LAS VEGAS — Nino Frediani stands in his kitchen, ready for an impromptu demonstration of his craft: throwing things into the air with controlled abandon.
"This is how a normal juggler does it," he says, launching three small yellow balls above his head. But the 73-year-old Frediani is no normal juggler. After a few rotations, he tosses one ball almost to the ceiling and misses its return. It hits the floor and rolls under the table.
"Now, this is how I do it."
He starts again. This time the balls remain only inches from his grasp, their orbits fast and tight, almost dizzying. Suddenly, he grabs them all at once, with a satisfied smile that says, "I've done it again. I've beaten the odds."
For decades, Frediani carried a secret as he traveled across Europe and Africa with an act that earned him acclaim as the world's fastest juggler. Since 1980, he's performed on small stages around Las Vegas — tossing rings, knives and torches that could easily slice an arm or burn a leg. Yet he stubbornly refused to tell either his employers or audiences the truth.
He's legally blind.
Born with chronic dystrophy of the optic nerve, he cannot drive and follows a mnemonic system to recall the location of objects at home — a razor in the bathroom or the wine-opener in the kitchen — because things even a few feet from his face fade into a blur.
But he juggles. At just 5 feet 4 and 130 pounds, Frediani uses the same near-fathomless personal drive — some might call it stubbornness — that led him to learn five languages despite having no formal education.
He hails from a circus family with roots, he claims, dating back to Francesco Frediani, a troubadour born in Florence in 1650. The young Nino Frediani's decision to pursue juggling as a profession caused a rift with his father, Augusto, himself a successful big-top acrobat who insisted that jugglers should be able to see.
Twirling rocks as a 6-year-old, the boy found ways to compensate for his lack of vision. He committed new surroundings to memory, learned to recognize friends and co-workers by their voices and used gold-colored props in his act so he could see their glint under the bright lights.
What he would never do is bill himself as "The Blind Juggler."
"I never wanted to be treated as a handicapped person," he says. "I don't act blind. It comes from my circus roots — we're all pretty tough people. I wanted to be known as a fast juggler, not a blind one."
Even when Frediani went public about his blindness a few years ago, he resisted billing his act in that light despite pressure from friends. Everyone in Vegas has a shtick, they argued. But Frediani didn't want anyone buying tickets out of pity.
Then last month, after several years of doing only charity events, Frediani appeared in a new off-the-Strip variety show, "Unstoppable," that took him in a new direction: It included stage material about his lack of sight. For Frediani, it meant turning the gig from mere theater into personal catharsis.
"Who would have guessed that talking about my sight problems would prove to be the best thing?" he asked. "I don't know why I waited so long to say it: 'I am legally blind.'"
A high-flying start
Frediani says he was born in the circus — literally.
His father, the high man in a three-acrobat column on horseback without safety or harness, was performing in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1940 with his pregnant acrobat wife when she collapsed in the ring.
"What's going on?" his father called out.
"I think your son is coming," she replied.
Frediani was born in a dressing room.
The boy had immediate sight problems, but optometry was in its infancy and he was never properly diagnosed. Doctors merely said he was nearsighted.
By age 10, Frediani was an emerging juggler, but his father discouraged him when he realized his son couldn't see the props as they sailed back down from where he tossed them, high in the air. "He said 'Nino, you've got the perfect shape for a tumbler. Do more tumbling.'"
But Frediani refused to quit. He developed his own close-to-the-hands style, often performing in bars with ceilings too low for traditional acts, so the owners would say, "Let's bring in the blind juggler."
Frediani hated the moniker and pledged he'd never perform under that billing.
He soon developed a stunt catching rings tossed by the audience around his neck. He juggled atop the Eiffel Tower, in Rome's Coliseum and, once, underwater. But he still longed for his father's approval.
Years later, Augusto reluctantly came to see his son perform. After the show, he walked up and extended his hand. "He said, 'You made me very proud,'" Frediani recalled. "That was it. He never came back again."