Step Right Up
Chapter VII. Music and Laughter
Traces of lost images can make us chuckle quietly to ourselves before we even know what we're laughing at: of Lou Jacobs squeezing his long frame into his miniature circus car; of Emmett Kelly forlornly sweeping his spotlight into a dust pan; of a set of teeth chasing a giant tooth brush and tube of tooth paste around the hippodrome track; of the hysterical Firehouse Fun clowns battling a blazing building and all but exterminating those whom they sought to rescue, a routine begun at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1924; and of happy children quietly and reassuringly folded into the friendly arms of "Topper" and "Buster," during clown autograph sessions with the 1989 Beatty-Cole show.
Do the images call up the sounds, or is it the other way around? It's perhaps different for each of us at different times. Who can listen to Aram Khachaturian's pounding "Sabre Dance" without also hearing the tiger's snarl, or the elephant's trumpet call, closely followed by other memories: shadows of the great beasts performing some rapid bit of deft choreography, or of the juggler's whirling firebrands? On the other hand, who can watch any of the great slap-stick clown routines, without also hearing their hooting and yelling, and the wonderful blasts, whistles, slides, and percussion that the great brass circus bands provided to accentuate the action?
By the time we leave a circus performance, we have been impressed by the spectacle, awed by the aerialists, frightened by the animals, and amazed by the stunts. But the clowns and musicians have tapped directly into our emotions, maybe without our even knowing it. They have made us laugh, and tap our feet, and shout, and sweat. They have just plain made us feel good. Together the bands and clowns control the whole rhythm and flow of the circus performance, providing the real suspense and anticipation that make the circus so memorable. Music and laughter can make the most intolerable of lives tolerable.
So it is to the circus bands and circus clowns that we now turn our attention. This is not the place for any kind of definitive history of either group. They both have their own professional associations, with the attendant newsletters and historians, who have done an admirable job compiling histories of their professions. Our limited survey will let us discover who some of the great masters in both fields are and were, and a little about their backgrounds and methods. Because their effect is often subconscious, and their names are sometimes buried in the back of circus programs, audiences often forget the special significance of their contribution to the overall success of the circus. We group musicians and clowns together here because there is a long tradition of mutual respect between them. The direct connection between them is the singing clown, who played a major part in introducing music into the circus. But more importantly, it is the musicians and clowns who share the common goal of having direct impact on our emotional disposition, an effect which ought not to be overlooked.
Section A. The Windjammers
If circus was considered an immoral activity by many people in eighteenth-century England and America, music was even worse. In England in 1782, Charles Hughes, Philip Astley's arch-rival, was thrown in jail for contempt of Magistracy, for having introduced music to his circus in defiance of the law. No one played music in colonial America: it was an act of the devil. Only when that holiest of instruments, the organ, was introduced into churches did instrumental music begin to be acceptable. Military bands were not common until after the Revolution, when it had become clear that the British regimental bands were more inspirational than the American fifes and drums. Early circus accompaniment was limited to a tambourine, some drums, and perhaps a fiddle, or a fife and a trumpet. More often than not, the clowns were the musicians. But by their heyday, circuses were often judged as much by the strength and quality of their brass bands as by the size of their elephant herds.
Today it's difficult to conceive of a circus without music. Walking into Canada's Cirque du Soleil, our first impressions are established by the overwhelming sound of the music. Its overall impact rests heavily on a stunning modern score by René Dupéré, played by a bank of computer buttons and a live five-piece band conducted by Benoit Jutras. There is nothing traditional about it, either in content or in instrumentation. Nonetheless, the music heightens all the emotions of the audience, ranging from suspense to comic relief. It carefully frames each ring act, just as a film score might set up a scene. The Pickle Family Circus also uses non-traditional music to shape and mold their performances, but in their case a five-piece jazz band under the direction of Jeffrey Gaeto sets a frenetic pace for the cast with an original high-energy jazz score. On the Big Apple Circus, Director Rik Albani conducts more traditional-sounding, brass-oriented original music created especially for the show by his partner and wife Linda Hudes. For one performance in 1985, their already exciting eight-piece band was joined by the 85-piece Boston Pops Orchestra, making them one of the largest circus bands ever assembled. The Circus Flora Band uses a jazzy original score, composed, arranged and conducted by Miriam Cutler, which can also include some operatic elements when called for. In Japan, the new Ringling gold unit quickly discovered that the Japanese wanted to hear up-tempo, recognizable, modern American rock music, and they too have abandoned traditional circus musical fare. In this country, Ringling music is more traditional-sounding, although Music Director Bill Pruyn relies heavily on themes from new Broadway musicals, television, and other non-traditional fare, and musicians are jobbed in at each major stand. On the Tarzan Zerbini Circuses, the circus sound is often provided by several bandmasters, including John Mohan, and Clem Toca, with his three-piece musical family. Musical director and busy trumpet player Mark Van Cleave also furnishes bands for Garden Brothers and other shows, by jobbing in local professional musicians.
Among the traditional big three-ring circuses, there is only one that still maintains a full eight-piece, traditional, all-brass circus band, who stay together for a full season on the road. They are led by young James Haverstrom for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. Jim traveled with the show for two years before he became the bandmaster in 1988. The musicians select and arrange their material from a wide variety of sources. Only about a quarter of their repertory is traditional circus fare, and the rest is made up of more contemporary pop and show music. Nonetheless, nowhere else is the traditional sound of the regular live brass circus band so evident, music that can easily fill a tent with old-fashioned excitement and merriment.
Many of the smaller traditional tented shows also still rely on live music, and they are determined to maintain the traditional sound of the circus band. It may be limited to a single organ or synthesizer, which can be supported by drums and one or two brass instruments, but the ingenuity of the musicians can make up for minimal equipment. On the 1989 Roberts Brothers tour, Bud Manley and a small combo was sufficient to call forth the traditional spirit of circus. The four-piece Kelly-Miller band, under the direction of former Beatty-Cole bandleader Clark Wiegle creates a fine circus sound, as does the Bentley Brothers' three-piece band led by Brian Young, and the Great American's group led by Jack Forseen, veterans of the Circus Gatti. Vidbel's Old Tyme Circus and the little one-ring Culpepper-Merriweather Circus both prioritized music in 1989, carrying live bands. At the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, trumpeter Rick Percy and his little band accompany all performances with a full repertory of pre-1939 traditional circus music.
Rising costs have driven many circuses to replace their bands with taped music. It's not always easy even to job in talented musicians willing to accept the rigors of circus music unfamiliar to them. And to find talented musicians willing to undergo the challenge of circus life on the road for very little pay is even harder. Music royalty fees from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) are high, and the bigger the show, the higher the fees. As recently as 1986, Charlie Stevenson's eight-piece brass band was playing a dynamic traditional circus repertoire for the Carson & Barnes show, but royalty fees and the difficulties of finding suitable musicians have proved too much to justify the effort in the minds of the owners. They have replaced their live band with an ingenious sound system designed by Greg Haggard. It enables a single sound director to mix and blend a great variety of studio-recorded music specially composed and arranged by Steven Michael Lack, conducting the Circus Music International Brass Band. The effect is stunningly realistic; tempo is matched to animal and human rhythms, and drum rolls still add appropriate suspense to death-defying acts. The Circus Vargas has taken a similar course with their tape system.
