Michael Christensen’s Great Adventure Vol. VIII, No. 7

MEETING, AUDITIONING, HIRING AND BECOMING FRIENDS WITH  PAUL BINDER

 

Since I was clearly a trained and experienced professional actor, SFMT (The San Francisco Mime Troupe) appointed me head of the committee to screen performers. I auditioned a man named Paul Binder. Paul was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. He attended Dartmouth College and received an M.B.A from Columbia University. After a brief stint with Boston University’s School for Fine and Applied Arts, he became the stage manager for Julia Child’s The French Chef, and later, a talent coordinator for Merv Griffin’s television shows. Paul had recently arrived in the Bay area with his wire-haired mutt, Benny. Physically, Paul resembled Tom Jones and his audition was loud and large. He delivered an energetic Danny Kaye monologue and I recommended we hire him. Although he ached to act, most of Paul’s professional experience had been behind the scenes, and his initial contribution to the organization was as a booker.

We became friends and enjoyed many midnight showings of grade films at the Mission Theater, propping our feet on the rail in the balcony. I loved Paul’s dog, Benny, a hairy little trashcan even after a bath and brushing. Once, Paul tied a red satin ribbon around Benny’s neck, stepped back to admire his pal’s new image, then commented: “Hmmm doesn’t really help much; it’s like gift-wrapping a turd.” I loaned Paul my car one afternoon. Later in the day, he called to inform me that “everyone was in jail.” Police had impounded the vehicle for overdue inspection and registration. They had thrown Paul into the clink for some infraction on his license and they had imprisoned poor Benny in the pound, probably for being illegally scruffy. Eventually, everyone went free.

As a new member of the SFMT, Paul learned basic circus skills from Larry Pisoni, including juggling, but Paul still yearned to be on stage. Finally, an opportunity arose in The Dragon Lady’s Revenge, a broad satire inspired by an article in Rampart’s Magazine about the C.I.A. involvement in the Indochina drug trade. Paul portrayed a character named Tran Dog. The Dragon Lady’s Revenge enjoyed a successful New York run from December to January 1972-1973, for which the show won an OBIE.

After it closed in January, the troupe commissioned Paul and me to drive one of the touring trucks to San Francisco. We did, vis a vis Florida, certainly not the most direct route but for surely the warmest. Based on the comedy-juggling act that Larry Pisoni and I had created, Paul and I performed across the southern United States, passing our hats to earn money for gas and food, definitely a precursor of things to come.

 

THE JUGGLING TOUR/THE GREAT ADVENTURE

RUN, MICHAEL, RUN!

 

Street performing was my ticket to the world. After the New York success of the Dragon Lady’s Revenge, a movie began to take shape in my mind, The Great Adventure:

Welcome to The Great Adventure, an epic journey starring Michael Christensen and Larry Pisoni. Follow two young entertainers as they struggle-juggle themselves into the hearts of the global community, surviving by wit, hilarity and sheer will. Zany troubadours, hilarious vagabonds, pie-eyed pied pipers. Dance, Michael, dance! Lust for the exotic women they will love. Witness bizarre clown rituals. Discover strange cities, cultures and customs. Sing, Michael, sing! Wifeless, fatherless, motherless. Free. Run, Michael, Run! The Great Adventure, opening at a theater near you. Conceived, imagined and fantasized by Michael Christensen.

I would fly to London and Larry Pisoni would join me. My brother Kenneth was already there pursuing carpentry with an English colleague. In preparation and celebration, I purchased a Great Adventure necessity, a map of the world, the Big Picture. Now, how do I travel from San Francisco to London for the least amount of money? One of my roommates forged a University of California student card and another friend scammed a $60 one-way ticket from San Francisco to New York. In New York, I presented my phony ID at the International Student Office and they issued me an International Student Card. With this, I purchased a discounted British Airways round-trip New York/London flight for $220 and in London, I sold my return for $110. My inner juvenile delinquent was alive and well. Total cost from San Francisco to London: $170. I waited for Larry.

I’d made it! London, England, the Thames, the Tower, Shakespeare, land of Kings and Queens and my acting teacher. People driving on the wrong side of the road, Bobbies, pubs and traffic circles. Where did all of those red double-decker buses come from? I roomed with Kenneth, who shared an apartment with friends near Hampstead Heath. We guzzled gallons of pints. Drink, Michael, Drink!

Then, Larry phoned: “Uh, sorry Michael, I’m not coming.”

“What?”

“I am staying in San Francisco.” I couldn’t believe it; his news devastated me.

