The Flying Karamazov Brothers: Juggling, jokes and surprises galore

Chris Bieri
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The obituary for vaudeville as America's favored form of entertainment may have been written nearly a century ago, but no one bothered to tell the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

Fusing juggling, music, dance, comedy and acting, the troupe has thrived for more than 40 years. Paul Magid co-founded the Flying Karamazov Brothers with Howard Patterson in 1973.

"I was an English literature student," Magid said. "I thought I'd be a professor. (Patterson) was a biology student. There was a big juggling craze that went through America in the early '70s and we just got obsessed with that."

They started out playing smaller parties and venues, before settling on the name, based on the title of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel "The Brothers Karamazov."

"We were going to our biggest gig at the time," Magid said. "We were hitchhiking, which used to be a reliable mode of traveling. We got picked up by two girls in a van. The driver, Mary Sullivan, was the niece of Ed Sullivan. We thought it could be a big break. We didn't have a good name at the time, and someone in the van was reading the book."

The backbone of the Brothers' show is juggling, which Magid said is a very musical art form. "A lot of what we do is based on rhythm," he said. "It's all about music. It's done to a beat."

Thousands of hours of practice allow the performers to crack jokes, sing, dance and even play instruments while continuing to juggle.

"In order to become a master of something, it has to be second nature," Magid said. "The conscious mind isn't that good of a tool."

The ability to act without thinking things through first is especially important for one unscripted trick, which Magid compared to jazz.

"That's where it comes through in a big way," he said. "We don't know who's going to be throwing to who, and you don't know whether it'll be on the beat, ahead of the beat or behind the beat."

But even endless hours of practice don't always equate to perfection, and the Brothers try to embrace the mistakes by improvising around anything unexpected.

"Basically we say, 'juggling is dropping,'" Magid said. "You can't have juggling without the tension that something can go wrong. It's very honest. I want to show you everything I'm doing. It seems impossible even though it's happening right in front of your face."

Magid said the troupe has always welcomed audience participation and is asking people coming to the show to bring objects for a trick called "The Gamble."

Under the terms of the trick, the object must weigh more than an ounce but less than 10 pounds and must be no larger than a breadbox. The object cannot be a live animal.

The bet is that the performer, or "the Champ," cannot juggle three crowd-selected items for a pattern of 10 throws. If the Champ completes the series, he wins a standing ovation. If not, he gets a pie in the face.

"The audience is really like a performer," Magid said. "Our show really can't exist without the audience. We encourage them and invite them and play with them throughout the show. We want them to bring anything they can think of (for "The Gamble"). In Alaska, there's all sorts of unique stuff: part of a salmon or crab, a moose bone. We never know what we're going to get."

Magid said the Brothers, who generally perform in a group of four, pride themselves on putting on a show that can entertain all ages.

"It plays on different levels at different times," he said. "There are parts of the show that the kids just love. At times, the adults might say, 'What a racy comment. Thank goodness the kids can't understand that.' Most groups head for a niche. We're still trying to do something that a community can enjoy -- not pandering to an audience, but engaging them."

The group has done extended stints on Broadway, in Las Vegas and overseas. In 1996, they even appeared on "Seinfeld," playing the fictitious "Flying Sandos Brothers," in an episode in which Jerry Seinfeld is trying to gain membership into the Friars Club.

The shows will be a return to Alaska for Magid, who lived in Anchorage for about a year as a teenager. He came north with aims of embarking on a wilderness adventure in the Yukon.

Although the trip never materialized, he said his first day in Anchorage was a memorable one, as he found a job, a car and a future girlfriend while securing lodging at a boarding house.

"It was like the best day ever," he said.

By Chris Bieri