There are of course outcries of protest against even good canned music from all out-of-work musicians. What's more, many experts feel that the real circus spirit can only be evoked when the music is closely following the action, and not the other way around. Horses, for instance do not hear music, and they can't dance in time to a beat. The effect depends heavily on the timing of the conductor in matching his music to the steps of the horse, which are cued by hand or by audible signals from the trainer. Even the best of music recorded in a controlled sound studio is difficult to match to the chaotic rhythms of a live circus performance. Nor can a recording be as readily prepared for accidents, or the slight variations in rhythm in every act from performance to performance. Many fans continue to insist that circuses must carry live bands, capable of playing traditional circus music, although they may be waging a losing battle.
Sub-Section 1. Circus Music
What is "traditional" circus music, anyway? Merle Evans defined it only as music written by circus musicians that is "brighter" than other music. The most often-played circus music is the march, but there are plenty of opportunities for waltzes, rags, serenades, intermezzos, Latin rhythms, smears and galops. Different styles of music characterize each act. Wild animals may be accompanied by fierce marches with a driving beat like "Bravura," or "Burma Patrol." Waltzes like "Over the Waves" and "Wedding of the Winds" might lull us through graceful trapeze performances. The pacing for a big slapstick clown act might be set by a galop like "Prestissimo," or "The Homestretch." Galop, incidentally, is the French spelling for the horse's gallop, which suggests both the source and the exhausting two-beat pace of the music.
There is no room any more for string instruments in "traditional" circus bands— that is to say in brass bands beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Since the advent of the three-ring circus, the emphasis has been on drums and brass: the far-reaching clear tones of cornets, trumpets, trombones, French horns, baritones and tubas. Saxophones and the other reed instruments are debatable, but they have seen frequent use in the circus. Although their music is all original, the "traditional" Circus Flora Band includes a mean cajun fiddle and a full range of reeds. They harken back to an earlier era when such instruments were the only ones acceptable and available at any public concerts, and when they provided adequate volume under a single-ring tent.
Most "original circus music" was written in the twentieth century. Before that, circus musicians were too busy conducting to take time to write their own. In the early 1830s they played narrative songs, like "Yankee Doodle," "Billy Barlow," and "Jim Crow." N The first full band probably went out around 1830 with the Purdy & Welch Circus. But the first circus brass band didn't appear until Ned Kendall took his new trend-setting Boston musicians out with the New England Caravan in 1832, and they became an all-brass group at Allan Dodsworth's insistence in 1834. N Independent brass bands were the rule in circuses by 1837, often riding in the splendid new music carriages made for them. In the 1850s, the cornet began to replace the keyed "Kent" bugle, and Kendall was joined by Tom Canham, Patrick Gilmore and David W. Reeves, all among the major bandmasters of the country. Gilmore was responsible for setting a trend away from brass and towards a balance with reed instruments, and for introducing the big touring band era. As leader of Providence's American Band, Reeves also became a prominent composer. But for all intents and purposes, there were few circus bands as separate entities until the turn of the century.
Sub-Section 2. Functions
Barnum himself always believed in the power of good music to draw in the public, as is evidenced by his pre-circus-days sponsorship of the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. The Ringling Brothers were also musicians. Charley Ringling usually played the violin, and Alf T. the organ and the cornet. They did one act wherein the two of them played twelve different instruments. Neither brother ever lost his love for music; Merle Evans remembered Charley sitting in with the big top band, often as a baritone soloist for the center-ring concert, right up to 1925, the year before he died.
So, despite the fancies of circus purists, there is really no long-term tradition of music written exclusively for the circus. Special music had been written for the circus by bandmasters and composers since the 1870s, but not all circus music was written by circus musicians. Bandmasters have always been free to choose from a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional sources, although in the old days the two were more clearly delineated. It used to be rarer than it is today for a circus band to play pop music during the performance itself. Conversely, it was just as rare to hear circus galops in popular band concerts. In the old days there were special center-ring concerts before the performance, as well as completely separate concerts after the show by the sideshow and other bands. For these concerts, standard popular and classical fare was the norm.
However, for the circus acts themselves, a good deal more flexibility is needed. Unexpected animal behavior may require stalling and vamping or a sudden change of pace. It's sometimes easier and more economical to develop music specifically appropriate for the occasion. Short snatches of familiar music may be blended together in an original medley, and occasionally a single piece of music may be written for an entire production number. Such was the case when Igor Stravinsky was asked to write "The Elephant Polka" for the 1942 Ringling show. This famous circus "ballet" was performed by a "corps des elephants" costumed by Norman Bel Geddes and choreographed by no less than George Balanchine, all of whom did not prevent it from being roundly despised by the musicians who had to play it.
The trick for good circus music is an alert band equipped to handle improvisation and the up to 200 planned cues a performance might require. Bandmasters must be people of considerable judgement and discipline. They might be required to shift tempos in a split second, or to add extra bars of music to complete an act. Sometimes over 200 different pieces of music had to be prepared for a three-hour show. Scoring a performance happens before the circus ever leaves winter quarters, and it's not an easy task for the band director. He almost always gears his music to the center ring, but on occasion he might be expected to match a medley to the changing pace and style of three acts at once. He also has to be a shrewd psychologist, adept at calming bruised egos: if a Hungarian balancing act wants Hungarian music, and at the same time a Mexican flying act wants Spanish music, the director may have to find a way to convince both that they are getting what they want, as Merle Evans once did. Sound effects, whistles, slides, and snatches of classical music that punctuate every action in the center ring are also provided by the band—the same effects that found their way into cartoons and early film comedies.
Circus music has two other functions that are less apparent to the general public. It serves as a secondary language and signal clock for the full circus family: Since the same music with only minor adjustments is used for every performance, performers know exactly which measure of what song will send them to change costumes. A single familiar bar will bring them to the back door in time for their acts. Roustabouts and other employees will hear when to be ready to tear down the sideshow tent, when to look for the flag over the cook tent, and when to be ready for the "blow-off," the crowd's departure. In many ways, the whole pacing of a circus day is controlled by the band.
A second in-house function of circus music is to signal any kind of disaster. After a fall from the high wire or trapeze, it was the bandmaster's job to signal for rescue workers and distract the audience by suddenly cutting whatever the band was playing and shifting to fast music anticipating the entrance of the next act. For the Beatty-Cole show, "Twelfth Street Rag" will bring out the clowns en masse for audience distraction after such an accident. Rarely was a John Philip Sousa march heard in a circus tent unless there was a major emergency taking place, and the most recognizable disaster march of all was "The Stars and Stripes Forever." It was the universal signal for circus personnel to come running and evacuate the tent. It was played by bandmaster Merle Evans, for instance, from the moment he spotted the beginnings of the great Ringling fire of 1944, until seconds before the burning quarter poles crashed across his bandstand.
