Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Cobbled together from several sources that I will credit soon, here is my attempt at a definitive tribute post to "Papa Lou"...


A fixture in the clown alley of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for over five decades, Lou Jacobs was truly a "Master Clown" who performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from 1925 to 1987. He came to be known as one of the greatest circus clowns in the world through his innovative comic routines, compassion for others and strong dedication to his work. He truly earned his status as a legend among clowns with his constant contributions to his craft and continued presence after his retirement. Through laughter and strong character he taught major life lessons of compassion, love and kindness.

Born Jacob Ludwig in Wesermude, Bremerhaven, Germany in 1903, Jacobs' first job in show business was as the rear end of an alligator costume with his brother when he was seven. He saw his first clown act at the age of 11 and joined a small German circus as a clown that same year. He excelled as an acrobat and balancer. “As a boy in Germany” he recalled, “I learned it all. Barrel jumping, acrobatics, making like the human pretzel." It was training which would stand him in good stead. By the time he was 15 he was appearing in a double contortion act with his partner/straight man Michael Morris.

Upon emigrating to America through Ellis Island in 1923, it was as a contortionist that he first found work appearing at fairs and in vaudeville. "I was working with an old man and his son. I was the straight man, but I persuaded them to let me do comedy."

While performing for a year with the Morris and Morris Circus in 1924 he came to the attention of the Greatest Show on Earth and joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus 1925 where he remained for virtually all of his professional career.

There, together with fellow circus comics like Otto Griebling, Paul Jung, Emmett Kelly and Felix Adler, Jacobs would form an elite group of circus clowns. While readily acknowledging the grueling nature of those early years under the Big Top, Jacobs recalled those early years of clowning: "It was a good life. We had sunshine in the backyard. We washed our own clothes. We would have baseball teams. We lived to clown."

Seen on many Ringling posters over the years, Jacobs' clown character is instantly recognizable with his high arched eyebrows, elongated cone head with tufts of red hair and his large oversized mouth; his classic makeup became the prototype for the 20th century Auguste clown in the American circus and in the 1940s served to inspire the look of Capitol Records’ mascot, Bozo the Clown.

Jacobs was a “Producing Clown”, writing, building props and creating his own original repertoire of classic gags: He zipped around the hippodrome track (the area on the arena floor that surrounds the three rings) on water skis; zoomed past amazed spectators in a motorized bathtub; chased down a cigar-smoking clown "infant" who was attempting to make a getaway in a baby-buggy turned hot rod.

In 1944, Lou Jacobs began work what would become his most famous prop. He constructed a 2-by-3 foot, fully operational miniture car. Using skills honed over his lifetime, he contorted his 6-foot-1-inch body to fit inside the contours of the rattling, backfiring tiny automobile. He introduced the car at Ringling’s premier during “spec” (a lavish production number) at Madison Square Garden in 1946 only to have it sputter to a stop. He labored tirelessly for another two years before a reliable version of the prop could be reintroduced with the assistance of George Wallenda, mechanical expert of the Flying Wallendas. By the 1948 season Lou had perfected the car and the routine (originally performed with partners Jimmy Armstrong and Frankie Saluto) that would bring him lasting fame and that he would continue to perform for the rest of his career.

His labored emergence from the automobile -- heralded by the appearance of his oversized red and white clown shoe jutting into the air -- never failed to amaze and amuse.

Jacobs was also known for working with his dogs and partnered for 14 seasons with his chihuahua, Knucklehead, presenting an adaption of his friend Charlie Bell’s classic Hunting Gag. When Knucklehead passed away Lou was heartbroken but eventually taught the gag to another chihuahua named Pee-Wee who worked with him for the rest of his years on Ringling.

In 1952, Jacobs (and his tiny car act) was prominently featured in Cecil B. De Mille's Academy Award winning film The Greatest Show on Earth. Jacobs was selected to tutor Jimmy Stewart in clowning (they perform the car act together in the film) and he and Stewart became good friends.

In 1953 Lou Jacobs married Jean Rockwell, a former circus performer. Both of their daughters became renowned circus stars in their own right. Lou Ann, her husband George and their children present one of the world’s greatest African elephant acts and Dolly has won many awards and international acclaim as an aerialist. She and her husband Pedro Reis created Circus Sarasota, a beautiful show headquartered in Sarasota, FL.

Lou Jacobs has been seen on millions of posters, t-shirts and other circus memorabilia but his greatest distinction came in 1966 when his clown likeness was selected to appear on a United States postage stamp commemorating the American circus. Lou Jacobs is the first (and to date, only) the only American citizen to be so honored during their lifetime.

