El Gran Picasso and his ping-pong balls

I bumped into El Gran Picasso in a bar down south and thought stories of his epic exploits in Vegas must have been exaggerated, but no. Star juggler Dick Franco recalls the guys–principally Europe-based–who showed him the way:

One of the first was El Gran Picasso, who I met in November 1974 as he was winding up his four-year appearance with Ringling Brothers. He was nice enough to practice with me and gave me two key tricks that are still in my routine — spitting ping-pong balls and four ball shoulder throws while turning in a circle. He told me I could make a lot of money doing the ping pong balls. He had developed it by spitting grapes while he was an orange picker back in Spain. It turned out that Bobby May had been Picasso’s juggling inspiration and I was able to introduce them to each other. Picasso was appreciative and told me to call on him if I needed help. With Bobby May and Gran Picasso behind me, it was a pretty easy decision to keep following a professional career. [snip] My three and four ball routines, virtually unchanged for years, were given to me intact by Picasso. He gave me those tricks because he didn’t have room for them in his act.

To clarify, the ping-pong act involves spitting out the balls and then catching them in one’s mouth. I tried it with Bobal grapes and had to shoo away passing ambulances.

I think I’m right in saying that El Gran Picasso is from a village in La Manchuela, where he now occasionally advises on domino strategy, but he apparently also has orange groves down Valencia way. Rumour has it that he doesn’t let anyone into the mansion he built with his earnings in order to keep it clean, rather as people who acquire washing machines late in life tend to hand-wash everything before whirling the tub. He is unrelated to the eponymous Mexican wrestling sensation, and old Pablo kept damn quiet about Spain’s greatest 20th century artist. Why isn’t there more information about people like this on the net?

Mr Franco says a lot of interesting things during the course of the interview cited above. Here’s his take on the differences between the American and European juggling markets:

Besides prefering the technical act, the European entertainment directors really know juggling. You’ll walk into their offices and see pictures of all the great jugglers plastered on the wall. They hire you because they want you, and are usually willing to pay whatever it takes to get you.
Entertainment directors in the States want comedy. You break your neck with technical juggling and they say, “that’s nice, but do you eat the apple?” So, to work here you have to adapt.

It’s impossible to impress an American audience with technical juggling, but in Europe the more technique you demonstrate the more they like it. Here in the states you have to erase the barrier between the performer and the audience. The straight act is dead in America.

What that means now is that if I want to work in Europe again, I have to sell myself to those people all over again. They came to know me as a picture act and are very wary when they hear that Dick Franco is doing comedy now.

Europe is nice, but I’d rather live in America. So, I’ve got to make the transition to the type of juggling that sells here. I want to do comedy, but keep the quality in the act. If I keep all my technical juggling and add comedy, my 8-minute act is now 25 minutes. But that’s OK. It’s a challenge and will help prolong my career. I’m in it for the long run. I don’t want to be 50 years old pretending I’m 30.


Now I end the show with chain saws. They’ve been a good selling point in American theatres, but wouldn’t sell at all in Europe.

What on earth does “but do you eat the apple?” mean? And why do people talk about El Gran Picasso as el paletero?

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  1. A colleague of El Gran Picaso at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 70s kindly informs that his stage name was spelt with one s, because it came from a distant family surname, Picazo, and thus wasn’t a straightforward tribute to the artist.

  2. I like this quote re Jnr in the NY Sun: “To be safe, he flanks himself with women who keep his pingpong balls in buckets of water.”

    Here’s video of Snr on Paul Daniels:

  3. I worked with El Gran Picaso in Spain and after in Monaco I was a show girl – he was a funny, kind and good looking man and vert talented and forever practiscing backstage – his balls used to get stuck to our maribou feathers sometimes ….!

  4. Yes, I too wonder what balls she’s talking about, and what she means with “stuck”.

    And I’d like to meet her if she’s still under 65.

  5. Hi just remembered this post….. Ha ha his plastic ping pong balls of course … ;-) ! I’m only 40 btw !! I was 17 and then 19 when I worked with paco Picasso . His son went ino the business and performs now too.

  6. So you had no reason to sue him, Gaynor, which might be just as bad. :-p

    Good to know you’re still so young. Please post a pic right here.

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