Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Being An Assistant

By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

In May of 2004, I had the pleasure of attending the first Magic Show Conference in Branson , MO.   The classes were taught by Duane & Mary Laflin and Marty & Brenda Hahne.  Each class was either about some aspect of showmanship or about how to develop a show for a particular venue.  I felt that the classes were all very strong.  One of Brenda’s lectures was on being a magician’s assistant.  She directed her comments towards women who wanted to be an assistant.  She also talked about how magicians could work more effectively with an assistant.

After her lecture I began thinking about the times I had assisted magicians.  I realized that her lecture was relevant to everyone because every performer should learn to assist others.  Here are some examples from my experience.

I toured with the Carson & Barnes Circus in 1980 and 1981.  In 1980, Phil Chandler was the Ringmaster.  He also performed a Wizard of Oz illusion act assisted by Linda, his wife, their daughter, and two other women traveling with the show.  I was the off stage assistant for the act.  I helped unload and assemble the illusions.  Just before the act I double checked that they were in the right position for the prop boys to carry into the ring and that they were set correctly.  Linda played the Wicked Witch, and at the end of the act she was turned into a skeleton using an illusion called Burned Alive.  When the prop boys carried the illusion outside of the tent, I helped Linda out of the hidden compartment so she could quickly return to the tent to join the rest of the act for their bow.  Phil felt her reappearance was important to reassure kids that she had not been actually hurt. 

During the first show of the day, I reset the props for the next show.  During the last show of the day, I disassembled the illusions and helped load them. 

One day between shows, one of Phil’s assistants was kicked by a horse.  I took her place as the Scarecrow, wearing my tattered tramp wardrobe, and assisted in the ring during the week it took her to recuperate.

The next year Jim Royal was the Ringmaster.  The show needed a filler act following the Spec and Aerial Ballet.  The decision was made to use a Sword Basket illusion that Jim owned.  Since all of the showgirls, including Jim’s wife, were in the Aerial Ballet they were not available for the illusion.  I ended up being cast as the assistant who was shoved into the basket, vanished, and then reappeared.

In 1982 and 1983, I toured with the Funs-A-Poppin Circus.  Ed Russell was the Ringmaster and Magician.  The assistant traveling with him worked in the concession stand before the show so they were not available to help him with the opening act.  I assisted Ed with the manipulation act that started the show.  (Opening the show allowed him to load his doves and set his props before he became involved in announcing the other acts.)  Ed’s regular assistant helped him perform illusions later in the show.

In 1985, I toured with the Family Showcase Theater for five weeks.  Tim Balster was the show’s illusionist.  Diana Hansen, who did a foot juggling act in the show, assisted him.  However near the end of the show Tim did a Drum illusion where he covered the ends of a large cylinder with paper, produced a huge quantity of silks, and then produced Diana from the drum.  I assisted Tim during that illusion.

I have appeared in many small circus and variety shows with a small cast and crew.  There was no room for egos in those shows.  Everyone in the cast assisted everyone else.  If you were not performing your act, you were available to assist somebody else with their act.

Magicians are not the only variety artists who might work with an assistant.  Jugglers who use a large number of props may emphasize the number by having an assistant toss them the props one at a time allowing the audience to count them.  If a juggler uses a variety of props during their act, the act is smoother if somebody else exchanges the props between routines.  A foot juggler almost always needs help with their props.  I worked many times with Chester Cable who manipulated an eight-foot table with his feet.  After he lay back on his bench, it took two of us to lift the table and balance it on his feet.  Entertainers performing animal acts may need help leading their animals into the ring. 

In the circus, assisting any act besides a magician is called “styling” the act.  Generally an act performed by a male entertainer is styled by a woman or a clown.  An act performed by a female entertainer is usually styled by a man or a clown.

Another type of circus act requires specialized assistance.  That is aerial acts.  A web is a canvass covered rope that is used to climb to aerial rigging.  Tricks performed on the web itself are part of the Aerial Ballet. When somebody is using a web they are assisted by a Web Setter standing on the ground.  By increasing and loosening tension on the web at the right time, the Web Setter makes it much easier for the Aerialist to climb the web.  Some tricks performed during the Aerial Ballet require that the web be kept taut while other tricks require a slack web.  The Web Setter has to know how to adjust the tension. The Web Setter is responsible for making the act look good and for the safety of the Aerialist.  The web may also be used to swing or spin an Aerialist while they are on another piece of rigging.  A Web Setter is almost always male. Many circus Clowns double as Web Setters.

