As a teenaged athlete competing in the hottest new sport in the United States, professional racquetball player Andy Gross thought his future was assured.
“There were sponsors. There were tournaments,” he said. “In the ‘80s, it was one of the fastest growing sports in the country. There were 12 million people playing on courts everywhere.”
But as Gross entered his 20s, racquetball’s popularity began dying down. Opportunities dried up. Sponsorships disappeared.
“I’m sitting there in my prime going, ‘Well, wait a bit. I’ve groomed myself for this. What do I do now?’ ” he recalled.
The answer Gross came up with was “show business.”
On Saturday, Gross and juggler Fred Anderson bring their crowd-pleasing stage show “Mind Boggling: A Magical Valentine’s Day Variety Show,” which combines comedy, magic and ventriloquism, to San Luis Obispo.
They’ll perform at two events presented by Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa —an afternoon matinee limited to local low-income families with school-age children and an evening event benefitting local youth organizations. (No additional tickets are available for the afternoon show.)
Anderson and Gross said they’re looking forward to performing for an enthusiastic crowd. “The best audience is the one that goes, ‘Look, we’re coming here to have a great time and laugh. We want to be fooled,’” Gross said.
An interest in ventriloquism — the art of throwing one’s voice — came first for Gross, who grew up in St. Louis.
After he watched the 1978 movie “Magic,” starring Anthony Hopkins as a magician with a homicidal ventriloquist dummy, “I remember asking my dad and mom over and over again, ‘How did he do that?’” Gross recalled.
When ventriloquist Dick Weston came to town, Gross tracked down the hotel where he was staying and got him on the phone. Weston told the boy, who was 9 or 10 at the time, to take a mail order course from Maher Ventriloquist Studios in Littleton, Colo.
“It really worked,” said Gross, who has a collection of more than 200 vintage ventriloquism dummies.
“Magic followed that,” he added. “I would spend a lot of time in the library. I would just read and read and read and work on these magic tricks.”
Gross kept up his hobbies even after he joined his brother, David, on the professional racquetball circuit, becoming one of the youngest competitors in the history of the sport around age 15. He’d entertain his fellow players by throwing his voice on the court.
When he hung up his racquet at age 26, Andy Gross, who had moved to Los Angeles, started performing magic and ventriloquism at open mike nights in Hollywood. Before long, he was doing more than 150 shows a year at comedy clubs, cruise ships, colleges and corporate events.
In the course of a typical performance, Gross might coax an assistant into a tiny box and stab it with swords, cause an audience member to levitate or turn a volunteer into a ventriloquism dummy. One of his most popular stunts — as proven by millions of YouTube views — is “SplitMan,” in which Gross’ torso appears to be cut in two.
Gross said his show mixes disciplines with an emphasis on family-friendly fun.
“Really fairly early on, I pushed for the comedy” aspect of the show, he said, inspired by the way audience members responded to his humor. “I could do the greatest, biggest illusion in the world and somehow they like the little funny goofy (joke) more. People just want to laugh and have a good time.”
Gross met his self-described “wacky sidekick,” juggler Fred Anderson, years ago when both performers were working at a magic-themed bar and comedy club in Sacramento. When that establishment closed, the two lost touch.
Then, about seven years ago, Anderson got a call from Gross inviting the juggler to join him on tour.
“Going from the devil-may-care, almost raunchy standup comedy scene to these performing arts centers is actually quite lovely,” Anderson said. “You get to these places and go, ‘Wow, what are we doing here? This carpet is actually clean. There’s no paint flaking off the walls.’ ”
On stage, Anderson serves as Gross’s opening act, occasional assistant and overall host of the show.
“We switch back and forth between him doing material and me doing material,” explained the juggler, who’s lived in San Francisco since age 5. He took up juggling in the mid-1970s while studying computer programming in college, eventually branching out to Renaissance fairs, outdoor festivals, comedy clubs and county fairs.
“With all the running around I do on stage, it’s actually better than if I’d stayed with a regular office job – and a lot more fun,” Anderson said.
“I’m proud to say I’ve never had a real job,” he said with a chuckle. “It doesn’t feel like work. It still feels like I’m just having fun.”
“Mind Boggling: A Magical Valentine’s Day Variety Show”
8 p.m. Saturday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$28 to $75
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org