Somewhere between fumbling potatoes onto his mother's kitchen floor and bowing on stage with the B.B. King Holiday Revue, George "Guy" Mosley discovered that juggling was his ticket to the bigtime. But that was many years and many miles from the corner of 16th and California, where today the old man slumps onto his suitcase, removes his faded straw hat and dabs his forehead with a handkerchief.
Excuse that last performance, he says. He wasn't exactly at his greatest. His new tap shoes are too tight, he had trouble sleeping the night before, and when you're performing feats of juggling and dance simultaneously, you need all your powers of concentration. And with all the buses and police cars going by, it's impossible to keep the rhythm, let alone the music of the boom box, and he didn't get a chance to execute the bouncing-ball trick or the handkerchief number, which are among his most difficult maneuvers.
But he doesn't mean to complain. Complaining is not his style. And in Mosley's line of work, style is almost as important as showmanship. Consider his attire: patent-leather shoes, pressed black trousers, crisp white shirt, black bow tie, maroon sports jacket, old-fashioned straw hat lacquered with fourteen coats of fire-engine red paint.
"It's my trademark," he says. "Red is a major color in show business. Showgirls wear red. There are red drapes on the stage. And, as you know, there's the red carpet. Yes. Red is a very major color in show business."
Unfortunately for Mosley, red is also a color that absorbs the ninety-degree sun rather efficiently and helps turn his legs into limp noodles. At seventy, Mosley is too old to be risking heatstroke by dancing around on the sidewalk, but rent is due at his motel, and a man's got to do what a man's got to do.
"That's one thing about show business," he says. "There are no guarantees. Nothing but ups and downs. Unless you're a big name like Frank Sinatra or Jerry Lewis."
As luck would have it, Mosley is a little name--a little name that was once a medium-sized name appearing on the marquee of New York's Apollo Theater with some of the best black performers of our time, Mosley says. Sadly, he has no way of proving this, since he didn't collect his newspaper clippings or photos. But even if he did, they'd be locked in storage with the rest of his belongings, under the supervision of a former landlord in San Francisco.
No matter. He has a story to tell and a laminated resume detailing the career of "Guy Mosley. Sepia Rhythm Juggling Sensation. A class act, a show stopper in every sense of the word."
"Oh, I'm good," he says. "Lord knows I'm good. As far as showmanship and artistic expertise, I've paid my dues."
Mosley rises to his feet, adjusts the volume on his boom box, snaps his fingers to the big-band beat and lets the rhythm soak into his bones. His shoes go "clickity-clack, clickity-clack" until the noise sounds like grease popping on a hot griddle and his mouth forms a little "o" of concentration.
Look out. Here it comes. His big move.
Mosley removes his straw hat, places it on the tip of his right shoe and flips it onto his head. One more time: Hat on shoe, flip onto head, a quick bow.
A blond woman walks by and nods. A black businessman drops a dollar into Mosley's yellow plastic change bucket. "Thank you very much, sir," Mosley says, and resumes his post on the suitcase.
Mosley was bitten by the show-biz bug when he was "knee-high to a grasshopper" during the Depression years on Chicago's South Side. His aunt would treat him to afternoons at the Regal Theater, which featured such acts as Count Basie, Tip, Tap and Toe and a juggler named Rudy Gardias.
"Gardias was one of the greatest of the greats," Mosley says. "An all-time master. He juggled pins, balls, rings around his neck, rings around his legs, everything. The guy was unbelievable. When I saw him, I wanted to be on the stage."
While the other kids played stickball in the streets, Mosley stood in his mother's kitchen juggling apples, oranges and potatoes.
"Every kid has his fantasy," he says. "I used to have people laugh at me and say, 'Why don't you just grow up?' My mother used to scold me: 'How many times do I have to tell you? Leave the vegetables alone!' But when people laughed at me, that only made me want to try harder."
And try he did.
"I practiced seven, eight hours a day," he says. "It took so much time I almost gave up on it. One ball would hit the other, and it was just so tedious. It's one thing to be an entertainer and another thing to be an artist. You have to be not just good, but outstanding. Creative ingenuity helps, but the key is self-discipline. Juggling takes coordination, razor-sharp skill and precision. That takes years and years."
At seventeen, Mosley got his first break. He was delivering newspapers for the Chicago Defender, and one of the employees decided to host a staff party and hire him as an entertainer.
"I was so shy and so bashful they almost had to push me up on stage," he says. "But I did one trick, and it brought the house down. I was amazed. All I did was the overhand [juggling] trick. And I thought, 'If I could go over that big with only one trick, imagine what I could do if I got my act together.'"
So he got his act together, exercising his creative ingenuity and self-discipline until he made the bill at such Chicago nightspots as the Delesa Club, where he caught the eye of producer Joe "Ziggy" Johnson, the "Black Ziegfeld." Johnson was so impressed that he booked Mosley as an opening act for a Duke Ellington concert in Memphis.