I don’t remember remember writing this scene.

A couple of days later, Paul called. “I heard Larry isn’t coming. How ‘bout me?”

“When can you get here?”

“I need some time to earn money for the trip,” Paul replied.

Kent, southeast of London, nicknamed The Garden of England, is a “fragrant landscape of gentle hills, fertile farmland, cultivated country estates and fruit-laden orchards. It could also be described as the beer garden of England as it produces the world-renowned Kent hops and some of the country’s finest ales and wines from its numerous vineyards.” (Lonely Planet)  Definitely my kind of place. For the next two months, I picked apples and hops (Jesus, was I back in Walla Walla?), and shared an unheated farm cottage with three other migrants while Paul drove a cab in New York. The physical labor appealed to me; it was a quiet time and I connected with Kenneth as frequently as possible. He had abandoned his carpentry career and was now enrolling into a racecar driving school, a childhood dream that hadn’t vanished and perhaps germinated when he heroically saved our lives.

One of Kenneth’s English girlfriends (he had several), Sabrina, invited us to tea with her parents at their cottage in Kent, not far from the hop farm. We relaxed and chatted in the garden on a warm Sunday afternoon in October. Mrs. Price presented the tea service, some jam, clotted cream, a few neutered sandwich wedges and scones.

“I must apologize for these few scones. I baked them yesterday and they are hard,” said tidy and polite, sweet Mrs. Price.

“No problem,” answered Kenneth as he plunked one into his hot tea. “This’ll soften ‘em up.”

Our hostess’ spine instantly petrified and from her expression, you’d have thought my brother had said: “Well, fuck me in the ass with an English cucumber; these little bitches really are hard.”

Several seconds later, having recovered her breath and composure, Mrs. Price chirped: “Kenneth, Darling, one doesn’t dunk one’s scone into one’s tea.”

Paul arrived in the fall of 1973 and in an apple shed on a farm in Paddock Wood, Kent, we knitted together the juggling act we had utilized on our road trip from New York to San Francisco via Florida. Then we hit the London streets. What a disaster! Police chased us from every suitable performance location: Petticoat Lane, Liverpool tube station, even from the famous Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. In the middle of one of our shows, a Bobby, straight from a classic British crime movie, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Would you mind stepping over here while I explain a few fine points of the ancient British law?” Street artists, known as buskers in London, register, and city officials assign them specific areas and times. England was far too civilized for us and we merrily exchanged London for Paris.

Moishe accompanied us. With pockmarked paint and cratered upholstery, my green 1957 Morris Minor, purchased from an apple-picking colleague in Paddock Wood for £15, was an English purebred with his steering wheel on the right. We tucked our map of the world, the Big Picture, neatly into his cubby, the English word for glove compartment, and on a crisp October morning, Paul, Kenneth, Moishe and I boarded the ferry ‘neath the white cliffs of Dover. Next stop, France.

Friends had informed us we would find the most affordable European hotels near train stations. Kenneth and I spoke absolutely no French. However, Paul had studied it in high school and felt confident he could attain the necessary information when we reached Calais. In a brasserie, while Kenneth and I munched our camembert sandwiches, Paul summoned his finest and loudest French language skills to boldly inquire of the waiter the location of the station: “Pardon monsieur, où est la guerre?” In his zeal, Paul had confused the words, guerre (war) and gare (station). He had just asked the waiter where the war was. The response? “Je ne sais pas, Vietnam?” This was the first of many linguistic faux pas we created, several of which we integrated into the French version of our juggling act for charm. In Paris, Paul had secured accommodations for us with a French couple, amis of amis.

To deliver our street show in Paris, we needed 30 French trigger words and phrases, the most important of which was our put-something-in-our-hats-pitch. On the corner of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the left bank of the Seine, Kenneth helped us gather our first audiences. In show business vernacular, he became our shill, “an accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others.” However, contrary to this definition, we were not swindlers–we were honest street artists in search of an audience. From two blocks away, Kenneth strolled towards us. Those colorful juggling clubs whizzing through the air stopped him. Breathless, surprised, his entire body shouted: “Oh wow, how interesting! How clever! Now, this is really something!” Sensing his excitement, one other person joined him, then, another and another. Our circle grew until finally, together, we had snared an audience in our glistening web of nonsense. On with the show!