Sub-Section 3. Great Bandsman
Circus musicians are traditionally called "windjammers" because they "jam wind into cornets, clarinets, trombones, baritones, etc. for six to seven hours a day," according to Merle Evans, the most famous windjammer of all. N Contemporary windjammers formed themselves into an official organization of circus music lovers in 1971. Membership in Windjammers Unlimited, Inc. approached seven hundred in 1989, many of whom are non-playing lovers of circus music. The traditional circus musicians themselves are getting older and scarcer. Still, at their annual convention in 1989, a 140-piece band assembled to record a concert of music written for circus in years past, one of the Windjammers' stated goals. The purpose of the organization is simply to keep traditional circus music and circus concert music alive. They publish a bimonthly magazine called Circus Fanfare, and they have established a Windjammer's Hall of Fame. Ward Stauth, the Secretary-Treasurer of the organization, has gathered together an impressive collection of recorded and printed circus music that he hopes will form the basis for a new non-profit American Circus Music Museum in Corydon, Indiana. But as of this writing, the eventual disposition of his collection is not yet clear.
Merle Evans was the band director for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for a half-century beginning in 1919. When he put down his cornet for the last time with the Ringling show on December 4, 1969, this "Toscanini of the Big Top" had played an incredible 18,250 performances without missing a day, even for one severe bout of ptomaine poisoning. His largest all-brass band consisted of thirty-six instruments. Merle used to be able to blow a clear high-C note on his legendary cornet even while munching popcorn, his favorite food. Humble, gentle, and always smiling, he was remarkably popular among all circus people, and widely respected for his talent. He took almost everything in his stride, and rarely complained about anything, including his salary: He made $60 a week when he first started with Ringling, and $800 when he left. After his retirement from the Ringling show, Merle never went back to visit; he and other traditional windjammers were short on patience with the lack of cornets and the new rock-and-roll music that pervades the modern circus. He never could completely retire, however; he remained an active teacher and concert band conductor until his death at ninety-six, on December 31, 1987.
While his least favorite circus music was undoubtedly the "Elephant Polka," some of Merle's favorite circus pieces were the "Battle of Shiloh March," by C. L. Barnhouse; Frederick Alton Jewell's "Quality Plus" and "High and Mighty"; and "Barnum & Bailey's Favorite," by Karl L. King. All three composers were outstanding circus musicians. Barnhouse became the foremost publisher of circus music, and Jewell wrote over two hundred compositions while working for Gentry, Sells-Floto, Barnum & Bailey, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and various Shrine circuses. The prolific Karl King was Evans' predecessor at the Ringling show. Before his death in 1971, he had written 282 different band compositions. Other great circus musicians included Charles E. Duble; Walter P. English; A. W. Hughes; Keith Killinger; the "Paul Whiteman of Spangleland," Henry Kyes; the galop king Joseph John Richards; and Everett James. James was the band director and his wife Mabel was a trapezist for the Mighty Haag Circus when their son Harry was born in 1916. That future great jazz trumpeter would grow up as a circus drummer and contortionist. At least one other musical great barely missed becoming perhaps the greatest circus musician of all time: The "March King" himself, John Philip Sousa, was fully prepared to run away and join the circus in 1867, at the age of thirteen. However, his anxious father prevented it by enlisting him as an apprentice in the U. S. Marine Band.
Sub-Section 4. Black Windjammers
Not all the finest music provided by the circus came from the main big top band. The sideshow bands, the "jig bands," as they were traditionally called by both blacks and whites, presumably without the ugly connotations associated with today's use of the word, were made up of black musicians who exhibited a scope and power equal to their white counterparts. They accompanied many of the sideshow routines, and were frequently responsible for delivering the after-show concert in the main tent. Undoubtedly the greatest of the side show band directors was P. G. Lowery, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, who directed the sideshow band for the Ringling show, as well as the bands for several minstrel shows. Both black and white circus musicians frequently traveled with the indoor minstrel shows during the off-season. Lowery's talent on the cornet, his rigid discipline, and his professional modesty earned him respect from many admirers of all races, including Merle Evans, who had insisted on his being hired for the Ringling show. From the time when he was the leader of the Nashville Students Band, Lowery was billed as "the world's greatest solo cornet player." His chief competition for distinction then was another cornet player, W. C. Handy, bandmaster of the Mahara Minstrels. Handy went on to write "St. Louis Blues," among others, and to become known for posterity as the "Father of the Blues." Other well-known black band leaders included Prof. Wolfscale with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, Fount B. Woods with the Cotton Blossom show, Camp Travis with the Russell Brothers shows, "Pop" Simmons with the Virginia Minstrels, Arthur Wright, and Dan Desdunes.
Sub-Section 5. Calliopes, Etc.
"Calliope" Clarence Cottman was another black man who earned acclaim as a circus musician. He was the recognized master of the steam piano, or calliope. No other single musical instrument is so uniquely associated with the circus. Circus people pronounce it "kall-ee-yoap," strictly three syllables with the accent on the first, and under no circumstances "kall-eye-o-pee," the way everyone else pronounces it. Doc Spalding called the large organ wagon he used on his 1849 circus an "Apollonicon," at the time a relatively common name for a large mechanical organ. The church organ was at last finding its way into Puritan churches, and this was simply a larger and more elaborate travelling version. A few years later, J. C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts, took out a patent that harnessed the power of steam for playing the organ. The "calliope," as it was now called, found favor on steam boats, where there was a steady supply of steam, and on elaborately fitted heavy circus wagons, which burned coal to generate their own steam. Calliopes could be heard for miles, and their unique woozy sound was used both to give concerts and to gather audiences. Calliopes were generally the last vehicles in line for circus parades for many reasons, not the least of which was their alleged tendency to explode, although none ever have in a parade.
At the other end of the processions, the giant circus bandwagons led the parade sections, beckoning anyone within earshot to come to the circus. They were elaborate storage wagons for the musical instruments, but they also provided high moving platforms from which band members could perform as "pied pipers."
Circus parades led to other innovations in circus music as well. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Ringling Brothers Circus carried the only mounted band in the country outside the U. S. Cavalry. There were forty brilliantly arrayed musicians mounted on matched white horses, led by George Granweiler. Other circuses followed suit in displaying unusual eye- and ear-catching bands. There was a children's band mounted on ponies, and a ladies' band, and Karl King tried a mounted band with the Sells-Floto Circus.
Sub-Section 6. Singing Clowns
As we have seen, it was not the big brass circus bands, however, who introduced music into the circus. The real credit for that goes to the early musical clowns. The questionable morality of feel-good music somehow became less questionable if what sounded like a moral message was being delivered at the same time, or if it was played with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Musical self-mockery was a popular form of entertainment that found its ultimate niche in the minstrel shows, both black and white. Minstrel stars also worked in circuses: Dan Emmett, for instance, the composer of "Dixie" and "Old Dan Tucker," worked for Welch's Olympic Circus. N The singing clown survives today in the likes of the more conventionally dressed Mark Russell, Tom Lehrer, and Stephen Wade. In fact, he was not unlike today's stand-up comedians and broadside balladeers. But he made his entry into America way back in John Bill Ricketts' circus.
