By Rick Whelan
Beacon-Herald, Ontario, Canada
What better way to start off 2010 than with some thoughts on clowns. Not the Ottawa or Washington variety. I mean the genuine article ... those guys in the big shoes and baggy pants who make life a little more palatable with their often inspired takes on the wacky ways of the world.
For some reason I have always been fascinated by clowns. I used to want to be one. (I can hear the little woman's voice in my ear saying "You got your wish, honey!")
I wrote a letter to a Ringling Bros. clown when I was a boy and we became pen pals for 10 years. He tried to discourage me from following in his footsteps. He advised me to get as much education as possible and do something "useful" with my life. So it is with some authority that I say that clowns are, by and large, a melancholy lot.
Maybe it's because the profession means no stability ... no permanent home with friends and family ... because they are always on the road, always trying to find that next gig that hopefully will be waiting for them.
But maybe it's not nurture. Perhaps it's nature. People become clowns because they are natural outsiders. To be a clown ... to understand the comedy and tragedy in everyday life ... is to be an observer and not a participator. I think clowns have to be lonely in order to do their life's work.
One of the most famous clowns that nobody ever heard of is Frank "Slivers" Oakley. But if you had lived at the dawn of the 20th century, Slivers would have been as familiar to you as Charlie Chaplin.
Slivers' life was fraught with tragedy. His wife died young. His clowning partner, Dan Luby, was killed in a freak circus accident. When silent films came in, circus clowning was relegated to the back burner of the show business hierarchy.
Late in life, Slivers fell in love with a girl much younger than himself. He lavished gifts upon her and convinced her to come live with him. The young girl eventually ran away, stealing Slivers' wife's jewellery as she left.
She was nabbed by the police and sent to a reformatory. Slivers, obviously heartbroken, wrote her a letter forgiving her. He wanted her to come back to him when she got out of jail. She sent word that she never wanted to see him again.
Several days later, Slivers' landlady found him in his room, dead ... the doors and windows sealed tight, the gas jets on full blast.
Another famous clown of the early 20th century was Grock, whose real name was Charles Adrien Wettach. Grock, from Switzerland, charmed all of Europe with his musical and acrobatic talents. He was perhaps the entertainment world's first superstar.
As the story goes, a man in Vienna suffering from depression went to see Sigmund Freud. Freud had been to the circus the night before and he gave his patient some unique advice.
Freud told the man "after watching Grock for 10 minutes I was completely charmed by this clown's brilliance. Grock has given me a new lease on life. He makes people forget their troubles. So before I start any long-term therapy on you, my first advice is ... go see Grock!"
The patient looked at Freud with a wistful smile.
"I am Grock," he replied.