Cirque du Silly

Juggler Tim Furst loves vaudeville acts and he's made a haven for them at Seattle's Moisture Festival.

March/April 2011

Reading time min

Cirque du Silly

Hayley Young

The rugged auditorium located in the warehouse of a microbrewery in Seattle's artsy Fremont District is packed with happy, awestruck people who range in age from excited tots to hippie-ish grandparents. They're cheering a stream of quirky carnival acts. A voluptuous, Mae West-style gal on a trapeze. A slapstick juggler who tosses Indian clubs as he rides a tall unicycle. A clown encased in a bulbous, inflatable body topped by a small plastic head festooned with a giant schnozz. Zip Code Man, who can instantly name the city for any postal code an audience member shouts out.

Peals of laughter, collective groans (at bad puns) and the requisite oohs and aahs (for the big hairy tricks) fill the room. And observing from the sidelines is Timothy Daniel Furst, a bemused middle-aged gentleman with droopy gray whiskers and a dark beret. His quiet demeanor belies the fact that he's spent most of his life cultivating the creative mayhem and derring-do that are much in evidence at the Moisture Festival of Comedy/Varietè.

Each spring Tim Furst, '73, and other avant-Barnums produce this nonprofit festival of variety acts, European-style circus feats and burlesque sketches at several venues across Seattle. This year's festival, to be held March 17 through April 10, will feature some 55 shows, composed of more than 125 individual acts and 250 performers—with the earnings from the kept-affordable ticket prices split equitably. (Performers earn a share whether they play to a packed house on Saturday night or a casual Wednesday crowd. It's the overall financial success of the festival that determines the take-home pay.)

Furst's bona fides in the colorful world of what's variously called neo-vaudeville, or nouveau circus, or new burlesque, are well established. He was an original member of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a quartet of wisecracking street jugglers who went from wowing bystanders on the streets of San Francisco to Broadway. In the international—yet close-knit—community of neo-vaudeville performers, he's held in high esteem. "Tim is one of the most honest and trustworthy people I know," says Moisture Festival colleague Ron W. Bailey, a musician. "His reputation among performers for hard work, honest dealings and creative solutions to problems has been instrumental" in a festival built on trust between the artists and the organizers.

Now largely retired from performing (though he does fill in on a Karamazov gig now and again), Furst seems quite content to be more presenter than practitioner. "When I stopped touring as a performer, I stopped seeing a lot of my friends. This is a way to get them to come to me."

A San Francisco native, Furst entered Stanford in 1969, to study architecture and philosophy. But on ethical grounds he refused a student deferment and sought conscientious objector status. Drafted at 19, he was assigned two years of alternate service working in the Stanford Medical Library.

By 1973, he remembers, "the architecture and civil engineering departments were merged at Stanford, and I was thinking of going back to school." But his juggling hobby began to overshadow all other pursuits: He had joined forces with street performers Paul Magid and Howard Patterson, two raffish UC-Santa Cruz grads who had dubbed themselves the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Furst and Randy Nelson joined them to juggle at fairs and festivals. Soon the group—whose pranks and patter evoked another band of brothers, the Marxes—were being welcomed to indoor venues.

Early on, Furst worked mainly behind the scenes as a technician, handling the light and sound duties. But his own superior juggling skills eventually thrust him into the spotlight with the others, under the nom de théâtre Fyodor Karamazov.

During the 1980s, the Flying Ks headlined on and off Broadway and plied their comic shtick in The Jewel of the Nile, the sequel to the Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner hit, Romancing the Stone. They also began to develop more shows in regional playhouses, including a circus-tinged version of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.

By the early 1990s, Furst decided it was time to go his own way. "The others had families and were trying to get off the road," Furst says. "I wanted us to keep self-producing our own touring shows, emphasizing the juggling. I was outvoted."

Furst, then living in Seattle, remained part of the extended Karamazov clan, but he turned to freelance production work and pitched in on events like Festival of Fools, an international celebration of street performers held in Burlington, Vt. When musician Bailey and other pals came up with the idea of pulling together a European-style variety festival in Seattle, Furst joined the effort. "I wasn't the instigator," he says, "but I was the enabler."

In 2004, thanks largely to the volunteer sweat and goodwill of many, the premiere Moisture Festival was held in a rented performing tent. It sold 600 tickets. "Everybody had a great time and we didn't lose too much money, so we decided to try it again the next year."

Since then, the Moisture Festival has expanded year by year. Still largely run by volunteers (including Furst), the nonprofit outfit now secures enough funding to pay a small staff and to publicize the event well. One of its biggest breaks, Furst says, was getting Mike Hale to let them use his Hale's Ales Brewery and Pub warehouse as a palladium. "The first year Mike moved most of the cases of beer out of the way, but the walls were still lined with pallets of kegs. It made for great acoustics. But the shows got so popular, he eventually had to move all the beer out so we could fit everyone in."

By 2010, the Moisture Festival had swelled into a sprawling attraction, selling 10,000 tickets at more than 40 variety and burlesque shows held at Hale's and four other local venues. It also includes a program with the Seattle International Film Festival that pairs live variety acts with screenings of circus and burlesque movies.

Furst books all the Moisture performers and is proud that "there are no standard acts. Each one is unique." As an example, he cites Rubberband Boy, a contortionist/pogo-sticking/escape-artist comic from New Zealand with a singular talent for "stretching rubber bands all over his face."

Though Furst considers himself largely retired (he lives comfortably off the rental of several homes he owns and his occasional gigs), he still enjoys the roar of the crowd. He's active in the International Jugglers Association and New Old Time Chautauqua, a nonprofit Washington State organization that conducts free performing workshops and tours shows to small towns.

Does Furst ever regret not becoming an architect, or an engineer? "At first when I got involved with juggling I thought, I'll do this for a little while until I figure out what I want to do next," he answers. "But it just kept getting more and more interesting."

MISHA BERSON is the theater critic for the Seattle Times and the author of the forthcoming book, Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.

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