Matthew Sully, a prominent English Harlequin, tumbler and singer at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, joined Ricketts' company in the summer of 1795. He became particularly well-known for his hit song, "Four and Twenty Periwigs." Later that fall, they were joined by the man recognized as the first "American-born" circus clown, John Durang. Much of what we know about Ricketts' enterprises we owe to Durang's detailed memoirs. The new clown was an accomplished actor and acrobat, and his variations on the "Tailor's Ride to Brentford" were extremely popular. Joe Pentland was another popular early singing clown and one of the first to get top billing. He worked with Aron Turner's Circus, and then with Sands & Lent. He is one of those often credited with creating still another variation on the tailor's ride, called "The Drunken Sailor." Posing as a drunken sailor, Pentland emerged from the stands offering to ride an ornery horse, and was greeted with various hoots and cheers. After several hilariously unsuccessful attempts, he stripped down to his leotards and rode with consummate skill. A later version of the act was wonderfully described in Huckleberry Finn, and other variations on it survive today in several contemporary equestrian routines. Tony Pastor, often called the "Father of Vaudeville," also began his career in the circus as a singing clown and acrobat before he opened his variety theatre in New York in 1881. Finally, circus pioneer Dan Castello, W.C. Coup's first partner, was not only a courageous owner and frontiersman, but also a renowned singing and riding clown.
However, the first American clown to achieve genuine star status was a
jockey, gambler and strongman who used to catch canon balls on the back of his
neck. He was born as Daniel McClaren, but he is better known by his mother's
maiden name of Rice. We first met Dan Rice as a circus owner in Chapter Three.
Despite his later notorious drinking episodes, his presidential ambitions, and
his ruthless billing wars with Spalding, Rice was best known and loved as
America's premier singing clown. Above all, he saw himself as a true jester: "A
successful clown must possess more intellect, ability, and originality than a
comedian. He must be a crack mimic, an elocutionist, a satirist, and so
ready-witted that he—to the ringmaster—is a stupid fool, a buffoon;
to the audience—a wise man whose every remark is impregnated with
philosophy as well as humor. This is the dual nature of the true clown."
N Rice's version of the
tailor's ride was similar to Pentland's, but instead of the drunken sailor he
posed as a country bumpkin named Jenkins. The "Pete Jenkins Ride" thereafter
became the most common name for the routine in America. His own "uneducated"
vivid satirical variations of Shakespearean English, included this "tragic"
|Hamlet, the Dane, of him just 'deign' to hear,
|And for the object lend, at least, an ear.
|I will a tale unfold, whose lightest word
|Will freeze your soul, and turn your blood to curd.
|One night two fellows, standing at their post,
|Beheld--my stars! a real, living ghost--
|Whose ghost was he, so dismal and unhappy?
|It was, my eyes, the ghost of Hamlet's pappy.
|I'll tell you of a story that happened long ago,
|When the English came to America, I s'pose you all know,
|They couldn't whip the Yankees, I'll tell you the reason why,
|Uncle Sam made 'em sing: Root Hog or Die!
It was the circus' musical clowns like Dan Rice who were America's first real troubadours. Thanks to them, songs like "Root Hog or Die," "Turkey in the Straw," "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," and "Down in the Coal Mine" were sung and preserved. "Circus songsters," popular pocket-sized anthologies of traditional and topical secular song lyrics, began to appear with a circus orientation around the middle of the nineteenth century. They were the precursors of our modern circus souvenir programs. Among them were Sam Lathrop's Songs, Stump-speeches, Remarkable Sayings, Buncomb Harrangues, and Fools Arguments, Nat Austin's Clown Song and Joke Book, and Dan Rice's Great Song Book. The latter also contained Rice's "puns, jokes, tales, grotesque adventures, gibes and flashes of merriment." As the songster concept expanded to include all vocal circus music beyond the purely comic, separate booklets were published and sold containing the music from the separate after-show concerts. N
Section B. Clowns
In America in the second half of the nineteenth century, the onset of the three-ring circuses spelled the end of the singing solo circus clowns. The subtlety of their humor and the sense of personal contact with their audiences could not be conveyed over the vast acreage of the new big tops, to spectators already distracted by other acts. The talking and singing clowns retired immediately to Vaudeville and the touring variety shows, leaving the circus to the riding clowns. Even the pantomime solo clowns, like the great Frank "Slivers" Oakley, who enthralled audiences with his baseball act after the turn of the century, survived only for a while. The new silent clowns could erupt into an arena by the hundreds, all performing their routines at once during the "walk-arounds," or the "come-out" before the performance begins. When Ringling cut Oakley's act and reduced his salary from $750 a week to $50 for doing a walk-around only, he walked out in disgust and committed suicide in 1915. A whole new style of uniquely American clowning, based on flamboyant costumes, loud noises, oversized props and aggressively violent routines, was about to begin. Only relatively recently, under the influence of the “new wave” one-ring circuses in America, have solo mime clowns begun to make a comeback, although they are still a relative rarity. The outstanding solo work of Cesar Aedo, the “Traveling Salesman” in the 1990 Big Apple company, is a case in point. In classic mime form, Cesar tugs with all his apparent strength to move his “samples” case, but it is invisibly fixed in space. Wonderfully funny silent pantomime turns such as this and others by Pickle, Dennis Lacombe, and several other “new wave” clowns, take upwards of ten minutes to present. In the giant late nineteenth-century three-ring circuses they proved no longer feasible.
Sub-Section 1. Grimaldi
American clowns, whether they worked in walk-arounds, in entrees, or as a solo act, were among the thousands around the world owing their inspiration to a man who never set foot in America, or for that matter in the circus. His name was Joseph Grimaldi, from whom all clowns earned the name "Joey," and for whom clowns around the world still celebrate memorial services and enormous gala birthday parties. So profound was his influence on clowning in general that he merits a brief digression from the American circus.
Grimaldi was born in London in 1778, grandson of a performing acrobat,
and son of a cruel and quirky pantomime artist. He participated in his father's
act dressed as a monkey on a chain, until the old man died when he was ten.
Then, while Astley and Hughes were plying their trades in the early days of the
circus, young Grimaldi was quickly growing into one of the outstanding
Harlequins of his day in the pantomimes. When he introduced his "Clown" to
London audiences in 1800, the character quickly gained popularity over
Harlequin. By 1806, when he appeared as Clown in an unprecedented ninety
performances of the "Harlequin and Mother Goose, or The Golden Egg," his
reputation as the "King of the Clowns" was established for all time. Joey was
the first clown to paint his face with geometrical patterns suggesting a
grotesque distortion of personality, and his unrestrained acrobatics and antics
with swords and other props were challenging tests of physical endurance. His
comic songs, like "Hot Codlins," were the hit tunes of the day:
|A little old woman her living got
|By selling hot codlins, hot, hot, hot.
|To keep herself warm, she thought it no sin
|To fetch for herself a quartern of [GIN!]
