Article transcribed courtesy of Robin Estes
Robin Estes took the time to transcribe the longest of the Slivers Oakley obits that Bill Strong from this morning...
Tragedy Closes Life of Master Pantomime
Tremendous Sense of Humor of “Slivers,” the Clown That Made Thousands Laugh, Not Great Enough to Meet His Own Bitter Needs.
Twenty-Two lines of nonparell type were used Wednesday to tell the world that it had lost its greatest pantomime clown. Twenty-two lines related how Frank Oakley, shattered by whisky, penniless, ended his life by turning on the gas after the landlady of the house where he was sheltered asked him for his room.
America’s greatest chalk-face comedian finished his act in tragedy, but left the stage without a tear-stained eye before the foot lights. In the last two years Oakley went deeper and deeper into the “Country of the Forgotten.”
Maybe some coroner’s assistant is now looking over a collection of scrapbooks. He must have found them in Oakley’s room, for Oakley’s hobby was scrapbooks. He had volume on volume, almost a trunk full, each book with the word “Slivers” pasted across the cover. The coroner’s records will call him Frank or Franch, Oakley but the theater and circus programs always referred to him as “Slivers.” His scrapbooks were the stories of triumphs, scored from the sawdust-covered floors of Madison Square Garden in the springtime, to the spacious lots of the far southwest late in the fall, and east and west through the wintertime. “Slivers” gained his greatest fame as a circus clown, and he was so good that vaudeville circuits booked him during the off-season.
“Slivers” is the only clown in the circus History for whom three rings were ever cleared. It was only a few years back that this was done twice each afternoon and evening, by “the greatest show on earth.” “Slivers” put on a base ball act, later a “duck shooting” number. He often plated before 20,000 persons a day and his act never fell flat.
Oakley was to circus comedy what Charlie Chaplin is to the comedy of the film kingdom. Oakley had pathos as well as fun at his command. He could draw the throbs as well as the laughs.
Probably no one in Detroit who has been his base ball act will ever forget it. He appeared in this several times there. It was the best thing he ever did.
Oakley, with chalked face, baggy trousers, faded and torn black and red striped jersey and the funny big feet, slowly came on the stage. He carried a mask and chest protector and catcher’s mitt. The stage setting consisted of a drop curtain, showing a bleacher crowd and the players bench. Oakley hauled out the base bags and laid out his diamond, taking care to place the bags at proper distance. Then he returned to the bench to lace on his spiked shoes. This operation was continually interrupted by an imaginary fan, with whom he held an imaginary conversation. He finally got the shoes, protector, mask and glove adjusted and took his station behind the plate.
At this point Oakley scored his big hit. In crouching to sign the pitcher, he scraped his fingers in the dust, wiped the hand in the mitt and next on his trousers, took the delivery, started to return the ball to the pitcher and suddenly turned around quickly, place both hands on his hips and start an imaginary argument with an imaginary umpire. He bounced the imaginary ball on the plate, followed the umpire around wildly gesticulating, or tossing up his glove in apparent despair, dusting off the home plate with his cap to remove any possible existing and remaining shred of doubt as to the cause of the argument. Finally he returned to his position. After retiring the side Oakley came to the plate, swinging a few imaginary bats. He took two strikes, neither without some argument with the umpire. With three and two on him he met the next pitched ball and hit into fair territory. He tried to stretch a three-bagger into a home run and as he slid into the home plate was tagged out. He bounced up with as much energy and sudden fury as some of our best known diamond heroes do at Navin field under similar circumstances. Here he engaged in another heated argument and was ordered off the grounds. “Slivers slowly returned o the players bench. He started to pick up his glove, then remembered he was thirsty. He strolled over to the water bucket. First he carefully removed a wad of favorite cut plug from his mouth, then he drank slowly, meanwhile conversing with a friend who had apparently called to him from the stands. He returned to the players’ bench slowly and regretfully and began gathering his armament. Having collected protector, shoes and mitt, his walk toward the clubhouse began. He was interrupted again by a friend in the stands and stopped to explain to him the great injustice he had just suffered. The umpire followed him, reiterating his orders to leave the grounds. “Slivers” turned to argue with the umpire, but was finally starting on his way again, only to remember that he had forgotten his mask. He returned for this, then made his exit.