Along with his acting talents, Kenneth also possessed an even more practical skill. Directly after high school, he had joined the Navy’s submarine training program and served for two years as a sonar operator. He alerted his vessel to both latent and direct threats. This nautical experience was essential in safely negotiating Parisian traffic circles in Moishe. I was at the helm. Paul charted our course and from aft, Kenneth identified “contacts,” potential hazards. “Grey Deux Cheveaux closing fast on starboard side!” Three people were required to survive those damn Paris traffic circles and Kenneth was vitally important. Thanks again, Brother.

Our most well rehearsed and important French paragraph was our pitch, the text that directly requested money from audiences. Over the years, and depending on the particular country, we created various forms of this. In France, we were quite formal. In French (and it took a very long time to learn this) I said: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are not supported by the American government, the French government, or any other form of organized crime, but only from the generosity of our dear spectators. Ladies and gentlemen, the empty hats.”

In the next few weeks, we discovered our rhythm. The first juggling club shot from our hands at 10:00 p.m. and our show lasted twenty minutes. We entertained, collected money, waited 10 minutes and resumed. We repeated this street corner cycle until midnight or 12:30 a.m. Then, we played the café terraces, the outdoor seating areas in front of high-end brasseries. Three or four terraces later, we dined at a luxurious restaurant and paid the tab from the hat, living in the now, avant la lettre. We worked four nights: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. After dinner Paul returned home to read and I bee-lined to a café to drink. Like my mother, I had well trodden paths to my various watering holes.

I was very drunk before I began climbing those six flights of stairs to the apartment. I could barely walk. At the third floor, I fell onto my hands and knees and crawled. I don’t think anyone passed me, though I’m not sure. I finally reached the 6th floor landing, veered left and crept along the hallway to our flat. I knocked. Paul opened the door. Hmmm, nobody there. He was about to close it.

“Down here.”

“Michael?”

 

In New York and Paris, we had heard many stories about Philippe Petite. “Oh, have you seen the French guy who juggles on the street? He wears black and rides a unicycle. He’s great.” No, we hadn’t. Not until one evening near Le Select, a French Bistro on Boulevard du Montparnasse. After one of our performances, a short, sandy haired Frenchman introduced himself as Philippe Petite. A young woman accompanied him. He said: “We were walking on the other side of the boulevard and saw the crowd you gathered. I turned to my girlfriend and said, ‘Come, I want you to see the shit that performs on my streets.’” He and his companion watched our show and we enthralled them.

In December 1973, we were Philippe’s honored guests at the Moscow Circus in Paris and afterwards, he ushered us backstage to meet the artists. Philippe, Paul and I celebrated Christmas Eve that year swapping juggling tricks and sharing escapades from our street adventures. He also revealed his plans to stretch a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center and cross it but he wasn’t sure exactly when or how. Paul and I were in Vienna when Philippe’s message arrived: “I am going to do it; the next time you see me I will either be dead or famous.” On August 7, 1974, Philippe became famous.

It was winter in Paris and too cold to work on the streets. Thin-skinned and feather-less, poor Leonard suffered the most. In January 1974, Paul, Moishe and I headed south and Kenneth returned to the States.

 

Rain pounded the windshield. Moishe’s wipers swished back and forth, tired and always too late, one of his little idiosyncrasies. Paul shouted, “A little to the left. Look out! Curve coming. I think. Watch it, a car! Stay left.” (He had replaced Kenneth in alerting us to approaching dangers.) That’s how, late at night in a rainstorm, we arrived in Saint-Paul-de-Vence on the Riviera. The French musician and songwriter who composed the theme for the film A Man and a Woman in 1966, Pierre Barouh, had befriended us in Paris. One of his colleagues owned a hotel in St. Paul and he promised he would phone her prior to our arrival. We knocked and reflected in the eyes of the woman who greeted us, we saw ourselves, two soggy and sad abandoned puppies. “I am Michael Christensen and this is Paul Binder. Pierre Barouh called you about a room.”

“I’m sorry. I am not aware of anything like that.” Oops. Hmmm what to do? We turned and trudged towards Moishe. “Wait.” We stopped. “I might have something.”

She unlocked the door with an old-fashioned skeleton key revealing something indeed, a small chamber with two single beds, hand-glazed soft orange walls, salmon colored flowers in a ceramic vase on a dark wooden dresser, a welcome sight in a January rainstorm. There was even a tiny silver tray on the nightstand for Moishe’s keys. Paintings by famous artists adorned the walls and we wondered whether they were authentic, eager to believe they were. We gaped, then asked ourselves a stupid question. “Do you think she knows we can’t pay for this?” Hmmm. What to do? Paul elected me to ask her; I re-sloshed my steps. “I’m sorry to bother you again but we can’t pay for this room.”

