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Life is a balancing act

Stewart Lippe is a single parent, business owner, performer and filmmaker. His favorite pastime? Juggling.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 1, 2002


HYDE PARK -- Stewart Lippe is the ultimate juggler.

On stage, he juggles balls and torches.

Off stage, he juggles jobs and family.

As circus performer, filmmaker and print shop owner, Lippe lives a constant balancing act. Toss in his toughest job as a single dad and even his head starts to spin.

"I'm suspicious of people who do more than one thing," he admits with a chuckle. "It's hard to do."

Lippe makes it look easy.

At 54, he can't explain the driving force behind his varied pursuits but says that, somehow, they all come together.

"I can't really talk about myself because it doesn't make any sense," says Lippe, a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades and master of none. "I don't fit into a narrow parameter."

Neither does his house on DeSoto Avenue, a few doors from Bayshore Boulevard. The 1915 bungalow is loaded with circus pictures and props and articles from his worldly travels. He has about 10 different instruments, but says he's not a good musician.

Outside, his back yard fits a tightrope, a trampoline and a jungle gym. As of Christmas, four chickens joined the mix. Lippe bought them for the neighborhood kids.

Friends say he thrives off talent, endless energy and a dynamic personality. Combine that with a short attention span, and you never know what he'll do next.

"I've always told him to pick one thing and focus his attention on it, but he can't. He likes the variety," says Pat Fenda, Lippe's circus partner for 23 years.

Fenda and Lippe have traveled around the world as the Franzini Family Circus. Fenda clowns and Lippe juggles. Rosie, a Jack Russell Terrier, steals the audience hearts.

Locally, they perform at the Tampa Theatre and at Hillsborough County schools, where they mix math and science with circus antics. In November, they took their act to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

Lippe took up juggling in his late 20s while working on movies. He wanted a simple way to relax and stay fit.

Over the years, he has turned the favorite pastime into a second career, working for circuses, resorts, companies, schools and theme parks, including Sea World and Busch Gardens. Last month, he juggled fiery torches outside the Jimmy Buffet concert at the Ice Palace.

Lippe says juggling is more fun than work. He loves the thrill of the spotlight and the reactions of the crowd. Besides, who else gets paid for clowning around?

His idea of real work: running his family's company, Tampa Blueprint on Florida Avenue. The eldest of three sons, Lippe bought the business from his great-aunts in the 1970s. At the time, he was living in California, where he studied cinematography at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Buying the company marked a major turning point in Lippe's life and cemented his future in Tampa. A hippie with hair down his back, he remembers the shock of running a business in a field outside his artistic interests.

These days, Lippe has employees managing the routine operations. He keeps track of the big stuff and, of course, the bottom line.

Running the print shop has helped Lippe in his other business endeavors, especially filmmaking, his first career. He knows what it takes to make a project successful.

A graduate of Florida State University, Lippe has produced and directed four documentary films, including The Ancient Art of Bellydancing and The History of Vaudeville. He also has worked with notable directors, including Florida's Victor Nunez. Most recently, he helped in the making of Coastlines, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Lippe plans to keep filmmaking at the top of his to-do list. He has ideas for another movie but keeps them under wraps.

Lippe spends several months a year away on business, either performing or making movies. Though exciting and challenging, it gets tough when raising a child alone. Fortunately, he has a great babysitter.

He plunged into full-time parenting nearly five years ago when his wife, Lee Sokol, died suddenly of cancer. He considers caring for his 8-year-old son, Cort, a labor of love and his No. 1 priority.

"It's a challenge being a single parent and raising a child," he said.

"It's basically about survival."

And a lot of juggling.

- Reporter Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

Stewart Lippe

  • AGE: 54
  • HOMETOWN: Birmingham, Ala.
  • COFFEE TABLE BOOKS: I, Fellini, The Little Mermaid, Weeknights: Uncomplicated Dishes for Busy People.
  • FRIDAY NIGHT HANGOUT: Centro Asturiano for swing dancing.
  • FAVORITE MUSICIANS: Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, Susannah McCorkle, Louis Prima.
  • FAVORITE CAUSE: WMNF radio.
  • FAVORITE OFFBEAT EATERIES: Phoenicia Mediterranean Cuisine, the Laughing Cat and Angelinas.

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