Submitted by Editor on 4/4/2004
CLOWNS AND CLOWNING - Updated 11/19/05
By Joseph W. Rogers, Ph.D.
Member, Education Committee
Circus Fans Association of America
CLOWNS AND CLOWNING
While recently entertaining a
young child, we decided to introduce “Nicki’ -- almost 2 1/2 years old -- to a
clown face. The initial event did not get very far. Just as soon as she saw the
small red nose on her grandfather’s face, Nicki burst into tears, quite
obviously frightened. This reaction was particularly surprising, in that the little
girl had been previously exposed to books and videotapes featuring numerous
A few days later her mother returned from a trip, so
we decided to try once again just starting very slowly, with the tiny red nose
-- but on her mother’s face. This time Nicki’s response was more curiosity than
fear -- the door was opened to slowly add a few costume pieces, this time by
grandfather. Within the hour, Nicki was proudly wearing her first clown outfit
-- her own red nose, a colorful oversized bow tie, and large matching cap. Her
smiles, as she inspected herself in the hall mirror, revealed the inner joy of
a happy child.
Clowns, for all their ability to make us laugh, can
in fact be rather scary figures to children even older than Nicki. Experienced
performers know this of course; thus, they approach audiences, whether at a
circus, fair, birthday party, or store opening with an eye for spotting those
youngsters ready to be approached. We think this is important for you, as a
student, if you decide to put on a show such as a circus for the younger kids.
You want your audience to have a real good time! Tears spoil things.
On the following pages you will learn more about
clowns: a bit of their history, descriptions of different types of clowns, and
something of the art itself. You must remember though that this is just a small
start, intended to encourage your own further research and discoveries.
A Short History of
Although we may not be able to identify the first
clown or an inventor of clowning, we do know this heritage goes back many
centuries. Moreover, these ancient entertainers were to have been found in
lands both west and east of our own continent —- for example, China
and India and
in Asia across the Pacific ocean;
and Italy in Europe
across the Atlantic. In historical terms, these
performers lived during “B.C.” -- decades before the birth of Christ.
They were not known then by our
term “clowns,” but by such titles as ‘zanies,” “court fools,” “minstrels,”
“mimes,” or “jesters.” Some used masks or simple props, such as a stick, while
entertaining. The “fools” might act dumb or foolish for their audiences
including, perhaps a pharaoh or a king; the mimes might gain admiration for
their various poses and imitations, while the jesters might amuse their ruler’s
guests through displays of clever wit and
jokes. As early as 400 B.C. comic playwrights appeared, giving rise to a long
lineage of humorous writings and funny characters.
Clown Historian Bruce Johnson, himself an active tramp clown known as
“Charlie,” clowning has existed in America
for at least 600 years. His research reveals when the Spanish conquistador
Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztec nation in the 1520s, this explorer
discovered natives who acted as fools, buffoons, and jesters. Many Native
American tribes contained “clown societies” whose members wore masks and body
paint; some wore costumes. Mr. Johnson notes the Plains Indians had “Contrary
Societies” who purposely did everything wrong. Picture these antics: riding a
horse while facing its tail; walking around camp on one’s hands; taking a dust
bath, then jumping into the water to dry off; or shooting arrows backward over
their shoulders! Perhaps funny for those odd behaviors, but some contraries
were considered among the bravest and most skillful warriors. Some native
clowns also had additional functions --
teaching children traditional dances; initiating laughter at the beginning of
certain ceremonies to increase friendliness; correcting offensive behavior
through public exposure and teasing; using the power of laughter to heal and
promote health; or entertaining others during various festivities.
In 1993 we celebrated the 200th birthday of
the Circus in America,
commemorating European equestrian John Bill Ricketts’ 1793 establishing the
first “true circus” in Philadelphia.
