The crowd was roaring – a real belly aching laughter, the kind that hurts your gut. On stage the street performer was beating the security guard mercilessly, but harmlessly, with a styrofoam sword. It was 1986 and I was at the 39th International Jugglers Festival in San Jose, California where the Butterfly Man was climaxing his act at the inaugural Club Renegade show. The revelry continued to 2 a.m. with a crowd of almost 400 drinking beer and enthusiastically cheering them on. I was witnessing a legendary moment in juggling world history. From that time forward Renegade shows became an essential part of all the best juggling festivals.
The revolutionary idea was conceived by Tom Renegade and accomplished with help from his friends. They rented staging and lighting equipment and set it up ‘al fresco’ behind the juggling festival gym. The ‘open stage cabaret’ paid for itself with raffle tickets bought by the thirsty audience. Every ticket was a winner – the prize was a beer! Tom wanted to create a more open, low stress festive forum for people to try new ideas, bad ideas or unfinished ideas or just to improvise or do ‘satire’ or to make parodies of performances seen on other stages. The loose concept was perfect for our laid back Hawaiian festivals and became a fixture.
The original Renegade shows all began at midnight because as Tom said, “we didn’t want performers to feel like they had to put on a family show.” Performers signed-up on an ad-hoc basis – or even just jumped onto the stage when there was no one ready to perform – and the shows were typically risqué with magic, comedy, music, dance, burlesque and sometimes juggling but usually there was a fair bit of drinking, heckling, and maybe nudity. Thirty five years later the concept has barely changed proving it’s success.
Tom co-founded ‘Renegade Juggling’ prop makers in the early 1980’s. The company started in his garage but has grown to become the main supplier of juggling equipment in the U.S.A. and Tom’s name has always been attached to Renegade, which is a term that very aptly describes his character.
I first met him when he showed up at our inaugural Hawaiian Vaudeville Festival in 1985. He came every year after and became a member of the unofficial ‘gang of five’ who did most of the organising for the next eighteen festivals. On the occasions when he was the bar czar we always made money. He joined our juggling collective as an original founding member when we bought our ten acres of jungle called ‘Bellyacres’ in 1987 and was always my primary go-to person when I needed advice, especially about people politics. He was predictably the voice of reason, very calm with no frills and absolutely no bullshit. We could always trust Tom to say it like it is. He’s also an excellent juggler but has rarely ever been seen practising and his appearances on stage are scarce as hen’s teeth.
Bellyacres has always had a reputation for great parties and exciting adventures and Tom was a catalyst for many of our funnest times. Whether it was a trip to visit the volcano, or costuming for a party or mixing his famous margaritas he was a key player in our gaggle of clowns.
During my Jugglers for Peace 1986/87/88 trips to Nicaragua and Central America I became very politicised and this was something that Tom closely resonated with. In 1986 he helped organise our Vaudeville Festival Anti-Nuclear benefit show at the University of Hawaii in Hilo where Butterfly Man did a Three Mile Island act and Sara Felder appealed for the U.S.A. to stop using the Pacific as a nuclear test site.
Later that year at the International juggling Festival in Denver I joined Tom to perform in an anti nuclear act he organised with Renegade Jugglers for the public show. It climaxed with an explosion from the stage that synchronized with dozens of audience ‘plants’ tossing confetti into the air ‘contaminating’ the whole theatre with ‘radiation’. It was a big hit with the crowd but not so much with the theatre staff who insisted we picked up every individual piece of confetti before we left. Phew ! It took hours but was well worth the effect as it was the very first political statement made at the typically conservative I.J.A. event. The controversy it caused was a catalyst for the change in consciousness of many jugglers. At future festivals political juggling acts and actions became an established part of the event and following the 1989 Cuba tour, which Tom attended, jugglers participating in peace tours to war torn countries became a new normal. Years later, back in Hawaii it became a natural progression for social action to be the theme of our HICCUP Circus shows, rather than the traditional fairy tales chosen by our mainstream peers.
It was around this time that we learned something about Tom’s spiritual philosophy. He responded to another Bellyacres member who wanted our group to “recognize the Spirit that exists in all of us so we can acknowledge one another in a manner that transcends the mundane” with a request that we join hands before the last meal of the day to recognize the “greater US that exists.”
Tom, who was raised by two atheist parents, replied in the next newsletter saying, “God force, spirit and spiritualism might at first glance seem harmless, maybe even be hip or fashionable among the right people but when you take a closer analytical look at these meta-physical ideologies and social behaviours often you find the end results to be ugly, anti-social and fascist in nature.” In his opinion spiritualism, in the form of religion, had brought “anti-abortion, anti-communism, anti-Semitism, anti-drugs, anti rock and roll, racism, sexism, Jonestown and even war itself.” He believed the theory that something unknown, but greater than us, was pure bullshit. He firmly acknowledged the power of nature and the need for humans to live in balance with the earth, but thought that this was best accomplished by understanding the physical realities of the earth’s ecosystem and not “metaphysical misconceptions or spiritual hocus-pocus.” He thought people who wanted to practice spiritualism should do so in the privacy of their own minds and not subject others to the historically-corrupt sociology and concluded with a request for “peace through power, not prayer.” Many in our group agreed, Tom’s wishes were respected, and it was years before we held hands at a potluck or group meeting.
Tom made annual trips to Bellyacres and in 1992 he built what became known as the ‘White House’ mostly because of the colour but for many years we also used it for our infrequent and irreverent community meetings. As a successful entrepreneur Tom is a logistical genius. He drew up his own plans in Santa Cruz for a 1,200-square foot single story house and then drove up to Canada to find the very best deal on lumber. He filled a container with every stick of wood he needed plus roofing tin, nails and screws, glue and paint and every single item required for construction, including a generator and essential power tools.
