Avner the Eccentric, or Avner Eisenberg, is well-known for his pivotal role in the 1985 movie Jewel of the Nile, but he's spent decades honing his skills and touring his one-man show around the world. (Brian Fitzgerald/Fitzgerald Photo)
Editor’s Note: Avner Eisenberg, 63, is a professional vaudeville performer, clown, mime and magician who calls Maine’s Peaks Island home when he isn’t living out of a traveling trunk on his globetrotting tours. A founder of Phyzgig, a Portland-area vaudeville festival, Eisenberg manages to engage in artistic projects here and keep up his regular Aikido practice.
IP: Describe what you do for a living—in a way that a five-year-old could understand.
AE: I make people laugh. No, I don’t. Nobody can make people laugh. I do things, and people laugh at me when I do them. Actually, I’ll tell you a funny story: I was in a long run at a theater and I strained the ligaments in my foot. I had a couple of days off. I came in that afternoon for the show really limping badly and the director of the theater says, “I heard about your foot; are you okay?” I said, “yeah.” He looked at me and asked, “How are you going to do the show tonight?” I said, “Look—our humor is based on laughing at the misfortune of others.” Look! He’s old, bald, gray…and limping.
IP: Why Portland?
AE: It’s perfect. Silly question. It’s because Peaks Island is near Portland. I came out there to visit 25 years ago, and two weeks later I bought a little cottage. A couple of years after that I decided I really wanted to live there. It was sort of a pied-à-terre
. It was a sort of a place to hide out when I wasn’t on tour. and then I decided to really live there and it happened at the time I was offered a house that was for sale.
IP: Did you have any ties here in Maine?
AE: No. My sister was at Colby [College] and I had come up to visit but didn’t get much sense of it. A friend of mine who I taught a workshop with down in New York had parents who lived there. She invited me up for a weekend. I thought, it’s so exotic. I couldn’t believe there were Jewish people in Maine, so I came up to see.
IP: Were you raised traditionally at all in the Jewish faith?
IP: So more of just a cultural reference point?
IP: You’ve lived all over the country, and went to school out in Washington state.
AE: Well, I went to four schools. I went counterclockwise. I started out in chemistry and biology at Tulane University. I got caught in a thunderstorm and went into the theatre and got a part in a play. It was the 60s. And then I became a theater major. Then I went to Georgia State for a year, in downtown Atlanta, and then I went to the School of the Arts in NYU for a year. After that I went to the University of Washington in Seattle for a year and then I took too many courses, and I graduated with a BA in Theater.
IP: What next?
AE: I went to Paris for a conservatory grad school type of thing, the [L’École Internationale de Théâtre] Jacques Lecoq school—movement, theater and mime. And I never looked back.
IP: So why did you decide to go into Vaudeville and performing?
AE: I wasn’t very good at the other parts of theater.
IP: But you wanted to do theater nonetheless?
AE: It was fascinating. It took all of the skills and methods of science—I was sort of a science nerd in high school—and I did a lot of sports but I tended towards individual sports like gymnastics, diving, wrestling and high jumping. So physical theater was kind of an outlet, once I discovered it. It seems to me I saw [Marcel] Marceau
in New Orleans and I got interested in mime and started messing around with it. There was a professor who let me do an independent studies course in mime and I got cast in a play that was a Commedia dell’arte adaptation and it was just overwhelming to go in that direction. And I started street performing in New Orleans.
IP: Great place for it.
AE: Yeah, but there weren’t really any street performers back then. It was a pretty new thing.
IP: Why didn’t you continue with your science degree?
AE: Well, I got fed up with science. Again, it was the 60s and it was time for trying things out. I sort of realized that I’d be someone’s lab assistant. I’d have to get a PhD in biochemistry to do any of my own research and in theater you can step on stage and it was real immediately. That appealed to me. I didn’t know what I’d do. I still thought I’d go to medical school. I never made it.
IP: So you figured, I can always go back to that.
AE: I still can. (laughs) I might. I never had to. I had a lot of really lucky breaks, as well as I was willing to put up with very little. Those two things combined let me get my 10,000 hours in.
AE: Well, some friends of mine were already cast in the film—the Flying Karamazov Brothers
—as the Juggling Sufis. I knew they had been cast, and I had read the script which had the Jewel—basically it was Alec Guinness at that point—it was an elderly, portly, British-educated person. I don’t know why they came and looked at me, but Michael Douglas and the director Lewis Teague came to see my show which was off Broadway at that point. I got a call through my agent, that they wanted to meet me. It was kind of ironic. I thought they might possibly offer me a part as an auxiliary Karamazov Brother, and that they needed more jugglers, so I kind a went into it not sure I wanted to close my show. I was having a great time with my own show in New York—to go do a part in a movie that might not get me anywhere—you know, a lot of questions about that. So we had dinner and I didn’t understand it. They said, “Do you want to do it?” and I said, “Well, what exactly?” They looked at each other like I was crazy and they said, “Well, be the Jewel”. I immediately tried to talk them out of it.