“Yes,” she said, “I know.”

The next morning, we realized we had just spent the night in one of the most renowned hotels in France, La Colombe d’Or (“La Provence a un trésor, c’est une Colombe d’Or”.) Initially, in 1920 it was a café bar, “Chez Robinson.” Soon the owners, Paul and Baptiste Roux, converted it into a small inn and renamed it La Colombe d’Or. It became a celebrated gathering place for painters such as Joan Miró, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall and in time, Alexander Calder and Paul César. The walls, as we noticed, were covered by paintings, which they often exchanged for a stay or a few meals. In this respect, we were in sync, perfectly content to exchange a show or 2 for our accommodation.

That afternoon, we relaxed on the terrace with our hostess, Yvonne, and the American Civil Rights’ writer and activist, the late James Baldwin, and the late French actress Simone Signoret. Baldwin had become such a prominent spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement in the early 60s, Time magazine featured him on the cover. “There is not another writer,” said Time, “who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in the North and South.” Mr. Baldwin became a friend and we often returned to Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Simone Signoret was a French cinema actress often hailed as one of France’s greatest film stars. She became the first French person to win an Academy Award, for her role in Room at the Top (1959.) Later that afternoon, we invited Simone to our presentation at the café across the street. “You better be good because I gave up watching a movie to see you.” We weren’t good; we were excellent. She dropped a 100-franc note into the hat.

Years later, as a founder of the Big Apple Circus, I attended the circus festival in Monaco, not far from St. Paul, rented a car and drove to the hotel. I bought a large bouquet of salmon colored flowers for Yvonne but the receptionist informed me that she was ill and wasn’t receiving visitors. I wrote a note: “Dear Yvonne, do you remember a rainy night in January 1974 when two soaked, shaggy puppies appeared on your doorstep? You accepted them with kindness and generosity.” I included information about the Big Apple Circus and Monte Carlo and that I was forever grateful to her. I handed the message and flowers to the receptionist. When I returned a few years later, Yvonne had passed. A rainy night, a sunny lady.

 

We continued south to Italy. In Rome, the area directly in front of the Bernini statue and the Fiumi Fountain at Piazza Navona was our stage for a month, long enough to fall in love with the people, the food and the rhythm of this country forever, then, farther south towards the boot.

A window opens. Its shutters creak. A wrinkled head appears and for a moment, it balances above the cobblestones. Then, with rehearsed precision, it rotates left to right, top to bottom. This is how she greets the day every morning, a ritual that provides a feeling of security about what to expect, not that very much happens in this quarter of Naples where crooked little houses support each other. For her, that is enough. She stopped dreaming long ago; life has fooled her too many times. A tile in the kitchen of her fourth floor apartment reads, “He who doesn’t dream will never be disappointed.” More windows open. More shutters creak. “Buongiorno, buongiorno, buongiorno!” Greetings echo through the neighborhood. The woman adds her voice to the morning choir and like the others, begins setting out her laundry. Her day has begun.

While hanging one of her stockings, she stops. She senses something, something different. She stretches from the window even farther; her generous bosom inches over the edge, making her momentarily top heavy. She scans the street that winds down the hill to the piazza. Everything seems normal. She turns and gazes in the other direction towards what was once called the “holy mountain.” She listens. Ah, approaching footsteps, voices, cries, getting faster, higher, sharper, louder. Exciting sounds. Chanting. “Joccoliere, joccoliere, joccoliere!” Children appear from everywhere; they surge into the street. The woman spies 2 men leading them downhill towards the square. Why? Then, she does the unexpected. She returns inside, drops the rest of her laundry and descends the 4 flights of stairs. There, she joins the children and allows herself to be swept away with them to the piazza, where the 2 men, clearly not Italians, begin.

Colorful objects streak through the air. Entranced, she attempts to follow each one that leaves these magicians’ hands. Impossible. The men do this effortlessly, as if they control gravity itself, and all the while, they joke. What surprises her more is how they breathe new life into her world, how their playful spirits touch each youngster, not only do the clubs dance, but the children’s hearts dance as well. For a moment, these kids are no longer nameless or hidden. They are completely present on a piazza in Naples. All have the same thought. That one flies just for me. She feels their joy. She feels the warmth of the sun on the back of her neck, the breeze on her forehead. Sunlight shimmers across the smiling faces of the entertainers and the entertained. What a painting this would make, she thinks. The clothes on the lines between the houses are now flashy parade banners stretched across the street, her street.

