Last seen in 2018 at the Halifax Busker Festival after winning the People’s Choice Award the year before, strongman Mighty Mike (aka Mike Johns) is set to return this year. He is one of twelve busker acts and five musical performances taking part in the re-imagined virtual festival.
“We’re used to seeing some amazing feats at Halifax Busker Festival, but this year we’re doing our biggest trick yet, we’re going digital,” says festival producer Kim Hendrickson. “We aren’t going to let COVID-19 take away our fun. We have committed fans who look forward to this event each year, and we don’t want to let them down, so we are bringing the excitement and performers into their homes.”
A Bedford Boy
Raised in Bedford, Nova Scotia, until his father’s work took the family to Toronto at age 16, Mike Johns got his start as a magician.
“I had one of those Houdini kits at around age ten as a kid with all the tricks,” he says by phone from his home in Toronto. “And when I was 12 or so, I met a magician after my grandmother told him, against my wishes, that I was also a magician. He invited me to a magic club, and that is how it all began.”
A chance meeting with world-class juggler Jeff Collins a couple of years later would put Johns on a different trajectory, moving him away from magic to master the art of juggling instead. The role of strongman, as we find out, would come much later.
Taking a Break
“I was performing at a bunch of birthday parties in the Maritimes, and I was the juggler at Pete’s Frootique in Bedford. When we moved to Ontario at age 16, I didn’t want to go to build everything from scratch,” says Johns of his decision to take a break from performing.
Besides, he says, doing magic tricks as a teen wasn’t cool. “So I put all of that aside, got into political science, got my degree and started working at an insurance company.”
It would be another twelve years before Johns would get the busking bug once again.
From Juggler to Strongman
“When I was 28, I decided on the weekends I wanted to do something fun,” says Johns. “I thought I would give busking a try on the weekends in Toronto. It took over my life, and now I’m a full-time strongman.”
Not that his strongman career took off immediately. It would take a friend’s suggestion to consider the unusual job and a stint studying in Texas with legendary strongman, Dennis Rodgers.
A late bloomer to becoming a strongman, Johns says he didn’t initially have the skills for the role.
“I wasn’t an athlete,” he admits. “I did a few pushups and stuff like that to try to keep myself in shape when I was at the office, but I was not naturally gifted at this at all.”
His interest in the art of strongmen and training would eventually lead him to where he is now. Coupled with his act’s uniqueness, it allowed him to give up his corporate role and perform his strongman act full-time.
“There aren’t a lot of strength performers,” he says. “There are two strong ladies who perform on the busking festival circuit – Mama Lou and Charmaine Betty Brawn – but there are no strongman acts. I took that on and ran with it. That has made it a little bit more lucrative for me because you see a ton of jugglers and magicians year-to-year but not acts like mine.”
Going Virtual in 2020
While the pandemic may have allowed Johns to train harder, it has also created difficulties for an act that primarily relies on interacting with crowds on the street.
Fortunately, Johns has had some practice since the lockdown began performing at two virtual busker festivals with acts from around the world. It would help set him up for success for this year’s virtual Halifax Busker Festival for a pre-recorded performance on July 31 alongside Australian contortionist Alakazam, Guinness world record holder Brant Matthews (aka The Fire Guy) and others.
“The main struggle for an online show is to capture some of the interaction and quality of a live show,” he says. “For example, if I blow up a hot water bottle until it explodes, when you’re not right next to me seeing that happen, it loses some of its lustre. We’re all trying to make these live feats and tricks more relatable and decided that by recording the show for Halifax, it will allow us a whole lot of production values.”
With assistance from his fiancee, Johns says his recently completed performance video holds a few surprises for audiences.
“She’s done a ton of work, learned all about editing videos, which has been a real godsend,” he says. “There is no way I would have been able to do it on my own.”
Pandemic as Opportunity
Besides having more opportunities to hone his skills during the lockdown, Johns has embraced the stoic principle of “the obstacle is the way.”
“There is an obstacle in that I cannot perform live right now, and I had to ask myself whether I am a street performer or a performer who just used the street as the venue,” he says.
The answer has come in the form of a YouTube channel teaching strongman workouts.
“Most fitness channels focus on looking good for Instagram,” he says. “But in the 1920s, they didn’t take so many photos, so they weren’t so obsessed with that.”
Instead, Johns says the obsession came from improving one’s immune system, circulation and digestion.
“Especially in the middle of a pandemic, training for improving your immune system is probably one of the best things I could bring to the world,” he says. “So, I’m spending a lot of time learning about video editing and hoping people join me over there and hopefully improve some people’s fitness.”
But while Mighty Mike may be looking to help others achieve their fitness goals during the pandemic, for now, he is happy to be able to perform even if it is virtually. Who knows, he might also capture the coveted People’s Choice Award for a second time.
The 2020 Halifax Busker Festival takes place online July 31 through August 2. Visit buskers.ca for the complete line-up.
Editor’s Note (28 July): This article was revised to correct the date of Mighty Mike’s performance which is scheduled for July 31.