SI Vault
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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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."

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:

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