Showing posts with label Gazza the Great. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gazza the Great. Show all posts

Sunday, November 13, 2022

'The Clubs feel a ton weight' - The Great Gazza- Juggler and Equilibrist.


Although many famous and talented international jugglers visited Australia, there were others who were probably equally talented but less renowned. These jugglers were mainstays of the Australian and New Zealand entertainment industry for decades. One such juggler was William ‘Gazza’ Walden, who performed with his family as ‘The Gazzas’

William Alfred Walden, later to be known as ‘The Great Gazza’ a juggler and equilibrist, was born in Wellington New Zealand in 1874. His father, James, was a clerk and a detective, and quite a colourful character. In the early 1900s, James was famous for his chronically upset stomach and subsequent printed testimonies for Dr Williams Pink Pills. According to numerous advertisements appearing between 1904-1907, James was one of the oldest identities in Wellington, a veteran of the Māori Wars, a crack shot, a keen oarsman, and a straight and honest man. He was also the father of a large family, including William who was his second son.

It is perhaps not surprising that with this eccentric man as a father, that by 1902, William, still living at home with James and mother Margaret, described himself as a ‘theatrical.’ But it was not until 1905, that his juggling feats began to appear in the local press.

William started the year juggling for a charity function in Foxton, where he ‘indulged in juggling quite successfully.’ By the end of the year, he was performing for Percy Dix as ‘Gazza’ the juggler. He used the name for decades in various forms.

At this stage he was mainly juggling and balancing. He juggled for 15 minutes, and part of his act was a cannon ball trick inspired by Cinquevalli.

‘He takes an ordinary billiard cue upon the tip of which is balanced a heavy cannon ball, balances the cue on his chin, with a quick movement of the hand, knocks the cue away and catches the heavy ball between his shoulders.’

A reviewer called it, ‘hair raising’ and stated that ‘one feels a sigh of relief when he completes his performance.’

Around this time William married Ada Oakes in Christchurch New Zealand. She was an Australian who was also involved in the theatrical profession. Ada and William soon became a double act as the ‘juggling Gazzas’.

In 1906 William was performing in various vaudeville halls around New Zealand. Ada had given birth to their first child Margaret and was recuperating at home, whilst her husband toured as ‘Rudolph Gazza’, Asia’s military juggler’ for a group called America’s Entertainers.

The pair toured the circuit performing for circuses, small variety groups and regional shows for several years in Australia and New Zealand. In 1910 they re-emerged from relative obscurity as the ‘Two Gazzas Military jugglers extraordinaire’. The highlight of that year was a booking at the Alhambra Theatre where William did the cannon ball trick and performed ‘balancing prodigies with a three-legged table supported on the butts of three billiard cues. Ada meanwhile provided the ‘whimsical embellishments’ of a ‘clowning partner’ whilst he juggled.

Three years later they were performing as a trio, little Margaret was now the world’s youngest contortionist and Ada was walking on a wire. Their younger children, William and Harry were too small for the act.  Advertisements spruiked them as veterans of Wirth’s and Fitzgerald’s circuses, the premier circuses of the day, and touted their act as direct from the Fuller’s vaudeville circuit. This pedigree implied that they were a high class turn.

The Gazza Troupe with Baker's circus 1923

At this time, William played the banjo and did juggling tricks, Ada balanced on a ladder resting on a high wire and walked on it gracefully, and Maggie contorted her small frame into strange shapes. They spent the year providing entertainment between films at the new movie theatres and making the occasional appearance in variety programmes. It was a tough schedule with three children and five mouths to feed and they were always hustling for the next gig.

During the first World War they travelled across the Tasman several times with the children. William was too old to fight, and the children too young.  In 1915 they toured regional areas of Australia with Ridgeway’s circus and Vaudeville Company. William juggled, Ada walked the wire and the children performed as acrobats and contortionists. They also performed at the new Sydney Stadium.

It was a punishing schedule travelling through the north of Australia to the south and back across the Tasman to New Zealand. The conditions were tough, the pay low and the work hard, somehow, they managed to survive as a family.

At the end of the war, they had a mini renaissance and found continuous work in both Australia and New Zealand for several years.

In 1920 they performed at the popular Tighes Theatre in Newcastle. In 1921 they returned to New Zealand with Ridgeway’s Circus. They had been associated with the Ridgeways for some time, but the association came to a bitter end when William sued the circus for back pay. The conditions in the circus were not very good, Ada complained about the food saying that it was ‘unsatisfactory’. By this time, they had another child, Stella. William decided to leave and gave the Ridgeways notice, but the circus kept their 5-pound wage. The Gazzas won the subsequent court case and received their pay.

They remained in New Zealand and in 1923 were performing in their own show as, The Gazza Troupe

Margaret performed as a mind reader and was described as a ‘talented young lady’ who earned wide applause. William did sketches and conjuring, Ada walked the wire, and their pet fox terrier did tricks. They included juggling, balancing and acrobatics and the two younger boys also contributed to the show, whilst the whole troupe provided music. They were ‘neat, refined and well balanced’ and possessed ‘exceptional talent.’

They travelled by car to their next destination, but their solo efforts were not very successful. Eventually they joined up with McEwan, the magician, but he thought their show was too weak for the cities. They parted company acrimoniously and William had to sue for lost wages again. Again, he won.

They returned to the regional tours in Australia in the mid-1920s but by the end of the decade William was performing alone. The depression was stifling demand for entertainment, and it seems that Ada and the children had settled elsewhere. By the early 1930s William was performing alone and in 1932 showed as ‘Gazza, the almost blind juggler, the only one in the world’.

William continued to juggle and do odd jobs in circus and theatres. He performed in Queensland near Ipswich where Ada lived with the family and travelled to Sydney quite often to perform in benefits and smaller shows.

In February 1939, the 62-year-old, using the name William Clifford, decided to attempt a world record in juggling. He proposed to juggle three clubs while walking between Gosford on the central coast of New South Wales to Newcastle which was 83 km or 52 miles away.  He estimated that it would take 14 hours and said he would only stop for cups of tea. For the first time he was quoted in a newspaper saying, ‘by the time I reach Newcastle the clubs will feel like a ton weight’

And his picture was published too.

The Great Gazza attempting a world record walking whilst juggling (1939 newspaper)

He completed the feat and attempted a similar trek a month later from Gosford to Sydney. This  walk gained a smaller amount of publicity.

In 1940, 64-year-old William was working with Thorpe Mc Conville’s Wild West Show. A travelling show that visited all the regional areas of Australia. The featured attraction was trick horse riding, but William was performing as ‘Gazza the Great’ juggling and balancing.

After one show he retired to bed and was smoking, somehow his mattress caught fire and he was unable to escape. A passer-by saw the smoke and rushed in to save him, but it was too late, he was found on the floor, dead from smoke asphyxiation.

Gazza was survived by Ada and his children. Harry, his second son, served in World War 2 as a musician and entertainer and survived to settle in Tasmania, Margaret, the child contortionist married in Sydney in 1934 and settled in Sydney. Ada lived in Ipswich until her death in the  1960s.

They are little remembered in the pantheon of juggling stars in Australia, but the Gazzas were a juggling family, and William remained a juggler until his death. Their family was one of many who eked out a living as performers, suffering vicissitudes and troubles and triumphs in the Australasian entertainment industry during early 20th Century. Their struggles were typical of fringe performers who had nothing but family to support their dreams and aspirations in a fast-changing world.