The legend of Grimaldi continued to grow after his death. An impressed Charles Dickens rewrote the clown's memoirs and made them into a best-seller. Other biographers have explored every aspect of his life, from his difficult childhood to the tragic death of his first wife and the loss of his only son to alchoholism. There is a story in circulation that late in his career, Grimaldi went under an assumed name to a doctor for treatment of his profound depression. "There is only one cure for you, my man," said the doctor. "You must go at once to see the clown Grimaldi." "But doctor," replied the weary clown, "I am Grimaldi." Of course a similar story had circulated almost two hundred years earlier about the Italian-French mime clown, Domenique Biancolleli, and another about the American whiteface Vaudeville clown George L. Fox, so the historical accuracy of this one is questionable. It does, however, serve to illustrate the strange combination of human joy and pain which is the paradox of the clown's life. Not for naught is the clown often portrayed as a darkly schizophrenic and troubled personality.
Sub-Section 2. The Paradox Of Clowning
What is there about clowning that brings out the dark side of human existence along with the bright? Our laughter sometimes seems only a short step removed from horror. With the clowns we learn to laugh as much at human pain and suffering as we do at comic situations. Insults, beatings, falls, and all kinds of tragic disasters can become the substance of comedy; it seems the greater the violence, the more pronounced the laughter. But through the laughter, poverty and deformity are diminished. No matter what the severity of the tragedy, the clown survives, and he does it with dignity. The clown's gag may make us howl with laughter or create a bout of depression. It may make us smile happily, or create a brief moment of genuine empathy and understanding. Conrad Hyer points out that clowns are both "delight makers"—koshare as the Navahos called them—and "disturbers of the peace." N Among all the paradoxes of the circus, the clown is the most baffling.
Sub-Section 3. Traditions
There have been thousands of circus clowns, of course, whose names have never been at the tip of America's tongues, and thousands more who never will be. The expanse of the three-ring circus requires armies of clowns at times, all participating in mass routines and gags. Like dancing girls in a chorus line, few of them ever earn anything approaching star status; there is little hope of anything other than minimal pay, and stability and security are unknown. Quitting academic college to enroll in Clown College and then travel with the Beatty-Cole Circus under the monniker of "Tomato Soup," as did Greg Long of Charlottesville, Virginia in 1987, didn't exactly thrill his parents. But he is a happy man, nonetheless. Clowns are a dedicated and hard- working troupe of people, who endure many hardships, primitive living conditions, and low salaries in order to perform their art for us. It takes stamina and devotion to be a clown, and many patrons consider them to be the real stars of the circus. Some have lived the clich‚ed existence of the tragic clown, like Grimaldi, Fox and Oakley; but still others, like Felix Adler and Lou Jacobs have been inherently happy people.
Most American circus clowns have been male and white. There have been a few great black clowns, like Gordon Bunch and Eph Horn. Horn was America's first black clown, also known as the Black Star. More recently, talented blacks like Russell Brown, featured at the 1989 Milwaukee Parade, have made major inroads into the world of clowning. Despite women's equality in the early history of clowning, American clowns were male in accordance with more chauvinistic policies that were established in the nineteenth century. Several clowns' wives, including Felix Adler's, clowned in the ring, but they usually disguised the fact that they were women. Not until Peggy Williams broke the sex barrier in 1970, and became the first female graduate of Ringling's Clown College, did the traditional all-male bastion of circus clowning open completely. Peggy was a speech pathology major before she decided to become a clown, and she moved on to become an Assistant Performance Director with the Ringling Blue Unit. Another Clown College graduate, Ruth Chaddock, became Ringling's foremost female stilt-walker. In fact, the Ringling show now sports a number of talented female clowns, and universally, clowning is becoming as respectable for women as it is for men, opening up whole new gag and routine opportunities. The Pickle Family Circus' Queenie Moon, performed by Joan Mankin, is one of the funniest feature clowns anywhere in the business. Weighed down by sheer numbers, our use of "he" to refer to all clowns is intended as no slight to the many talented "she"'s in the profession of modern clowning. Although there are too many unsung clowns, both male and female, to even to begin to name them all, we are advised to remember Barnum's still true maxim that they are one of the two pegs on which to hang a circus.
Clown gags and routines have generally varied very little from one generation to the next, which may be both an advantage and a disadvantage. There is humor in their very predictableness, and fathers and sons can share the same experiences a full generation apart. We know, with some variations, that we can expect the same barbershop routine on the Beatty-Cole show that our grandparents saw fifty years ago. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed a real service to nostalgia buffs in 1988 when they recreated many of the clown gags from the heyday of the circus. They included the burning house, the "cop" chases, and the inept house painters. All the clown car routines, like the exploding car, the one loaded down with an unbelievable gang of clowns, and the self-driving car, like Happy's at Circus World Museum, are part of our clown vocabulary. When we don't see the old gags performed, some of us leave with a feeling that the circus has been incomplete. Others of us, on the other hand, feel that the old jokes are now too stale and too oft repeated, and that it's time for the infusion of a brand new approach to circus clowning. Therein lies the basis for the never-ending hot debate on the state of clowning in America.
Sub-Section 4. Whitefaces
It all starts in clown alley, a small tent located in the back yard near the performers' entrance to the big top. There is where the various combinations of zinc oxide and oil or grease were mixed to become "clown white" make-up—before it all came in a can; it's where the clowns traditionally dress, and where they traditionally wash in the allotted two buckets of cold water per performance. The nine or so Beatty-Cole clowns are fond of claiming that theirs is the last genuine clown alley under canvas in the country . In the heyday of the three-ring circus, clown alley residents used to number in the hundreds.
Part of the process of learning to clown lies in determining the physical and psychological identity of the clown who lies at the heart of each individual performer. When he puts on his make-up, a good clown usually doesn't think of it as a disguise, but as a conduit through which his inner clown personality can be expressed. Once his clown face has been developed, it becomes his unique personal property, and no one else is ever allowed to duplicate it. Emmett Kelly and his son were well-known for their frequent and bitter disagreements, which were at least in part over the contention that Emmett, Jr. allegedly wanted to expropriate his father's face.
The faces and styles of circus clowning developed historically from specific performers and their routines, and then became generalized. They can be divided into three basic categories. The oldest is the whiteface clown, who had developed at the end of the seventeenth century into the chracters of Gilles and Pierrot, French county fair variations on the Pedrolino character of commedia dell'arte. Over a hundred years later, at about the same time that Grimaldi was entertaining in London, a young Jean-Gaspard Deburau was capturing the imagination of audiences at the Théâtre des Funambules in Paris. Deburau, whose life was the basis for Marcel Carné's French film Les Enfants du Paradis, wore white face make-up, a skull-cap, and an all-white suit; he was an adept juggler, acrobat and mime, who delighted in sophisticated, dreamy mischief-making bordering on the sinister.
