His house on Logan Avenue in Salt Lake City is a mess. It has never seen a vacuum cleaner, a broom, a mop, Endust, Comet or Mr. Clean. The refrigerator-freezer doesn't work. Dirty dishes have taken root in the kitchen. Trash overflows the wastebasket. The living room is filled with M1 rifles, bowling balls, basketballs, machetes, samurai swords, pitchforks, double-edged axes, lopping shears, amputation saws, hoops, sledgehammers, torches (fortunately, unlighted), hedge trimmers, baseball bats, shot puts, chain saws.
When Bill Gnadt (pronounced ganot) invites a visitor to have a seat, the question is: Where? There may be a few chairs around, but if there are, they are buried under jeans, shirts, soft-drink cans, newspapers and books. That's of no concern to Gnadt. He, after all, only extended the invitation to be seated; it's up to those who wish to accept the offer to work out the details. "Look, if a person has a pathological problem with obsessive and compulsive cleaning, it makes it a very long day," he says.
The reason the 61-year-old Gnadt needs all this junk is that he juggles it. He is the foremost tool-and-heavy-object juggler in the world. A few jugglers juggle a few tools on occasion; Gnadt has 200 different tools that he juggles all the time. At a juggling championship in 1969, he asked an official why there was competition only in boring things like balls, clubs, sticks, hoops and rings, but not in tools. "Nobody does it," was the reply. Said Gnadt, "Then I'll just claim that championship for myself." Ergo, Bill Gnadt, world champion tool juggler. "I juggle every tool Sears makes," he says. "The only problem is. Sears doesn't want its tools juggled."
Nor does Skil want its chain saws juggled. But this is a free country, so Gnadt kicks away enough stuff in his living room to have a place to stand, fires up a chain saw—"Noise is excitement," he says—and starts juggling it along with a pitchfork. "Come on, baby," he exhorts himself, above the roar. He grunts and lunges. It is terrifying. He's mumbling to himself: "Come on, baby. You can't miss even a little on this one."
February 12, 1990
What Gnadt does is incredibly difficult, an act of consummate athletic ability. In no way do trap blocks, forkballs, topspin lobs or dunks compare with this feat. He says, "Juggling is rhythmical, and it's pretty. But I have to lunge and grunt, so what I do is not so pretty. But I don't think of juggling as an act or even an art form. I view it as a challenge, going against gravity and physical forces. It's just that I never look like Fred Astaire when I'm doing it." Instead, he has the look of a mad scientist, his hair flying out at odd angles and his eyes wild.
So this 5'9½", pudgy (182 pounds—10 pounds overweight, he cheerfully admits), balding man who lunges and grunts and talks to himself while he's performing ("Remember the basics: Don't hit yourself in the head") is hardly a slick, athletic figure. Oh, for a brief period in the 1950s, Gnadt tried to smooth out his act. He changed his name to Billy Grace. "Gnadt is not a good show-business name," he says. "It sounds like a German corporal." He also wore a tuxedo. Soon, however, he took his old name back, and he got rid of the tuxedo.
Now when he does a show, he wears pants that are too baggy, and he invariably puts his belt through all the loops but one. He's not the least bit self-conscious about spraying on deodorant in full view of his audience before beginning his act. It's not a joke. He does it because he's hot and sweaty from lugging all his equipment around, and he wants to smell better. On stage, Gnadt most nearly resembles an unmade bed.
During a recent performance at a backyard barbecue in Salt Lake City—he works almost entirely in the Salt Lake area these days, although over the years he has performed in 30 states—Gnadt was being heckled. After ignoring the abuse for a time, Gnadt, in the true vaudevillian tradition, silenced his antagonist by telling him, "Sir, you can go home now. Your cage is clean."
Of his juggling, Gnadt says, "The things I'm really scared of are the bow saw, the sickle saw, the long bow saw, the chain saw, the point on the samurai saber, the machete, the thatching rake and the pitchfork." Which pretty much makes him afraid of his whole act. Yet he has always confronted fear. He was an Army paratrooper and made 60 jumps between 1946 and '48. "I used to volunteer to jump because it scared me," he says. "Some people can do dangerous things, some can't. It's a thrill for me to think I can conquer and control my fear."