Mr. Ricketts combined skillful feats of horsemanship in the ring with daring
acts of rope walkers and acrobats, joined by a clown named Mr. McDonald (no kin
to “Ronald”). He was followed by John Durang, who is credited by Johnson as
being the first American born circus clown. Combining his skills as an acrobat,
wire walker, and equestrian with those of a costumed clown provided great
entertainment for our forefathers. Ever since, our country has been the
benefactor of the thousands of mirth makers who followed in those early
Types of Clowns
Known as “Joeys’ (after Englishman Joseph Grimaldi,
1778-1837), clowns appear today in an wide variety of costumes and make-ups. An
unwritten honor code holds that each clown must strive to
create his or her own very special face, unlike that of any other person —-
hardly an easy task. Some clowns, such as Dan Rice (1823-1900) chose not to
wear makeup. Among our most famous clowns, and named after the tasty rice
pudding, he simply wore a patriotic costume and a top hat, becoming one of
President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite entertainers. Mr. Rice in this outfit is
said to have inspired the familiar image of our “Uncle Sam” through the pen of
an early cartoonist, Thomas Nast, a notion not accepted by some scholars.
Originally, the term “clown” meant “clod, “ and was
often used to denote a ‘country bumpkin,” “yokel,” “lout,” or “boor.” Although
it is still used that way in coarse or crude conversation, “clown” has also
taken on a much higher meaning. Today we appreciate the art and skill required
by these performers. Remember their training requires such ingredients as
talent, motivation, sense-of-timing, coordination, quick physical reaction, and
dedication to hard work. Not all who want to become professional clowns
succeed, but later on we shall identify a few of the stars who have. Old-timer
Karl “Whitey” Hirsch used to say “Clowning is easy, UNTIL YOU TRY IT.”
Author John H.
Towsen in his excellent book, Clowns, says that most of the words in his
ten-page glossary “refer to types of clowns, and dozens more could easily be
included.” Here, we must limit ourselves to just three of the most commonly
cited types: (1) whiteface, (2)auquste, and (3)character. But do keep in mind
that the vast variety of clown faces and costumes today defy easy typing.
Usually the whiteface clown adds touches of red
&/or black to individual features -- mouth, nose, eyebrows, and perhaps
cheeks, on an otherwise all-white face. A clown is called a “Neat Whiteface”
when his or her features are of ordinary size; a “Grotesque White-face, “if the
features are oversized or exaggerated, thus presenting some of the scarier
The auguste (rhymes with roost) clown does not
whiten the entire face, which is generally covered with a pink or red base
color. The makeup tends to be colorful and gaudy, commonly including a
prominent red nose. While the facial features may be enlarged and, painted in
red or black, the mouth and eyes are usually outlined in white.
Character clowns may appear in
many guises —— as a fireman, policeman, dentist, doctor, college professor, and
numerous other roles. The character’s face and makeup are variations on the
human face through a blend of funny appearing wigs, mustaches, whiskers, false
noses, freckles, pigtails, or what ever fits the occasion. Costuming may be
equally outrageous as they appear in ill-fitting suits, dresses, hats, and
other odd pieces.
Clowns deserve special mention, having become so famous in this country
through the extraordinary talents of a host of performers. Recognizable usually
through their hobo—like torn and patched clothing, many also possess an
unshaven face and a reddened nose. Among all clowns, the tramp is best known
for his or her ability to create feelings of tenderness and sympathy.
The Art of Clowning
Clowning has long been considered an honorable
craft, and as with other professions has experienced changes and challenges
over the centuries to the present. Writing in a period (1921), which WE think
“old,” George Conklin observed,
There is nothing which more strikingly emphasizes
the difference between the old-time circus and that of today than the changed
relation which the clown holds to the show. In the old days he was the
principal attraction, and oftentimes the success or failure of a show depended
on the ability and reputation of its clown. He told stories, cracked jokes,
sang songs, and very often composed them as well, commented to the audience on
the different acts, and drew the largest salary of anyone on the payroll.
What this early circus owner disliked was a
reduction of many clown acts to little more than “rough-and-tumble and cheap
‘slapstick’pantomime.” With the advent of the larger-than-ever audiences,
crowded under a huge canvas containing three rings surrounded by a hippodrome
track, change was inevitable. Distance, inability to hear, and lack of
compensating technology made many of the cherished routines obsolete. These
changes required such adjustments as creating larger props; generating more
visible body language and noisy routines; putting on more ensemble acts; plus
utilizing clowns for “come—ins,” “clown stops,” and “walkarounds.” (Please
check glossary for meanings.)