Here is some advice for when you assist another entertainer:


bulletYou should never touch another entertainer’s props without permission.  If they request that you move something for them, don’t assume that you know how to do that.  Always ask if there is a special way of handling it.  For example, my magic table has a shelf that is suspended below the top and hidden by the drape.  If you picked the table up from underneath, the shelf would move upwards disturbing or crushing items set on it.  You pick this style of table up by its center post or by holding the top.  I know other magicians who use a flat table with boxes set on top.  If you don’t pick it up by the bottom you leave the table behind.  There may be special set ups, levers, releases, or other things about an illusion or prop that you need to know about before you can move it properly.


bulletIf a juggler wants you to throw a prop to them, they will generally hold up an empty hand giving you a target.  That is your cue for when and where to throw it.  Aiming for their hand, toss it gently using an underhand throw so that it arcs into their hand.


bulletMake eye contact with the person you are assisting.  This forms a relationship between you.  In 1980, I was a Web Setter during the Aerial Ballet for a lady named Gloria.  After we entered the ring the first thing I had to do was take the cape she was wearing.  I gazed into her eyes adoringly as she gave me her cape.  I carefully folded it and draped it over an elephant tub.  When I returned, we made eye contact again before I lifted her up to give her a boost in climbing the web.  At the end of the routine, Gloria climbed down until I could reach her and lower her gently into her shoes.  Then I got her cape and assisted her into it.  She would turn, make eye contact with me, smile, nod her thanks. Then I would give her my arm and escort her from the ring.  Later in the show, I would exit the center ring after performing a Clown act while Gloria was entering to perform a Head Balancing Trapeze act.  We would make eye contact as we approached each other.  At the edge of the ring, I would doff my hat and bow her into the ring.  She would smile at me, nod her head, and then enter the ring with a majestic sweep of her robe.  I received many comments from people about how much they enjoyed the romantic relationship between the Clown and the Aerialist.  We did not have a romantic relationship outside of the performance and rarely socialized together.


bulletWhen somebody assists you, acknowledge their help unless you are playing a role that requires an attitude like arrogance for comedy effect.  Audiences respond much better to somebody who is likeable.  How you interact with assistants influences audience opinion of who you are as a person.  Your relationship with your assistant can affect how willing audience members will be to volunteer to come on stage.  In effect, audience volunteers are additional assistants.


bulletIf you are assisting somebody while they are working with audience volunteers, help with volunteer control.  Quietly direct them about where they need to stand or move.  Help them feel comfortable on stage.  Quietly reassure them that they are doing a good job.  If a young volunteer begins acting inappropriately, quietly reprimand them.


bulletBe aware of sightlines.  Don’t stand where you block the view of audience members.  Make sure everyone can see what the entertainer is doing.  If there are volunteers on stage, make sure they are not blocking sightlines.


bulletIn addition to keeping sightlines open, you should help direct the audience’s attention to where they should be looking.  Your eyes are an excellent tool to use.  The audience will tend to look where you look.  Don’t look at gimmicks because that may draw the audience’s attention to them.  For example, a Junior Nite Club Vanish is a box with a door in its lid.  Something like a dove is put in through the door.  Then the box is dismantled proving that the object has vanished.  The hidden compartment for the dove is on the underside of the lid.  The lid is taken off first and handed to the assistant.  The assistant holds it in such a way that the hidden compartment is masked by their arms. As the rest of the box is taken apart the pieces are laid on top of the lid. When I assist a magician using this effect, I always hold my arms out ready to receive the lid, but I never look at the lid as it is handed to me. I try to peek inside the top of the box to see if the object is still inside.  That keeps the audience’s attention focused on the box.  This is effective enough that I have assisted circus magicians performing this while surrounded by the audience and nobody noticed the gimmick.  (Our body positions also helped screen audience view of the gimmick.)


bulletUse all of the theatrical tools for controlling focus.  For example, height tends to attract attention.  I wanted to attract the audience’s attention when I reappeared from inside the Sword Basket so I held my arms up as I was uncovered.  When I want to shift more attention to the magician, I sometimes bend forward at the waist looking at something they are holding which makes me shorter.  Sometimes when assisting a female entertainer I drop down to one knee when presenting something to her.