AE: That’s a great way to get parts.
AE: Well, I was doing a silent show, and I didn’t do a lot of speaking, and he (the Jewel) spoke with an accent. They just swatted all of those objections aside. I was really fortunate. I owe them so much. They saw something in me that I didn’t know was there.
IP: How did you prepare for the role?
AE: I had a dialog coach for months. I had to go to tanning parlor to darken my complexion. I learned how to speak with that accent and off we went.
IP: Do people remember you in that role? Is it something that still comes up?
AE: My God, yeah. It’s amazing. I also did another film a couple of years later, Brenda Starr, and it just turned up on YouTube. I play part of a traveling circus caravan in South America. It was a very sweet part. I was pleased that I wasn’t embarrassed by it.
IP: Tell me about Phyzgig
. When did it start?
AE: Fourteen years ago.
IP: Why start a vaudeville show in Portland?
AE: We had done some shows at Mike Levine’s [executive director of Acorn Productions] theater, Oak Street Theatre, and had sold out rather handily and we decided to rent the Portland Stage for a few nights. I think we did four shows, and they sold out. We were really encouraged by that, and so the next year we rented it for a week. I think we got through three or four shows and I got food poisoning. I had to cancel half the run, but we still made money. Eventually we said, hey, let’s make a festival out of this and try to get more of the local performers—and then it just kept expanding.
IP: So it was fertile ground here.
AE: Yeah, yeah.
IP: Most of your performing is in Europe?
AE: Yes, and it may be shifting to South America.
IP: Why not here? Americans don’t get it?
AE: They’re great audiences, but it’s a tough time for booking. Second of all, I’ve already played everywhere. Go to my site, look at my schedule, look where I’ve played and make yourself a cup of tea because it scrolls for a long time—it’s like six or seven hundred places. I also think there’s a built-in bias against one-man shows. I certainly have it. What if you don’t like the guy? You’re stuck! You’re going to be there for two hours. Part of it is that I’m out of the country so much I’m not available. I have an agent here that I’ve been with for many years. I like them very much and we usually do at least one or two tours a year.
IP: How much time do you spend on the road?
AE: It seems like six months or so a year.
IP: How does it feel to come back to Portland?
AE: It’s great. in the 60s we used to say that home is where I visit my stereo. Doesn’t really compute for people who have iPods, but you get the idea.
IP: What would you most like to see happen here in Portland?
AE: When I work in France, Germany or Spain, I often get paid by City Hall—not that they have any artistic control. I would love to see the (Portland) city government support the arts under the notion that their job is to improve the quality of life for all residents of the city. I don’t think they see it that way. Their job is to collect garbage and do homeland security. They talk about the Downtown Arts District but they don’t do anything to support it. I would love to see local government get more involved in improving the quality of life.
IP: What do you have in your pockets right now?
AE: A notebook. I always carry a notebook for jotting down ideas. Boat tickets. Business cards for Avner the Eccentric and business cards for my hypnotheraphy practice. I have a five-Euro bill and and a three-Euro bill for a magic trick I invented. It’s a nice trick. Some money. Oh, I have a flashlight. A really super-duper flashlight. Got my phone, a change purse with some wheat-back pennies. I’ve got a two-Euro coin for doing that trick, but because the Euro’s starting to disipate you can just do that all day long (makes it disappear in his hands). And I have some allergy pills, a piece of paper, and a folding scissors for making unicorns out of business cards and other useful things.
IP: You pack a lot of stuff in there.
AE: yeah. that’s my everyday in-my-pockets stuff.
IP: What would you be doing if you weren’t here talking to me?
AE: I’m in the midst of negotiating a complicated tour in March and so I would be writing emails to Macedonia, Italy and and for the show in Romania, Germany and Greece and trying to sort out dates for the travel.
IP: What’s next for you?
AE: On Sunday I fly out to Los Angeles. I’m doing a week at the Magic Castle
. It’s a private magic club which has a night club. They have three theaters and they book six to seven magicians a night for a week. It’s sort of the place to play for magicians and I’m sort of fortunate I do just enough magic and i know enough magicians that I can get in there occasionally. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve been there. I’ll see old friends, and then I’m sticking around and teaching a workshop for balloon twisters for four days.
IP: Sounds like you have the best job in the world.
AE: I’m pretty happy with it, I have to say. The big down side of it is that I was away from home a lot when my son was growing up. But we have a wonderful relationship and maybe that was part of it. I can’t say that it was all bad. I’m sure he missed it. But it’s been neat. He got to live in France and Germany when he was growing up and he used to come on tour, so there are trade-offs to everything.
IP: It could have been worse.
AE: Yeah. Some people have to see their parents every day.