Even so, the past half-century witnessed the
appearance of many exceptional clowns and routines. During your research,
check, for example, such whitefaces as Felix Adler, Paul Jung, Bobby Kay,
Frosty Little, and Pat Valdo. For augustes, check the names of Tom Belling
(possibly the first, about 1869) and Lou Jacobs, our premier auguste whose
likeness is on a 1966 five-cents U.S.
postage stamp. For tramps, check for Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly, Mark
Anthony, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and Red Skelton among others.
acts are associated with these figures, such as Weary Willie’s” (Emmett Kelly)
powerful attempt to sweep away a spot (light) on the ring floor; or Greibling’s
hilarious effort to deliver a cake of melting ice to a supposed member of the
audience; or Lou Jacobs (over 6 feet tall) arriving inside a car so small, most
sixth graders couldn’t get in it -- moreover, Lou’s car seemed to have a mind
of its own. Entertaining team routines included such acts as Griebling’s
amazing car gag, packing more than 20 clowns inside a single vehicle; a riotous
clown rescue of a mother & infant from a blazing building; a sausage making
routine; and an atom smasher -- the latter pair usually including midget or
dwarf clowns to pull off effective endings.
Clowning variations are endless, and today many of
the traditional types have become blurred through mixtures. Some clowns enjoy
working with animals. For instance, Lou Jacobs disguised his dog “Knucklehead”
as a rabbit for a classic hunting farce; Felix Adler became well known for his
piglet friends; and Edwin “Poodles” Hanneford combined his equestrian and comic
skills in a beloved clown/horse routine. In some cases the animal becomes the clown as with
Ben Williams’ sidesplitting “drunken-elephant” number.
If anyone thinks circus clowning is a dying art, let
them see the truly gifted David Larible, Barry Lubin, and Bello Nock whose
extraordinary styles defy easy description. Mr. Larible accomplishes the near
‘impossible” as the longtime featured attraction with the Ringling Bros. and
Barnum & Bailey Circus. Like many younger performers, he wears light
makeup. He also wears a newsboy gingham cap with a matching jacket and baggy
trousers. His likeness has been duplicated in a doll sold by the show. This
extraordinary clown can spellbind the huge audiences of this three-ring circus
through a merger of mime, timing, and audience participation, including
children. At this writing, Mr. Larible was planning to leave Ringling and “go
out on his own.”
Mr. Lubin is
the current featured performer with the single-ring Big Apple Circus. In the
guise of “Grandma,” “she” repeatedly works the closer, more intimate audience
to perfection through highly stylized interaction with other members of the
company, including (during one tour) the Mummenschanz’s wonderful large puppet
“Slinky Worm.” Although it sounds simple and unimpressive, one of his standard
routines has become a hilarious popcorn sequence, catching popcorn on his
tongue and involving audience members along the way.
Possibly the most celebrated clown today is the
phenomenal Bello Nock whose trademark is his 9 inch vertical stalk of blond
hair that must be seen to be fully appreciated. In 2000 he was enticed from the
Big Apple by Ringling, becoming the centerpiece for their red unit. Known for
daredevil acts, he has performed such stunts as being suspended from a
flexible, 3-inch wide tube 90 feet tall and swinging back and forth between
buildings. He describes himself as fearless, as illustrated by hanging by just
his toes from a trapeze dangling from a helicopter above the Statue of Liberty!
He has performed high above the tent floor without a safety net; he has done
bungee jumps, high wire acts on a bicycle, and even somersaulted over five
Kelly Crow, in an
outstanding Wall Street Journal article (8-12-05: W1, W3) describes Lubin, Larible, and Noch as
“Power Clowns” or “Celebrity Clowns.” She writes,
Under pressure from animal-rights groups and higher
costs of maintaining large beasts, and facing competition from live-action
shows based on cartoon characters, the $1.8 billion industry is trying to
transform these once-nameless sideline acts into major brands.
