Poor James Harrigan. The Original Tramp Juggler had his act stolen by many (most famously W.C. Fields) and posterity is apt to mix him up with the better known Ned Harrigan of Harrigan and Hart. He was born James Horrigan circa 1870. Here’s how he devised his persona in his own words:
“I was getting a small salary, doing an ordinary juggling act. One day I received an invitation from the Baltimore Press Club to spend a day at their camp on the Ohio river. I was greatly troubled in mind, as to how I could raise a little money for a contribution of fruit, cigars or some other gift that was customary for visitors to offer. An appeal to the manager of my company for salary in advance did not meet with success so I pawned my stage dress suit to get a little money. When I returned at night, the situation was decidedly awkward. The manager stormed and I hastily borrowed odd garments from the other performers, mussed my smooth hair into a tangle, put on a half-inch beard with a handful of burnt paper and rushed on the stage as a tramp. My turn made such a hit that I was greeted with the emphatic words of the manager “If you ever get that dress suit out of pawn, I’ll shoot you!” So I remained a tramp behind the footlights ever after.”
Harrigan interspersed his juggling with funny character business (e.g., lighting a match on his beard), easy banter, jokes and humorous stories, songs and in later years magic. Starting out in the late 1880s, within a decade he was so much imitated that he had to copyright his act and aggressively bill himself as the ORIGINAL Tramp Juggler. Although Fields’ act was somewhat different (his was mute), his costume and many of the juggling tricks were the same, so whenever he found himself in the same place as Harrigan, he generally had to duck out to avoid a confrontation. Ironically, around the time Harrigan retired from performing, Fields did began to talk and evolve away from tramp juggling. In later years, Harrigan is said to have worked as President of Empire Sand Company, in Buffalo, NY. I’ve seen two dates for his death: circa 1923 and 1940. If I come across the definitive date, I’ll post it here, and readers are invited to do the same!
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.