In a quiet, inconspicuous blue house on North Tioga Street lives a man with a large family. This father of four doesn’t support his family by going to work every day in a suit, however. He doesn’t drive a nice car. He wears parachute pants, oversized shoes, shrunken ties and peddles on his unicycle.
Michael “Hilby” Hilbig is best known among his fans and employers as the “Skinny German Juggle Boy.” He received the alias in his hometown, Berlin, Germany. Hilbig said he got the name before he even picked up a bowling pin.
“People called me it when I was in high school, and it carried over,” he said. “When I started traveling, I learned how to juggle. I really loved it. [When] I needed to make some money, I started working on the street, and [it] grew from there.”
Hilbig said as a result of his work, he has traveled around most of the world, going as far as Japan. It wasn’t until 16 years ago that he arrived in Ithaca with his former wife, who grew up here.
Hilbig said he practices often to ensure that his talents become nothing less than second nature, especially when juggling more dangerous objects. In his act, objects get as outlandish as plungers, bowling pins and large knives.
“I am a firm believer in that if you can’t do it a hundred times backstage, you shouldn’t do it onstage,” he said.
Ithaca resident David Moreland — also known as “Moreland the Magician” — said Hilbig is great at his craft. He said he first met Hilbig when he hired him to be the opening act in one of his shows. From there, the two performers became friends.
“The great thing about him [is] he’s not just [for] kids,” Moreland said. “Adults find him funny, too. It’s a very clean act, but it appeals to all ages.”
Hilbig’s skills are in high demand. He said he travels all over America to put on shows. He performs his juggling and comedy act at resorts, Renaissance fairs and private functions. In the winter, he finds work on cruise ships. He also performed at this year’s Apple Harvest Festival, the New York State Fair and the Guilford Agricultural Fair in Connecticut, one of the oldest fairs in the country.
Hilbig’s shows not only entertain audience members with difficult tricks, but also with witty humor and anecdotes from his personal life. He often juggles a plunger he claims is from McDonald’s and warns kids not to try his tricks at home. Instead he encourages them do the tricks in school where all of their friends and teachers can watch them.
The best part of Hilbig’s show is his ability to slip watches off of volunteers as they are helping him onto his unicycle. After he shows the watch to the audience behind the volunteer’s back, he holds up the watch to the volunteer and asks if it is his or hers.
Juggling and performing, despite being his greatest passions, are not the focus of his life. He also has a family to look after.
Sarah Blodgett, Hilbig’s girlfriend, said Hilbig’s positive energy makes him a great dad.
“He is very funny all the time, and he has a huge heart,” she said. “[He is] truly a family man.”
Hilbig’s “Brady Bunch,” as he calls it, consists of Blodgett, four children from a previous marriage and an orange cat appropriately named Tieger (the phonetic spelling for “tiger” in German). Blodgett said Hilbig balances his career and home life well.
“He’s as good a juggler at home as he is on stage,” Blodgett said.
Hilbig said he is not only proud of the entertainment and amusement he provides, but also with the difference he can make in people.
“A mom came up, and she said she had such a hard time with her teenage son,” Hilbig said. “They were fighting a lot, and they had really nothing in common. It was a constant struggle. Then they watch my show together [and] afterwards they could talk for hours about [it]. Finally they had something to connect them and just talk and have fun together. It’s a moment like this where I really go, ‘You know what? This is really awesome.’”