Multimillion-dollar ad campaigns are focused on clowns like Mr. Nock and
“Grandma,” of New York’s Big
In five years Mr. Nock’s pay package has
doubled to $600,000, while his staff has grown to include a personal assistant
and a driver for his 78-foot custom RV. (Other clowns are assigned 4-by-6-foot
bunks in a mile-long circus train.
are cheaper than exotic animals, even accounting for the star clowns’ high
salaries and perks. For example, a newborn elephant can cost about $100,000 to
buy, plus annual costs of $11,000 to feed, $7,500 to care for, $7,000 to insure
and $20,000 to transport. (Ringling has 22 performing elephants among its three
troupes.) By contrast, annual salaries for clown-alley clowns generally run
from $15,000 to $40,000.
Glancing backward, in 1968 owner Irvin Feld
instituted the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
which has since graduated over one thousand students. Two years later seven
female students enrolled. Among their graduates were Peggy Williams who became
the first new female clown on the RBB&B show in twenty years and Bernice
Collins who became their first black female clown. During the past decade, with
Ringling reducing by a third its company of clown-alley clowns, the
organization saw fit to close its Clown
College in 1997.
Each generation of children and parents has enjoyed
their own clown favorites, just a few of whom are mentioned above. As you and
your friends attend future circuses, fairs, or celebrations; watch videos or
television; and read books or magazines you will discover a new host of clowns
whose main purpose is to entertain you —-bring a smile to your face; make you
laugh; or perhaps stir some emotion with a tear or two. Some may still be
learning their craft, so your attention, applause, and support will be
A Short Glossary of
Carpet Clown At one time this term referred to the
solo auguste who performed on the circus carpet between acts. Today it
generally refers to a “fill-in” clown -- one who works the arena floor or up in
the stands among the audience.
Clown Alley Originally a walkway behind the big top,
where clowns awaited their entrance cues. In crises, including emergencies or
performer accidents, the clowns were available to divert audience attention,
reduce tension, or avert panic. As their makeup tent was near the performers’
entrance, the term also came to refer to the clowns’ tent itself.
College A training program instituted by Irvin Feld,
owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Established in 1968
at the show’s winter quarters in south Florida,
was moved in August 1993 to the Circus
in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
It closed in 1997.
Clown Stop Circus lingo
for a brief appearance of the clowns instead of a longer gag. Stops are common
while props (e.g., the animal cage) are being changed; or during a clown
walkaround on a larger show.
Clown Walkaround Here the
clowns parade around the big top, each pausing to do a brief sketch for a
section of the audience before moving along to repeat a sight gag in front of a
different section. Each clown creates and performs his or her own bit lasting
about 30 seconds.
Come-in The time between the circus gate opening and
the start of the show itself. Clowns usually warm up the waiting customers with
a gag, such as enticing different portions of the audience to outdo the others
with applause and yelling.
Gag A basic term to refer to all clown routines
-- tricks, stunts, scenes, etc. Loosely speaking, to “gag it up” is another way
of saying to “ham it up.” Clown stops during a walkaround are usually shorter
than those of a carpet clown, which are shorter than a production gag such as
the 5-10 minute firehouse number.
Producing Clown In American circuses, this is the clown
who designs and stars in a major gag, and who develops the accompanying props.
Felix Adler, Otto Griebling, Lou Jacobs, and Paul Jung were considered among
Although the few following entries should prove
helpful to students, most have been written for adults, including parents and
teachers. Also many may be difficult to locate; thus, readers are encouraged to
begin any study project with the assistance of a school, college, or city
librarian. If time permits, ask the librarian or a clerk in your local
bookstore to check the ‘circus” and “clown” sections of a reference volume
entitled “Books in Print” for additional possibilities. Most will be glad to
Apps, Jerry. Ringlingville USA:
the Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success, Madison,
WI: Wisconsin Historical
Society Press, 2005.
