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Toil and Juggle

juggling
Robert Scheer

Going for the Juggler: Tom 'Renegade' Kidwell juggles his products and his work schedule with ease. Fellow juggler and employee Iman Lizarazu watches the boss for a few pointers.

How two young Santa Cruzans' quest for better props led them into the juggling-equipment manufacturing biz

By Traci Hukill

THE YEAR IS 1920, AND ALL over Europe and America vaudeville jugglers are dropping like flies. It's not the long hours, drafty dressing rooms or some virulent strain of that vague malady doctors call "consumption." No, the culprit is something in the air, something close at hand, something the unfortunate jugglers can't do without: their juggling clubs.

Okay, maybe jugglers aren't dropping like flies, exactly--but those bowling-pin lookalikes are heavy. It hurts to mess up and have a wooden club clock you in the head. What's worse, the very best jugglers can only manage to heave four of them into a cascade at once. Although they don't realize it, the vaudeville performers are actually laboring under extreme hardship.

In another 60 years, help will be on the way.

Riding the crest of a juggling craze that sweeps the nation in the mid-'70s, The Flying Brothers Karamazov will graduate from UCSC and parlay their college hobby into careers in Spandex and spotlights. A new generation of student jugglers, inspired by math professor Matt Jackson's Juggling Night and the success of their school's famous alumni, will form a troupe called the Renegades of Gravity. They'll have a lot of fun, work a few benefits and gradually disband, some to pursue jobs as sushi chefs and computer geeks.

A few will go on to become professional jugglers, and Tom Kidwell and Bob Vandegrift will look at the plastic juggling clubs falling apart in their hands and decide to go where no juggling- equipment manufacturer has gone before: to a time and place where clubs are better-shaped for show, more durable than ever and don't hurt so much.

Down-to-Earth Guys

THE WORKSHOP WHERE Renegade Juggling Equipment lives is an unassuming place on SC's Westside, painted sunny yellow. Inside, it resembles a resting place for odd pieces of equipment and old cardboard boxes. Upon closer inspection, however, the boxes prove to harbor spools of slick, colorful paper, black rubber discs, dowel rods and empty vinyl pouches. Over the door, a rack of bright diabolos--hourglass-shaped props for spinning on a string suspended between two sticks--gaze down on the disconcerted visitor, and above a workbench hang dozens of neon-hued juggling rings. In the corner, a desk groans beneath the weight of way too many orders and receipts.

Kidwell has the relaxed air of a guy who gets to wear shorts to work but still makes enough money to own his own house. On the other hand, he seems a little burdened, too. Turns out he's nearing the end of his two-month-long, six-day-a-week, 10-hour-a-day shift. Then it'll be Vandegrift's turn to work Silicon Valley hours while Kidwell relaxes. The two have been passing the baton on the business in this way for years now, figuring the time off is worth the long hours on.

In 1982, Renegade's single product was a small juggling club cut to a specific shape to causing it to spin more slowly through the air, which makes it more visible to audiences. Being clever fellows, Kidwell and Vandegrift invested several thousand dollars in a cast-iron pin mold. The spendy little piece of capital proved well worth the money: That one juggling pin was Renegade's mainstay for years.

Now the company's glossy, full-color catalog offers more than 35 products, including four sizes of clubs, beanbags, glowing juggling balls and sickles, which carry Renegade's disclaimer ("Only a fool would try and juggle these extremely dangerous cutting tools"). The company keeps costs (and storage space) to a minimum by stocking very little inventory--most products are made to order.

So when the phone rings or an email from the company's lustrous Web site arrives with an order, the guy on duty gets busy. With the help of juggler Iman Lizarazu--a former student of Marcel Marceau whom Kidwell and Vandegrift met several years ago in Oldenburg--the owner-on-duty pours plastic into pin, ring or diabolo molds and bakes them in a kiln. The working team fills beanbags with birdseed, wraps clubs with decorative hologram foils and packaged orders of crystal and acrylic balls.

This is a business that owes its life to mechanization, by the way: Renegade's workshop houses a modest wealth of machines to increase efficiency. Kidwell is working on one that fills beanbags to replace the arduous and annoying manual method, which involves a funnel and a lot of spilled birdseed. There's even a machine that wraps tape around the clubs' handles. That must save some colorful language around the office.

No World Domination

A WILD RUMOR IS FLYING around town that Renegade is the largest manufacturer of juggling equipment in the world. "Not quite," says Kidwell with a grin, although he admits that the company is one of two or three significant U.S. manufacturers. Makers of juggling equipment are tiptoeing around these days, hoping not to wake the sleeping sporting goods giants, who've apparently snoozed through reports placing the annual juggling equipment market in the millions.

Does Renegade want a bigger slice of that sweet pie?

Not really. "Bob and I aren't interested in employee management or being paper-pushing executives," Kidwell notes wryly. It's a pretty good life as it is: six months of vacation each year, a quiet place to work, a radio tuned to the music of your choice. Best of all, the work stems from a genuine interest in juggling.

"I end up juggling a lot less," Vandegrift admits, "but it's a good feeling to think about someone opening that box of equipment they ordered. You know they're just gonna be so excited."

It's been said that forging a livelihood from a passion is like hitching up a show pony to a hay wagon--some of the high-stepping sheen wears off in the daily grind.

But it's better than pulling the wagon yourself, and as long as it makes frequent stops for, say, juggling breaks, it's a pretty good deal.


For more information about Renegade Juggling Equipment, visit their Web site.

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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