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Douglas S. Looney
February 12, 1990
If something can slice or dice or otherwise maim you, Bill Gnadt will juggle it
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February 12, 1990

The Utah Chain Saw Juggler

If something can slice or dice or otherwise maim you, Bill Gnadt will juggle it

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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.

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