Vaudevillian Hoop Rolling

November 24, 2011 Caroleeena Hooping

When I was in Japan, I got to briefly study Hoop Rolling with Naomi, director of Japan’s Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation and a rhythmic gymnast since she was nine. Naomi could make a hoop roll and return to her in many unusual and inventive ways. Most of us are familiar with rolling a hoop in a line with back spin. Imagine being able to send your hoop off in a circle so that it sneaks up behind you like a mischievous child. It was fascinating and made me see hoops in a whole new way. It got me thinking about the nature and history of Hoop Rolling.

Hoop Rolling has a long and storied history. One of the earliest hoop games involved rolling the large metal hoop from an oak barrel or cask. This metal ring was propelled by a wooden stick. This child’s game birthed a much more interesting form a precision hoop rolling, which, sadly, has largely been lost — Vaudevillian Hoop Rolling.

Ensemble troupes were a staple of vaudeville shows. Actors and jugglers would create short plays based on a central theme. Some of the most interesting of these performed hoop rolling, a precision hoop routine where special hoops were rolled and spun and wobbled across a stage from dozens of different angles and utilizing various methods of English that gave each hoop a life and story of its own. The hoops were the prime players in the troupe’s short play. Each was its own character.

The Kraton Family Circus

One of the greatest hoop rolling acts was The Kratons, a traveling family popular in 1908. The Kratons created their own version of My Town with hoops. Their story was set in a small town with a store, a church, a factory, a saloon and a school. Each hoop became an individual in that town, complete with its own personality. Singly, in pairs or in groups, the hoop people would roll out of a store and into a house, or leave home for church or the factory. One hoop came out of the saloon, staggered around, and landed happily against a lamppost. When the school bell rang, a passel of hoopkids rushed out the schooldoor in every direction. When the factory whistle blew, the worker hoops headed for home, some making detours to the saloon. These scenarios could get amazingly intricate. Hoop couples danced. A girlish hoop dropped a hanky and a courting hoop, with the aid of a pin embedded in the rim, raced along to pick it up and follow her behind some stage scenery. At the finale, the lights dimmed, the church bell rang, and families streamed into the church where a hymn was sung and the curtains lowered.

Until that moment there hadn’t been a single person on stage. Only then did the Kratons appear for their final bows. Amazing!

The great solo hoop manipulators of the past included The Wilfred Mae Trio, Howard Nichols, Francis Wood, Raymond Wilbert, The Alpha Troupe, Belmont Brothers, Conners Brothers, William Everhart, Knetzger, Frank Gregory and the Nichols-Nelson Troupe. More modern proponents have included Paul Bachman, Carter Brown, Bob Bramson, Kit Summers and Larry Weeks. The opening of Berky and Moschen’s “Alchemedians,” using spinning (and talking) steel bowls is a lovely echo of the old thematic hoop rollers. When I think of hoop performers today who might be capable of this feat, the only one I can think of is Paul DizzyHips Blair — and as far as I know he’s never tried to tell a story with his rolling hoops. I wish he would!

There were several standard routines in hoop rolling, some of which are accessible for regular hoopdancers. One of the most visual was the back roll, in which the performer would stoop over and feed a continuous roll of hoops over the shoulder, down the back and up through the legs. This is sometimes seen at juggling conventions but is rarely done by hoopers.

One of the most comedic was the tent roll. Several hoops would be rolled across the stage where they would circle an open tent one or more times before angling through the flap and in. The hook on this routine was the last hoop, which was back spun directly to the opening where it skidded to a halt. As if defying the juggler, it tipped over at an angle, rolled back around the tent, and then, losing speed, fell reluctantly through the tent flap. Again, amazing!

The performers often combined rolling with tossing and passing larger brightly colored hoops, hoops more similar to the large groove hoops we use today. There were also intricate multiple hoop floor rolling patterns, such as four or five hoops traveling in a circle, then four or five being added in another circle or splitting off to make another pattern.