Since then, whiteface circus clowns have all followed in the footsteps of Deburau: Until recently, they were authoritarian, sophisticated, and exacting. They tended to be pie-throwers, and trick-instigators, and rather narrow-minded and bossy pseudo-intellectuals. If their painted features were of a natural size, they are called "neat whiteface," and if they were oversized or otherwise exaggerated, the clowns are in "grotesque" whiteface. Silent screen comedian Harry Langdon worked a traveling medicine show as a neat whiteface clown before he went to Hollywood. Pat Valdo was a prominent whiteface in the 1920's, before he became Ringling's personnel director. Today, Cecil McKinnon, who is "Yo-yo" on the Circus Flora, is a good example of the nineteenth-century neat whiteface. And finally, Glen "Frosty" Little, the current Master Clown for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, is a well-known neat whiteface clown. His pointed cap is perched over a chalky face, with an only slightly exaggerated red lower lip and nose, and minimal character lines. Neat whitefaces are growing rarer, and modern ones are often characterized more by sadness than by their traditional mischievousness.
Only a few years ago in America, grotesque whitefaces were in abundance. They included the likes of Joe Lewis, one of the first prominent cop clowns; Paul Jung, who was also an inventive producing clown; Bobby Kay; and Paul Jerome, with make-up suggesting widely separated buck-teeth. But the most familiar face of all grotesque whiteface clowns belonged to the great Felix Adler. He carried a tiny umbrella, and his oversized red nose lit up when he was excited. He wore a grossly padded rear-end extension, long yellow shoes, and a tiny hat. Like many of the great circus clowns, including Otto Griebling, Poodles Hanneford, Lou Jacobs, Paul Jung, and Emmett Kelly, Adler set out to be another kind of circus artist before he settled into his clowning role. Born in Iowa in 1895, he ran away to be a tightrope walker in the circus when he was a boy. A few falls converted him into a clown, and for fifty years he was America's "King of the Clowns," a featured star in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. For his most famous routine, Adler worked with a pet piglet, as had Dan Rice. Because piglets tend to grow rapidly into less-than-cute porkers, he estimates that during his career he had to train over five hundred pigs to feed from a bottle, climb a ladder, and slide down a plank. His clowning, like that of so many other circus clowns, was based on simplicity, surprise, and doing something serious that turns out to be funny. Before he died in 1960, Adler had also become one of the first great producing clowns in the country, directing the appearance of the entire troupe of Ringling clowns.
Sub-Section 5. Augustes
A second stock circus clown was probably developed in Germany in 1869, by an American clown named Tom Belling. The story goes that Belling was running away from an angry proprietor in the back yard, and stumbled into the ring. Mortified, he tripped over his own coat tails and incoherently blundered off again, to the sound of roars of laughter and cries of "August!" from the approving crowd—a slang term in Berlin for a stupid bumbling fool. And so the "auguste" clown was created. It's only one story among many claims for the true origin, but it's as good as any.
Whatever his origins, the auguste clown does abundant pratfalls, gets hit in the face with the pies, and is the butt of all the jokes that are usually instigated by the whiteface. On the other hand, the naive bumbling of the unsophisticated auguste is responsible for dissolving the whiteface's well-laid if meaningless plans into chaos. The routine or gag they perform together is called an entree, and for years it formed the basis for most clown entertainment in the circus, on vaudeville, in films and on television. Gradually, the characters have grown more flexible, and their personalities have merged into a much more prominent auguste, who is a trickster in his own right. The modern auguste is the most recognized circus clown: No longer victimized by the sophisticated whiteface, his routines have grown ever more aggressive, physical and slapstick in nature. The auguste usually wears the big shoes, the bulbous red nose, the red or orange wig, now shifting in style to purple, lime green, or pink, and the outrageous, color-clashing, oversized costumes. He may leave most of his own facial skin color showing, but he exhibits big facial features predominantly in the easily visible colors of black and red, and his lower lip and eyes may be thickly outlined in white to exaggerate facial expressions. Much to the consternation of the traditionalists, more and more modern augustes "show skin" abundantly. Ironically, this is actually a return to even earlier traditions, when augustes wore practically no make-up at all. Recently, make-up has grown more minimal again, largely due to the influence of the Moscow school of clowning, in order to reveal more of the true humanity of the clown. “Travelling Salesman” Cesar Aedo, with the Big Apple, wears none at all.
Lou Jacobs, who retired in 1988 at the age of eighty-four, after sixty-four years with the Ringling show, was America's premier Auguste. "In clown," he was one of the most recognized men in America, with his distinctive big patches of white around the eyes, and his cone-shaped bald head, fringed with red hair around the ears and topped with a tiny hat. Lou wore a red rubber-ball nose, a variation on the large red noses which had long been a tradition used by clowns satirizing the drunken fool. His face appeared on the 1966 five-cent postage stamp commemmorating the American Circus, one of the few living Americans to be so honored by the U. S. Post Office. A capable acrobat and contortionist, he created riotously funny effects by folding his lanky six-foot frame into the "world's tiniest car," that he had designed himself. His amiable chihuahua dog Knucklehead, "disguised" with rabbit ears, was a master at playing dead and "outwitting" Lou, the "hunter." Lou still teaches at Clown College, where he is joined by another popular auguste, T. J. Tatters, otherwise known as Steve Smith, the director of the College.
The Cirque du Soleil's Benny Le Grand is another featured clown artist
with his roots in the auguste, but he represents some significant changes in
the development of the contemporary clown. For make-up, Le Grand wears only a
large white triangular patch over his upper lip, slightly accented eyebrows, a
moderately exaggerated nose, and an out-of-control natural hair line. His
character role is far from that of a victim of any whiteface clown. On the
contrary, he works alone or banters with the ringmaster, and like a conniving
escapee from a mental ward, he seems determined to aggressively avenge all the
dirty tricks that have been played on augustes for the past 100 years.
Drenching spectators with water, or hauling an unsuspecting onlooker into
center ring is not unheard of. The warning inserted into the 1988 Soleil
program suggests just how "threatening" a clown the new auguste can be, a word
once reserved for the antics of the whiteface:
|Not one of our favorite people. We cannot endorse any
actions perpetrated by Mr. Le Grand while in the ring or other areas of the
Circus. All complaints should be directed to the League of Human Decency,
Ottawa, Canada. Since Mr. Le Grand has come into possession of certain
documents relative to the affairs of Le Cirque, it is best that we allow him to
continue with the show. Our apologies. The Management.