Lou Jacobs was awarded the title of “Master Clown” by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, one of only four clowns in the circus’ long history to earn the distinguished title.

Advancing age and failing health forced Lou Jacobs to officially retired from the Greatest Show on Earth in 1987 but he continued to teach at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, where he was a founding professor, sharing his vast knowledge of the intricacies of his craft with the next generation of clowns from 1968 through 1991. He was, by all accounts, the college's most revered faculty member for all of the twenty-three years he taught there.

Lou Jacobs teaching at Clown College (with an assist from Bob Momyer, Assistant Dean
in 1976 and '77) demonstrating the Spider Gag at the Ringling Winter Quarters arena in Venice, FL

Lou’s students had the opportunity to show their appreciation for him at the 20th anniversary reunion of Clown College. As Jacobs walked haltingly on stage to perform, 500 alumni rose to their feet of one accord, chanting in unison, "Lou! Lou! Lou!" acknowledging the man they had come to revere as both a teacher and clown.

In the last decade of his life, Jacobs was the recipient of the highest accolades the dual worlds of Circus and Clowning have to offer. In 1987, Producer Kenneth Feld presented Jacobs with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1988, Jacobs' star was unveiled in Sarasota's Circus Ring Of Fame. And in 1989, Jacobs was inducted into the Circus Hall Of Fame in Peru, Indiana, and the Clown Hall Of Fame in Delavan, Wisconsin -- one of only six clowns to be honored in that Hall's inaugural year. Several of Jacobs' fellow inductees, sadly deceased by the time of their recognition, were those same clown friends with whom he had once appeared under the Big Top. "It looks like I'm the Last Of The Mohicans," Jacobs commented.

Jacobs was a tangible link with the rich clowning tradition of the past, which is the very soul of circus comedy. Toward the end Jacobs' spirit remained indomitable. "I've had good times and bad times. It may seem like a rough day today, but tomorrow may be a good day, and the sun may be shining in the next town."

Jacobs died on Sunday, September 13, 1992 at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida of heart failure. He was 89 years old.

" In 1987, on the 20th Anniversary of Clown College, Lou Jacobs walked out onto a small stage and 500 Clowns leapt to their feet. It was a spontaneous outpouring of love, warmth, friendship and respect for a man who had been their teacher and friend.

I remember the applause and cheers, which grew more urgent, more fervent and more heartfelt. Lou was their mentor and this was their chance to return Lou’s friendship—their opportunity to give of themselves, as Lou had given to them—with the same generosity of spirit that had graced every word and deed of Lou, himself. For so many years, Lou Jacobs had given his time, his talent, and his heart to his fellow performers, to each child in the audience, and to every student who passed through the doors of Clown College.

I cannot separate Lou from the memory of that October night in which we all understood what it meant to be a Clown.

We cannot define magic. We can only sense when we are in its presence. Lou Jacobs was magic. And it is our blessing that a spark of that magic -- a spark of Lou's generous spirit -- lives on in every life he ever touched, and every performance of the Greatest Show on Earth"

-- Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus owner, Kenneth Feld

"There will never be another clown like Lou Jacobs. He has embodied the very essence of the word for so long that he has actually molded its meaning. Probably no other entertainer in history has caused more people to laugh in live performances."

-- Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus owner, Irvin Feld

"The Circus greatest clown ever."

-- performer Red Skelton

In the future, Circus lovers will be able to open a book and look at paintings of Lou Jacobs, Master Clown. They’ll look at photographs of Lou, watch movies of Lou, and see hours of video. They’ll even be able to collect a postage stamp of Lou. But those of us who worked with him, those of us who learned from him and those of us who had loved him… we were the lucky ones. We had Lou.

-Allen Bloom

Lou Jacobs was not only a Master Clown, but he was also a master human being. When I first met Lou, I was a nineteen-year-old, wet-behind-the ears kid. But he treated me with the same respect and dignity that he gave to all living creatures. He was patient and kind and giving. It is said that "Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profundity. Kindness in giving creates love." Lou created a lot of love and a lot of laughter. To me, he was a shining beacon who was willing and eager to show us the way. The art of clowning has, like a torch, been passed down through the ages. That torch never burned brighter than when it was held in those beautiful big hands of Lou Jacobs. And that torch is brilliant still, fueled by the love in the hearts of every life his life touched. I truly believe that some people come into our lives and quickly go; while others, like Lou, leave footprints on our hearts and we are never, ever the same.

-Director of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Steve Smith


GothamTomato said...

Wow, I can't believe I'm the first to post a comment here. He was such a huge part of the Clown College experience that his presence could not be underestimated. (The same goes for Bobby Kaye).

