Hawaiian Vaudeville Juggling Festivals

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1986 Festival Design by John Keeler – Printing by Spinning Dolphin

It was 1985, Juggling Festivals were new, there was only the International Jugglers Association and maybe a handful of others worldwide and I was at my first. It was in the tropical paradise of Puna on the island of Hawaii and I was the organiser! I had no idea that I had launched on a life long juggling project with a bunch of renegade pirates.

1988 Festival show boat and scurvy crew

In my earlier travels around Hawaii, Oahu, Maui and Kauai I’d met all of the professional jugglers living and working there. It was easy because each night they were on their pitches doing street shows, showed up at the best parties or just dropped in to visit and play. Eventually, someone casually suggested that we should have a gathering and get all the Hawaiian based jugglers together.  Because no one else spoke up, I volunteered to organise a festival and suggested Puna as a good venue. Little did we know at that time, our desert island party would become legendary—with jugglers and vaudevillians visiting from all over the world for the next 20 years to play with us in Hawaii. The seed for our Bellyacres community had been sown and it grew into Hawaii’s Volcano Circus. 

Hawaii’s Volcano Circus – 1992

I booked our first ‘Hawaiian Vaudeville Juggling Festival’ for a January weekend at Kalani Honua, a fledgling ‘nonprofit’ retreat center, struggling to get a business going in a brand new 20-acre clearing into the jungle. Although they’d built four nice dormitory style buildings, a sauna, and a small swimming pool, life was still very rustic and guests had to deal with some severe ant and mosquito issues. Our bunch of troubadour jugglers didn’t mind too much—we were price sensitive and used to roughing it. We figured that as long as we kept juggling and sweating, the mozzies and ants wouldn’t bother us too much. It was February, we were warm and the clothing optional black sand beach was just a club throw away. Where else would we want to be?

We juggled like maniacs throughout the day and continued late into the night dancing to music by the iconic ‘Bosco the One Man band’. We started our tradition of presenting public shows at Kalani on their cafeteria lanai. The locals and the hippies were pretty starved for variety entertainment in remote rural Puna so about two hundred showed up for our first offering which we gave them for ‘free’. Unfamiliar with buskers’ hat pitches, our audience paid with a few coins and one dollar bills, plus a few papayas and avocados but luckily it was topped off with some of Puna’s finest marijuana buds. Pot and booze kept the party lively throughout that night, and many nights to follow.

The second festival doubled in size from twenty to forty friends, mostly the cream of the international busking world. Who else could afford the airfare for a week or more in the middle of the pacific? Tom started his tradition of midnight Renegade Shows and they flourished under the bright Hawaiian stars, or in tents if it was raining.

Luckily for us Kilauea Volcano was in an eruptive phase so everyone who came got a close up experience with our famous lava flow tours. Juggling fire alongside the glowing red hot rivers of molten lava was a huge hit. There was also naked beach juggling, swimming with dolphins, rafting on a caldera lake, basking in warm ponds, soaking in subterranean cave pools, and climbing coconut trees. The photo’s, videos and stories shared with performing friends back home was all the advertising we needed to increase our registrations each of the following years.

Hawaii Theatre show- Butterfly, Dan Menendez, Waldo, Benji Marantz, Jeanne Wall, Don Van Horn, Bente Faurby, Marcos Marconi, Bob Crossley.

We took a talented festival troupe to Honolulu where I had booked the Hawai’i Theatre as a performance venue. This grand old vaudeville hall, built in 1922, had an organisation of ‘friends’ who we thought would love to see our show. We were wrong, only 150 people arrived to see our excellent performance. After expenses I lost my shirt and my shorts (figuratively speaking), but I never lost my enthusiasm or my confidence so my bank rolling of festivals continued. We also decided to keep all our future festival shows on the Big Island where we performed at nine separate venues making lots of friends and building our circus community credibility.

Our jugglers collective was oozing enthusiasm, high energy and wacky creativity but we could never conceal our renegade pirate nature.

Graham, Garbo, Benji, Kristin, Judy, Tom

From year three our Hawaiian festivals were weeklong events and became a ‘must do’ for some of the best performers on the worldwide busking circuit. We established our reputation quickly and had a wave of fantastic jugglers surfing onto the Big Island beaches joining us to play in Pele’s paradise. The attractions of the tropics proved irresistible and we had a lot of repeat visitors. Some of them wanted to stay for longer, perhaps eventually live in Hawaii, magic happened and the seed for Bellyacres was born.