Also fitting into the category of the Auguste are two of America's most famous clowns, but the point must be stressed that neither of them ever appeared in a circus: Ronald McDonald and Bozo. There have been hundreds of "original" Ronalds. Bozo, who celebrates a fiftieth birthday in 1990, began as a story-teller for children on Capitol Records, and made the transition to a TV clown played by Larry Harmon in 1961. In the Chicago market he has become a cultural icon, and a Bozo show has been carried on over eighty TV stations around the country. Two hundred actors have played Bozo, including such notables as Willard Scott, the NBC Today show weatherman, and former TV network chief Fred Silverman. Bozo's image, a commercial trademark, is one many people associate with clowns in general, and is based on the auguste face of Albert Fratellini. Unlike most augustes of his era, who wore very little make-up, Fratellini painted his lips black, the areas around his mouth and eyes white, and the rest of his face in shades of flesh tones and carmine. N
Sub-Section 6. Characters
A third category of characterization grew out of the "carpet" clown, who independently provided carpeting for the bareback riders, and who in Europe still serves as a solo clown performing short routines between acts. "Character clowns," which seem to have developed from the "carpet," include any clown who has developed a unique, non-categorizable routine, and who usually works alone rather than with a partner or in a large group. The character also derives from the traditional poor auguste for whom nothing can go right, and he is the most realistic of the clowns. Unlike the regular clowns, who appear only in scheduled gags and walk-arounds, the character clown usually has the run of the circus tent, and can work independently whenever and however he chooses, so long as he is not disrupting major action in the rings. The most popular "character" is the hobo or tramp clown, who seems to have developed during the Great Depression and may be the only truly indigenous American clown. The tramp clown owes much of his inspiration to "the Little Tramp" himself, Charlie Chaplin, whose genius was built on centuries of clowning traditions. Chaplin's films are still revered and studied by clowns all over the world. The tramp clown may be naive and inherently sad, but he always has the considerable dignity which allows him to triumph over adversity and the basic injustice of the universe. Often he is a well-educated but down-on-his-luck gentleman. His face is usually darkened with black, as though he were unshaven or perhaps covered with a hobo's soot from the old steam engines; his clothes are tattered but usually carefully patched.
Two famous traditional tramp clowns, Otto Griebling and Emmett Kelly, have made a particularly strong impact on their audiences. They are the idols of many young clowns, and have been the models for much of what has followed them and is still to come. Griebling was the lovable round-faced tramp who used to attempt to deliver some odd piece of merchandise to an audience member who he claimed had ordered it. Over and over again during a show he would try to find "Mrs. Jones," the rightful owner of a melting block of ice, or an ever-growing potted plant. He couldn't undertand it when no one wanted anything to do with it. Otto Griebling also developed the routine of banging his tin pie plates together and pitting the two sides of the tent against each other in a contest of happy screams and applause. He came to this country from Germany in 1910, and spent his first ten years here as a bareback rider, until he broke both legs in an accident and was persuaded to try clowning. While he was with the Cole Brothers show, he and Freddie Freeman developed a burlesque boxing match that left the audience gasping with every noise-amplified haymaker and fall. They used big flat rubber mitts for gloves, that resounded throughout the tent when they slapped the ring curb for effect. In his later years with the Ringling show, even the removal of his larynx never stopped the much loved Griebling from performing. When he died on April 19, 1972, one of the young clowns in the company tearfully remarked that it was "the first thing I have ever seen Otto do that wasn't funny." N
Emmett Kelly was Griebling's close friend and admirer, and the two tramps occasionally worked together. They are often compared, and arguments over which was the better clown can get hot. There is no question, however, that Kelly was the better publicist, and he was able to parlay his talents into major salary hikes. Working as a young sketch artist, he first created his famous character of "Weary Willie" as a cartoon. Willie was a forlorn little hobo, dressed in dirty rags and a tattered hat, who "always got the short end of the stick, but who never lost hope and just kept on trying." N Kelly first entered the circus as a trapeze artist with Howe's Great London Circus in 1921, and began to experiment with his tramp idea as a clown. His boss didn't much like the tattered costume, so it wasn't until much later, at the break-up of his marriage in 1935, while he was with the Cole Brothers and Clyde Beatty Combined Show, that the now-familiar "Weary Willie" character truly began to emerge. Kelly eventually claimed that two men lived in his house: himself, and "Weary Willie," and he wasn't sure which one his wife was most in love with. N
Willie's passive face never smiled -- never changed at all, no matter what was going on around him: He had a bulbous red nose, a long sad look emerging from natural eyes, and a white, wide down-turned mouth set against a dark "five-o'clock" shadow. His clothes were the same tattered rags worn by the railroad hobos that crowded American boxcars in the thirties. He would periodically enter the arena munching on a head of cabbage, and simply stare unblinkingly at a woman in the audience, occasionally offering her a leaf. Spectators had only to look at him to howl with the laughter of self-recognition. They shared with him his inherent triumph over his appearance as victim and failure. His most famous routine was one adapted from a gag by "Shorty" Flemm. He would enter center ring with a broom and begin to sweep up; when a spotlight spilled a large bright circle of light at his feet, he desperately tried to sweep it away, but to no avail. Eventually, he gave up and walked away, or he succeeded in sweeping it into a tiny pin-spot, which he loaded onto his dust-pan and carried away, only to be confronted with a new spot.
After a period with the Bertram Mills Circus in England, Kelly joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1942, and was its star by 1944, the year of the devastating fire. Caught in the middle of labor difficulties, and eager to pursue an independent career, he eventually left the Ringling show, but he continued to play "Weary Willie" in night clubs and on ball fields for the rest of his life. When he died in 1979, at the age of 80, his friend Red Skelton remarked, "The angels must have needed some laughs." N
Red Skelton himself ranks as one of the great American tramp clowns, as has once more been confirmed by his induction into the Clown Hall of Fame in 1989. As a boy in 1928, Skelton ran away to join the Hagenbeck-Wallace show. It was in the circus that he began to develop all of his great radio and TV clown personalities: Clem Kadiddlehopper, Deadeye, Willy Lump Lump, and Freddie the Freeloader.
The American circus has produced many other excellent tramp clowns: Gene Randow, Mark Anthony, Michael Christensen, and Lorenzo Pickle among them. A producing clown who worked for a variety of circuses, Mark Anthony is now semi-retired and living in Florida. His "Tony" represented a unique bridge between the tramp clown and the auguste, although he began his career as a whiteface. His gags were big enough to reach the back rows as well as the few to whom he performed more intimately. His favorite routine was his coveted watermelon, which squirted him in the face every time he attempted to sink his teeth into it.
Michael Christensen is a tramp clown whose grounding is outside the traditional American circus. He was a street performer and juggler, and was one of the founders of the Big Apple Circus. Before that he had worked with Paul Binder in a juggling routine at the Nouveau Cirque de Paris, directed by Pierre Etaix and clown artiste Annie Fratellini. As the clown coordinator of the Big Apple, Michael has made clowning a major component of the circus again. He and his colleagues, Fish (John Lepiarz), Oaf (David Casey), and Gordoon (Jeff Gordon) have kept their audiences enthralled with gags that are relatively non-frenetic and refreshingly simple: reviving the magic of soap bubbles; or sending an entire roll of toilet paper flying into the air with a leaf-blower - a Gordoon routine; or performing their impressively complicated but deceptively simple juggling routines and Frisbee games.
