Every so often in this business of professional juggling you encounter truly inspiring people. It happened to my wife and I while performing on the "Sovereign of the Seas." A couple approached me and told me they enjoyed the show that they enjoyed variety acts because they were retired jugglers and unicyclists. Casting the props aside, we talked late into that night with Frank and Joyce Kirk.
Both husband and wife began their show business careers early. Frank started in Sheboygan, Wisc., at age 3 under the tutelage of his father, a circus performer who was self-trained in trick bicycles, unicycles, juggling, slack wire and trapeze. While other children played hockey and baseball, Frank Jr. learned to ride a unicycle and trick bicycle. He got into the act one night when his uncle was injured and couldn't perform.
Joyce began working with her uncle's act, "The Victorian Troupe," in England at age 14, also performing unicycles and trick bicycles. They both have fond memories of performing as youngsters, enjoying the travel and ice cream cone rewards for a good performance.
They met in St. Louis when the Victorian Troupe was making an American tour. Though she returned to England, they kept in touch through the mail. Frank fell shortly thereafter while free-mounting a 10-foot unicycle in Indiana and dislocated his knee. With some mandatory time out of the act to heal, he traveled to England to visit Joyce. They were married soon thereafter.
Their act opened with Kirk and Joy riding in on trick bicycles. Joy dismounted while Frank did a solo routine that included the boomerang (swinging over the front tire on the handlebars), rear wheel pirouettes and the break-away, which left him riding only the rear wheel. Joy's solo included balancing on the front tire and crawling through the frame of the bike as it rolled around the stage. They then did a dance routine on eight-foot unicycles. Frank juggled next on the tall unicycle, starting with top hat bounce catches to the head and foot. He then did five rings. He said his most commercial trick was four rings spinning on a mouthstick, six rings spinning on his arms, and a Teddy bear spinning two rings on his left foot, all while riding a tall unicycle.
In another routine, Joy would step up the unicycle tire and climb up on top of Frank's shoulders, then juggle three rings as he idled. When they needed to stretch the act they passed seven rings.
Free-mounting the ten-footer was a big crowd pleaser, and he usually intentionally missed the trick at first to heighten the suspense and appreciation for the trick. He devised a mid-step connected to the frame which activated a brake for the split second when his foot was on the mid-step, before it reached the left pedal.
One time on a live television broadcast he missed the free mount and dislocated three fingers when he fell. But the show went on, and he mounted it on the next try. However, he couldn't work for three weeks thereafter. Six months later on the same show he got it on the first try. The host told him later he was better on the earlier occasion when he fell on the floor and pretended to be hurt!
In 1962 Frank introduced a new bit which became his signature trick. With help from a machinist, they built the "Magic Wheel," a unicycle that went from seven to ten feet, getting taller as they pedaled it. Through means of a sophisticated gear and transmission, along with a goose-neck chain system, it raises and lowers three feet.
The effect was heightened as Frank rode on stage as a drunk. Spying a bottle sitting on a lamp post, he rode over to fetch it. As he reached for it, the lamp post would suddenly rise three feet. Stunned, Frank would persist in getting the booze by making the unicycle rise. As he reached for it this time, the lamp post shrunk. Not to be outdone, Frank made the unicycle shrink. Thinking he could finally reach the bottle, the lamp post then swung around to hit him in the back of the head. The act worked best in night clubs, where he was close to the ceiling. The effect sometimes got lost in the vastness of a circus tent.
Kirk and Joy performed throughout Europe, Canada and America, working nice theatres like the Hansa and Wintergarten in Germany, the Savoy in London and the Palace in New York City. They particularly enjoyed variety theatres in England because shows were early - 6:15 and 8:30 p.m., with Sundays off.
Some of the acts they worked with and admired were Bobby May, Francis Brunn and Rudy Cardenas, whose work with hats and cups especially impressed them. They worked steadily into the late 1960s and early 1970s, when work became harder to find as variety theatre faded. They retired in 1974 while working at the Old Heidelberg club in Miami, where they had been regularly working six-month contracts.
They eased out of show business and into an air conditioning business in Florida. They have since given that up, and are now enjoying a second retirement. Meeting Frank and Joyce Kirk was an inspiration to Meg and myself. They have shared secrets with us and inspired confidence in us during our visits to their home. Although they haven't performed since 1974, they have gained two new fans in Sean and Meg Emery!