Our first nine festivals were held at Kalani. The action never stopped, with workshops by top professionals, music by the best island bands, amazing adventures, wild dance parties, public performances and just hanging out with old and new friends but we always found time to juggle.

During this time we created the unique juggling sport of Volleyclub and it eventually spread to festivals around the globe. A Volleyclub tournament became an event on our festival calendar from 1988 and featured some recognisable names from the juggling world elite of that time. Michiel Hesseling, Haggis Mcleod, Waldo, Henrik Bothe, Tom Renegade, Ken Farquhar, Jon Stamp, Dale Steele, Stevie G, Dave Rave, Paul Moroccos, Benjamin Marantz, Dan Menendez, Frank Olivier.  

1987 Volleyclub game – Paul Moroccos, Carl York, Don Van Horn, Rainer

 It all began one sunny afternoon when a group of us drifted over to the volleyball court started tossing clubs over the net and made it into a game. From the first afternoon our festival goers were hooked on the game and we played with a range of players, sometimes two or four aside and we even tried playing with the standard volleyball set up of five a side. Eventually for our tournaments we settled on teams of two and used a referee in a chair like tennis and two linesmen. Early games were played on grass which unfortunately barely covered the rugged lava rock making dives very painful and often bloody.

In 1994 we moved our festival to Spencers Beach Park in Kona and had a few tournaments on the beach and lawn but eventually moved it onto the tennis court. The sand was much better for fun and amazing dives for catches but the smooth surface of the tennis court raised the speed and standard of play considerably. Since it was invented in Hawaii we called our festival tournaments the World Championships! Twenty years of festivals saw the juggling skills of my HICCUP kids greatly improve partly inspired by their unique connection with top class jugglers. Our last volleyclub event was held in 2012 and the young HICCUP circus team of Ari and Eli were victorious over the seasoned professionals – the next generation had taken over.

Ari, Eli, Haggis, Michiel

Our festivals attracted families and a few special individuals, with an affinity towards kids, took time from their own lives and interests to share their learning secrets and their obsession for the art, the technique and especially the fun of vaudeville skills. The HICCUP’s kids high energy was a good match for the childlike exuberance of any adult juggler and our kids loved playing and even helping out with tasks like security, serving food, cleaning up and they even worked a shift or two at the scandalous ‘drop-in bar’. What a weird and crazy education it was!

Spencers Beach Park was an incredible vibrant festival location and served us very well until 1998 when we had the shipwreck that almost killed Arabella Churchill and ten others. Our festival activities had included sea kayaking and surfing plus paddling and sailing on traditionally built Hawaiian canoes and everyone loved it until one particular sunset cruise. On shore we were preparing for a grand Polynesian luau when the wind direction suddenly shifted from onshore to offshore. It was the dreaded “mumuku” named by the Hawaiians for a blast of wind that roars from the Big Island mountains down to the coast. The storm strength increased rapidly blowing festival tents into the sea and jugglers scrambling for their props. Just offshore the canoe crew lowered the sail and attempted to paddle back to safety against the wind swept waves. The rest of us observed anxiously from the shore feeling absolutely helpless and in a state of deep suspense with tension increasing every minute. Are they getting closer? Will they make to shore ?………………. No!

Clive set out in his single-hull canoe on a rescue attempt, with our best and most experienced paddlers. They reached the struggling vessel and dropped off three strong guys to help the exhausted passengers. While the high winds rose to exceed 50 mph, both crews paddled for their lives but were unable to make any headway back to shore. 

As the festival ‘Pooh Bah’ I called 911 and the Fire Rescue team came down to the beach park to investigate the situation. With darkness falling, a 28-foot catamaran motored out, picked up three survivors and began searching for the double hull boat. The wind was so horrendous it ripped the dinghy off the catamaran and blew it away. It also broke the tow lines holding the single hull outrigger canoe and that too was blown away and disappeared.  

The Coast Guard called me from Honolulu explaining they were monitoring the situation closely. Their only boat on the island was in Hilo, too far away to help, and their local helicopter was on Oahu for regular maintenance. A Fire Department Rescue boat was eventually launched and began to search in the turbulent darkness for our missing boaters. 

