Whether it's with fire or machetes, local juggler entertains the world


What would you call the daughter of parents named Marvin and Darlene?


Mardene Rubio, the juggling woman. "Actually," she says. "I'm Mardene, the outgoing, sexy, fire-eating, unicycling, juggling woman."

And if you've ever wandered by the Harborplace amphitheater in the middle of Mardene Rubio's act, you know she is. From the streets of Baltimore to the Magical Gardens of Nagoya, Japan, Ms. Rubio has been performing around the world for 11 years.

As a child, she took ballet lessons, studied opera at the Peabody Institute and belonged to high school glee clubs and drama clubs at the Institute of Notre Dame. Her public career began in 1983 as a cartwheeling announcer for the "All-American Mini-Circus." Last year, having perfected the feat of juggling machetes while riding a 6-foot unicycle, she went solo.

Mardene performed in London last month. On a recent Sunday, she was back at Harborplace. "My mother," she says, "is so proud of me."

Q: So, how does a nice girl from Waverly wind up eating fire from one end of the earth to the other?

A: When I was 18, I was working as a travel agent when I met a juggler named Rick [Schnitker]. I saw him perform, and I said: 'Hey, I can do that." We started dating, and he taught me to juggle. Six months later, I was in "The All-American Mini-Circus."

Now I practice up to two hours a day, at least five days a week. If it can be done, I can do it.

Q: What happened to Rick?

A: We got married, and then we got divorced, but we still perform together in an act called "Variety in Motion" when I'm not working by myself.

Q: What do people see in a typical 20-minute performance?

A: A lot of juggling -- fire, machetes, balls and clubs. Juggling fire on top of the 6-foot unicycle, hefty fire-eating and back-and-forth comedy with the audience.

I can't do it without the crowd. Thank God for the crowd. The

more energy they give me, the more I give back. The happier their response, the easier it is for me.

Q: What does it cost to put on a show like that?

A: My equipment and props are worth about $3,000. The 6-foot unicycle cost me about $600.

Q: What's the best single payday you've ever had?

A: In 1987, Rick and I made $10,000 for winning the People's

Choice award at an international street performers festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. That felt very good.

Four or five years ago, I was making very good money, but that's gone down for performers in the past couple of years. I'm not making as much as I did in 1989.

From what I can tell, it's not what a lawyer makes. It might be more than a teacher. I don't know. The best pass-the-hat day ever was also in Canada; we counted up $489.

Q: Do you ever pass the hat and have it come back empty?

A: There's just the good days and the bad days. A lot of street performers think it's degrading to publicize what we make on the street.

We're not in competition with each other; it's really a fraternity.

But it doesn't take money to have a bad day on the streets, a day when the crowd isn't with you, when the crowd is fighting you, the drunks and the hecklers.

ask them, politely, to please shut up. Sometimes that gets the crowd on your side, but sometimes the cops have to take them away.

Q: Would you join the circus?

A: No. From what I've heard you work very, very hard and you don't make a lot of money. I'd rather not travel in a caravan and have to stay with one tour for six months at a time.

I like having my own flexibility. I like being self-employed.

Q: How is performing on the streets of Baltimore different from playing other cities?

A: Harborplace is one of the most enjoyable places in the world for me.

The set-up is great: the amphitheater seats about 500 people, and they have an electricity for my sound system. It's spoiled me.

3' In other cities you spend the first

15 minutes just building a crowd; at Harborplace, it's already there.

Q: Have you ever hurt yourself?

A: I've burned my lips eating fire.

I've twisted my ankle.

The machetes are sharp enough that if I was to scrape my face with one of them, I'd be sliced. I wear safety glasses so I don't cut my eyes out, and I suck in my lips as the knives go by.

I'm trying to do behind-the-back tricks with the machetes while on the unicycle, but I'm worried about poking my eyes out.

I'm insured by a company that covers clowns. After all of this time, I should be able to juggle anything on top of that 6-foot unicycle, but that doesn't mean I can.

Q: Will you ever quit?

A: Maybe, if I ever realize that I'm not getting any younger. I'm taking it casually.

W. C. Fields started out as a juggler, and look where it took him.

I've seen the world -- 19 different countries in the past 11 years. I've learned some Japanese to work into my act there, stuff that cracks them up like: "You're a strange foreigner."

I've won some wonderful awards, and I've met some big celebrities, like B. B. King and Kenny Loggins. I even shook Little Richard's hand. He was coming off the stage at a festival I was playing in Chattanooga, and I told him how strong he was up there on stage.

He took my hands as he was coming down the steps and said, "Thanks, baby doll."

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