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.