A boy clutches the hand of one of the jugglers. The young man seems confused. Then, the boy kisses it.

I stopped. Everything stopped. No one had ever kissed my hand. Never. I stood staring at this small, dark-eyed child for several seconds deeply touched but unable to respond. I was even numb to this.

“Michael! Michael!” Paul shouted. He had already packed the equipment into the duffle bag. “Let’s go!”

 

From Naples, we continued east. By this time, we were confident enough to present our show anywhere, even in the middle of the Ionian Sea on the Brindisi/Corfu ferry in rough waters with the deck heaving beneath us… and we didn’t need Kenneth to capture an audience for us. It was already there, on board.

The physics of juggling on a moving ship are challenging. Once the club left Paul’s hand en route to mine, it was unaffected by the ferry’s motion. However, if the deck was falling beneath me when it arrived, it would be relatively higher and if the deck rose, it would be lower. I’m sure a mathematician could calculate the equation to represent this function but that didn’t concern me–I just needed to catch the damn thing. We constantly compensated for this shift, a reality our audience appreciated as validated by a heavy, happy hat at the conclusion of our show. Among the spectators was an American couple from Seattle, Washington, my home state. Instead of money, they paid in cigarettes, a perfectly acceptable currency. In Athens, these fellow countrymen would play very important roles. But first to Corfu, the northernmost Greek island in the Ionian Sea. We parked Moishe and ourselves at a campground near the capital, Kerkyra. On the Sunday before Easter, we boarded the bus for town to earn a few drachmas.

Ever hear of Saint Spyridon? Well, we hadn’t and we knew even less about his namesake festival. St. Spyridon is the patron saint of Corfu, usually depicted with a long, white forked beard and a woven, woolen sheep hat, the latter as a sign that he was the shepherd of God’s people. Nice, but why did he have to schedule his festival on the same day we were planning to juggle in the street? Didn’t God know we were coming? We immediately gathered a crowd. A friendly officer interrupted, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to stop because the bones of St. Spyridon will arrive shortly.” No problem. We certainly respect relics, especially ones dating back to 348 AD. We honored his request and waited until the procession had passed. Then, we assembled another crowd and began. The officer addressed us again, this time not quite as politely. “The bones are still there! Look!” Okay. We understood. We waited until the bones were good ‘n’ gone, disappeared, nary a bone in sight, vanished. You couldn’t see them bones with the Magellan telescope. We and the people around us were totally boneless. For the third time, we began.

“I have been instructed to tell you that it is illegal for you to be doing this and you must stop.”

Clear. We packed the equipment and high-tailed it to the bus station, but unfortunately, there was a twenty-minute wait. Many people who had seen us throughout the day encouraged us to perform. (There is an international gesture for juggling, flail your hands up and down). Hmmm, one quick show, one quick collection, hop on the bus, Let’s do it! We juggle, all senses on high alert. We juggle. People laugh. No police. We juggle. People laugh. No police. We finish the show. People applaud. No police. We pass the hat. People give. Lots. No police.

Then, greedy, we decided to present a second show. Mistake, big mistake, the consequences from which not even bony and benevolent St. Spyridon could save us. We juggle. All senses on high police alert. We juggle. People laugh. No police. We juggle. People laugh. No police. We juggle. Silence. POLICE. Our crowd parted and two Greek officers grabbed our arms and dragged us towards the waiting car. We barely had time to gather our equipment. They chucked us into the rear seat and drove to the station. They confiscated our passports and we sat for an hour before finally, an interpreter arrived. “Listen, it’s strictly forbidden to extort money from our Greek people.” (Later, the Greeks would extort a lot more money from the European Community, but that’s another story for another day.) However, thanks to the patron saint, all ended well. “Here are your passports. You are free to go. Next time, they will not call me and they will put you in jail. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” We left feeling like two reprimanded children.

Paul and I are clowns and when you demand that clowns obey, they clearly will not. We immediately began planning Mission Stuffed Grape Leaf, codename, Operation Ouzo. Employing strict guerrilla tactics that even the C.I.A. might appreciate, we orchestrated our scheme to conquer Ethnikos Kipos, Athens’ main park. We packed extra shirts in our duffle bag and stationed two assets at the entrances, the American couple we had recruited on the ferry to Corfu. Then, we initiated the operation, our Swan Song, or rather our Rubber Chicken Song, to Greece. We juggled. People laughed. People applauded. We passed the hat. People gave. Then, a shout, “Police!” We changed our shirts as quickly as we could and casually sauntered away, each in a different direction. We left Ethnikos Kipos with the applause, with the joy of those beautiful people in our hearts and their money in our pockets. Play won the day.