Ballantine, Bill. Clown Alley, Boston,
MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1982.
Culhane, John. The American Circus: An Illustrated
History, New York, NY:
Henry Holt and Company 1990.
Hoh, LaVahn G. and William H. Rough. Step Right Up! The
Adventures of Circus in America,
White Hall, VA:
Betterway Publications, Inc.,1990.
Hugill, Beryl. Bring on the Clowns, Seacaucascus,
NJ: Chartwell Books, 1980.
Johnson, Bruce A. Jest in Time: A Clown Chronology, 1602
Locust Way, Lynnwood, WA:
Charlie’s Creative Comedy, 1992.
Johnson, Bruce A. The Tramp Tradition, Same Address, 1993.
Kelly, Emmett (with Francis Beverly Kelley). Clown, New
Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1954.
Ogden, Tom. Two Hundred Years of the American Circus: From
Aba-Daba to the Zoppe-Zavata Troupe, New York,
NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1993.
Speaight, George. The Book of Clowns, New
York, NY: Macmillan Publishing
Towsen, John H. Clowns, New York,
NY: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1976.
Wright, Barton (Photographs by Jerry Jacka). Clowns of the
Tradition Keepers and Delight Makers, Flagstaff,
AZ: Northland Publishing Company, 1994.
Boring, Mel. Clowns: The Fun Makers, New
York, NY: Julian Messner! Simon & Schuster,
1980. Non-fiction —- Elem./Mid. School.
Chapman, Danny. Circus Buffoon, P.O.
Box 3684, Sarasota, FL,
Fiction -- High School.
De Paola, Tomie. The Clown of God, New
York, NY: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1978. Fiction -- Elementary/Middle School.
DePaola, Tomie. Jingle, the Christmas Clown, New
York, NY: G.P. Putman’s Sons,
1992. Fiction -- Elementary/Middle School.
Duncan, Lois (Photographs by Joseph Janney Steinmetz). The
Circus Comes Home, New York, NY:
Doubleday, 1993. Non-fiction -- Middle
Gaskin, Carol. A Day in the Life of a Circus Clown, Mahwah,
Troll Associates, 1988. Non-fiction -- Elementary School.
Hurwitz, Johanna. Class Clown, New
York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.,
1987. Fiction -- Elementary! Middle School.
Sutton, Felix and James Schucker. The Book of Clowns, NY: New
York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1975 printing. Fiction --
Tegge, Gigi. The Magical Trunk: A Book of Colors, Bridgeport,
CT, Greene Bark Press, 2001. Fiction –
Thaler, Mike, The Clown’s Smile, NY: New
York, Harper & Row, 1986. Elementary.
Feder, Happy Jack. Clown Skits for Everyone, New
York, NY: Arco Publishing,
Fife, Bruce + eight other
co-authors. Creative Clowning, Colorado Springs,
CO: Java Publishing Company, 1988.
Klutz Press Editors. Face Painting, Palo
Alto, CA: Klutz Press, 1990. --
contains tray of five non—toxic, washable face paints.
Smith, Billy J. Carving Clowns & Circus Wagons, New
York, NY: Sterling Publishing
Wiley, Jack. Basic Circus Skills, Harrisburg,
PA: Stackpole Books, 1974.
Snazaroo ,(Editor Jaqui Bailey, plus staff) . Five-Minute
Faces: Fantastic Face-Painting Ideas, New York,
NY: Random House, Inc., 1992.
Stolzenberg, Mark. Clown for Circus and Stage, New
York, NY: Sterling Publishing
For a large
listing of circus-related videotapes, see my annotated listing, which is
available from the CFA Education Committee Chairman, Mr. Robert Kitchen, 29
Damon Street, Fall River, MA
02720-0388. The following
entries are un-annotated selections, which feature clown themes. Although I
have made a sincere effort to provide accurate information here, some items may
be subject to changes over time. A helpful store clerk is essential when
searching for videos, but perhaps direct mailing is better. Take this list with
you. Each tape possesses an individual catalogue number on its container box.
