Sunday, May 11, 2008

HARRY DANN: Bio by Verne Langdon

From Verne Langdon...

I knew Harry Dann well; he was a good Friend of mine. He was also a famous clown.

For those of you who may be interested in the life & death of Harry Dann, I've written his biography for Find-A-Grave which can be found by clicking the title of this post.

At the present time, Harry's bio is among the 21 million non-famous deceased persons.

In spite of my protestations to the contrary, Robert Edwards, one of Find-A-Grave's Administrators, felt Harry wasn't as famous as Felix B. Adler or Chester & Joe Sherman (other bios I have written for Find-A-Grave).

As Robert explained to me (his own words): "Yours is a purely subjective opinion. A Google search of Harry Dann yields a few mentions in clown-related blogs and not much else. Being an inductee of the International Clown Hall of Fame is really too niche-like - how many halls of fame are there these days for all sorts of things? He doesn't even have his own Wikipedia bio. Nothing at all to indicate any broad-based, lasting notoriety."

Perhaps if Pat Cashin and others will post the link to Harry's memorial page on their websites, and others of you will click on the link and leave sentiments, Find-A-Grave will reconsider and put Harry Deems Dann where he belongs - along with Felix B. Adler, Chester & Joe Sherman, and Emmett Kelly Sr., in the Famous section.

The matter is entirely in YOUR hands now.

I Thank You for any help you are willing to give, but you won't be doing this for me - you'll be doing it for Harry. He surely deserves his own famous page, wouldn't you agree?

- Verne

P.S. If you're not already a member, you need to register as a member of Find-A-Grave in order to leave flowers and a message, but it just takes a minute, and believe me - your information is ENTIRELY safe and is shared with NO ONE.

Birth: Oct. 2, 1922
Saint Louis
St. Louis County
Missouri, USA

Death: Dec. 30, 1970
Saint Louis
St. Louis County
Missouri, USA

One of the nation's most recognizable circus clowns, he gained fame as "America's Picture Clown", a title given him by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus publicist Roland Butler, referring to Dann's popularity with press photographers visiting the circus and their resulting numerous studies of him in his classic face makeup and clown wardrobe.

His costumes were the envy of his peers; he owned over a hundred custom creations, all designed and hand-sewn by his seamstress mother, until her passing in 1954. His image graced the pages of at least two national magazines in the same year (National Geographic and Holiday). He was included on the cover of the 1951 Ideals Magazine circus issue, an international favorite among memorabilia collectors.

He became one of the top four most photographed clowns of the era, sharing the spotlight with fellow funnymen Felix B. Adler, Emmett Kelly, and Lou Jacobs.

The son of St. Louis Missouri banker William J. Dann and Beatrice Deems Dann, he decided after seeing his first tent show that he wanted to become a circus clown. In 1941, at the age of twenty, he became an apprentice ("First Of May") member of clown alley with "The Greatest Show On Earth", Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, much to the protestations of his father, who had a career in banking in mind for his son.

In the circus profession of generation-grounded participants, he was the only member of his family to perform under the big top, on America's largest tented circus, so large in fact it was nicknamed "Big Bertha" and traveled on two full railroad trains.

In addition to his highly-photogenic "clean" whiteface makeup and extensive show wardrobe, he was a talented trombone player, which came in handy as he performed with a number of clown bands over the years. He was very proficient at training ducks, using a number of them in his clown acts, "Horatio" being his first such star.

He also trained and worked with dogs, built props and created the snake in the basket clown routine, wherein a clown carrying a basket is surprised by a giant snake rising from the basket, kissing the clown on his nose, then disappearing back into the basket (a false arm holding the basket allowed the clown's free arm to operate the snake puppet).

Another Harry Dann clown gag popular to this day is the mermaid, which he devised with fellow clown collaborator Bobby Kellogg during their Ringling years. This gag featured a sailor carrying a mermaid all the way around the track as the mermaid primps and preens in a seashell-encrusted mirror "she" holds. The mermaid was of course the clown with a false fishtail secured around his waist, and the sailor maniken's head and body walked by virtue of the mermaid/clown's own legs. On the Ringling show and in later years for other circuses he clowned with his peers Kellogg, The Sherman Bros. (Chester & Joe), Freddy Freeman, and Paul Jung.

A graduate of University City High School in University City Missouri, he coached the circus children daily in their school work, and off-season at winter quarters served as high school teacher for them throughout his career.

He left Ringling after eight years to clown with Louis Stern's smaller Polack Bros. circus, popular with performers for its more comfortable indoor Shrine-sponsored dates. He appeared primarily with that show as one of its star clowns through 1959, alternating seasons on the tented Frank McCloskey-owned Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, and family-owned Christiani Circus.

In 1966 he signed with the under-canvas Carson & Barnes Circus owned by D.R. and Isla Miller. In his final seasons with Carson-Barnes he set aside his popular clown character, explaining "too many wrinkles" made his celebrated makeup "no longer possible" to wear properly. He instead performed in the capacity of sideshow barker and circus ringmaster until the end of the 1970 season, the same year of his death.

In rapidly-declining health, on December 29, 1970, he was rushed by ambulance from Carson and Barnes winter quarters in Hugo, Oklahoma to De Paul Hospital in St. Louis Missouri (a ten to twelve hour drive), where he expired the following day.

The world-renowned countenance for which he will be remembered - his trademark clown makeup - is considered by his peers, circus entrepreneurs, generations of circus fans and makeup artists alike to be one of the most universally acknowledged examples of traditional whiteface makeup ever designed and applied.

Years after his passing, photos and renderings of him are still being used in circus press releases, and adorn circus posters and wagons throughout America, a tribute to his "Picture Clown" status, makeup artistry, and clowning abilities.

Cause of death: Miliary Tuberculosis.

(bio by Verne Langdon)

Bellefontaine Cemetery
St. Louis County
Missouri, USA
Plot: 5334, Block 43, Burial #8

Record added: May 6 2008
By: Verne Langdon


Anonymous said...

Bill Ballentine chose to honor Harry with using his drawing of Harry's trunk as the central image on his Clown College diplomas.
-Greg DeSanto

Anonymous said...

Thanks be to Verne!
I have searched regularly for info on Harry for quite some time. I was amazed that for a clown so often photographed, precious little was said about his own life. Thanks Verne. It's time to join Find a grave. Harry needs to be listed with his old alley mates.... Among the stars.