It is not, however, a thrill for Gnadt to be orderly and organized and turned out in a form acceptable to polite society. This is a man engulfed by the clutter of his life. He has no idea how to get himself and his surroundings straightened up; happily, he has no desire to do so. For example, on the patio in his backyard, just beyond the ripped screen door, sits lifting equipment: a bench press he has had for 40 years, a curling machine of unknown vintage, a triceps machine. Rust is everywhere on the equipment. So are leaves. Gnadt looks at the leaves and has a conversation with himself, supplying both questions and answers:
Q. Would you sweep up the leaves in the forest?
A. This is not the forest.
Q. Well, O.K.
A few feet away is Gnadt's car, a 1965 Oldsmobile. He recently painted the whole thing black, including the chrome. "You don't often see that," he says.
In the basement of the house is Gnadt's small bedroom. There is one window, covered by a towel. "I don't have a curtain," he says. "Is that bad?" Everywhere are books. Books, books, books. He's forever picking one up and blowing the dust off it, which is a good idea if he wants to read the title. Last year, Gnadt read 129 books; he has averaged 60 a year for 50 years. He has read three different encyclopedias from beginning ("Aardvarks really are very interesting," he says) to end. Among the areas he concentrates on: World War II, old movies ("If you have to explain to somebody why Citizen Kane was the greatest film ever made, it's too late") and medicine. Three times he has read and annotated his 22-volume Medical and Health Encyclopedia. Says Gnadt, "If you don't reread, you forget. All colleges are, are places where bright people pass tests. Retaining it is something else. I just get down here like a slug and read." For at least five hours a day. Seldom does he turn on a light; during a recent month his electricity bill was $6.
Says former NBA guard Mike Newlin, "Bill is the quintessential scholar-athlete. He takes it to the limit in both areas. He's a scholar-athlete for a lifetime." When Newlin was a star player and an honors student at the University of Utah in the late 1960s, he met Gnadt. It changed Newlin forever. Gnadt changes forever everyone he meets. Says Newlin, "He's an ignored natural resource. Meet him and he advances the quality of your life."
That's because Gnadt is fascinating about everything and fascinated about everything. In the 1970s he excelled in table tennis, ranking as high as fifth in the state, and has some 100 trophies to prove it. In '61 he finished fifth in the Mr. Utah contest, and five-time Mr. Universe Bill Pearl, another of Gnadt's friends, says: "For him to be fifth, with his inferior body, was as big an accomplishment as me being Mr. Universe. He never quits anything. Once he gets involved, it's a lifetime commitment. I think the only problem with him is, he's too profound, too deep."
Gnadt's mind is a loose cannon inside his head. It shoots off in 1,000 directions at the same time. Ask him how to get to a shopping mall, and he is instantly talking road construction. "I once had a friend who could talk for 25 minutes on blackbirds," he says, just before he switches gears and rails against speed-reading. "When [Daphne] du Maurier started off Rebecca, 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,' she didn't intend for that to be speed-read," says Gnadt. He repeats the opening line again, softly, slowly, and the words take on added luster.
Gnadt has led a quixotic and bittersweet life. He was born March 8, 1928, in Boise, Idaho, to William Edward and Alice Lynch Gnadt, and moved with his parents to Salt Lake City in '34. In '38, when his parents bought him his first magic set, he would "do a show for anyone who could bear the strain." His first trick consisted of putting a die into a hat, then making the die disappear and reappear in another hat, previously shown to be empty. He developed his skills as a magician and became especially adept at the manipulation of playing cards; to this day he practices such skills as card fanning for one hour every other day. Then came a fateful meeting in the early '40s, outside Salt Lake's Paramount Theater, when funny-man magician Carl Ballantine saw Gnadt doing manipulation tricks. "Clever," said Ballantine. "You ought to try juggling."
Ballantine showed Gnadt the rudiments of juggling and Gnadt was thrilled. He devoted himself to learning juggling, getting help from a stock boy at the local Safeway who could juggle three oranges—if the boss wasn't looking. "I watched one hand to get the pattern down," says Gnadt.
When he was hanging around the Salt Lake Hardware Co., where his father was general sales manager, Gnadt says, "I wanted to juggle the whole store." Which is how tools came into the picture. Explains Gnadt, "I didn't want to copy everyone else. I wanted to invent something new." Sickles and meat cleavers were his first loves. In 1943 he started doing a magic and juggling act for the USO in the area, and upon his graduation from East High, in '46, he went directly into the Army. During his two years in the service, he started juggling dummy hand grenades (which he still does) and rifles and "the kinds of things that you find around Army posts." As Gnadt is reviewing his career in juggling, his mind suddenly takes another sharp turn toward leftfield: "Isn't it sad there will never be another Begin the Beguine?"
