Clowns and Their Work
By Harry LaPearl. New York Clipper, April 16, 1910. Reprinted in Circus Scrap Book, No. 11 (Jul), 1931, pp. 18-20. The information should be checked with additional sources.
Probably no one is better able to speak of the labors of a clown than Harry LaPearl, himself one of the leading clowns of America. In an interview with a Clipper reporter, in answer to the question, "How does the work of a clown compare with that of a stage comedian?" he said:
"Did you ever stop to consider what a clown has to do to make the public laugh?"
The Clipper man said very few people gave it a thought.
"The very answer I expected," replied La Pearl, "and I shall endeavor to give you an idea of the work of a 'funny' man with a circus, and let you compare his work and that of a stage comedian."
"To begin with, a clown, to be successful, must be a good pantomimist; he must have a funny make-up, and he must have original ideas - otherwise he will soon find himself relegated to the tall timbers. He must also be an acrobat, a tumbler and a juggler, and many of them are aerialists."
"Does a comedian need these accomplishments to succeed? And yet they are a clown's stock in trade. Without them he could hope for no recognition in his calling.
"A comedian (I have been on the stage myself) changes his voice, sneezes, or he can just do a few funny steps and the audience roars. Try to do the same thing in a circus ring and, believe me, the only notice you would receive would be from the manager, who would notify you that if you wanted to continue with the show you would have to do something. Several times since I have been with the Barnum and Bailey show, I have tried to ring in a few of my vaudeville stunts, and I am ashamed to tell you the result.
"With the show this season I am doing about seven acts. Think of asking a comedian to do as much work as that! The majority of the boys are compelled to go into the "spec," or the parade as the public calls it. They then rush to the dressing-room, change their parade costumes to clown make-up, being allowed about five minutes for the change. Then they rush out to the tanbark and work like beavers to make the spectators sit up and take notice, while ten or more acts are performing.
"Of course, I will agree with you in regard to some of the clowns not being funny or having proper make-up, but take it from me they do not get very far in business - though they are usually kickers on the salary question. A good clown very rarely has a kick about salary, as the management is not slow to notice the value and services of a clever performer, and the reward usually follows. It has been so in my case, and I can mention many others.
"For instance, take Al Olifan, who has been in the show business all his life. He started at the bottom like the rest of us, and today he is one of the leading producing clowns in the country.
"I tell you, and you would agree with me if you ever tried to amuse the public, that a clown's portion is much harder than a comedian's, and he positively must be funnier. To prove this take any one of our leading comedians and let him pull the same stuff before circus crowds that he uses on the vaudeville stage, and watch the result. In my experience I have seen many well-known comedians who have been a frost at clowning, and not because they are not clever in their own line.
"On the other hand, very few of the clowns have proved a failure on the vaudeville stage. There are Frank 'Slivers' Oakley and Spader Johnson, both of whom have made a pronounced success in vaudeville. I am not picking out two of the leading clowns, mind you, there are others too numerous to mention who have scored big hits.
"I remember once, in a little town we played in Texas, there happened to be a well-known comedian playing at the Opera House (the comedian by the way is now appearing in New York) who was asked to appear as a special favor to the management in a clown act, and, honestly, he could not draw a laugh. Why, some of the minor clowns we have with the show made him look like a 'piker'," and with a hurried "excuse me, I am on in this display, shake hands with Al Olifan," La Pearl rushed out of the dressing room.
Of course, during all this interview, the Clipper man said scarcely a dozen words. He was about to ask Mr. Olifan how he did a certain stunt, when that gentleman began by saying, "You will pardon me, but I overheard most of the conversation, and I can vouch for every word Mr. La Pearl has said.
"I have often heard this same subject discussed by performers, but never have given it a thought. There are several ways to look at it. Of course you will understand that a comedian on the vaudeville stage has to amuse his audience alone, he being the only one on the stage at the time. Now, take the clown. He is obliged to get his laughs while a dozen acts are performing at one time. He has to do something very original and funny to attract their attention," and with a hurried good-bye, Mr. Olifan went to do one of his many stunts.