Clown Alley (1880s-1960s)
Circus grew in the late nineteenth century. Though earlier circuses presented in tents seating thousands, experimented putting shows on trains, and presented winter seasons in major city theaters, after the Civil War it enlarged more. The biggest circuses multiplied to three-rings and hired hundreds, with many shows taking to the rails. These expanded outfits needed more clowns to fill the bigger space. Solo talking clowns gave way to clusters of knockabout clowns in masses of sight gags. The usual interpretation says that talking clowns disappeared because they couldn’t be heard in the larger tents, though ringmasters continued to speak. Another reason for the decline of talking clowns was the change in culture. Audiences increasingly liked their amusements to be more polite than rowdy, especially as circus became redefined as “family entertainment.” In any case, Rice’s brand of political commentary would be forgotten, and over the next hundred years people would expect, as circus ballyhoo put it, a “clattering cacophony of clowns.
As circuses increasingly touted their large groups of clowns, it became difficult for individuals to stand out. Still, some did. In the early 1900s, Slivers Oakley was probably the best of his era. Later famous names include Otto Griebling, who many circus people consider the best twentieth-century clown; Emmett Kelly, easily the most famous, thanks to his movies and TV appearances; Felix Adler, known for appearing with a trained pig; Paul Jung (pronounced “jung” rather than the German “yung”), a renowned producing clown, or creator of gags; and Lou Jacobs, identifiable by his famous face on many Ringling posters over the years, with a giant nose, big scoop of makeup on his mouth, and a tiny hat on a high domed head.
These new large groups of clowns led to use of the phrase “Clown Alley.” That refers both to the clowns’ dressing area and to the group of clowns together. It’s unclear how or when the twinned labels emerged. The likeliest origin was the dressing area these masses of clowns required, an alley-like space off the performers’ main route into the big top. (The early twentieth-century emergence of “alley” as a collective noun, such as “Tin Pan Alley” for songwriters and “Gasoline Alley” for gas stations, suggest “Clown Alley” may have started about the same time.) By the kind of extension common in slang, the label “Clown Alley” would then be applied to the clowns themselves. A more romantic origin story looks to the French language, saying clowns were summoned to “allez” or go into the tent, though American circus didn’t have much of a French connection.
The twentieth century also generated circus-like clowns in other venues. The rodeo clown, a 20th-century creation in makeup and patched clothes, can be considered the performing kin of the hick clown, an older circus type. However rodeo clowns focus on one primary and dangerous task, distracting wild bulls from fallen riders. That leaves little time for full comedy routines, and some now call themselves “bullfighters” instead. Then there is the baseball clown, which usually refers to Max Patkin, who made a half-century career out of clowning at baseball games.
The clown had originally been symbolized as a boost to rowdy good spirits for adults. In 1835 Herman Melville wrote “The Fiddler,” a story about a world-weary man given a new perspective on life by the example of a world-renowned genius who gets pleasure from a clown. Written long before clown symbolism exploded, this story unsurprisingly includes no children. Similarly, Charles Dickens made the circus a symbolic contrast to the rigidities of industrialism in Hard Times, also 1853, but included no clowns.
But that adult focus faded in the late 1800s, as symbolism grew with the growing numbers of clowns. Most of the popular and literary images of clowns emerged then, as the clichés began to overwhelm the work itself, what a clown actually said or did in the ring. Clowns particularly got the sentimental treatment, recast as the special friend of children, themselves becoming sentimentalized. Another newly popular tale told of the clown sad at his lost or unrequited love for an equestrienne or female acrobat; the tears of a clown, hiding his pain behind the mask. Though there is nothing inherently sad about this kind of worker, the dramatic contrast of laughter and sadness has been irresistible to countless writers. The friend-of-children and sad clown notions overlapped, with the lost-love often replaced by a child dramatically sick or dying. As for the old tale, told about Grimaldi, of the sick clown consulting a doctor who prescribed a visit to the clown, that became especially applied to clowns who died in poverty. An eventual addition to the constellation of symbols would be the angry clown, bitter at the world and only able to connect to people through his comedy. Then there is the allegedly subversive clown, a late 20th-century notion (discussed below).
These symbols might be dismissed as mere stories except that they shaped — and shape — how people understand clowns. One of the first tropes, of the clown-&-innocent-child, and still among the most quoted, comes in the circus depicted in 1884 in Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain had enjoyed the rowdy circus before the Civil War, including Rice’s sharp quips. (Twain expressed interest in being a clown himself, while Rice joked late in life that Twain had stolen his material.) But even as the author wrote accurately elsewhere in his book about that earlier era, he altered the circus in chapter 22 to give the Gilded Age what it wanted, an innocent child in awe of a clown. While Twain’s clown wouldn’t be the first considered “quick as a wink with the funniest things a body ever said,” it was one of the first that included a spellbound child. Another powerfully symbolic image appeared a decade later. In 1892 the opera Pagliacci gave the world a durable symbol of the sad clown, hiding his tears behind the mask. (Of course in these sad-clown stories, these supposedly hidden tears are seen by everyone.) From then on, the clown-as-children’s-friend and the sad clown became standard in newspaper stories and books, then movies, television, and advertisements.
These clichés did not appear only in popular sources; high culture indulged. The clown was a natural for painting. The clown makeup highlights the human face in recognizable yet intriguing ways, and the costume and setting offer color and an exotic background. Writers have relished the clown, with the exotic context of circus, and dramatic contrast of clown laughter to darker themes. In 1948 Henry Miller wrote a slim volume, The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, a romantic tale about a clown. The Nobel-Prize winner Heinrich Boll wrote The Clown in 1963, an exploration of German guilt following World War II through the highly symbolic figure of its title character.