In the early 1950s, Gnadt appeared in school assembly programs across the country, sometimes doing as many as four performances a day—and once four shows in four different states in one day—at $16 a show. That wasn't bad pay at a time when motel rooms cost him $3 a night. Then came his big break, a shot as an opening act at the Showboat in Las Vegas. His proudest moment came when he was spinning three basins on a stick in his mouth, juggling two battle-axes and spinning three hoops (two on one arm, one on his ankle)—and an earthquake hit. "But I made the trick," says Gnadt proudly. He did 84 shows over the span of a month and got $500 a week, minus $50 for an agent and another $25 that was taken from him and sent along to unknown hands. Plus he had to pay all his own expenses. It was, sadly, his biggest juggling payday ever.
There were also performances at state fairs. But the brutal truth is that Gnadt, for all his extraordinary talent, never has been able to figure out a way to turn juggling into a cash crop. This is why he spent 25 years teaching special education in Salt Lake City schools, until he retired in 1980. Yet, as testimony to his frugality, he saved $98,000. Not long ago he invested in gems with two friends and lost $25,000. But Gnadt doesn't mope. He repeatedly makes light of his financial debacles. He explains, for example, that he charges $30 an hour for juggling lessons, about what a mediocre tennis pro gets in the area. "But I haven't had many students," he says with a laugh.
Last year he did 90 shows, mostly in shopping malls and at birthday parties at $65 a shot. "I really shouldn't perform for less than $100," he says to himself, just before he starts discoursing on the Galapagos Islands. Though his average annual income from juggling is $5,000 to $6,000, he says, "I do it to satisfy me, and that's difficult as hell." What Gnadt doesn't say is that he spent 20 years taking care of his ailing parents, whom he couldn't be away from long or often.
Besides, Salt Lake City can make anything or anybody anonymous, located as it is in one of the most anonymous of states. The only thing Gnadt regrets not having done is move to a larger city so he could get more work. Denver is where he thinks he should have gone. Clearly, it should have been New York or L.A., because he's a bright-lights act. He has never appeared on Johnny Carson's show, a what-if he discusses with himself: "What if I screwed up? Is that a possibility? Yes."
Seldom has anyone worked so hard for so little reward. Gnadt practices his juggling three days a week for three hours a day; he lifts for 70 minutes every other day; he walks six to nine miles a day, usually wearing a 35-pound vest. "I'm trying to get better all the time," he says.
A few nights after the backyard barbecue, Gnadt is booked for a birthday party at a private home—for $75. "Pretty good," he muses aloud as he drives to the house, oblivious to the fact that the money is not pretty good at all. (Ultimately, the gig took him six hours, 11 minutes, door to door). As he starts to do one of his magic tricks, a youngster in the front row says, "I've seen this one before." Responds Gnadt, "Oh, then close your eyes." He's making playing cards get smaller and smaller. "Hmmm, that usually gets a lot of applause." This group of 40 people produces a smattering of clapping.
Soon he is into his juggling act. Again the crowd seems unimpressed. Clearly the onlookers don't realize how dangerous the tools are. He starts by doing a pitchfork and two double-edged axes; then he's tossing about a machete, the Ninja sword and the Chinese broad sword; next, as he balances a soccer ball on his head, he juggles three thatching rakes. His pants keep falling down, which is not part of the act. There go some meat cleavers and a pickax. Then the machete, a sickle and a bow saw. "Remember, I've never been hurt, never been hurt," he says; it is, at once, a reminder, a hope and a prayer. Then he goes to a baseball bat and two hedge trimmers, which he twirls repeatedly even while he juggles them. "I should have learned how to stop this thing," he says. And away he goes with two pitchforks and a bowling ball, pointing out that "the bowling ball is the natural enemy of the pitchfork."
Lost on this crowd-and, frankly, on almost any crowd—is the difficulty of juggling objects of unequal weight. Gnadt does an eight-pound sledgehammer, a hand grenade and an egg. That receives a few looks of mild interest. The complexity of his act is compounded by the varying ways in which the tools and weapons spin. Sears didn't build its tools to be juggled, so the tools not only become unbalanced upon being thrown into the air, but they also get unbalanced in a different way with each toss. And Gnadt works with heavy objects, 12 pounds for the shot put, which he is quick to contrast with conventional juggler's clubs, which weigh about 10 ounces. He sneers at the comparison.
