Showing posts with label The Littlejohns. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Littlejohns. Show all posts

Friday, September 23, 2022

The Amazing Sparkling life of Frank P Littlejohn- Juggler


Frank Littlejohn, juggler, inventor, parachutist and acrobat had an eventful life that spread across two world wars, a depression and the 1960s social revolution. Frank was an inveterate traveller and skilful performer who juggled his entire life.

Frank Price Littlejohn was born in California in October 1890, his father was a farmer, but Frank obviously felt that farming was not his forte. He apparently had other, bigger, plans.

By the time he was 19, Frank was living in Oregon with the Brennon family. That same year he married 20 year old Clara Brennon. It’s not clear how or why Frank decided to become a juggler, but by 1913 he and Clara were juggling as ‘The Littlejohns’ on the variety circuit.

Not only was he juggling, but Frank had patented his own juggling club design.

In 1914 Frank submitted a design for an Indian club with a difference, it reflected light and was decorated with rhinestones. Frank’s 40 year juggling career was subsequently built on this invention.

Frank’s Juggling Club Patent.


Shortly after the club was patented, the Littlejohns were seen on stage in Chicago by Australian entrepreneur Ben Fuller, who invited them to Australia for a tour.

The pair readily accepted and in 1916 arrived in the country.

Their act was a ‘sparkling’ turn, filled with flashing props and shining costumes.

Axes and clubs set with crystals spun through the air whilst Frank and Clara balanced on a white shining wire. Clara balanced and juggled on a large mirror ball whilst Frank spun plates studded with rhinestones. The effect was a radiant flashy sequence of lights on stage, thrilling the audience with visual wonder

Frank and Clara 1916

The pair toured the whole country, visiting Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Adelaide and regional areas such as Newcastle in New South Wales. Clara was pregnant and gave birth to their son Robert when the pair were in Sydney.

They remained in the country until February 1917, when they returned to the United States. While in Australia Frank had registered another patent, this time a method of attaching sparkling gems to flexible materials. This too formed the basis of his long career. 

In 1919, Frank and Clara applied for passports for another tour which included Australia. By this time they had two children, Frank and Robert.

Their intention was to travel to Japan, China, South Africa, India, England, Australia and Egypt. They arrived in China in 1920, but tragedy struck. Clara died shortly after giving birth to their third child, who it seems did not survive.

Frank decided to continue and he eventually ended up in Australia.

According to the Australian government, in 1920 he arrived with another woman who he said was his wife. In December 1920 he and this woman were performing in the Sinbad the Sailor pantomime in Melbourne for the Tait Brothers.

It seems that Frank often arrived in random countries without work contracts, hoping for the best. He seemed to have good contacts and a fine reputation amongst Australian managers and readily found work at this time.

The act stayed with the pantomime until February 1921 when it appears Frank returned to the United States for a time. The highlight of the performance in the pantomime according to the papers was the ‘balancing’.

When Frank returned to Australia in May 1921, he brought another lady with him. But this relationship did not last, because Frank had met Melba May Wilmott who became his juggling partner in the ‘Littlejohns’.

They briefly appeared on the Tivoli circuit, but there was little publicity or work available. According to the trade magazines, ‘Littlejohn laid off quite a while in this country waiting for an adequate salary. When it wasn’t forthcoming he decided to beat it.’

 By August he wanted to beat it with Melba. She was a charming 17 year old theatrical from Milton in New South Wales. Her father, George, was a labourer. However, Frank could not take a 17 year old to the United States without her parent’s permission. It seems George may have issued an ultimatum, and Frank and Melba got married in a beautiful church in North Sydney which overlooked the harbour.

Shortly afterwards, they travelled to the United States, to play the vaudeville circuit.

According to Frank, during this period they also performed in Japan during an earthquake. As the last act on stage they had to abruptly leave when the quake hit. When they returned over 1000 rhinestones were missing. The manager apparently explained that this was the audience’s way of showing appreciation.

In 1923 they returned to Australia. They were engaged to Fullers for a period of 28 weeks from August for a dual salary of 40 pounds per week.

Melba and Frank 1920s

It was, at this time, at the beginning of the roaring twenties, that the Littlejohns reached the pinnacle of their fame. Their bright, iridescent act fitted perfectly with the excitement, joy and exuberance of the era, and their high energy light show reflected the optimism of the age.

