Circus Clowning

"A Clown cannot pretend or be artificial.
In the circus, laughter cannot be faked any more than a somersault."
~ Jerome Medrano of Cirque Medrano, Paris.

Circus clowning is of relatively recent origin, but has become indispensable. What would a circus be without clowns?

There are many internationally famous clowns of the “big top,” among them Otto Griebling, Charles Adrien Wettach (aka Grock), and Emmett Kelly, Sr.

Antics in the big top have made full use of clown characteristics through the years: baggy trousers, painted faces, pantomime, and physical skills. Slapstick humor, with its falls, blows, mimicry, and rogueish mischief are ever popular.

To the European Pierrot and Pantaloon, America has added the Comedy Whiteface, the silly Auguste, the Hobo, the Policeman, the Rube, and other characters, all with their specific characterized skits. Certain of those skits have become traditional; others are invented as needed.

Below is an interesting article from a Springfield, OH newspaper, that underscores the importance of these comical characters:

The good old days of the circus, as seen in the good old days

by Tom Stafford, Staff Writer, Springfield News-Sun, Sept 7, 2009

It may seem odd to read a 1913 account waxing poetic about the “good old days” of the circus. But as four trains filled with Barnum & Bailey performers, animals and equipment rolled through Springfield on May 24, 1913, nostalgia over the circus’ human pin cushion and man with the elastic skin had the promotion machinery in high gear.

Rare and Curious Beasts

To draw viewers to its featured show, “The Spectacle of Cleopatra,” the circus stage its time-honored parade promoters touted as “a cavalcade three miles long.”

“Well fed horses and ponies in shining harness and waving plumes will take their places before glittering vehicles; the sound of music from bands perched hazardously high; clowns, charioteers, knights, jockeys, Roman riders in line; camels and elephants, many bearing weight of feminine beauty, gorgeously caparisoned men and women in tights and spangles and breast plates of shining gold; staring tigers and lions and hyenas; the fairy outfit of Santa Claus, the old woman of nursery fame and Bluebeard doing his decapitation, the shrieking calliope, with a cloud of boys keeping tireless pace. ”

The menagerie tent at the show grounds boasted of “110 dens of rare and curious beasts ranged in a great circle. Three giraffes will be on exhibition; 40 elephants will swing their greedy trunks, and a rhinoceros and a hippopotamus will be seen in the collection.”

Mirth Unrestricted

A separate story pulled on the heartstrings discussing appeal of the Barnum & Bailey royalty, the clowns.

“To the boy and the older boy, his father, there is nothing in all the varied catalogue of the circus that quite compares with the crude and genuine mirth the white-faced cut-ups provide,” according to a story about the circus.

“The clown is an inherent part of man’s attitude toward life ... Dogs, pigs and even a kangaroo are their allies; dummies and patrol wagons give aid; they dress like policemen, rubes, young and old women, suffragettes, Highlanders and giraffes; giants and midgets walk side by side.

“Barnum & Bailey have ransacked the world for its cleverest and most original clowns. Their comicalities are a ceaseless joy of creation and burlesque. Their names are synonymous with mirth unrestricted wherever the circus is known.”

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Circus Clowning