Then there is the danger factor of the swords and rakes that whiz past Gnadt's eyes. "I've never been hurt by a tool, and I don't plan to be," he says. Hurt, by his definition, means anything that requires stitches.
Oddly, the things that seem the most dangerous are not, according to Gnadt. The chain saw, for example. There are others who juggle chain saws—although not with pitchforks. The difficult part of catching a roaring chain saw—like hitting a three-wood over a lake—is largely psychological. In fact, Gnadt says it's easier to juggle a chain saw when it is on because the momentum of the rotating chain helps to keep the saw oriented. Gnadt did have a special handle put on his chain saws so he would have someplace to grab them. Asked if the saw could be juggled without such a handle, Gnadt replies, "I can't."
Which doesn't mean he doesn't think about doing it. He would love to juggle a chain saw without a special handle. Gnadt always dreams impossible dreams. "I want to read every book I hear about, and I plan to," he says—and then he is abruptly interrupted by another thought: "Ignorance replicates itself at the speed of light, while enlightenment is a very slow process. I don't know who said that, but I say it." Now back to why he would like to juggle a chain saw without a handle: "I love a challenge. Other people try to make things easier. I'm trying to make juggling harder. It's O.K. to miss. Basketball players miss all the time, baseball players miss."
Still, he marvels at the vase jugglers from China, who spin a large, delicate vase around their bodies, passing it from one partner to another. "They come to the U.S. and they bring only one vase," he says. His wild eyes dance in admiration. As well they should. After all, when he was a student at the University of Utah (he has a degree in health education), the Alpha Delta Pi sorority had a large trophy that it awarded yearly to its favorite college man. Gnadt didn't win the trophy, but he did pick it up, balance it on his head and juggle six balls. He was boffo with the girls—until the trophy fell off his head and both its handles were knocked off. "All jugglers miss," he says.
Gnadt also juggles lighted torches—along with two bowling balls, and with a hoop spinning on his foot—a feat he downplays: "Fire is flashy, but I don't have much respect for it. It looks spectacular, but it's not one-tenth as hard as juggling pitchforks." But since audiences equate chain saws and fire with danger, he juggles them.
But back to the subject of difficulty. Gnadt recalls his Army days and how an ornery sergeant would suddenly yell at him, "Jump up in the air!" Gnadt would obey. Then the sergeant would scream, "Who told you to come down?!" Says Gnadt, a man who understands challenges, "Everything to me is trying to be the best in the world at something. I do this simply to entertain people."
Unfortunately for Gnadt, since vaudeville has died and The Ed Sullivan Show has gone off the air, juggling has nowhere to go these days except the gambling centers of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Juggling has been an entertainment favorite for thousands of years; ancient Egyptian tomb paintings show people juggling. Court jesters of the Middle Ages invariably juggled, which figures, since the word juggle comes from the Latin joculari, meaning to jest or joke. The sport flourished in the U.S. between 1875 and 1925; W.C. Fields was an accomplished juggler, especially with cigar boxes. Alas, this ancient activity seems now to have fallen to the level of tomahawk throwing and singing-dog acts.
Bill Giduz, publisher of Juggler's World magazine, says the problem with juggling is that it is "stuck somewhere between art and sport." These days, so-called show jugglers use lighting and choreography and music. Others put on comedy acts. "Flash and dash," says Giduz. Jugglers used to be headliners, but now they are primarily opening acts in the casinos. Kris Kremo has appeared in a revue at the Stardust in Las Vegas for most of the last 10 years, juggling hats and cigar boxes, and Anthony Gatto, a 16-year-old phenom, has been working the Vegas hotels since he was 10. Gatto is generally considered the best conventional juggler—he does balls, clubs and rings—in the U.S., and he accepts that assessment because "that's what my dad says." There are many top-flight jugglers, including Albert Lucas and Dick Franco, and there is comic juggler Michael Davis, who was a hit on Broadway in Sugar Babies. But none of them can match Gnadt, who combines strength with finesse to juggle the oddest and most difficult assortment of things imaginable. "I'm not brave," he says, "but it takes a brave man to do what I do." Even Gatto grudgingly admits that Gnadt's act "is pretty original."
The man considered the Babe Ruth of juggling is the late Enrico Rastelli, who starred in Europe and in vaudeville in the '20s. He was the finest ball manipulator of all time and could juggle three balls off his head at the same time. He is followed in the list of greats by the late Michael Kara, who juggled items commonly found in a Victorian home, including pool cues (he would balance a cue on his forehead and then toss a wine bottle up so that it would end up inverted over the tip of the cue). And then, says Gnadt, "there's me." That may be a stretch. Giduz isn't certain where Gnadt fits in among the nation's 500 or so professional jugglers but "he is the only person who does such a vast variety of heavy- and odd-object juggling." Yet in a sport as esoteric as juggling, who's to say Gnadt's not the third best? After all, he juggled nine rings in 1952 when few others could (since then, three jugglers from the Soviet Union have successfully done 11 rings), and he can do six plates, four in one hand. "The old guys were just better than the new guys," Gnadt says, and his mind swerves off again: "Jimmy Stewart represents everything that is right about America."
What we have here is a textbook example of a man born too late, by perhaps 20 years. "He's a man without an era," says Newlin. "He became terrific at juggling just when there was no place to show how terrific he was."
Gnadt agrees. "I'm in the wrong time," he says. "I liked the Roaring '20s and then all the way up to about 1950. As bad as the Depression was, it was fascinating. Nobody my age likes rock 'n' roll. How could we, after Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller? Elvis Presley knocked my music off the radio, and I hate him for it." Silence. "Of course, Whitney Houston is O.K." Across the room his RCA radio is set on station KDYL, on which Glenn Miller is playing In the Mood. Silence. "You can't improve on Casablanca." Silence. "Generally, films were 10 times better-written years ago. Now, rather than dialogue that works, they put in a car chase instead. I don't think the public notices. In general, the public doesn't know anything about anything. College students can't find North America on a map. I can find Christmas Island. It's unbelievable." He looks desperately sad. And he's off talking about The Prisoner of Zenda and his worries about the preservation of The Cat and the Canary, the 1939 film that made Bob Hope a star. Gnadt does think The Last Emperor and Out of Africa were about even with Whitney Houston. O.K., but no better.
Gnadt has participated in the International Juggling Association championships. He was fifth in 1969, fourth in '70 and third in '71, using conventional juggling items, which are not his forte. But he scoffs at the competition, contending not only that nobody else does what he does with heavy tools, but also that the judging, based as it is on choreography and costuming, is biased against him. On the day of the finals of the '89 world juggling contest in Baltimore, Gnadt was lying on his bed in the basement of his Salt Lake City home, reading a book on the blitzkrieg, having just finished one on mind reading and crystal-ball gazing. He never considered what he was missing in Baltimore. Dr. Nick Vidalakis, a real estate developer and a friend of Gnadt's, says, "I guess one might appropriately describe Bill as eccentric."
And so there he is, surrounded by his juggling equipment and his books. "Maybe I'll read The Films of Errol Flynn next," he says in the semigloom of his bedroom. "Or maybe Mysteries of the Unknown. Man, that sounds interesting." After 3,000 books, it's hard to pick a favorite, but he is sure it is Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer. A book on ghosts comes next, and then a biography of Houdini, five pathology textbooks (his favorite among them is Human Pathology, by Robert P. Morehead, 1,676 pages, heavily underlined and with notations everywhere, indicating Gnadt didn't read it, he devoured it), and Compton's Encyclopedia. His favorite authors are Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And there goes his shooting-star mind again: "The whole bloody Empire of the Sun was evil, really evil." He broods over that thought for a moment before asking, "Do you like astronomy?" Which logically leads into a discussion of the erratic playoff shooting of the Los Angeles Lakers' Michael Cooper, then to Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, then to John Elway.
And right back to juggling. "There is no such thing as a juggler with bad coordination. And I got mine from the same place Michael Jordan got his," he says. For a man as complex as Gnadt—never married because no woman ever passed through his door who felt she could position herself in Gnadt's affection somewhere between a machete and a sledgehammer—juggling is easy. "I tell myself to keep my head still and don't get hit in the face," he says. "Really, all I do is just try to get everything up in the air and then make the catch. With audiences, I've found it's hard to hate a juggler." He reaches over and turns out the light. He won't be needing it. He'll be reading.