Bobby May is one of the greatest jugglers in the history of show business, and he went against the vaudevillian grain by being humble about it. There’s a terrific documentary short about him and the contrast between the startling pictures of his performances, and his self-effacing attitude in interviews is extraordinary. This is a man who could balance a ball on the back of his neck while skating, and catch the unlit end of a flaming match in his mouth, then light the cigarette already in his mouth without using his hands. He talked about juggling eight balls as though it were just merely something he had learned to do. His control was downright yogic.
Born on this day in 1907, he debuted at Luna Park in his native Cleveland, at age 15 (he’d been practicing his tricks for three years). He worked regionally with partners for a few years, then made his New York debut at the Greenpoint Theatre, Brooklyn as a single in 1928. The Keith-Orpheum scouts immediately sent him on a gig time tour. His humility notwithstanding, he was a consummate showman. His billing was “Bobby May — Or He May Not”. No mention was made of his juggling. He began his set by playing the harmonica, and then went into his juggle tricks. it’s been said that any single routine of May’s had as many variations to it as most other juggler’s entire acts. May’s big time tenure (including gigs at the Palace) lasted as long as the circuit — until around 1932. After that he worked nightclubs, did a Vitaphone short, toured with the U.S.O., spent a couple of decades with skating shows, and did some television. A stroke in 1968 forced him into retirement. Strokes and heart attacks continued to plague him over the years, finally finishing him in 1981. At least one of his many proteges is still performing. May took Dick Franco under his wing during his declining years. You can find out about Mr. Franco here.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments. And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc