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[Confessions of a Showgirl]

Confessions of a Juggler: On a cruise ship without a beanbag

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Photo: Patrick Rivera
Maren Wade

Remember when I said, “the modern-day showgirl comes in many forms, shapes and sizes … In Vegas, they don’t even have to be women?” Today I’m going to bend the rules even further. I present to you: “Confessions of a Juggler.”

Every young adult comes to that crossroad where he decides what he wants to be in life. Some become lawyers, some become doctors and some become Jeff Civillico, one of the most successful jugglers in Las Vegas, brilliantly blending comedy and action in his appropriately titled show, Jeff Civillico: Comedy in Action (at the Q Theater at the Quad at 4 p.m. every day except Tuesday and Friday). (How’s that for a shameless plug, Jeff?)

But it’s important to note, he didn’t start out that way.

Coming from a family of doctors, it only seemed natural that Jeff would become a professional juggler. While other kids were getting Xboxes for Christmas, he would get beanbags, unicycles and sets of rubber chickens. For his Catholic confirmation, he got three machetes.

And all those presents were about to pay off. From street performing at 15 to amusement park shows at 17, he would get his lucky break at just 18 years old: a 50-minute cruise ship show. This is where Jeff claims he changed from a boy to a man. (Okay, I have another confession to make. That’s not exactly what he said. He used the words, “This is where I became legit.” But, that’s what I took from the conversation.)

He had a long packing list for the voyage:

-beanbags

-clubs

-machetes

-torches

-unicycle

“Wait, back up. You packed a unicycle?!” I asked.

“I actually packed two, a 6-foot giraffe-sized one for the part where I enlist the help of two men, and then a regular one for my straight jacket escape.”

Oh yeah, that makes sense, I guess.

Jeff was supposed to hop a ship in Cartagena, Colombia, but it almost didn’t happen. His parents didn’t think it was safe, so he brought his older brother along to be unsafe with him. Problem solved.

Jeff and his brother would arrive at the airport in Colombia, a port agent would take them to the ship, Jeff would debut his show and then voila!, the rest would be history. What could possibly go wrong?

First, there was no port agent waiting when they landed in Cartagena. There was no fancy sign with Jeff’s name on it and no luggage for him on the belt. How does an airline lose two 100-pound cases, you ask? The answer: They don’t get lost because the Colombian drug cartel finds them for you and doesn’t return them.

So there were Jeff and his older brother, in the middle of Cartagena with nothing but some anxiety and basic seventh grade Spanglish. After a couple hotels, Jeff and his brother made it safely onto the ship … in Manta, Ecuador. Now he only had to design a whole new show for himself in three days. What’s a juggler do when he doesn’t have anything to juggle? Improvise.

Jeff tirelessly searched the ship looking for objects to use in his show. Beanbags would be replaced with watermelons and cantaloupes from the kitchen. The Juggling clubs he balanced on his chin would be replaced with deck chairs from the pool. The unicycle would be replaced with … well, nothing. It’s a unicycle.

Still, comedy and action were taking shape. It was a grueling exercise having to design a completely different show with new props, but Jeff was moving up the ladder. No, literally, he was moving up a ladder … and balancing it on his chin. (For those who have seen Jeff’s show, this is how his crowd-pleasing balancing ladder act started.)

Jeff looks back at his time on the ship as bittersweet. He still mourns the loss of his childhood juggling gear, including the beanbags he used to win the 1998 junior division IJA (International Jugglers’ Association) competition. But without that loss, he never would have found the winning “comedy in action” formula that would make him a Las Vegas headliner today.

And he finds comfort in knowing that somewhere on the streets of Cartagena, a drug lord is juggling rubber chickens on a unicycle as a front for some sort of trafficking operation. (Okay, Jeff has a confession to make: He only finds comfort in the rubber chickens and unicycle part.)

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