 

Turkey. Istanbul to be precise and to be exact, the Pudding Shop. The Pudding Shop, a meeting-place for travelers venturing west to Europe or east to India. Pieces of papers covered the huge bulletin board inside the doorway. If you addressed a message to Michael Christensen, C/O The Pudding Shop, Istanbul, Turkey, I would find it amidst hundreds of other similar notices pinned to that LCD (Low-tech Communication Device.)

Pierre Barouh had organized an audition for us at a posh restaurant. He may not have contacted Yvonne at the La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul-de-Vence that rainy evening, but he made good on this. In preparation, I scrubbed Leonard in the sink of our 3-dollar-a-night hotel room. Unfortunately, in the opening of our routine, we lost control of a ball, which careened into a customer’s table, shattering a glass. We didn’t book the engagement. Oh, well, chalk one up for gravity and nerves.

The next day, we were on the street again, this time, at the Grand Bazaar. As I was positioning the juggling clubs, people asked me how much they cost. At the Grand Bazaar anything and everything is for sale. I’m sure I could have sold Paul and there were times I wish I had. We hustled enough money to cover our hotel, food and massage. I asked the desk clerk the price of a Turkish massage. “If you bathe yourself, is this much. But if you have man bathe you, he do you like the laundry, then is this much.” I paid to become laundry. It was a wrestling match in which I wasn’t allowed to defend myself. At one point, my opponent flipped me onto my stomach, entwined his feet around my legs and leaped, yanking my legs over my head. After I caught my breath, I started laughing.

Istanbul is an exotic boundary, a magical place, a border between worlds. We were still in Europe but if we crossed the Bosporus, we’d be in Asia. We sat in the Pudding Shop sipping our ink black Turkish coffee, imagining how it would feel to cross that river and continue our journey eastward. Emotional suicide. That’s what it would be. We knew we would not continue into Asia. We had reached a turning point, a healthy limit. For us, the border signs read, “You’ve come far enough, fellas. Turn back.” Our choices were clear. Jump into madness or return to France, to Aix en Provence and fulfill a 3-day contract later that year. We toasted with our Turkish coffee. “À votre santé. Save Asia for another day.”

 

I focused on German language studies in junior high school, continued through high school and college, at one point even considering it as a major, before the stage bug bit. I knew many beer-drinking songs, several from Munich.

In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus:

Eins, zwei, g’suffa . .

“Hey, Paul, how much do you think we’ll earn today?”

“I don’t know. Maybe 150 marks.”

I counted 75 marks and handed them to Paul. “Here ya go. I’m going to the Hofbräuhaus to get drunk.”

      

Applause rose from the crowd in the Kärtner Straße. Our performance garnered success day after day and for one month, Viennese city officials assigned us a specific location at specific times and a dedicated policeman to protect us, amazing, our policeman. Everything was routine in Vienna and we felt like Austrian citizens; we actually paid taxes. Ironically, we enjoyed the order and stability that we found so intolerable in London.

But that morning, our Austrian guardian clearly didn’t fulfill his duty. Perhaps he dozed in the shade of the trees and only vaguely heard the oohs and ahs of the bewildered audience as Leonard risked his life, once again executing his “Leap of Death.” We noticed that several collections were smaller than usual. Evidently, during our show, a Romani was circulating through the crowd posing as our father. He remained three or four people deep so we didn’t notice him. He removed his cap, chatted to some spectators here and there, smiled broadly and in fluent German, stated, “I am the father of these artists. Aren’t they incredible? I am so proud of them. But they desperately need the money. Street life is no picnic.” He smiled again. Austrian shillings jingled, bank notes crackled and our defacto father stole a lot of our money before we discovered him and I made the announcement, “Dieser Mann ist nicht unser Vater. Gebt Ihr ihm kein Geld!” This man is not our father. Don’t give him any money. Hey. Didn’t I have enough fathers already? Neil, Vic, Wayne, Walter? Now I have a Romani father. No thanks.

With my facility in the language, we presented a very nice German version of our act. I rehearsed Paul through the cues. There was a moment when he intentionally dropped his hat and while three juggling clubs flew back and forth, I urged him to pick it up, “Paul, heb den Hut auf! Heb ihn auf!” The second he reached for it, I zipped a club at him and shouted, “Pass auf! Pass auf! Look out! Paul, pass auf!” After the show, Paul approached me and asked, “Michael, why do you keep telling me to piss off?”

