Mourners farewell Loafers Lodge fire victim Mike ‘The Juggler’ Wahrlich


2023-05-26 11:51:51

Mike the Juggler's funeral

Michael Wahrlich
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Hundreds of people have today marked the death of a man well-known for juggling on the streets of Wellington.

Mourners from all walks of life trickled into the Newtown funeral home – buskers, police, social workers, government bureaucrats, gang members – and the mayor.

Michael Wahrlich is one of five people known to have died in the Loafers Lodge fire. His is the first public funeral for a victim of the blaze.

Affectionately known as Mike the Juggler, Wahrlich was well-known for tossing tennis balls on the capital’s streets for three decades.

Now, those same balls adorn the top of his casket.

A man who used to busk with Wahrlich on Cuba and Manners Street back in the 1980s took the podium to pay tribute.

“It’s a song we used to do called ‘Walking the Dog’,” he told the gathering, before beginning to croon, “I used to ask my mother for 50 cents”.

About 300 people watched the funeral service online, while about 120 attended in person.

Margaret Wahrlich, one of Mike’s four siblings, said the 67-year-old began juggling as a child, using oranges and lemons from the kitchen.

Her brother was a caring person, she said, who would be grieving for the other fire victims if he had survived.

“Our hearts go out to all the victims of the fire … condolences to their friends and family,” she said.

“Michael was a cool dude and a cute man, with morals and lots of love to share through his juggling and chit-chat.”

Mike the Juggler's funeral

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Others spoke of their worry when the juggler was hospitalised last year after being badly assaulted at Loafers Lodge. Paul worked as a rubbish collector on Lambton Quay, and saw Wahrlich daily.

“Every morning at seven o’clock, Mike would be down there – and always smiling,” he said.

“That’s Mikey. When you got beaten up, it really hit hard that someone would do that to you. It affected me quite a bit because you were missed on the streets, I never saw you, and then when you came back, that was good.”

Those who survived the blaze have described blocked exits and fire alarms which were constantly going off.

Richard London was a 17-year-old student when he met Wahrlich and learnt to juggle from him. Now more than 30 years later, the building inspector said he would work hard to make homes safer in memory of the juggler.

“I want you guys to know there are people who care. Those people in government, maybe those people you don’t see, well I’m one of those people. I knew Mike, and I want to make sure that we have a better place for New Zealand and for us and our whānau,” he said.

“We’ll be thinking about that and he’ll be top of mind when I start having those discussions with those other officials about what do we do about this, how do we make buildings safer.

“To your family, that’s my promise to you.”

A 48-year-old man is facing two charges of arson following the blaze. Police say up to 10 people remain missing.

Mike the Juggler's funeral

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

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