In the early ‘70’s, I moved to Nashville. I was supposed to be a doctor (or at least a dentist) … I ended up being a juggler.
My first shows were at a club called the “Exit Inn”. The place was unique in that the original front door was now in the rear of the stage, it made for easier loading and unloading of band equipment.
Every Wednesday on “Writer's Night”, the Exit showcased young up and coming singer-songwriters. Song publishers and music industry people always packed the house.
Owsley, the manager, thought it might be interesting to occasionally put me (and a young comic named Jim Varney) on between the music sets to break up the monotony.
I did this for over a year, always trying some new trick or prop each time. In those days there were no prop-makers so everything was home made. My pins were glued plastic around a wooden dowel. I also painted, glittered and even rhinestoned a whole slew of tennis balls. I carried every thing around with me in a trombone case.
One fateful day, I got a call from Owsley saying he needed an opening act for Tiny Tim (I shit you not).
He needed 30 minutes but I had never done more than 3.
I panicked but I said I’d do it.
I figured I needed a finale, so I made myself some fire torches.
I was pretty good with clubs already, so after just a couple of days practice with fire, I felt pretty confident. I did learn (quickly) to shake off the excess fuel before lighting; otherwise, I’d get sprayed with gas as they spun around.
The fire didn't last long, only 2 or 3 minutes, so I knew my torches needed to be dipped just before the end of the act. I put the fuel in a giant glass mayonnaise jar; its mouth wide enough to dip all 3 torches at once.
The night of my first show arrived. I remember walking through the crowd with my mayonnaise jar cradled in one hand, my trombone case in the other.
Nervously, I set the jar down on the side of the stage. I sure didn't want to spill any of that gas. “Safety First”, I thought to myself.
The show went going pretty well, considering I was sweating more than a Congressional page getting instant messages from Florida.
I dipped all 3 torches into the wide mouth jar. The fuel overflows, spills down the sides and onto the rug. I smile weakly at the people in the front row. The smell of leaded gas surrounds us.
Taking no chances now, I screw the top back on the mayonnaise jar real tightly. “Safety First,” I thought!
I didn't want to get gas on anybody in the audience, so I walked to the other side of the stage to shake off the excess fuel. Safety First!
The fuel droplets sweep across the stage behind me.
I light the torches. A burst of flame, the audience cheers.
I'm think, “Gee, this sure is a lot of smoke, way more than I'm used to!”
I’d never juggled fire indoors before.
The ceiling's too low for double spins, so I yell, “For my 1st trick … under the leg!"
Easy right? … but I drop.
The torch falls, hits the stage. I watch in slow motion as little blue dots of flame travel across the stage towards the mayonnaise jar.
WHOOSH! The jar turns into a huge fireball!
The rug catches fire underneath it ... the audience gasps.
I rush toward a Big Burning Glass Jar of Gas!
As I pick it up, the words “Molotov Cocktail” echo in my brain.
A soundman rushes onstage. For some unexplained reason he picks up my trombone case.
Simultaneously, we both turn towards the door in the back of the stage.
He gets there 1st and opens the door but can't go though … he is carrying the trombone case sideways.
I have no time to think he's an idiot because my hands are burning.
I throw the jar at the door trying to make it over the back of his head but it's just a little too heavy.
The soundman turns around to see a huge burning glass jar of gas flying towards his face. His eyes bulge in fear.
Luckily, he ducks in time, dropping the trombone case.
A flaming mayonnaise jar flies over his head, out through the door.
It hits the pavement, the glass breaks and a lake of fire and glass spill across the sidewalk.
People are screaming all around me.
Total panic ensues when 33 multicolored tennis balls catch fire and start rolling underneath parked cars.
Someone shrieks, "The car's on fire!"
People are diving for cover all around me.
I run away, thinking, next time for sure,