Another street performer, Larry Pisoni, a.k.a. Lorenzo Pickle, was the inventive creator of the Pickle Family Circus. He is now pursuing an independent career which he hopes will expand the boundaries of the traditional clown into film and stage acting, without ignoring his relatively recent roots in the circus. His 1989 one-man stage show, "Clown Dreams," and a guest appearance with the Circus Flora, as well as his unwillingness to rule out future appearances with the Pickle Family Circus, suggest that the circus is not yet finished with Lorenzo Pickle. Still sporting a red nose, he wears minimal make-up except for a large white mouth, and a red floppy hat, a neat striped pull-over, and baggy pants. His routines involve intimate silent conversations with audience members, and a musical facility on his favorite signature prop, a baritone horn. A Pickle routine with balloons is reminiscent of Fanny Brice's Vaudeville gag: When Baby Snooks was offered a balloon, "Bigger, Bigger, BIGGER!" she cried, until it burst. Emmett Kelly had a similar but more solitary balloon gag. But Pickle tries to give all kinds of balloons away to a deserving spectator, including one about five feet around, only to have them all burst or sail away. Lorenzo Pickle also represents a bridge: from the traditional American tramp and auguste to the more realistic and modern middle class everyman that is at the core of the so-called "New Vaudeville" clowns.
It would be a shame to think that future circus clowns will be consigned to replaying over and over the same gags that were a part of our past. Those old gags still have value, and they can still be wonderfully funny, but they are museum pieces. Furthermore, it's not enough that clowns be birthday party entertainers and car salesmen. In the circus it's not enough that they be salesmen and autographers of coloring books, a status to which they have been too often relegated, and from which they are expected to earn a major part of their income. A new breed of clown has developed out of the traditions of the past to indicate that there is more to life than coloring books and museum gags.
Sub-Section 7. “New Vaudeville”
These "modern" or "New Vaudeville" clowns are called "private Clowns" in Europe, a comprehensive term to describe all those who have turned away from the traditional clown "entrée" between the whiteface and the auguste. Usually, they work alone, and typically they work without make-up. They are often said to be more interested in creating smiles and giggles, than in the belly-laughs sought by the entrée clowns. The laughter they seek is created perhaps more from the head than the belly. They believe that the traditional entrée routines have grown sterile and unimaginative. So it appears they have when clowns become bored with their own routines and fail to inject them with verve, energy, and a personalized connection to their particular audiences. Above all, the new clowns seek that personalized connection to audiences in their own time and space. It is a relationship with audience members that they seek—not a performance at them.
Some of the new clowns have remained with the circus, like the Cirque du Soleil's Dennis Lacombe. He does the wonderful "Leonard Bernstein" take-off, with his feet anchored to a spring board that allows his frantic baton waving to happen in a near-horizontal position. He is a master of old-fashioned physical pie-in-the-face comedy as well, and he uses a mechanical pie-thrower to suggest his mortal combat with a mechanized society gone berserk.
Barry Lubin, who was a hit as "Grandma" with the Big Apple Circus a few years ago, spent some time away from the big top exploring other options. A usually quiet but completely unpredictable bespectacled little old lady, Grandma wears a head of gray hair, minimal make-up, and often a simple bright red dress. Grandma's humor thrives on appearing completely out of place and out of context with everything going on around her; yet at the same time she is hip and in touch. In 1989, Lubin was back in the circus fold. He was well-received in his hilarious guest appearance with the Royal Hanneford Circus at the Milwaukee Parade, as "Bat-Grandma," complete with black mask and cape. The entire 1990 Big Apple Circus is oriented around the theme of Grandma's tour through the old West.
Other new clowns are making their mark in the theatre, rather than in the circus, although their routines are firmly based on old European and American circus clowning. Avner the Eccentric, a modern tramp clown, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a superb group of five unrelated, chattering, musical jugglers, appeared in a frenetic and well-received circus version of Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors at Lincoln Center a few years back. Both Avner and the Karamazovs have also earned rave reviews in their own Broadway shows. Geoff Hoyle is a product of the Pickle Family Circus, where he was the sausage-nosed and fiery-tempered "Mr. Sniff." He too is now pursuing an independent stage career with his own one-man show, and he was also the guest director for the 1989 "Café Chaotique" on the Pickle Family show.
Perhaps the most successful of all the new clowns is Bill Irwin, a graduate of the Ringling Clown College, and still another member of the early Pickle Family Circus. While he was with Pickle, he played an odd little whiteface clown named Willy, working alongside Lorenzo Pickle and Mr. Sniff. Since then, he has used his own face to suggest much of the same innocence and victimization by the chaos of a mechanized and unfair world that were the province of Charlie Chaplin, Emmett Kelly, and Buster Keaton. The world to which Irwin falls victim is frequently a dehumanized and electronic one, always trying to lure him into its grips, to convert him into a TV picture, or to suck him under a curtain. Among his other work, his Broadway production entitled The Regard of Flight earned him a 1983 National Endowment for the Arts Choreographer's Fellowship. In 1984, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he received the first MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship to go to a performing artist: a five-year grant totalling $180,000. In 1989, his production of Largely New York was another smash hit on Broadway.
A look at today's headlines is sufficient to remind us of how much the world desperately needs its clowns. It is no small relief to know that we are getting them. Despite all the struggles, pressures, psychoses, and phobias associated with life in modern America, or perhaps even because of them, clowning is thriving. Alan Zerobnick, master shoemaker of clown shoes in Sequim, WA, estimates that there are around 28,000 part-time clowns, including Shrine clowns, jugglers, street vaudeville performers, and about two hundred Ronald McDonalds; and perhaps one thousand professional full-time clowns, as well as "probably millions of 'closet clowns' across the country." N
The Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, Inc. opened a small office and museum in "America's Circus Capital," Delavan, Wisconsin, in 1987. There are plans for the construction of a new elaborate multi-purpose facility, including a fully equipped exhibition center with a 400-seat theatre, an educational research center, and accommodations for regularly scheduled clown workshops and seminars. On April 23, 1989, the Hall of Fame inducted its first six clowns: Felix Adler, Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly, Lou Jacobs, Mark Anthony, and Red Skelton.
The many regional and national clowning organizations in the United States include the World Clown Association, Inc., "dedicated to the art, education, and enjoyment of clowning." The WCA was born in the U.S. in 1982, and held its first convention in Atlanta the following year. Its local units are called "alleys," naturally, and membership numbers in the thousands. It publishes a monthly newspaper called Clowning Around. Clowns of America International, the International Shrine Clown Association, and Clowns International also have offices in the United States. Clown schools and the many courses in community colleges all over the country are filled, and Ringling's Clown College has even opened a second campus in Japan. The Japanese faculty are trained in Florida, but their goals are more social than professional: "to show Japanese merchants how to be a little less uptight," and "to give people a new kind of confidence in themselves to better deal with people." N Here as well as in Japan, there is a necessary function to clowning related to the mental health of our society, and we might all do well to bear it in mind. Red Skelton, when he was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame, summed up the positive value of clowning to our world today: "A clown studies his fellow man and can mimic him and still like his fellow man." N. Or as Conrad Hyer once again puts it, "For those who are not pretenders to thrones that are not theirs or to a divinity they have not attained, or even to some superior form of humanity, the clown enables us to embrace ourselves and one another as the luminous lumps that we are." N