Around this time the combination of wind and waves caused the hatches of the double-hull canoe to fill with water, submerging the boat. The weight of the waterlogged vessel and the rolling swell weakened and broke the rope lashings that held it together. Everyone was in the water desperately hanging on to parts of the canoe that continually moved under and around each other. Arabella organised the sharing of jokes and songs and distracted anxiety by talking about meals they planned to eat when back on shore. She was miraculously able to keep the morale of the shipwrecked jugglers incredibly high. Throughout the wild night she insisted they call out each persons name to keep one another awake, attentive and thinking positively. It saved a life when a young boy drifted away but was noticed missing and Capt. Roy swam out to pull him back to the wreckage.

Meanwhile, the catamaran gave up the search, and was headed into shore to drop off it’s passengers, when it promptly got entangled in an old fishing net, leaving it dead in the water. Captain Chris cut loose the net eventually but, with a fouled engine, he decided to hove to and wait out the winds and stay at sea for the night. This became just one of several moments of good fortune because it kept the catamaran and shipwrecked canoe in the same basic vicinity. During the night members of the canoe spotted the lights of the catermaran but were unable to signal them. Eventually the Fire Department reported that it was calling off the search till morning because of the severely high winds and waves.  At about midnight Henrik the Dane decided to swim back ashore, to his worried wife, equipped with one undersized fin and a hatch cover. He soon ditched the useless hatch cover and battled with the currents and winds all night.

At first light that morning, shortly after the helicopter search resumed, the catamaran was located about five miles from shore with the double-hull canoe nearby. Eleven shipwrecked crew were counted being taken safely aboard the catamaran – one was missing! The Coast Guard helicopter spotted something floating near land. It was Henrik who’d been swimming non stop for seven hours. They delivered him to hospital where he was treated for hypothermia and kept overnight for observation. His very fortunate rescue was a great relief to us all especially his eight months pregnant wife.

The USS Frederick, a Navy landing craft that had been diverted to the area to help with the search, transferred the boaters to their ship and took them ashore – and then claimed credit for the rescue! The next day both submerged canoes were located and towed back to land.  An anonymous angel from our festival offered to pay for all repairs. We were witnesses to several miracles that day.

That near disaster ended our beach festivals on the Big Island but luckily we found another sandy site at Mukulea on Oahu. It was a much cheaper destination for mainlanders and Europeans to fly to so ended up becoming our biggest ever event. In addition to our typical assortment of entertainers and hobby jugglers we attracted a large retinue of friends, family and regular party lovers and the focus shifted to music, dance, skydiving, gliding and beach fun with much less juggling. Despite the large numbers we worked harder than ever but made very little money. We considered expanding to make it financially viable or stopping altogether then compromised by taking the festival to Bellyacres where it would theoretically involve less work for our aging, tired organisers. Wrong !

Our next three festivals became more intimate social gatherings for local friends with less and less juggling. Many of our Bellyacres members and festival regulars now had mortgages, school kids and even regular jobs so flying in for a couple of weeks became impossible. Also, the number of juggling festivals had mushroomed since 1985 and we now had loads of competition. Some were conveniently local in the U.S.A. and Europe but others had been established in exotic tropical locations with far lower fees than we could offer in high priced Hawaii. So, after nineteen magnificent festival years we took a break.

By 2012 we had discovered how much we missed our annual gatherings. It was Bellyacres 25th Anniversary so we celebrated by inviting all our members and select festival attendees. Over forty showed up and we sold out two public shows at S.P.A.C.E. featuring a few of the acts that graced our Festivals. Later we spent a few glorious days back at Spencers Beach Park were we held a memorial Renegade Show.

Fritz Brehm and Spoons at the 2012 Anniversary

Videographer Alan Plotkin, attended almost all of our festivals recording the frivolities and frolics on stage and off. His extensive documentation of these quintessential acts of renegade revelry record highlights however, there are lots more stories in the memories of all those who came and survived our Hawaiian Vaudeville Juggling Festivals.

Alan Plotkin
1997 at Spencers Beach Park

Another bonus- Juggling on lava video from Alan Plotkin

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 !

One thought on “Hawaiian Vaudeville Juggling Festivals

  1. My experience attending all but the two first festivals stand out as a highpoint of my life. Beyond fun, many Europeans came halfway around the world year after year to enjoy the frolics. We were an annual family reunion and imagine performers entertaining fellow performers with no limits. Here is a link to the Alan Plotkins ‘Best of the Renegade Shows’ from the festivals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HmNs4nBs9o

    Liked by 1 person

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