"It's hard to describe the feeling," Mosley recalls. "I had my custom-made tuxedo. White shirt. White tie. Patent-leather shoes. When they brought Guy Mosley on stage, he was red-hot. I heard 'oohs' and 'aahhs' from the audience. I was a big success. In fact, Ellington didn't like it. He was very conceited. When I came off stage, I said to this young woman, 'Well. I hope I make the bigtime.' And she said, 'Do you know who you're with? You've already hit the big time. I can see why you're with Ellington.' Then she asked me to sign a picture."
After that, Mosley met Nat Nazarro, who managed the career of Pearl Bailey, among others. Nazarro booked Mosley at the Apollo Theater with the B.B. King Holiday Revue, which also featured Slappy White and Lucky Miller.
"It was wonderful," Mosley says. "B.B. King was very young and playing piano--this was before he got Lucille--and we did five shows a day. Nazarro said I would be the next sensation."
A sensation perhaps, but an underpaid sensation. At the height of his career, Mosley made $125 a week, with Nazarro slicing 30 percent off the top.
"Nat opened the doors for me, and I used to think half a loaf was better than no loaf, but I got tired of it," Mosley says. "I went to the cashier and said, 'I'm getting as much applause as B.B. King, but I'm not getting nearly as much money.' And the cashier said, 'A lot of people know about B.B. King, but don't nobody know about you. When you get as much prestige as B.B. King, that's when you get the big money.'"
Mosley couldn't wait that long. He broke his five-year contract with Nazarro after two years and struck out on his own. Without big-name management, though, doors slammed shut, and Mosley found himself in restaurant kitchens holding dishrags.
"I never had anyone making sure I wasn't taken advantage of," he says. "I never got married. I wasn't as lucky as Sammy Davis Jr., or Mickey Rooney, or the guys who had family helping them. Sometimes circumstances are beyond your control. You have to eat, and in order to survive, you wash dishes, you push brooms, you work construction. Yeah. I've been there. I've had my great moments of depression, anxiety and boredom. But I always carried God with me. That's what helped me to get rid of my troubles. Because when you drink and become an alcoholic, you only add to your troubles. Drinking can ruin you as a performer. No, I never did that."
And just when Mosley thought he'd hit rock bottom, opportunity knocked.
"I was washing dishes, and someone said, 'Why don't you perform on the street?' I said, 'No. No. There's no way in the world I could do that. Put a cup down like a beggar?' But he said, 'Well, you'd be surprised at how much money they make. All you have to do is work with a couple of performers.'"
So Mosley took his tap shoes, juggling gear and red straw hat to the corner of 44th Street and Broadway in New York City.
"I still had the show-business bug in me," he says. "But I'm going to tell you the truth. It's hard going from the stage to the street, even though I wasn't on the stage at the time. Not everyone could do it. People look at you like you're crazy. They say, 'What? You're dancing on the street? And then you got a cup down in front of you!' They make all kinds of cruel remarks. It took me a while to get used to it. Sometimes I still get embarrassed."
Mosley befriended a magician and ventriloquist who showed him the ropes, and he gradually developed a following. He appeared on NBC and CBS television features about New York City. He showed up on a Singapore Airlines commercial. He hit the road to places like Toledo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Chicago and performed with acts such as Betty Taylor and the All-Girl Dance Revue, the Cotton Club Revue, Bozo the Clown and Lupe Appling of the Chicago White Sox.
"I'm a legend in California," he says. "I've been told that many times. Festivals like the Haight Street Fair. North Beach. Union Street Fair. Palo Alto Street Fair. In Contra Costa, I was on the front page of the newspaper, and that's the richest county in California. I've been lucky enough to have had the right people catching my act at the right time."
Mosley pauses a moment in his story and watches the crowd file by. Several people grin as they pass. Most stare straight ahead. A legless man plays a Latin tune on a Casio keyboard, and somewhere in the distance a saxophone echoes.
"When I was coming here years ago, you didn't have all these street peddlers and solicitors," he says. "You didn't have, everywhere you look, people with a saxophone or a horn. Just because you got a guitar and play the same note over and over doesn't mean you're a street performer. But that's the way it's going now. People just feel sorry for them and drop something in their buckets. And that takes away from the real show people."
Mosley came to Denver this spring because he heard people were nicer here than in New York City or Los Angeles. When he'd passed through in the late Eighties, he'd found crowds who appreciated showmanship and skill. But so far this afternoon, he's collected only $25 in his bucket.
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"When you're on stage, you have a certain belonging and a certain self-respect and a certain independence," he says. "You don't have to worry about police harassment or the bus going by or the bad weather or some sickie trying to grab your crate and run. But I will say, I'm immune to the streets. The only reason I'm not back on stage--and I don't mean to boast--is because I really haven't made a sincere effort, buckled down and made the right sacrifices. When you get a certain age, you mellow out."
Mosley leans back on his suitcase, which holds a few CDs, tools and extra copies of his resume, and dabs the beads of perspiration on his forehead. His eyes look very tired.
"I'm not the greatest juggler, but I do have a reputation," he says. "With the hat trick, I'm considered to be better at it than Rudy Gardias. He used a derby, and my hat is straw. And he didn't kick it from the ground like I do. I have been told I could perform at nightclubs in Las Vegas, and I might go there in the near future. I love to perform. I love the audience."
Then the old showman rises to his feet, pushes the button on his boom box and begins to dance.