Think of the circus and what comes to mind? For most of us, select images are clear; the calliope (or Devil's Whistle, as it was at one time called, due to its ear splitting volume), the wild animal trainer, the men (or women) on the flying trapeze, and, of course, the Clowns.
Likewise, when most people think of Clowns, the circus Clown immediately comes to mind. Ask the average American to name a Clown, and, except for Ronald McDonald and Bozo, the answers most often given will probably be one of two Clowns; Lou Jacobs (far left above) and Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr., (far right above). Some seasoned circus fans will remember, Felix Adler (pictured further down on this page), billed at the height of his career as the King Of Clowns, and the equally great Otto Griebling (third from left above). British circus goers, I'm sure, would probably name Nikolai "Coco" Poliakov (second from left above) and his son, Michael (also billed as Coco, at least since his father's death).
As most clowns know, some really great clowns performed theatrically, not in a circus (Joseph Grimaldi is classic example). But the circus is definitely the stage where the clown stands out as a king of professional performers. Famous circus owner P. T. Barnum (far right) called clowns (and elephants) "the pegs upon which the circus is built." Another famous quote (author unknown) is that "Clowns are the glue that hold the circus together."
Most authorities on the subject agree that the first circus clown was "Mr. Merryman," a comical fellow wearing a tight fitting jacket with a frilled collar, striped hose, and a wig from which sprouted 3 peacock feathers. Mr. Merryman was a creation of circus owner Philip Astley in the 1700's. His job was to appear in the ring several times during the show to trade jokes with the ringmaster.
For many years, the solo clown was a common sight at any circus; Mr. Merryman, Yankee Dan Rice, (left) Slivers Oakley, (right) and others (although of course, clown alley (the clown's dressing tent) always stood close by the entrance of the Bigtop entrance in case all clowns were needed for an emergency distraction).
With the modern invention of the three ring circus, however, circus owners began to feel that the solo clown slowed down the pace of the show, and interfered with the other performances. The clown acts thus became a group effort; with no one particular clown standing out over another. (In fact, to facilitate this group effort and to blend the clown into the show instead of making him standout, clown alley is now filled with a variety of costumes and props so that the clowns can change at a moment's notice to reflect the theme of that moment). There have been some notable exceptions to the group act, such as Weary Willie, Lou Jacobs, and David Larrible (left). But if you were to ask the average person to name a particular circus clown who still performs today, it is doubtful that very many would be able to rise to the challenge (David Larrible notwithstanding); at least in the United States.
The size of the circus has limited the clown as well; the one-on-one interaction with the audience has given way to pantomime, grand gestures, and constant movement, usually performed as a group skit. The circus clown's makeup has also changed; features are almost always big and exaggerated so as to be seen on the back rows of a large audience.
In the early days of the circus, clowns were mainly whiteface (Felix Adler (below) is an example of the grotesque whiteface). Today there are three main types; the whiteface, the auguste (like Lou Jacobs and Coco Poliakov), and the character clown (which may be a cop, cowboy or whatever; but is most often the hobo or tramp, such as Weary Willie). Traditionally, the whiteface is in charge of the clown situation; he knows the gag, and is hardly if ever the butt of the joke, the auguste is the whiteface's comic foil, often the butt of the jokes, the clumsy Clown who never quite gets things right, and the tramp is the ne-er do well; the clown that knows life is stacked against him, but continues to hope for that one small success that continuously alludes him. Again, though, group clowning makes these traditional distinctions difficult so the roles of each type of clown in a circus performance today will not always fit historical tradtion.
Circus clowning today is not easy; it involves running, pratfalls, tumbling, and often horseback riding. Hence the average circus clown is in as good a physical condition as any other circus performer. I know firsthand how physical circus clowning is, because the Shrine Clowns were kind enough to let an old patient (me) clown with them in the Shrine Circus one year. That was an experience I'll never forget, but I would definitely have to work out a lot more in order to do it on a daily basis.
Schools to train such clowns have existed for many years in the United States and in Europe, for the circus, as we know it, would cease to exist without clowns.
Clowns today perform in many functions; rodeos, birthday parties, grand openings, etc. But the circus clown remains at the top of the hierarchy; the true king of clowns.
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