Send In the Skinny, Juggling, German Clown, Hilby - NYTimes.com
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He calls himself Hilby, “the skinny German juggle boy,” and that is the first big wink at his audience, a signal that he will be poking fun at himself as well as at the conventions of his trade. In his act he juggles both words and objects, including, at one rivetingly absurd point, a bowling ball, a toilet plunger and a cordless hedge trimmer.
He maintains a fast-paced comic banter, gently mocking himself and his audience, especially its desire to see him fall or get hurt. (“Americans love accidents.”) He is highly skilled technically but does not mind dropping things because comedy, he believes, is more entertaining than precision (a view, he said, that his occasional all-German audiences do not share).
Offstage Mr. Hilbig is an earnest, mellow, yoga-practicing father of two who lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his girlfriend, a photographer who has two children. On official forms he lists his occupation as clown, and from Memorial Day to Labor Day every year he is one of hundreds of variety entertainers — jugglers, magicians, hypnotists, mentalists, impressionists, Dadaists — who travel the fair circuit, bringing, to borrow a German term, echt performance art to the land.
The heart of Mr. Hilbig’s approach is to mount a charm offensive: “If you’re charming, you can knit a sweater onstage. You have to make the audience feel there’s no other place you’d rather be than right here right now with you people.”
In truth, that is not what Mr. Hilbig felt when he first arrived at the Fayette County Fair, a new booking secured by his agent. (Yes, clowns have agents too.) He found the setting dispiriting. His stage was strewn with litter and the small sign advertising his presence, “The Herald-Standard presents Hilby the Skinny German Juggle Boy,” hung above a trash can.
Further, Mr. Hilbig worried that Fayette County was “not exactly my demographic.” His show works best, he said, in areas where Priuses outnumber pickup trucks. He likes to bait his audiences when they do not laugh by saying that his humor requires at least a high school education, but in Fayette County, where a quarter of the population over 25 does not have one, that would not be terribly funny.
Gradually, however, the place grew on him. He found the livestock auction fascinating, the monster trucks impressive and the large Army recruiting station, in an area where unemployment is especially high, “depressing but real.” He admired the majesty of the lions and tigers and befriended their handler, Clayton Rosaire, a 10th-generation wild-animal trainer from Sarasota, Fla.
“I’m intrigued by his family history,” Mr. Hilbig said. “I’m a first-generation skinny German juggle boy.”
During the five days he worked the fair Mr. Hilbig drove his minivan from his motel to the fairgrounds each afternoon and changed into his lederhosen in the back of the fiddlers’ hall. When the “Pigs Gone Wild!” race started blasting “Sweet Home Alabama,” he readied his own sound system and loosened up by chatting with early audience members.
Before one show the fair’s queen and princess, in matching tie-dyed T-shirts, settled into the front row. “By the way, girls, the next time you do laundry, you should really separate the colors from the whites,” Mr. Hilbig called out to them. The girls laughed, adjusting their purple pageant sashes; they were itching to be selected as volunteers.
But alas for them, Mr. Hilbig chose instead a dimply young girl named Madison (“Is that your mom there, Madison, taking pictures for the insurance claim?”), a corrections officer from the town of Fairchance (“Wow, that must really stink being a prisoner in Fairchance”) and a burly, tattooed electrician (“Can I call you Papa Smurf?”).
As he balances swords atop knives in his teeth and mounts six-foot-tall unicycles, Mr. Hilbig especially likes to tease men. He prances around the stage and (during fire juggling) refers to himself as “a flaming German.” He squeezes men’s muscles, blows them kisses and urges them to hug to the song “Feelings” — although in Fayette County he never coaxed more than a handshake from his male volunteers.
“People used to ask me all the time if I’m gay,” Mr. Hilbig said. “What a weird question. So I try to blur the boundaries. The more uptight the guys are, the funnier it is.”
Sometimes Mr. Hilbig’s friends tell him he is “so good he should be famous.” But Mr. Hilbig, shrugging, said, “Famous doesn’t really exist in terms of juggling.” He is content, he said, to be his own boss, to earn a decent living (“I do fine; I can buy organic vegetables”) and to savor the sweet moments when he electrifies an audience. Over the years he has developed a loyal following, and in Fayette County he added at least one particularly ardent fan: Mr. Galbraith, the retired steelworker, who attended 11 of his 15 performances, crying out “Wow!” and “Ha ha ha!” and “Hot pants!” (when Mr. Hilbig crouched over a flame).
Episodically, Mr. Hilbig persuaded his audiences to sing a song from “The Sound of Music,” sending ragged choruses of “doe a deer” out over the midway. And in the end, despite his initial anxieties, he seemed to have won them over. Summing up an apparent consensus, Ms. Scully, the fair princess, said, “The pigs are very popular, but I liked him better.”