"I heard the news today, oh boy . . ."
On the television screen, three phos-phorescent magenta tennis balls are imitating the old atomic energy symbol, in lazy elliptical orbits around the planet that is Charlie Bliss' upturned face.
"Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head . . ."
"I'd love to turn you on . . ."
The balls are jerking in the strobe light like "The Great Train Robbery," two up and one in hand.
In the ultraviolet glow the juggler's white gloves are disembodied. The balls leave comet tails across the screen, climbing to a final crashing chord and blackout. Applause, then "The Midnight Special" breaks for a commercial.
Chris Bliss makes a wry mouth. "You walk into a club and say, 'I juggle interpretations of rock music to fluorescent bulbs' and they say, 'We don't do that stuff here,' as if they'd ever heard of it before."
Chris Bliss may not be the world's only rock 'n' roll juggler - say, one of two or three - but he's probably the only one trying to make a living by it. With the routines he choreographs to music by the Beatles and The Who and Kansas, he has opened for Leo Kotke in Minneapolis, Alice Cooper in North Dakota, the Tubes at the University of Maryland and Martin Mull at the Childe Harold. He will open for Rick Derringer next Thursday and Friday at Louie's Rock City.
"It's a great first-time experience," says Judy Keyserling, who has booked Bliss for concerts and for the Childe Harold. She and other experienced industry insiders have suggested to Bliss that he expand his act to include stand-up humor, a tack Bliss is trying. "Comedy is the new rock 'n' roll," he explains, steering clear of the image of a Las Vegas-style comic. "We even have punk rock - 'Saturday Night Live'."
Although Bliss has not been invited to join that august band of zanies, he has made three appearances so far on the Friday night Top 40 of television. "The Midnight Special." He has been invited to do a couple more shows this fall, and next week heads north to appear on Canadian television.
"I've never worked on the street. I don't have a street act," says Bliss, tossing the balls absently at chest level. "What I do is music for your eyes."
Bliss, who was born Chris Dickey, changed his name partly for euphony's sake and partly because people assumed he was poet James Dickey's son. His real father is Washington lawyer Raymond R. Dickey, former chief counsel for the Senate Small Business Committee and one-time general counsel for the United States Information Agency. Despite an initial skepticism, Dickey says he now thinks his son can make a successful career of his juggling.
"He was a 3.8 student, and he called me during his last year at the University of Oregon and told me he'd decided to become a juggler. I said, "Why don't you take up accountancy?"
"But I'm a great believer in the right of selfdetermination . . . of doing your own thing. It's a tough way to make a living - but then the practice of law isn't the easiest thing in the world, either."
Only in the last year or so has Bliss been able to support himself solely by juggling. During leaner times he drove taxis, parked cars and occasionally collected food stamps. For a while he developed an alter ego called Robin Rainbow who wore a pink wig, rainbow-spangled costumed and a cape. Robin, whose act included guitar-playing and singing, was a regular attraction at children's parties in West Palm Beach.
In other years he made a little extra money teaching his craft. The University of Oregon, in his wake, has established a no-credit course in juggling. He also taught one summer at Gallaudet's Model Secondary School for the Deaf, and still takes on an occasional private pupil.
"Anyone can learn it," he assures a photographer, demonstrating a basic three-ball toss. "Sometimes in a bar I'll teach a guy to juggle lemons."
Like the gypsy in "A Chorus Line" who began dancing because his sister was taking lessons, Bliss picked up juggling when his sister was required to pass a juggling course for a speech and drama degree.
To what were originally coordination exercises, he has gradually added the show-bizz special effects: strobes and black lights, a leotard with "Bliss" in sequins, psychedelically-tinted balls and a secret flammable formula for his fire juggling.
Now that the capital has begun to seep in, he is assembling heavy promotional artillery - color posters, videotapes and photographs. He got himself the booking for "The Midnight Special" by mailing copies of a WTOP segment with reporter Henry Tennenbaum.
The next step is to add more comedy and, within a year, original music to his act. He speaks of extending the limits of juggling, by "scripting" his act, the way Fred Astaire transformed dancing from a series of movements into stardom. "I have on paper right now enough new ideas in the realm of juggling to accomplish the rough equivalent of what Doug Henning has done with the "The Magic Show'." He has two screenplays worked out and intends to start working on his music with a female vocalist in a couple of months.
"I want to do what the poem on the poster says - 'be everything that I can be.' Juggling has been a super-good vehicle for me. Most of the people I know are music people. Even the TV people I know are music television people."
Right now he's working on a national promotion campaign involving tennis balls. "I want to put a teaching pamphlet into tennis ball cans showing people how to juggle. You know, 'Improve your hand-to-eye coordination,' etc. What else can you do with old tennis balls?"