Stu Goldberg contacted me because he knew many of the people from The True Art and Science of Hand Balancing, including Bob Jones. Not only was he an excellent hand balancer himself, but trained along side many other great’s in his day. Here are just a few of his stories and pictures. A little piece of history if you will, try remembering the old days…
I was about 14 when I first met Jonesy at his printing business near 9th and Venango st. in Philadelpia, not too far from my house. A wonderfully friendly and helpful counselor at the local YMCA where I was swimming regularly gave me the five dollars to buy Bob’s book. With another young fellow I met there, we sort of forced ourselves on Ben Hurtline, an older man who stored his trampoline at the Y. That was my very first big thrill in trying learn acrobatics.
After meeting some other older fellows at the high school I attended, they introduced me to the professional gym in South Philadelphia on the second floor above the Mercantile Library, on South 11th st…Professor William J. Herrmann’s gym. It cost 50 cents to work out there, and evenings and especially Sundays, were always crowded with amateurs and professional performers of all kinds and ages. There were lots of tumblers and handbalancing teams, tap dancers and jugglers and it was great fun.
Bob Jones only came there once in a great while. He was in his forties then. He would tie a very thin sewing thread which he had premeasured with loops on each end, to his big toe and to the old fashioned heater that was prevalent in those days, and then kick up to the handstand on his fingers. The fine thread was just enough to help him find his way on to just the thumbs, as he slowly lifted up the other fingers. Bob was a real great guy, but a character. As quickly as you could show him some new and difficult one or two man stunt that you were working on, he would ask you to go one step further and try to do it an even more impossible way.
The next top notch gym I grew up in was in New York, 42nd st on the second floor above the automat, between 8th ave and Broadway…George Bothner’s gym. He was about 80 some years old at the time, had been a famous wrestler in his day. Every performer of note passed through that wonderful place every day. I often watched the wrestler Gorgeous George do his routine on the mats in the front window, that he was about to do that night in Madison Square Garden. This was 1950, and it cost 75 cents to workout there. My friend Dick and I were just kids, about 16 then, and we didn’t have the 75 cents to spend. We would lean against the wall and watch everyone until Lou Leonard, the manager, would go to the back of the facility to make his regular rounds to check everything out. It was a very large place, with a barber shop, steam and sauna as well as the dressing rooms in the back, and a huge floor space in the front, with mats covering most of the floor. As soon as Lou walked to the rear, my pal and I would jump into handstands to practice, with our street clothes on. If Lou would come out and catch you upending, it was 75 cents!
Of the photos in Jonesy’s book, Bonnie Nebelong used to come to Herrmann’s. And Joe Rush and Jimmy Gallagher, who were middle aged by that time, or approaching it. John Lucyn also. Joe and Jimmy are pictured featuring the high hand to hand planche. Bonnie in a couple, one of which is a Marinelli bend (That’s the overarched 90 degree handstand that backbenders can do). John Lucyn is pictured doing the handstand on stilts. John Lucyn and Lou Karns (both exceptionally gifted hand and headbalancers, and Lou was also a frontbender/contortionist) used to take me around with them as they worked various nightclubs with their solo balancing acts they did on tables. And Lou taught me the one arm drop. From a one arm handstand down to catching it in a half arm lever. Nothing compared to what various performers are accomplishing today on one arm, seemingly unbelievable feats of both balance and strength.
The one outstanding event I recall from Bothner’s back in the 50’s was a handstand contest to see who could stay up the longest. The gym was filled with the absolute best in the business, all young, strong professional acts. Renald And Rudy, the first hand to hand act to work stripped (in tights, like a bathing suit) at Billy Rose’s famous Diamond Horseshoe, Ray Mott and Fritzie, Glenn Sundby w/George Marlin and Glenn’s sister Delores (The Wayne Marlin Trio), Vic and Adio (from Argentina), Tsilak (also a great Hungarian juggler), The Fontaines (Ballroom dance balancing act), Wally and Marie Allen (The Glenns), and various and sundry others etc. The person who won that contest was a little old chinese lady…Miss Lou, 72 years old, a retired performer who used to come in to the gym daily to go through her old contortion act on a high table she kept there for fun and probably to stay in condition. She was up on her hands over five minutes, just changing body positions, bending one way or another, but never coming down off the hands.
I still have some photos of the various acts that I knew at Herrmann’s, and with whom I worked out on a regular basis back then. They were great times and I really miss them. There don’t seem to be any gyms like that anymore, with open workouts and really friendly and helpful people. Today everyone’s worried about others getting hurt, and lawsuits, insurance, etc.
The other photos in Bob’s book were of one of my early heroes…Unus (Franz Furtner). But Bob was trying to discredit the performance, and so those were not the best viewing of Unus. He was truly a wonderful balancer who did some incredible pressups and one armers. He was 44 when he first came to the US. The first at the time to do the one armer on the cane and spin five hoops simultaneously. And he stayed up there a long time. One of my favorites was his press up and one arm on the pool cue. Tho’ I didn’t know him, I did later work with his daughter Nina, a beautiful amazon who was with the Alberto Zoppe bareback act with the Polack Bros Circus.
That’s it for the nonce.
P.S. Remembering the Old Days I Forgot to mention. Late in his life, Bob Jones moved to Sydney, Ohio. I was fortunate to find him there thru Gay wah Ng, an old army pal, and get to talk with Bob at some length before he passed away. He was a true original.