Sometimes, to give Leonard a break from sleeping in the equipment bag, we wedged him between Moishe’s rear-window and the back seat. He was enjoying the view as we approached the Austrian/Swiss border. The Swiss customs officer was not pleased with what he saw: two scruffy men in a dilapidated car with the steering wheel on the wrong side and a rubber chicken riding shotgun. He took our passports and circled Moishe; then, kicked a tire before disappearing into the guardhouse. I turned to Paul, “They are not going to allow us into this country because we are too dirty.” Finally, he returned our passports and begrudgingly waved us through.

Friends had warned us, “Be careful if you work on the streets in Switzerland. The police will not only stop you but they will take whatever money you have made.” We were cautious because we had learned well. That father-impersonator in Vienna had taught us the importance of peripheral awareness, being aware of subtle changes, sounds and shifts in the atmosphere. We stashed the proceeds of each hat-pass in our car so if we were confronted, we’d only lose one take. After a few collections, a man sauntered over to us. He appeared to be typical tourist, sunglasses, shorts and a potbelly. Belly said, “Do you know that this is not allowed?”

“What do you mean?”

“What you are doing here is not allowed.”

Paul and I exchanged confident glances. That tourist had a lot of nerve telling us what was and wasn’t allowed. Who did he think he was, the police? “Who are you?”

He produced a badge from beneath his fat and said, “Police. Good enough?” Oops. He confiscated our money but fortunately, Moishe was safeguarding the proceeds from several previous performances.

 

At 10:00 p.m. on the corner of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the left bank of the Seine in Paris once again, we resumed our comfortable routine, but there was a difference–we were seasoned. Six clubs rifled between us. The crowd gathered and for twenty minutes, we spun the web, then, delivered our smooth, polite and professional pass-the-hat monologue in French and after a 10-minute break, repeated the sequence until 12:30 a.m.

Now the terraces: We appear. We tip our hats to the comfortably seated audience. Bam! Bam! Bam! Clubs fly. Hats sit on the wrong heads. Where’d that rubber chicken come from? A shoe flies. A what? A shoe. A what? A shoe. Gesundheit. Speak French! O.K. it’s a chausure. A what? A chausure. I’m not so sure. Cue the drummer! Bam! Bam! Oops! Hey, your hat is on the ground! Met ton chapeau sur ta tête! Put you hat on your head! What head? Your head! Whose head? Who’s ahead? I didn’t even know we were keeping score! Ah, those two American boys are trying to speak our beautiful language. Aren’t they charming? Quick, Catch all of the clubs. Look out! Make the catch! Okay, make the pitch! Pass the hats! Take the money! Now, skedaddle! Hit ‘n’ run. Tight‘n’flashy. Eight-minute mayhem.

“Do you have a minute?” A man addressed us after one of these terrace experiences. “I just saw your routine and it was very good and very funny. I thought you might like to audition at our theater, the Casino de Paris.”

Paul and I exchanged glances. “The Casino de Paris? Who are you?” We asked simultaneously.

“I’m an usher,” he said. “One of the artists in our current production quit and I can get you an audition if you want.” We want.

The next day, Roland Petit, France’s leading choreographer after World War II, scrutinized us. Trained at the Paris Opéra School, he became well known for his creative ballets. He contracted us to perform our 8-minute, terrace sequence in front of the closed curtain while stagehands changed scenery for the next dance number. We were one of several variety acts. Surrounded by a bevy of topless French showgirls, a profusion of feathers and a gorgeous headliner, Lisette Malidor, a firecracker from Martinique, we definitely had died and gone to juggler heaven. And the Casino paid us. Lisette had assumed the star role in the production ZiZi Je Taime, originally portrayed by Roland’s wife, ZiZi Jeanmarie.

During this time, Paul and I received a lot of exposure (pun intended) but the real opportunity arrived when we appeared on French national television. Two remarkable artists viewed that program, the late Annie Fratellini and her husband, Pierre Étaix. Annie descended from one of Europe’s most famous circus families, the Fratellinis. Father Victor, uncle Albert and mother Suzanne taught her multiple circus skills. Grandfather Paul was a member of the finest circus clown trio in history, the Fratellini Brothers. However, before becoming the first French female clown and opening the first French circus school, Annie had enjoyed a successful career as a professional singer, musician and actress. The range of talents of Annie’s husband, Pierre Étaix, is vast: director, designer, gagman, magician, poster designer, filmmaker, actor and White Face clown.

