CHICAGO — Paul Bachman used to spin up to six bicycle rims while juggling and performing for audiences around the world.
On a recent morning, the 78-year-old Orland Park, Ill., resident carefully removed nine white silicon balls from a red bag and began bouncing five of them in a cascading pattern on his son-in-law's checkered kitchen floor. After a couple of attempts, decades-old muscle memory returned, the balls moving in a seemingly effortless pattern, and his face broadened in a grin.
"I can still do it," said Bachman, a retired Intertek executive.
It's a different task that's keeping Bachman occupied these days. Bachman, who was a prolific performer on "The Bozo Show," has amassed one of the largest known collections of artifacts from the history of juggling, according to the small number of experts on the topic.
For years, professional jugglers and the occasional historian came to Bachman's home to look through his collection. But now Bachman hopes to put the material on public display.
He's partnered with retired professional juggler Ken Benge and Benge's stepdaughter, Kim Coleman, who have approached about 10 towns on the outer fringes of the Chicago area, such as Beecher and Grant Park, in hopes of finding a building to house a juggling museum. The towns are supportive, they say, but unable to offer much in the way of financial incentives.
This is unsurprising to both men. The names of magician Harry Houdini, dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and singer Maria Callas still echo, but who has heard of Enrico Rastelli, Francis Brunn or even Anthony Gatto, the American now considered to be the world's greatest juggler?
"It's not something that everybody in the world is interested in," said Benge. "It's historically significant and when I was a young man, I would spend hours talking about it. But I could see someone coming in (to a juggling museum) and saying, 'Oh that's nice — now let's go to the zoo.'"
Part of the point of having a museum, no matter how small, is to help people appreciate a craft where the skill involved — such as the leap in dexterity to juggle seven objects as opposed to five — isn't always evident, the two said.
"It's more than just someone dressed as a clown juggling three balls," said David Cain, an expert juggler from Ohio who has written about juggling history. "I think the hope of the museum is that it would expose people to an art form that most people don't think of as an art form. It's a performance art equally as strong as dance or music."
"Back in the days before movies and television, a juggler could be as famous as any actor or musician," Cain said. "It's nowhere close to being possible today. The average person couldn't name a single juggler."
Bachman learned the craft in the 1950s, when people still craved variety shows and a juggling act could headline at the Chicago Theater.
Bachman, who thinks he took up juggling while a student at Reavis High School in southwest suburban Burbank, began capturing juggling performances on a Super 8 camera he sneaked into music halls, clubs and theaters.
Bachman worked on his juggling and started making a name for himself, at first booking small shows and moving up until he was performing at venues around the world.
"I learned through raw desire and repetition," he said. His wife of nearly 56 years, Madelyn "Chickie" Bachman, laughed in agreement, recalling how her husband practiced in a hotel lobby during a trip they took to China.
Bachman said that while it's a "tragedy" that most juggling acts have been relegated to corporate events, trade shows and cruise ships, there are still young people moving the art forward by performing and posting clips of their tricks on YouTube.
Newer, younger jugglers tend to emphasize athleticism and tricks while shunning unicycles and cheesy costumes, while the older generation puts a premium on showmanship and live performance, experts said. Bachman sees the importance of each.
"There's some very fine technical jugglers in Chicago, but they've never done a show - doing a show is far different," he said. "I like both."
As the years passed, Bachman kept collecting juggling posters and props, autographed photos and films that he or others took of performances. Fellow jugglers learned of his interest and donated items. Stars sometimes sent him props - a signed ball or club - after Bachman sent them copies of the films he'd made of their performances.
Most of the collection now occupies a corner of his son-in-law's basement. Bachman next year will team up with Cain to put on a historical exhibit at the International Juggler Association's annual meeting in Ohio, but otherwise there's not much demand to see the artifacts.
Last week, Bachman showed a visitor some of the items in his collection, which includes two clubs used by Rastelli, who died in 1931 and is considered the greatest juggler ever. There were books of photos and spinning plates and fire torches used long ago by famous performers.
Bachman said if the museum doesn't happen, he doesn't have any definite plans for his collection. For now, he's still interested in finding more.
"I'm still infatuated with it," he said. "It's like getting Christmas presents."