By Michael Claxton and Julie Eng
The young and handsome juggler Charlie Carrer (1898-1971) won the heart of the confident and feisty nightclub magicienne, Dell O’Dell, in 1931. Surely the two were fated to be a match.
In retrospect, their childhoods were not so dissimilar. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1898 as Karl Karrer, Charlie, like Dell, grew up in a broken home, after his father abandoned the family in 1906. But under his mother’s complete devotion—though at times it could have been seen as smothering love—Charlie was a happy child. While he did suffer from extremely poor eyesight as a child, Charlie soon found, at his mother’s urging, that tossing and catching sticks in the yard were great ways to conduct the eye exercises as prescribed by a specialist. The rest, as they say, is history.
A sixteen-year-old Charlie was soon in demand entertaining more and more, first at social events, and then later private functions. In 1918, at age twenty, Charlie began his mandatory Swiss military service. While there are few reports of his movements during this time, there are photos showing Charlie doing what he did best: entertaining. In one photo, in his uniform and outside the barracks, pots and kettles are shown to be balanced precariously on chairs as Charlie balances the whole delicate lot on his chin. In others, he is arm-in-arm with comrades in uniform, painting a clear portrait of Charlie: cheerful, smiling, good-natured, a friend.
With his military service completed around 1919, Charlie—still Karl Karrer in those days—went on to work as a variety artist throughout Europe. He soon found, however, that his name’s Germanic roots could have negative repercussions outside of German-speaking countries and started to bill himself as “Carrer, the Man with the Quick Hands.” After a short stint working with partners in a comedy juggling acts, Charlie was working solo by 1922, performing first in theatres in Switzerland and then later, with his silent act, touring throughout Europe.
“A young Swiss artist who has already brought his juggling art so far that he has stirred great respect.” That’s how he was described in an undated program for a show in Basel, Switzerland. Performing in white tie and tails, he played the role of the gentleman juggler to perfection.
The act Charlie presented in his early tours was elaborate, varied and polished, if not completely unique. He came onstage wearing a heavy coat and top hat, and carrying an umbrella. Tossing the coat and hat onto a hat rack (without looking, of course), Charlie managed to spin the umbrella around on a stick before tossing it, too, onto the rack. And, as if that were as the most natural thing in the world, he would then take the rack, contents and all, and balance it on his chin.
Some of his feats were standard—bouncing rubber balls off a drum, balancing chairs, tossing champagne bottles from the edge of a plate and catching them in a bucket. Still, one reviewer in Paris gushed over the “astonishing rapidity and assuredness” by which Charlie allowed plates, glasses and balls to “glide over his arms and legs, twirling them with his hands.” In one of his more unusual feats, Charlie used a twelve-foot pole with a knife blade horizontally attached to the top. He balanced the pole on his chin and then proceeded to throw an apple high into the air. As it came down on the knife blade, the apple split in two, and, naturally, Charlie caught each half in his waiting hands.
Another feat of skill and agility—and nerve—was when Charlie placed eight wine glasses and one decanter on a tray. All were filled with wine. With lightning-fast speed, he would flip the train upside down and then immediately right side up again, without spilling a drop! And, in a showstopper that was adapted from another gentleman jugger, Salerno, Charlie took a triangular stand that held three metal hoops. He placed balls into the rims of each hoop and started them rolling around in the inner circumference. He then balanced the stand on another tall metal pole on his chin. Then, holding two more hoops in his hands with balls in their rims, and using centripetal force, he managed to have all five balls spinning at once.
In those early days, he used and carried a lot of unusual apparatus that were neatly arranged behind him, with the hat rack at the end of the row. It was an elaborate tableau of expensive equipment, which he would need for his act to play big, as he entertained the huge crowds in the circus arenas throughout Europe. But that would eventually change. He would soon transition to performing in nightclubs, which demanded a much more streamlined act.
Near the end of 1930, Charlie found himself winding down a world tour in America, and gaining more confidence with his command of English. By then, he had travelled through more than twenty countries across Europe and South America, and was crowned with success and accolades as a skilled and triumphant juggler. He was a star. But he was also lonely.
Then, during the fateful week of Thanksgiving in 1930, Charlie would meet his soulmate. In his words, he describes falling under Dell’s spell:
I never thought of getting married until I came to the last country which made my world tour complete—America. I at once fell in love with this country, and also with my ideal girl, whom I met when we played on the same vaudeville bill at the Liberty Theatre in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was the headliner, and one of the first Mistress of Ceremonies, yet able to do anything. After I worked, she started burlesquing my act, doing juggling and balancing. I knew she must have spent years to learn that, yet it was not in her comedy act. I was surprised to find her hobby the same as mine.
Both were in their mid-thirties, skilled jugglers and athletes. They were both veterans of tours and knew how to live life on the road, alongside fellow performers and exotic animals. And most of all, both were looking to settle into a meaningful partnership.
Dell found Charlie’s broken English endearing and his broad smile even more so. Charlie was instantly attracted to Dell’s lively manner and found her confidence engaging and charming. And most important, Dell and Charlie were matched by optimistic temperament. They were both upbeat, positive people—ambitious go-getters who worked nonstop to succeed and saw life in mostly sunny terms. And they were social animals to the extreme, neither one happier than when chatting it up with colleagues or fans, no matter how late the hour.
See Charlie and Dell in this compilation of rare home movies,
entertaining guests at home and touring on the road.
But most of all, it was the respect that they had for one another that made it all work. Dell made it clear right from the beginning—especially by “burlesquing” or lampooning Charlie’s act with great juggling skill and agility and seemingly all impromptu—this was not going to be a traditional relationship. And Charlie, a huge admirer of Dell’s self-assured persona and command of the stage, was happy to play the supporting role both on stage and off, for over thirty years. Charlie would yield the spotlight to Dell whenever they were together. He assisted her on stage joyfully. He photographed her lovingly. He beamed quietly as she gave animated interviews. As talented and acclaimed as he was in his own profession, he was happy and content to let the woman of his dreams shine brightest.
In terms of technical skill, Charlie must surely rank as one of the greatest jugglers of the twentieth century. His innovative, stunts and smooth presentation left a lasting impression on everyone who saw him work. This was the result of years of dedicated practice, and streamlining his act. Charlie focused on just a few specialties and mastered them as no one else did. He made them his own.
Sadly, his beloved Dell, passed away from from cancer in Los Angeles on February 5, 1962. She was sixty-four. For three decades Charlie and Dell had shared a life together and with her passing, he was lost. As talented and mechanically minded as he was, as loving as he was to Dell, he was also very dependent on her. She had done everything for him. She managed the finances, she made the bookings, she did the cooking. For nine years after her death, Charlie’s life became smaller; the bright light was gone.
Charlie did find another companion in Doris Stahlburg, and eventually, after an on-and-off relationship, they married in Malibu on September 1, 1971. But it was more of an arrangement than a romance. Still, the companionship gave him some comfort in the last year of his life.
Charlie Carrer, The Champion Swiss Juggler, died of congestive heart failure, in Santa Monica Hospital, on Christmas Day in 1971.