Much hoopla about Lucy of late, what with Aaron Sorkin’s recent bio-bic, but that red-headed lady clown wasn’t the only Ball in show business. There was also the great sword swallower John G. Ball, billed variously as “Prince Lucky” or simply “Lucky” Ball (1898-1977).
Ball was originally a lion and tiger tamer but switched specialties following an injury (which is a little amusing if you know the hazards. In its way, sword swallowing is just as hazardous as working with big cats, its just a different set of dangers. Ball was clearly addicted to risk). He is said to have been self-taught, but learned some tips from the original Ajax (Alex Linton, not to be confused with the later Joseph Milana, who also called himself Ajax). In turn, Ball taught the craft to his then-wife Estelline Pike. Ball swallowed swords up to 26 inches long, swallowed multiple swords, and also novelty variations like the neon sword and the corkscrew sword. He worked for the Tom Mix Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Royal American Shows, Clark’s Greater Shows, Brodbeck & Schrader Shows, and others. Billed as “Muhammad Ali” he appeared in the Shirley Temple film Wee Willie Winkie (1937), and was also featured in Look Magazine. He was in the business from the 1920s through 1948. John Ball’s son was —
Jim Ball, also billed as Lucky, or Lucky II. Jim was born in 1935, shortly after his dad had learned the sword swallowing trade, and he learned the skill obviously from both parents, as well as by the second Ajax, The Mighty Ajax, Joseph Milana, who later willed him his swords. He started performing when he was 12, billed as “The World’s Youngest Sword Swallower”. Raised mostly in Kansas, Lucky II spent some time out of the business, getting some college, serving in the army, and working at regular jobs. But he also teamed with his mother as a performer. Later he worked with his wife Judy Ball (formerly a New Orleans stripper named Zuzette), and worked solo as well. Over the years he worked at Hubert’s Museum, Ringling Brothers, Bob Hammonds Traveling Shows, Dick Best’s Side Show, and others. For a number of years he was an insurance agent, performing with carnivals and fairs on the side. At the time of this 2015 Time magazine article he was still at, and able to lay claim to being the world’s longest lasting professional sword swallower, having been doing it for 67 years. In 1958 he appeared on the TV game show What’s My Line? with his mom. He passed down the skill to his children and grandchildren.
To find out more about show biz past and present (including circus) consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.