They entered a stage decorated with blue velvet curtains with elaborate decorations outlined in shining gems. Above them was a spinning vase reflecting a rainbow of lights.

Frank and Melba juggled on large multihued spheres and manipulated axes, dice, plates and their  patented sparkling clubs while dressed head to toe in bedazzled costumes.

It was the visual glamour of the setting that enchanted audiences and embodied the ethos of the age. The reviews concentrated on the set more than their juggling skills, although both performers were acknowledged as talented jugglers.

As one newspaper described it

 ‘The stage, the costumes and every item employed in the act are eye dazzling in a myriad of colours’

The pair were also praised for their prop making skills with Frank claiming to have worked in rhinestones for over 18 years. Frank said that he had provided special props for Broadway productions, circuses and more than a thousand vaudeville acts. He told one newspaper that he had a production house in New York where he paid workers one pound per 1000 rhinestones set.

 The pair played in the Mother Goose pantomime at the end of 1923 and stayed with the show whilst it toured the major cities of Australia.

After their contract with Fullers expired they put together their own touring company which travelled the regions of Queensland.  Then in 1925, the Littlejohn revue company travelled to Asia.

 It seems that Frank, as usual, had not arranged any firm bookings for the company before leaving Australia and without these, the performers were left without money and occupation. Members of the company started leaving. Albert Rees, the pianist quit, Ivy Nicholls left in Hong Kong, whilst Bessie Lester also left. A later report from the Australian government stated that two Australian women were deserted in the Phillipines by the Littlejohns.

The advance manager for the show, Jack Emsworth told a trade magazine that,

‘I am sorry for Littlejohn, he lost a pot of money.’

Frank and Melba cancelled the tour and travelled to the United States. There they performed on the vaudeville circuit. They also ran advertisements in Variety Magazine for Littlejohns Inc, 254 W 46th Street New York. Littlejohns Inc sold 100 rhinestones for two dollars. The price included instructions on a patented method of attaching rhinestones to any material. Littlejohns Inc also offered to rhinestone shoes for 35 dollars a pair. Clearly Frank was trying to make up for his losses from the tour.

In 1929 Frank and Melba returned to Australia to little fanfare. Their exploits in 1925 may have soured the local community against them and the dire economic situation was not promising for theatrical endeavours. The pair had a brief pantomime appearance and then toured Queensland and New Zealand with another company formed from local talent.


In 1930 Frank tried to arrange passports for the troupe to tour overseas, but ran into some difficulties with the authorities. An official Australian government report referred to a 1924 investigation that found that Frank’s ‘moral reputation had little to recommend it.’

Given this and that one of the troupe, 18 year old Winnie May Miller, was under age, the government investigated Frank again. It found that he had no firm bookings in Asia and was inclined to deny permission for the passports

However, Frank provided evidence of good character. He deposited money for a return fare for the women of the group and obtained permission from Winnie’s mother to take her abroad. In addition the Actors Union supported his application, saying they had received no complaints about his behaviour.

Finally the government approved the application for passports, but Frank decided not to proceed. The depression had decimated the theatrical industry. Instead, Frank, with Melba and 18 year old Winnie, travelled to the United States.

Presumably the three of them performed there.

The Littlejohns in the 1940s

Frank and Melba returned to Australia in 1935 for a run with the Tivoli circuit and another Queensland tour with a revue company. They returned again in 1941. The lack of performers during the war led to a mini revival in their Australian career and they spent most of it making sporadic appearances at the Tivoli.

A 1940s Tivoli Program

Frank and Melba continued the travelling life for the next decade. When in Australia and not performing they stayed at Melba’s family home in Milson’s Point in Sydney.

It was there that Frank’s children visited him. One remembers visiting his father around this time.

He lived at Milsons Point in Sydney and kept all his juggling equipment and props in his garage, I would visit after school and we would juggle and roll out the big rhinestone balls on a canvas sheet on the grass. good fun when you are a Kid

Frank continued travelling and performing well into the 1950s. It seems he could not stay in one place for too long. However, it was in Australia that he died in 1967, and despite never becoming a citizen, it was here that he stayed and worked most often.

Frank in the 1950s

Frank still has descendants in Australia and the United States who take a lively interest in the adventures of their famous juggler ancestor.