I loved that tribute from Kenneth, about Lou's appearance at the reunion in 1987. It brought tears to my eyes reading it now, just as being there that night brought tears to my eyes then. It was a magic moment.

For myself, one of my strongest memories of Lou from CC was being over in the corner of the arena, working on a track gag, the Alligator Gag, with George Leverett. We ran through that thing over and over, and I had no idea if I was getting it or not. I also had no idea if I was doing ANYTHING right at CC. I never really felt I had a clue what I was doing. But on this one afternoon, as we were doing the gag, Lou happened by, and he stopped, and stood in front of us and watched us do the gag. Of course, we then ramped up the energy as if there were 20,000 people watching. When we were done, he smiled and nodded and said, 'looking good, looking good.' I can't even tell you what that meant to a seemingly rudderless CC student. It was like being touched by the hand of God.

But I also remember the sight of watching Lou, out of makeup, walking along beside a CC student assisting him in walking his weiner dog in one of the student shows. The kids were so excited to see the 'clown' student, not knowing that the little old man walking along beside him was actually the greatest circus clown they'd ever see. The invisibility and twist of that was a truly cinematic moment.

I had taken lots of pictures of Lou at CC, and near the end I had two blown up to 8x10 and gave them to him. He made such a big deal out of it, that I thought he must be mocking me. His wife must have seen the confusion on my face, and she said to me, 'He really is excited. People take his picture all the time but no one ever gives him one.'

I've often wished that I'd been picked for the Red Show, instead of the Blue, because I would have gotten to watch him work in front of an audience everyday.

Ah well, I'd keep going but this has already been too much spaghetti!

Anonymous said...

I think it was after the Red show rehearsal and before the Blue the year Lou first went to Monte Carlo. I had the privelege of working with Harvey Copeland and Billy Dahne for an entire week while they rebuilt and restored Lou's car to pristine condition.

I came in early one morning and there was the car, sitting there, just begging to be taken for a spin. So I did.

I drove it all the way around what would have been the track, had there been a circus in Venice then, and back to the prop shop.
As I pulled up, I saw, from the knees down, Lou. I was sure I was about to be fired. I tried to get out, apologizing all the way, but he made me get back in and showed me how to get out left-foot first, and made me stand up on the running board so I looked taller next to the car.

Then he asked me if I would get back in and drive it around again
He said that in all the years he'd been doing the gag, he'd never seen the car move in person.

Needless to say, I complied.

Thanks for your blog, Pat, and the catalyst to remember this story and think about it again. As I'm sure he was to multitudes, Lou was a blessing to me . . .

Bruce the Clown

Anonymous said...

Pat, Thanks for the wonderful tribute to Lou. I am nothing more than a long-time circus fan having never had any part in a circus other than as a spectator and one of thos guys that just can't seem to get up and leave when the show is over. But in 1974 or 75 (not sure) I was living in Riverside, California, and knew that the Red Unit was playing in Long Beach. I made it my mission to meet Lou. I remember driving the over 75 miles to Long Beach and getting there early enough to see Lou, Jean, and Knucklehead get off the shuttle bus in the parking lot. I hung around and finally got up the nerve to walk down the ramp. I was stopped and I thought that was the end of it. Finally while pleading my case to the security guard, who was having none of it, Low walked by. I said something to him and he came over and we talked for a moment and I was golden -

I spent the entire two shows backstage just outside the alley entrance and Lou spent all his available time with me. Introduced me to Prince Paul and Frankie Saluto. At the end of the evening show we parted company and as we did Lou said that tomorrow Bobby Kaye would be here (he was not appearing in the show), why don't I come back. How good does this get, I thought.

Of course the next day I was there and Lou was looking for me. Spent time with LouAnn and Lou and we talked so much about the circus. I mentioned to him that over the years I had commissioned a artist to do paintings of him and others clowns. He wanted to see them. I was elated and so it turned out that I would come back for day three.

I contacted the artist and she met me at the show with a painting of Lou that she wanted to give him. We spent another day with Lou taking lots of photographs and I could not listen to him enough tell me countless stories about the circus, clowing and the people. It was wonderful! She presented Low with the painting and he was elated. Loved it and went on and on. Every clown on the show and many others had to see it and he was very very proud of it.

We spent three days together - I often look back on the experience and admire how generous Lou was of his time and how giving he was. Truly a great human being. Those were wonderful memories and every so often I haul out the pictures I took those days and relive it all again - much like I am sharing here now.

Thanks again, Pat for the wonderful tribute.

Jon Davison said...

Pat, I'm wanting to use the photo of Lou that appears at the top og your post, as an illustration in my soon-to-be-published book. Would you have any idea who owns the rights, if anyone?

Anonymous said...

Check out this link to a rare Lou Jacobs item: