Hovey Burgess is a world-renowned acrobat, author, teacher, and self-described foot juggling polar bear. More on that later…
Circus-wise Hovey has performed with Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora, Circo dell ‘Arte, The Electric Circus, Toledo Zoo Wild Animal Show, Flying High Circus, Hagen Bros. Circus, Patterson Bros. Circus, & Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, to name but a few. Hovey has taught at Juilliard, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and was a teacher of Circus Arts at NYU for over 50 years. Hovey is the first known person to perform the Seven Ball Lift Bounce, a now-classic juggling trick involving the continual bouncing of seven balls at once. YouTube it. It is incomprehensible.
To this day Hovey appears in burlesque & variety shows as a foot juggling polar bear alongside his lovely assistant, burlesque starlet, Lil’ Miss Lixx, appearing in such shows as The Mister Coney Island Pageant, Tainted Cabaret, Kinky Christmas in July, Wilfredo A-Go-Go, Corn Mo & The Love Show, The Furry Follies, Stache Novak’s Midnight Fingers, and Bostock & Burgess’ Arena of Exotic Beasts.
Today, at 81, Hovey is a regular patron of the Slipper Room, NYC’s famous burlesque house. But he’s more than a regular. He’s a fixture. A landmark. With his own cocktail table permanently reserved in his name. Every night, Hovey can be seen nestled behind his cocktail table at the foot of stage left, sipping milk and stuffing dollar bills into G-strings between cat naps.
I met with Hovey at the Slipper Room where we chatted about some of his experiences with circus and burlesque…
BT: How would you describe yourself? What is your title?
HOVEY: Well, at this point, I only want to be a polar bear that foot juggles.
BT: How did that come about?
HOVEY: I have a veritable obsession with polar bears. I worked with a polar bear when I was in my early 20’s. That’s also when I got exposed to burlesque. Or exposed myself to burlesque I suppose I should say. In the meantime, I taught circus skills at New York University for 51 and a half years, a hundred semesters exactly. Upon retirement from that, I was interviewed by New Yorker Magazine and that’s when I said, “I just want to be a polar bear that foot juggles.”
I had a serious accident about six years ago, right here in the Slipper Room, on the stairs. I fell and completely severed the tendon of my left knee and badly tore the right knee. Which made it not possible to walk. They repaired the left knee, they did nothing with the right knee, and as a result, I’m not that steady on my feet. I’ve done all kinds of circus skills, but I found now that foot juggling, where I lie on my back and spin a cylinder on my feet, is about the only thing I can do as well as I could have done it if I wasn’t crippled. In other words, I didn’t choose foot juggling, foot juggling chose me. I’m playing a few other cards as well. I’m 81 years old, I’m crippled, and I’m going to be in a bear suit. Therefore, the fact that I foot juggle at all is supposed to be amazing. I’ve been practicing foot juggling with my helpers, Li’l Miss Lixx, Bambi the Mermaid, and the Real Life Wilfredo. They hand me the props. Just this last month I’ve actually done over 200 kicks in a row, 4 times.
BT: Amazing. Back in the day, you invented something called the 7-Ball Lift Bounce?
HOVEY: Yes, I created the 7-Ball Bounce. And with my lovely and talented ex-wife, we worked up the passing of 10 clubs. And these are the real big clubs. Not the kind of clubs they practice with today.
BT: Your ex-wife was a juggler as well?
HOVEY: Yeah. Actually, she was a student at NYU whom I married.
BT: Hubba hubba.
HOVEY: That could be a mistake.
BT: At the age of 17 you joined a travelling circus.
HOVEY: That is a funny story. I got my suitcase and got on the circus lot and I was hired. And they said, “You can sleep in any empty cab.”
BT: Cab? Like a train?
HOVEY: No. Trucks. Tractors, trucks and cabs. So, it got dark and I looked around, and there was somebody sleeping in every single cab. And then it started to rain. So I crawled under a semi…
BT: Ah, showbiz.
HOVEY: The semi was not hooked up to a tractor. And there was this thick layer of grease where they attach it to the tractor. And I got it all over the back of my favorite jacket. And I slept with it raining under the truck and I said, “This might be the worst decision of my life.” And then in the morning I woke up, and I saw four elephants grazing. One was sleeping, lying down. The raining had stopped and I said, “Oh no, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
BT: And then you eventually met this polar bear.
HOVEY: Yes, by the time I met the polar bear I was working with another circus, The Hunt Brothers Circus in Hempstead, Long Island. At the time it was the largest laminated arena in North America. It has since been torn down. Now, when you do New York, as opposed to out in the sticks, you bring in some headline acts. Maybe three. The guy who’s shot out of a cannon, a woman with a polar bear act, a chimpanzee act…
Anyway, one of the acts was a bear act. There was a European brown bear, a Himalayan black bear and a polar bear. I was a regular prop man with the circus at the time. The bear trainer was a woman named Eloise Berchtold and she already had an assistant. Now, there was a brown bear named Brandy who foot juggled. One time Eloise’s assistant was moving a platform for the bear to lie on. It was a cylinder with a little flag on each end of it. And when he lifted it up the for the bear, one of the bear’s legs fell out. Well, I just ran in, grabbed the leg, put it back in and ran out. Later I thought, “Well, she’s really going to appreciate that I did that.” She came over to me and she said, “Don’t run around bears. That triggers them to attack.”