William Everhart and Company

William Everhart of Columbus, Ohio, is credited with originating hoop rolling. He performed all over the world and even did a command performance for Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Buckingham Palace. This man could send seven hoops across a stage and then have them return to him, one by one, roll around him, pass between his legs, crawl up his back and then roll down his extended arms to be caught and sent out again. These are the moves that remind me of DizzyHips. Everhart said, “I lighted on the idea of rolling hoops quite accidentally through seeing someone step on the hoop of a broken barrel, which instantly jumped up and rolled away. I determined to try what they could be made to do. It took me a long time to make them do anything. The trick of making a hoop run up my leg and chest and down my back I practiced for two years, and the run along my arms and shoulders for eighteen months. I am teaching the hoops a trick now that I guess will take them five years to learn perfectly, and when I tell you that eight of the hoops will jump each other in mid-air, I am only telling you a little of the act.”

Everhart was unusual in many ways. He was a blacksmith who taught himself to juggle using horseshoes and coal and without ever having seen another juggler. Once he got good at it, he left his family and became the only white person traveling with a black minstrel group. He quickly became famous and his salary skyrocketed to $350 a week. William Everhart retired a rich and famous man who’d performed in Paris and Berlin and entertained kings. He also taught hoop rolling. Here is a fascinating interview with him from 1901.——-10–1–0-0-0–

Perhaps the most difficult routines were performed with the use of strings, held either by assistants or attached from the performer to a stationary object. Hoops made from bicycle rims were spun out onto the lowest of several strings, then bounced to other strings. By controlling the slack or tightness of the strings, the juggler transformed the hoops into high wire performers.

Gyroscopes, high wire acts, hoops as characters … these unique ways of manipulating hoops have largely been lost. The few people who still practice them are more often jugglers than hoopers. I’d like to see that change. I think rhythmic gymnasts could teach us the skills to help us revive Vaudevillian Hoop Rolling. I am interested in making that happen.

Edited to add: Within a month of writing this blog post, this video came out. Apparently someone is reviving this lost art! Her name is Alexandra Savina and I think she is from Russia.

Ringography by Raw Art

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4 Responses to “Vaudevillian Hoop Rolling”

  • Hi Caroleena, Came across your websites. Loved viewing all the videos.
    I am the last of The Wilfred Mae Trio Hoop jugglers. Bill Strong, of Yesterdaystowns, posted me on his BlogSpot of Aug 2009. You can find photos
    of the Wilfred Mae trio. There is an original photo including Wilfred’s Son as well as photos of when I joined them. I too have been searching for a video or at least a clip. I can recommend some leads in hopes you have better luck.
    Look forward to your reply. Sincerely, B. Nonnenmacher Campisi

    • Caroleeena says:

      That is really cool Bertha! I am sorry that I am just seeing your comment now. WordPress doesn’t always email me about comments. I would LOVE to see some old footage if you find some. Do you still do object manipulation?

      • Hi Caroleen, In reply to your message, No, at age 83 with arthritis,
        I don’t keep up with it. I do what I can to teach my Grandchildren &
        encourage them. If you viewed Yesterdaystowns blog site, you will
        notice the different formations. Wilfred even did the string trick and
        some rolling of the hoops. I believe Sealtest Big Top TV still has an
        episode of our performance. (Aug. 11 1956), which was only one
        performance out of 4 times working that show. Sometimes Wilfred
        used his Sir name, and we were the “Gregories” We also performed
        on Super Circus TV out of Chicargo , and at the Palace theater in
        NYCity. Sure wished someone had taken movie film of the act during
        that time. Wilfred kept up with all the Jugglers performing during that Era.
        Meeting Howard Nicolas was a treat for me. We performed on the same
        bill along with Francis Brun, only because of the different type of juggling.
        Our act with HOOPS and Francis with – Rings, Balls and variety of props.
        Admired all the jugglers at that time. You do a terrific job with the huller
        hoop. Keep up the good entertaining. As always, Bertha

  • Cora Schiller says:

    Oh yay thanx for posting this. I was mesmorized a while back when i watched this the 1st time…..seems so effortless…mmmmm……. hugs & hoopjoyjoy~

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