for a while. I’m finding too many distractions at Bellyacres and need to go within and heal a child that’s been crying for attention for 35 years.” Obviously, it was hard for him to leave the place that he’d put his heart and soul into for over four years and, although we could tell he was suffering some anguish, he was never able to discuss it.
His wife was not so silent and told us, “The misunderstandings, anger and mistrust that have built up over the last year have grown waist high and thick as molasses. My beloved partner and I have decided to leave Bellyacres. We wish to begin a family and to experience GOD. We’ve decided to do this in a place with minimal distractions, surrounded by other young families.” An emotional Benji told us that he and his wife were on a spiritual mission to give birth to the reborn Jesus Christ who would return to save the world. Whoa! Had our old friend somehow been taken over by a bewitched and befuddled alien being? In early 1992, against the wishes of all his mates, he negotiated the sale of his house to Fritz. We were all sad and dazed, especially when he also sold his Grateful Dead cassettes and tore up all his photos of past lovers and friends. Before he departed for his new life in New Zealand, I wrote him a note to remind him that as a lifetime member he always had a home, a family of friends, and trees to climb at Bellyacres.
It was less than a year later that he realized the ‘wicked witch’ was actually clinically afflicted with a mental condition and he’d bought into her insanity. Luckily, he broke free and, licking his wounds, he renewed his juggling friendships—returned to performing again and started being his old self. It wasn’t long before he was touring worldwide—helping organize our festivals and sometimes living back on the land at Bellyacres where he built a sweet little jungalow called ‘Monkey Minor.’
In 1994, I got a gig working in Fukuoka, Japan for Golden Week and was really glad when Benji agreed to join me on the trip. He was the expert showman and performer while I managed the business and other logistics. We proved to be a good team, the shows went well, we had some fun, made some good friends and a fair bit of money.
The following year Benji connected with another ‘goddess’ and moved to live in California where he further developed ‘Acrosage’ his unique form of inversion therapy. He had created ‘AcroSage’ in 1985 while practicing with the Waikiki Acrobatic Troupe in Hawaii combining basic acrobatics, yoga, massage and meditation. Touring as a ‘new age vaudevillian medicine man’ he went to Whole Life Expo’s nationwide then to Bellyacres for a residential workshop retreat and later took a group to Egypt to visit the temples and pyramids. He remained an active participant when on the Island and still attended most of our festivals.
He then went on to practice, teach and organise workshops around the world showcasing his revolutionary mind/body/spirit healing technique and today has students in Europe, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and across the globe. Off-shoots of AcroSage have sprouted as a result of Benji’s teachings, including, ‘AcroYoga’, ‘Tula Yoga’, ‘Body Mudras’, ‘Elevated Yoga’ and have become very successful businesses.
Bellyacres was still very close to Benji’s heart and after returning from Egypt, he wrote saying he’d been thinking about me and Bellyacres for four months, remembering his love for building projects and was especially excited about our plans for a performing arts center. From the tranquility of Harbin Hot Springs he wrote, “Lots has come clear this past week—I want to thank you again for being one of my guides and a friend. I have really felt your deep and sincere love for me and you made me feel safe enough to start peeling the onion. I know we’ve had our share of personality challenges in the past but I want you to know you’ll always be a dear brother, friend, and partner. Thanks for keepin’ that Belly ship afloatin!”
In 2000 he returned to the Big Island and with his new wife and his father, he bought a beautiful 3-acre parcel in Kona, on the other side of the island, with a large house, swimming pool and hot tub, where they started their own project. He finally took a break from teaching and traveling and rooted himself in Kailua Kona, co-creating the Banyan Tree Sanctuary as an organic farm and place of meditation. For the past 15 years, he’s been dedicated to learning sustainable living techniques and organic farming skills and is now deeply committed to a musical career playing classics from the 60’s & 70’s plus his own original songs based on his new vegan lifestyle.
Being really busy and fully focused happily steering his own ship Benji has had very little involvement in Bellyacres in recent years, although he still remains a member for life and is well connected. I think he made a very wise decision. Being a member of our group of ‘alpha personality’ performers always meant that leadership issues haunted us and Benji never coped well with this conflict. A sad sequel to my personal history with Benji occurred as a part of our Bellyacres ‘founders syndrome struggle.’ At our Annual General Meeting his brother Eric claimed that several members were staying away from Bellyacres because of me. When asked who these members were he included Benji. Immediately after the meeting l wrote asking if this was the truth and received this reply (in full and unedited).
“Hello Graham, Wow, it must have been some AGM. Thanks for reaching out and wanting to know my feelings and truth. I know how important it is these days to be totaly honest, speaking from the heart with impeccable integrity. I first get to say that you have been one of my greatest teachers and inspiring leaders. Your ability to manifest on the physical plane is unquestionably amazing. Your pioneering spirit remarkable. So with that said, as for your question. There are several reasons I do not visit Bellyacres often. The first and biggest reason is that it has taken almost all my energy and time to keep the 3 & 1/2 acres at Banyan Tree floating amongst huge challanges and financial stress. Second biggest reason is that growing up in a substance abusive family I have a challenge and tend to slip back into old patterns when I get around large groups of ‘party’ energy. Being a Pisces I have an addictive personality to begin with. My third challenge being at the Belly was my experiences with the community kitchen and seeming to be always cleaning up after unconscious kitchen users. Fourth on the list is the weather, self explanatory. And lastly I do get to say that (not so much in recent years) but most definitely in the early years of Bellyacres I had a huge challenge being in your energy field. It was and still is, to some degree, interesting to notice how my heart speeds up and my energy field ‘fibulates’ when I get close to you. I believe it’s because you have such a strong Leo (fire) personality and I am an extremely sensitive Pisces (water). I would also have challenges in community meetings not being able to voice/articulate my feelings and also would feel sad and angry when you would quite often cut me off and not allow others to fully voice their opinions and concerns. Thank you for hearing me. I would be most happy to sit down with you in person to come to a place of greater understanding and to bring more harmony into our relationship. I do appreciate your powerful role model on so many levels. Blessings in peace, Benjamin”
Benji’s last point was and remains a huge reminder for me that our journey through life involves many lessons and challenges. I admit that I struggled a great deal with the burden of leadership at Bellyacres and my communication skills were often compromised by my own impatient, critical and sometimes condescending personality. It took me decades to accept professional advice and guidance to improve my style and manner of communicating but by then several relationships had been damaged. The loss of my connection with Benji is one that I now mourn and it will forever remind me of the lessons of tolerance, acceptance, gratitude and loyalty. I remain convinced that even renegades are capable of possessing these life values in the pursuit of harmony, peace and understanding.