Annie and Pierre were in the process of creating a circus, the Nouveau Cirque de Paris. They thought our juggling act on television was excellent and it motivated them to attend a live performance at the casino. Fortunately, they agreed we were just as funny. With a few other artists, we joined them in several promotional events during the winter of 1975 to raise money, awareness and support for their new enterprise. This was our introduction to the world of the one-ring-circus.

 

All of our juggling paraphernalia lay on the bed in a hotel room on Rue Lepic near the Moulin Rouge. It was time to split up. It had been 18 months since starting the Great Adventure. Paul selected three juggling clubs; I took four and the five blue rubber balls. Pointing to Leonard, I asked, “What about him?”

“I don’t know. He’s a real pain in the ass,” Paul answered.

“I know. You want him,” I asked?

“Nope. You?”

“Not really.” We flipped a coin for custody of Leonard; I won.

The Great Adventure credits: Director of Fantasy, Michael Christensen, Partner and Colleague, Paul Binder; Sassy Rubber Chicken, Leonard; Skills Coordinators, Larry Pisoni and Hovey Burgess. The creators of this adventure would like to extend their heartfelt thanks to the members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe for their deep commitment to their direct expression of community support and political awareness through outdoor performances of broad comedy.

 

“Goodbye Paul, it was amazing. Really amazing.” He nodded. I watched as he descended the steps to the metro. Paul was gone; he returned to New York and the next day, I would fly to Seattle to fulfill a one-year contract with the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

I ordered a glass of Côte du Rhone and mused over our eighteen months in Europe. Without exaggerating, I knew with certainty that Paul and I were extremely competent, experienced professionals, with English, French, German, Italian, and international versions of our act. Images of audiences on Petticoat Lane, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Kärnter Strasse, Piazza Navona, so many street corners, squares, terraces, parks and piazzas drifted through my mind. We were showmen. We had mastered the art of making direct, delightful contact. But more importantly, we had learned lasting life lessons, the impact of which I could never have anticipated at the time. And we accomplished it all with seven juggling clubs, five balls and one rubber chicken named Leonard. Oh, yes, there were Kenneth and a very courageous, 1957 green Morris Minor, Moishe.

I forget in what city Moishe’s starter stopped. It was fairly early in the trip, I think. Of course, we didn’t have money to replace it but that wasn’t a problem since Moishe was fully equipped for that eventuality: we crank-started him. In Vienna, we had become commuters. We had purchased a two-person tent in a Viennese sporting goods shop and were camping a few miles from the city in the Black Forest. One day on the way to work, Moishe overheated, and as we suspected, the radiator was leaking. Hmmm. What to do? Since we had long ago decided we couldn’t afford repairs, we opted for a simple solution. We drove until Moishe overheated, stopped and let him cool. Then, crank, crank and off we drove. It added time but didn’t cost us any money and as usual, Moishe graciously accepted the challenge.

Then, the clutch gave up the ghost. Oh my God! Clutches are important; they allow the smooth shifting of gears. Hmmm. What to do? Well, let’s try shifting without a clutch. In first, I accelerated to the speed at which I would normally step on the clutch and shift into second but since Moishe now lacked that specific piece of mechanical equipment, I slammed it into gear with a fast, violent motion. After a horrifying sound of metal grinding into metal, Moishe happily cruised along in second gear until it was time to go to third. Same violent movement. Okay. Wow-clutches are so overrated.

I don’t remember exactly how long we continued without a starter, radiator or a clutch–several days for sure. But the Moishe death knell was tolling; we knew he would never leave Vienna alive. We considered pushing him into the Danube but opted for a less dramatic demise. On some Viennese street, in the middle of the night, we removed Moishe’s license plate and after a moment of silence, walked away. Thank you, Moishe, for transporting us on so many adventures. Rest in peace.

I ordered another glass of wine. I thought about Naples, about the boy who had spontaneously kissed my hand, the result of the power of direct contact and authentic presence. What an unexpected gift that had been. Why couldn’t I receive it? How free and safe the boy must have felt, forgetting everything around him, totally enveloped in the spirit of play. This boy stood on a cobblestone piazza in Naples, Italy but I would discover that same spirit of play would be just as joyfully transformative to an ill child lying in a bed in a hospital room in Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital New York Presbyterian in New York City. Sipping another glass of wine, I felt my exhaustion. After eighteen months in Europe, my starter had stopped, my radiator leaked and my gears were grinding. It was time to go home. But where was that?

 

In the next installment Michael and Paul join Annie Fratellini’s Cirque Noveau and plot the creation of the Big Apple Circus