bulletMovement attracts attention so you need to know when to move and when to hold still.  When an entertainer pauses people tend to applaud.  Therefore, many entertainers will strike a pose when they want to give the audience time to applaud.  When the entertainer moves, the audience stops applauding to see what they are going to do.  If an assistant moves during the entertainer’s pause, the assistant both draws attention away from the entertainer and ends the applause.  In a circus, when the entertainer pauses for applause, the assistant also poses with one arm stretched out towards the entertainer.  This pose is called a style, which is the origin of the term “styling an act.”  Many circus performers use a “split finger style” because that is considered more graceful.  This means their first two fingers are straight while their ring finger and little finger are both bent slightly and together.



bulletReact to what is happening.  That helps contribute to the illusion that it is occurring for the first time.  When something unexpected happens, respond appropriately.  When I assisted Tim Balster, we produced two six-foot silk scarves and hung them on backdrop frames.  The scarves were attached by duct tape that was doubled over and stuck to the frames.  At one performance, a corner of a silk came loose and fell to the floor.  I was the one who was closest to it, so I moved over, picked it up, reattached it to the frame, and then took out my feather duster and cleaned it off.  After the show Tim told me that was just the right touch for that moment.


bulletBe sure that you know what to do in an emergency.  In an outdoor circus, a foot juggler using a prop with fire torches on it.  A spark set the grass in the ring on fire.  The young man styling the act immediately went over to a center pole, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and put out the fire before most people in the audience saw the flames.  If he had had to search for the extinguisher, the fire might have spread enough to panic some audience members.  (Panic has been the leading cause of injury to circus audience members historically.)


bulletEven when you are not assisting onstage, you can still help other acts backstage.  Legs are the curtains hanging beside the stage that prevents the audience from seeing through to the backstage area.  Legs frequently get in the way when magic illusions are being moved on and off stage.  When an illusion is being moved, you can help by pulling the Legs out of the way. 


bulletYou can be an extra pair of eyes for other performers.  I performed in a variety show with two magicians who shared the same female assistant.  She had a lot of costume changes, and each costume had several accessories.  Before she went on stage each time I looked to make sure she was wearing the right accessories for that costume.  Even though I was not familiar with all of her costumes I know enough about costuming to be able to spot something that did not belong.  She wore several dresses in that show, and after she got into concealment for a production, I double checked for her that her skirt was not showing.


bulletOne of the biggest myths in clowning is that you should always be in character when you are in make up and costume.  That is false when you are backstage during a variety show.  Responding to other entertainers backstage as your clown character is inappropriate.  In that area you are a cast member instead of a clown.  You should react as somebody doing what they can to make the entire show run as smoothly as possible.


bulletSometimes the greatest assistance you can give is to do nothing.  Respect the needs of others to concentrate on preparing for their performance.  It is a lot of fun to swap stories and experiences.  (In the circus that is called “Cutting Up Jackpots.”)  However, there is a time and place for that.  If other entertainers are ready for the show and demonstrate a willingness to talk, you can enter into conversations.  But if they are being quiet, respect their need to concentrate.


bulletAfter the show, respect their need to pack up their props.  At this time other entertainers don’t welcome distractions and may not welcome help.  Often they can pack something quicker on their own than they can direct somebody else how to do it.  Also, for me the packing process is my method of double checking that I am not leaving anything behind.  I have to do that myself and need to concentrate while I am doing that. 


bulletYou can be the greatest assistance to others by getting your own props packed up and out of the way as soon as possible.  Often when I was with a circus, my props were all packed and loaded before the end of the performance.  If you are sharing a loading dock with other entertainers, move your car close, load your props, and then move your car away so somebody else will have room at the dock.


bulletOnce the packing is done, it is appropriate to offer to help others load out.  Many times after a variety show, the illusionist is carrying crates out long after the other entertainers have left.  I always try to wait and help them with the physical labor of moving out of the building.


No matter what type of act you do, you are more than just your act.  You can, and should, be an assistant to the other acts.  That creates the best entertainment for the audience.  It also generates camaraderie among the cast that makes this art so much fun.


To learn more about being an assistant, I recommend attending Brenda Hahne’s lecture when you have the opportunity.


This article was originally written for the Funny Paper Magazine.  A condensed version was published in the November/December 2004 issue.


Copyright 2004 by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson.  All rights reserved.


The 2005 Magic Show Conference will be held May 12-14 in Branson , Missouri .  For more information on this conference go to



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