On July 12, 1887, an audience at Lobero’s Theatre was astounded by gravity-defying feats of acrobatics provided by the visiting Oura Japanese Troupe.
Proclaimed to be “Direct From the Court Theaters of Japan,” the troupe was one of many brought to America in the late 1800s.
In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon famously invited the National Acrobats of China to perform at the White House as a symbol of normalizing relations with China. But gymnastic entertainment groups had been all the rage since the 1860s.
In 1866, “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle brought a group of 11 Japanese acrobats and jugglers to San Francisco, where they gave a month-long series of sensationally popular performances. The traveling Japanese Troupe was so popular that they triggered a number of imitators, each with grander claims of royal pedigree and international fame than the next.
Santa Barbara finally got its chance to experience breath-taking theatrical acrobatics when the Oura Japanese Troupe came to the Lobero Theatre for two nights in July 1887. The shows included astonishing exhibitions of flexibility and balance such as the spinning of tops on the edge of a sword, a performer using his feet to balance a child on top of a tall ladder, tight-rope dancing, and the celebrated “Butterfly Trick” where a performer tore pieces of tissue paper into the shapes of butterflies, and they seemed to come to life and flutter above the stage.
“A tremendous house welcomed the Royal Japanese Jugglers last evening… To say that the performances of the troupe are marvelous is to speak tamely of their wonderful feats in the balancing and acrobatic line. Go, if you wish to see a wonderful assortment of feats. None are tricks, none delusion. It is simply the result of careful training.” – Santa Barbara Daily Independent
- “Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe,” by Frederik L. Schodt
- “The Cambridge History of Asian American Literature”
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