The entire act was in pantomime. No one but Oakley was on the stage. But so realistic was every move and gesture, so convincing, that he never failed to carry the house. Everything he did had actually taken place before their eyes in the heat of pennant winning diamond battles, with high-priced base ball stars as the principals.
“Slivers” greatest triumph was scored in Madison Square Garden, and what he considered his most remarkable experience took place at the Armory in Detroit. A few years ago he told about both incidents:
“I can never forget Detroit for what happened to me here years ago. One of the local secret organizations was giving a mid-winter circus in the armory. You know there are a lot of circus acts that pick up money during the winter getting on with these indoor shoes. I signed up for the exhibition here. The night of the circus there were many boys in Detroit who wanted to see the show but did not have the price of admittance. However, they got in. How they did it I don’t know, but I distinctly remember that when we came on the rafters of the armory were studded with kids. There must have been a few hundred of them up there, all risking their lives for a free view of the show. One of my stunts was a slack wire burlesque. I got out on that wire, and it wasn’t hanging very low either, and I came nearer breaking my neck that night than ever before. The minute I got well out on the wire and started to fake losing my balance, a bombardment started. Every kid up there must have had a sack full of peanuts, popcorn or candy. And some of them were mighty good marksmen. I’ve seen some heavy rain storms, but I’ve never seen as many rain drops to the square foot as I saw peanuts and popcorn and candy that night. I lost my balance and fell. I don’t know how I escaped broken bones. I guess it was because a certain kind of providence watches over actors and circus performers. And when I finally got back on the wire the kids, who were having a scream of a time, but who had wasted all their peanuts and candy giving me my first fall, were in despair. Not for long though. Suddenly a ball shot by my face, then another and another. I took one in the back of my head and right after that another caught me across the ear. I hung on, but a moment later they connected with my eye, and down I went in a heap. I bruised both legs and my arm badly, but got neither sprain nor break.
“What the kids had done was to grab each other’s caps, roll them up into balls and then zip them down on me. It was the roughest gallery I have ever played to, and it broke up the show, if I remember correctly.”
His greatest triumph came when, after being absent for a year or more, he re-entered the sawdust ring with Barnum & Bailey’s circus at Madison Square Garden early in spring.
“My return was well advertised and they arranged a special children’s night for the event. All the front row boxes were filled with children, hundreds of them. I started my march around the Garden, walking rather close to the boxes and waving thanks to the kids for their applause. All at once things started coming my way. The kids had brought their toys to the garden and they began tossing those to me as gifts. I don’t know haw many dolls and animals of various kinds I collected that night. Nothing that I have ever received or ever will can equal this as a tribute.”
For years “Slivers’” salary was close to $1,000 a week. Night before last he tried to borrow a quarter and failed.
Things broke badly for him in the last two years. Not more than nine months ago he was living in Detroit, at a boarding house. During a spree he got in a row. The police were called and when he told them he was “Slivers,” the clown, they were not impressed in the least.
He never talked in public for he was a clown and his father was a clown before him and before that his grandfather. They clowned in England.
But “Slivers” could carry on an interesting conversation. He has entertained friends in Detroit three or four hours at a stretch, telling of some of his experiences and impressions. None ever refused an invitation from “Slivers” to “have a bite and talk.” They always wanted “Slivers” to monopolize the conversation. He was never interrupted. His monologues were as entertaining as his stage pantomime.
“Why don’t you try some lines on the stage?” he was once asked.
“Because I’m a clown and clowns depend on the face and body to express themselves. When a clown has to use his tongue to get his act over, or has to resort to acrobatics, he’d better quit. But that’s what most all of ‘em are doing. If people want to hear lines delivered they go to see actors on the legitimate stage and when they are after acrobatics, they can watch the fellows in spangles in the big ring and near the big top. Clowning, my boy, is a lost art.”
And so he who was the peer of clowns passed unknown and in poverty, and an art went out with him.