Turk Pipkin and his wife, Kim, crossed Kilbourn Avenue in the gloaming of another hot August day and unlocked the side door of their Volkswagen van.
It was parked across the street from the Performing Arts Center, where all week Turk and Kim - and other practitioners devotees of the silent art - were attending a six-day festival of American mime, the first of its kind.
Inside the van were juggling pins, juggling torches, a unicycle and heaps of clothes. Turk found what he wanted and ducked back into full view, a covered bundle in his hand. "I just can't resist showing off this little trick here," he said, snapping the cover off three short-handled scythes. He strode across the sidewalk, on bare feet, to a grassy place under a shade tree, still holding the three curved blades in front of him.
"There are two ways to juggle these," he said. "One with the back of the blade toward you, like I got them now." Then he turned them around so that the points faced him. "Or like this - the way I like to do it. Which looks more dangerous.
"Which is more dangerous," said Kim, the other half of the act called St. George's Pantomime Circus.
"Yeah, no wonder it looks that way," Turk said. "If you grab too soon, or too late, well . . . but it hasn't happened so far."
With that, he sent the scythes into tight little circles in the air. Drivers on either side of Kilbourn slowed their cars and gawked, quite as if they had never seen a 6 feet 6 man juggle three short-handled scythes during the afternoon rush hour.
Thus inspired, Turk began juggling under his legs, over his shoulder, and then, finale of finales, launching one scythe into the leafy heights of the shade tree. The blade spun once, twice, three times, before coming to rest, handle first, in Turk's right hand.
Kim, her brown eyes following the flight, was asked if she juggled scythes. "You kidding?" she answered. "In our act we pass back and fourth six burning torches, and that's as far as I'll go."
Turk and Kim, both in their 20s met as students at the University of Texas in Austin, where Turk already was supporting himself with solo mime shows. They were married six months ago. Through knowing Turk, she already had become proficient in the white-face comedy of mime, as well as juggling and unicycle riding, and so the two soon hit the road.
Kim checked her watch. "Time to go," she said. "There's another show we have to see." The festival stuck to a busy schedule all the way through to its finale Saturday.
"There are times," Turk said wearily, "when this thing has me all mimed out."
Some 400 mime enthusiasts made the trip to this beer producing capital of the world, hung on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. They represented 34 states and seven foreign countries. In large part they seemed to be professional mimes, or amateur mimes looking to turn professional. A number, having attended prestigious mime schools in Paris, were fluent in French as well as English. Most were 30 years old or younger and in superb shape, as one might expect of practitioners of mime - in which knowledge and control of the body is so elemental.
They conversed among themselves about where the health food stores were in Milwaukee; where the work would be this fall; how this technique or that was done. Avner the Eccentric - known off the stage as Avner Eisenberg - put his finger on it. "This is our trade union, and we are all colleagues," said the 30-year-old comedic mime who says he is from nowhere in particular.
They left notes like the following for one another on the standing bulletin board on the third floor of the PAC:
"Professional clown from Berkeley, Calif., is looking for young, talented lady (24-32), who would like to be a clown and share things together. No experience necessary. Please write message on this paper or leave message at information desk."
It was signed, simply, "Mr. Clown."
And always, there were performances to attend. A good performance was "clean" and a bad one wasn't. Robert mime from St. Louis, explained the dif-Post, a strapping 25-year-old street ference: "A clean performance is tight - nothing wasted, everything just so. If it's not clean, there's too much motion, and it's a sloppy performance."
The three members of the Oregon Mime Theatre performed sketches such as "suicide," in the white-face and tragiclown style of Marcel Marceau. Then there was the Warsaw Mime Theatre, short two of its members because of what festival officials called "a love affair thing" and "trouble with passports."
As it was, three muscular young men, clad only in sumo wrestler type bottoms, appeared at various times in the green web cast by the spotlight. Eerie, discordant organ music played over the speakers. The men occasionally spun and leaped in ballet-like moves. The audience was divided in opinion. Some dismissed it as "ultramodern dance," and not mime at all; some were taken with the "primordial message."
Then there were the comedic mimes, who varied from the improvisational work of Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, the snowy-bearded Italian, to the deliberately outrageous mime of Bob Berky of Rochester, N.Y. Many mimes do the creation of the world, as likely as not sitting huddled on the stage and then slowly rising.
Berky, in white-face, did the destruction of the world. Turning his back to the audience, he picked up an imaginary ball that was earth - and a pretty big earth it was judging from how far apart his hands were over his head. He pivoted and faced the audience again and staggered to the front of the stage with the weight. He made a pitiful Atlas, and began teetering backward, only to end up heaving our planet into the first two rows.
The audience howled, in the balcony. Kimo Schulze howled, too, after jotting down in a spiral notebook what he had learned from Berky. Kimo, freckle-faced and fair-haired, is a 25-year-old mime-of-all-trades from Dallas who appeared in a fleeting scene in "Semi-Tough."
Kimo, closing the notebook, said "One of the things that makes Berky so good is that he takes his time developing a routine. I go too fast - that's a fault I have. I'm two years away, maybe, from being as good as Berky, but I'll get there."
Several people prominent in mime were invited to te festival, but for one reason or another did not. Marcel Marceau was on tour; Etienne Decroux, the eminent mime philosophy teacher from Paris, stayed home because of his wife was ill; the Shields and Yarnell television team said they had other commitments, as did Dick Van Dyke and Red Skelton.
Officials were reluctant to call anyone a headline attraction here, but that was clearly the status of Jacques LeCoq. The 56-year-old Parisian, renowned as a teacher of mime, was the only invited guest to receive not only travel expenses and a fee, but a per diem allowance.
He was worth the money, if only for the lecture he gave to a capacity crowd of 500. He came on stage looking like an insurance salesman who entered the wrong venue. He wore a plain brown business suit, buttoned at his puffy middle; a white shirt and subtle plaid tie; and black shoes.
His scottish wife, Fay, sitting at the edge of the stage, translated his remarks into English.For more than an hour, LeCoq waxed eloquent on what mime - handed down through the centuries, from tribal man on - should be about.
"Life," he said again and again, "the only model we have is life. You must pay attention, you must observe, you must see things. Your movements in mime must be linked with life itself. Analyze the walk." He began walking the stage. "It's an undulating motion. The undulating motion is the basis for every physical action. You must see it, and you must feel it."
When he finished, disappointed cries of "Oh, no" sprung up around the hall.
The festival, a year in the planning, was hosted by the Performing Arts Center; the Valley Studio, primarily a mime training school in southwestern Wisconsin, and the Friends Mime Theater, based in Milwaukee. A $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts helped in the funding. Joan Mondale, the vice president's wife, appeared in Milwaukee last Sunday to promote the event, and all through the week the festival received heavy coverage in the Milwaukee media.
Still, at week's end, festival officials were staring into the teeth of a possible $10,000 deficit. The main reason was lack of attendance by the paying public at the indoor performances.
Archie Sarazin, reddish haired managing director of the PAC, said, "I think mime is still conceived on the street as being too esoteric. At the same time, we sell out for Marcel, so I don't know. We'd hoped the free events outdoors would wet the creative taste buds of people, but . . ."