The 40′ container was delivered right onto our land and the first thing unloaded was a car he had illicitly squeezed in. With just one experienced contractor friend and a few local nail bangers, the whole house was built in a record fifteen days at a total cost of only $18,000. It had three bedrooms and a lounge and was immediately occupied. I later had professional plans drawn up and managed to obtain a construction permit for it as a farm workers’ building. I had to exaggerate a bit about our Bellyacres ‘farm’ and personally cruised the application through numerous county departments. It took ten more years before the White House was upgraded with windows, plumbing, electricity, a water tank, and a septic system so that a kitchen, bathroom, and toilets could be added. Since then it’s accommodated hundreds of visitors, interns, members, HICCUP circus campers and renters and was a great community resource, all thanks to the ingenuity and generosity of Mr Renegade.
When it came time for us to create plans for our Bellyacres performance arts center it was Tom, one of my best Belly mates, who stepped forward to work with me on the project. He was insistent that we should follow the principles in ‘The Timeless Way of Building’ and ‘A Pattern Language’ by Christopher Alexander and sent me two really big fat books. They contained an intensely conscious methodology for developing a conceptual design. After weeks of serious reading, we selected seventy-six ‘patterns’ from this model for inclusion in the S.P.A.C.E. design. Tom and I bounced back and forth dozens of detailed emails to create a building concept that balanced the connection between work and communal living. We also incorporated a Native Hawaiian view of sustainability by protecting our local landscape and using only those resources needed to function effectively. We collaborated with two architects—and eventually two engineers—to create a multi-use facility with an open and cheerful environment. I think we did an amazing job considering we were just enthusiastic amateurs. Sadly we never raised enough money to build all of the original design which was unfortunate because it greatly impacted the future of our Bellyacres community.
After six years of planning, designing, permitting and fundraising, the Seaview Performance Arts Center for Education (S.P.A.C.E.) eventually began construction in March 2007. We compromised on our original plans by first constructing a commercial greenhouse, using a professional to guide our own work crew in the pouring of the concrete footings and erection of the frame. After our interns helped install the recycled floor Tom and I magically manifested all the interior rooms and shelving in a couple of days using recycled 2×2 framing, plywood and doors. Phase One of S.P.A.C.E. was complete and we celebrated with a big community party, featuring the dancing rhythms of our resident marimba band.
Phase Two of our S.P.A.C.E. construction was the grand pavilion—a state-of-the-art Polynesian-style 3,500-square foot multi-purpose center with bathrooms, storage, and offices. I had drawn up a list of all the local skilled trades people I knew and called upon them to give support if they could. As our former Hawai’i County Mayor Billy Kenoi famously said, “If can, can” and our community righteously stepped up to show, “we can.”
Virtually all of the work—from the septic system, to the concrete slab, to the building and interior decorating—was done by locals plus contributions from Tom and a few Belly members. Our work exchange team volunteered hundreds of hours while staying at Bellyacres and everyone gave much more than we contracted them for—continuously going above and beyond—to help realize the dream of a community facility. Amazingly, it took us only four months of actual construction which demonstrated a beautiful act of love and expression of community togetherness. S.P.A.C.E. subsequently became much more than a home for the HICCUP circus and the sum of the materials that were used to build it.
No circus can exist or teach skills without equipment and HICCUP was blessed from birth by having a generous benevolent godfather. We became indebted to Tom Renegade for ensuring that we had ample good quality equipment from our inception for the next quarter of a century. We received clubs, rings, balls, diablo’s fire torches, unicycles and more from our Renegade connection. Some were seconds, some were discounted, some were repaired and recycled and some props were just donated. Renegade Juggling made many of our later successes physically possible. This abundance of equipment enabled HICCUP students to discover and develop their personal abilities and talents by choosing circus skills they wanted to develop from a wide range of props and by borrowing equipment to take home in order to practise. Thanks to Tom our students were able to learn skills easier and faster than most of their contemporaries.
Renegade Juggling is headquartered in Santa Cruz but supplies performers and hobbyists worldwide including world record holders like Anthony Gatto and Jay Gilligan. As the founding genius Tom has become an international authority on the history as well as the contemporary development of circus props. He has personally created many uniquely different juggling clubs and other equipment that is universally utilised today. In recent years, in response to changing demand, he’s significantly expanded his fire inventory doing a brisk trade in props like fire poi, fire cables, fire staffs and dance torches.
Tom’s life changed dramatically when he met, and later married, Iman Lizarazu whose life reads like a character from a fanciful French fable. She is a photographer, painter, conceptual artist, chicken farmer, vaudeville performer and cooks a mean noodle dish. Iman was born and reared in the Basque region between France and Spain in a family of winemakers, but also lived in Moscow as a teen, where her father was artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet. She attended art school in Dresden and Berlin, studied mime with Marcel Marceau in Paris and — you’d never guess — even earned a doctorate in astrophysics from the Max Planck Institute in Munich. She speaks English, French, Russian, German and her native tongue, Euskara. She studies circus arts, flamenco and dance and she’s performed all over the world from festivals to refugee camps. And, unsurprisingly, Tom is her biggest advocate and greatest fan.
It was a great loss to me and to Bellyacres when they both decided to stop participating in our juggling community in 2014, but I understood why. Now Dena and I have the pleasure of visiting two of our favourite renegades whenever they come to Europe and as soon as the COVID crisis ends I’m sure we’ll see them again.
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