It’s easy to be a bit inured to the Big Gig when you’ve been there five days in a row (as I have) and you’re lazily wandering by the stages in the aftermath of an ill-tempered maelstrom.
But on that soggy thoroughfare, you might just see, what I consider, one of the most dumbfounding and awe-inspiring sights at the whole festival: a man on a unicycle, juggling knives and torches in front of a huge crowd.
The man in question is Chris Vogt, who’s been juggling at Summerfest for 23 years. Vogt started juggling at age 9; a talent agent at his fifth-grade talent show told him to come juggle at the festival. He started with three balls; he eventually graduated to knives and torches. Then, he added a unicycle.
“It’s sort of just been a steady progression as I got older,” Vogt says.
Vogt started juggling torches at age 13. The man who taught him was known only as “Torch.” To master the torches, Chris first did 75 rotations with them unlit, to learn their weight and movement. He learned to ride the unicycle at 15. Eventually, the skills coalesced into the spectacle I saw today.
“This put me through college,” Vogt smiles. The Purdue graduate now works at Honeywell as an aeronautical engineer; Purdue’s noteworthy alumni book features a picture of Vogt juggling in front of an airplane.
Vogt’s main strength lies in his showmanship — which might be credited to his theatre minor at Purdue. While the spectacle of knives being juggled is exciting on its own, it’s his magnetism and charisma that raise the entertainment value of his dance with fire and blades. I rarely stop in my tracks for street performers; this had me completely enamored.
While Chris Vogt generally grabs most of the attention during his shows, onlookers will also notice a man clad in a shirt reading “I’m Just The Roadie” assisting him. As it turns out, the shirt sells the Dave Vogt short a bit: rather than being “just a roadie,” Dave is Chris’ father.
“It still scares the heck outta me,” Dave says, regarding his son’s penchant for juggling knives and torches. Nevertheless, Dave and Sandy Vogt support their son just as much now as they did 23 years ago.
A native of Scottsdale, Arizona, Vogt is taking a week off his full time job to juggle at Summerfest. For me personally, the most mystifying part of the whole experience is the unicycle bit. Within reason, I could see somebody being able to juggle knives and even torches. But doing so while precariously balancing on one of the most humorous yet elegant contraptions man has ever devised? Well, frankly, that’s amazing.