However, she took my name and address and later in the season she contacted me. And I became her new assistant. Now the polar bear’s name was Zero. She rode a motorcycle among other things. Which was my favorite trick. It was my job to start the motorcycle and get it lined up for Zero to get onto. The motorcycle was welded into second gear, so I would start it, straddle the front wheel and hold it. I don’t think the bear really liked doing the motorcycle too much. I had to wear a leather jacket because every single show the bear woulad growl and swipe at my arm. And Eloise would say, “Zero!” And slap Zero in the face and Zero would stop attacking me.
BT: How scary was that??
HOVEY: Oh, it was not so scary for me. It was thrilling. I liked the whole idea of it. Zero would ride the motorcycle around three times. There was a knife switch at the back of it and I broke the connection and that stalled it, and it stopped, and the bear got off.
BT: So, you’re in the ring this whole time. Did you have a flashy outfit?
HOVEY: Yeah, I was wearing my favorite dinner jacket with tux pants. That’s what I would wear as a juggler. But now I was moving out of juggling, into prop-work, and then assistant animal trainer.
BT: What other responsibilities did you have?
HOVEY: I would help put on the muzzle. I would have to feed the bears honey which made them oblivious to the fact that a muzzle was being put on them. We would be feeding the bear with no muzzle. Eloise would be putting the muzzle on and I would be feeding the bear. The bears could only think of one thing at a time. So, if there’s honey there, they can only think about honey.
BT: So, this trick worked every time?
BT: Not the brightest, are they?
HOVEY: A sidelight about Brandy the Bear; Brandy would foot juggle like this (turns head to the side) and I said, “You know, she’s really casual about that foot juggling.” And Eloise said, “Not really. She’s got a cataract in one eye. She can only see out of one eye.”
BT: Sometimes side-eye is a medical condition.
HOVEY: I learned a lot from Eloise. She said that animals were very consistent. If you have to discipline them, it’s because they’ve done something wrong. And they know when they’ve done something wrong. They don’t get mad at you for disciplining them, they get mad at themselves. But you can’t discipline them for something they didn’t do wrong. That would be a big mistake.
BT: Indeed. What other animals did you work with?
HOVEY: Eloise also had two lions, two tigers, a mountain goat, and a horse. One time I was raking out the horse’s stall and the horse chomped down on my elbow. And I went whack right in the horse’s face. And I thought, “Uh oh, now what have I done?” So I said, “Sarah, gimme a kiss.” And she licked my cheek. So, she knew she wasn’t supposed to bite my elbow when I was cleaning her stall.
BT: And you worked with lions?
HOVEY: I didn’t do much with the lions, except I threw horsemeat to them.
BT: Horsemeat? How did the horse feel about this?
HOVEY: The horse was not happy. Now, because I was at the zoo, there were a lot of animals to feed. When Eloise showed me how to get the meat I was like gasp. Big thick pieces of meat about 4 inches thick, more than a foot square, and it’s all bloody. And you have to grab it and throw it in this little slot at the bottom of the cage where you pull out the shit. At the time I was a very squeamish guy, but I was like, “Well, either I throw this bloody meat in the cage or I don’t get to work with the polar bear.” So I threw the bloody meat in the cage.
Now on Sundays Eloise would come early in the morning and clean out the cages so I could sleep late. And therefore, on Saturday night, I would take a shower and I would take the bus into Toledo. And there was a nice little Jewish restaurant where I would have a nice roast beef sandwich and then I would walk about three blocks to the Town Hall which was Rose La Rose’s Burlesque House. And it was amazing. And that’s really where I got hooked on burlesque. Not here at this table in the Slipper Room, but in Toledo when I was just 21. Just old enough to legally get in to see the show. And I saw the show every Saturday night. I would leave the zoo and I would go in and it would be a different headliner each week. It was a circuit and there were four house strippers. Curiously, one of the house strippers’ names was Brandy and the bear that foot juggled’s name was Brandy. But going to the Town Hall in Toledo and seeing burlesque, including the comics, was such a joy.
BT: Would the comics do the old comedy sketches?
HOVEY: Yes, they had several sets. There was the forest, the hotel lobby…The lead comic was named Art Watt but his stage name was Peckerhead Muckinfuch. And invariably the straight man would introduce him to one of the dancers and he’d say, “This is Peckerhead Muckinfuch.” And Peckerhead Muckinfuch would say, “But you can call me Pecker for short.” And the dancer’s line was, “Pleased to meet you Mister Short Pecker.” And every Saturday night they worked that into whatever skit they were doing.
BT: That’s the beauty of comedy in burlesque. You can roll out the same darn jokes night after night.
HOVEY: Oh yeah, you’re kind of waiting for them.
BT: Speaking of comics, you went into clowning, is that correct?
HOVEY: I didn’t think of myself as “a clown” but I definitely clowned. I got into the Commedia dell’arte. The whole original idea of clowns in Western civilization. I mean comics, be they Sir Richard Castle, or Peckerhead Muckinfuch, or circus clowns, they’re all pretty much the same. Burlesque clowns do bluer material then some other clowns. If you look at someone like Bert Lahr who was a burlesque comedian, what’s the difference between him and a circus clown? Not much.
BT: Dick jokes. That’s the great divider.
To WATCH the full interview with Hovey Burgess, visit our LUSTY LIBRARY and hear about Hovey’s work with ROBIN WILLIAMS and Director ROBERT ALTMAN on the set of the Popeye movie in which Hovey was both an actor and a choreographer of slapstick. Also hear Hovey tell of his work in the Commedia dell’arte with world-famous mime and physical comedian, CARLO MAZZONE-CLEMENTI.