Be A Clown. Ringling Bros.
and Barnum & Bailey Home Video/Family Home Entertainment/MCA Distributing
Corp., 1987: color, 80 minutes. Catalogue #24351, ISBN 1-55658-055-X.
The Clown and the Kids.
GoodTimes Home Video Corp., 16 East 40th
Street, New York, NY
10016, 1992: color, 75 minutes.
Catalogue # 6181, ISBN 1-55511-347-8.
Clowning Around 1.
Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment, Broadcast House, 55 North 300 West, Suite
315, Salt Lake City, Utah
84110-1160, 1998: color, two
reels, 183 minutes. Catalogue # BWE 0075, ISBN 1-57742-075-6.
Clowning Around 2. Same
address as 1. 1998: color, two reels, 176 minutes. Catalogue # BWE 0076, ISBN
The Clown of God. The
Library Video Company, P. O. Box, Dept. M-72, Wynnewood,
2001: color, 10 minutes, animated, expensive, I do not own.
Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment, Broadcast House, 55 North 300 West, Suite
315, Salt Lake City, Utah,
84110-1160, 1998: color, 60
minutes. Catalogue # BWE 0276, ISBN 1-57742-333-X.
Clowns of All Time. Family Home Entertainment/Irvin Feld and Kenneth Feld
Productions, Inc./MCA Distributing Corp., 1988: color, 30 minutes. Catalogue #
24335, ISBN 1-55658-265-X.
MuseumAttn. Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research
Center426 Water Street, Baraboo,
country’s foremost center for circus research, this great facility has fallen
prey to escalating costs and diminishing incomes. With severe reductions in
staff and limited hours of service, we cannot assure you of receiving either
materials that were previously on loan or further assistance with school
projects. Contact well in advance of any deadlines. www.circusworldmuseum.com
The Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, Inc. 114
North Third StreetDelevan, Wisconsin
Clowns of America International, Inc. P.O. Box 570, Lake
77566-0570’ -- NOTE: According to their brochure, this organization’s
membership is open to all persons, 16 years and older. “The purpose of C.O.A.I.
is to teach and educate and act as a gathering place for the serious minded
amateur, semi-professional and professional Clown.” They hold annual
conventions, which include clowning competitions limited to members only. Their
official publication is entitled, The New Calliope.
If you reside in or visit one of the following cities,
plan to visit the fine museum or library listed. Their courteous, trained staff
will make you feel welcome, and will be glad to answer questions concerning
their exhibits, books, and programs.
The Barnum Museum820 Main StreetBridgeport, Connecticut
The Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum210 West Market StreetSan Antonio, Texas
institution is another recent causality of financial woes. Much of the enormous
holdings have been transferred to the Witte
Museum, which plans to inventory,
catalogue, and eventually display some of the collection.
The International Circus Hall of FameP. O. Box 700Peru,
This small town
remains an outstanding custodian of circus, history, traditions, collections,
and displays that demand an overnight stay if you are in the area. Each summer Peru
presents an extraordinary youth circus and parade, usually featuring over 200
youngsters. Since every performance is commonly sold out, advance reservations
The Ringling MuseumsP.O. Box 1838Sarasota, Florida
(Located on Sarasota
Bay, this huge complex is easily
is presently the premier circus collection today due, in part, to the
imaginative leadership and financial support of Mr. Howard Tibbals. His
gigantic miniature circus is considered the finest in America,
and it provides a significant centerpiece for the museum. However, for research
purposes try: www.ringling.com. This is
an excellent site with thoroughly developed lesson plans and projects at
different education levels, plus background information about circuses. One
tip: If you visit, plan to take along some extra funds for purchasing some of
the many enticing circus-related items in their gift shop.
information may be available from such web sites as the following (An asterisk
marks sources which in the past have offered teaching & lesson plans):
continuation of newer resources or corrections as they become available, check
the initial website above and/or Mr. Robert Kitchen, CFA Education Committee
Chairman, 29 Damon Street, Fall
River, MA 02720-0388.
for the CFA and the Circus
January 1, 1996Updated November 19, 2005
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