By Jon Pult
On March 9, 1916 an item in the New York Times headlined "Slivers, Clown Suicide for a Girl" detailed the squalid end of Frank Oakley, the most famous American circus clown of the early twentieth-century. He had sealed his windows with bath towels at 308 West 71st Street in Manhattan and turned on the gas. A few years earlier, the Times has lavished praise on Oakley, deeming him in one fawning feature "Laugh Maker in Chief to the American People by Popular Acclimation." While the subheading in the news item about his death refers to Oakley as the "Man Who Amused Millions" there is scant mention of his sawdust triumphs, of "The Ball Game" or his famed "Lobster Walk-around." Rather, the focus was on Oakley's descent, a pathetic and familiar tale of sex, theft, alcohol, and loneliness.
Frank Oakley was one of the most influential figures in the transformation--the invention, really --of an American style of clowning, a move away from the European tradition of the talking clown that was suited to the intimate confines of the one-ring circus, and a move toward the outsized pantomime and grandiose slapstick necessary to entertain thousands in three rings under a vast canvas big top. And he was paid handsomely for his pratfalls and “panto”, earning $1,000.00 a week, while other top circus clowns made less than $100.00. Such was Oakley’s talent and reach that no less an authority on the art of comedy than the great silent film clown Buster Keaton, in 1948, counted Oakley one of the three greatest comedians of all-time. But Oakley’s legacy in the development of the American circus was overwhelmed by Keaton’s chosen medium, the motion picture. Today, while other pioneering circus clowns such as Emmett Kelly or Lou Jacobs are still on occasion able, whether by name or by look, to muster some vague recognition, Frank "Slivers" Oakley is largely forgotten.
You can find a picture of Oakley in a recent compendium of circus photographs taken by F.W. Glaser between 1901 and 1927. Flip past the photo of an elephant receiving a pedicure while perched atop two wooden half-barrels (a true testament to the cooper's art), and past a picture of the famous pinhead "Zip, the What-is-it?" playing the violin at the entrance to Barnum's "Congress of Freaks," and there's Slivers, once known far-and-wide as "America's greatest chalk-face comedian."
Glaser took the photo on the Barnum and Bailey circus lot in 1903, at the beginning of Oakley’s ascent. The big top looms close behind, its sidewall canvas sagging from the quarter poles. Oakley's greasepaint is standard clown white, with Harlequinade diamonds over the eyes. We can guess that the triangular shape on his nose, and his exaggerated mouth are red. His shirt is a collarless number, its front filigreed with the braid of a bandsman, while his pants are a gleaming white and heavily starched. The outer seams of each pant-leg curve in a sort of wild crescent, his lower extremities suggesting empty parentheses. Finally, his shoes are in the shape of huge and exaggerated bare feet.
In the photo, Slivers holds his hand to his ear as if to hear something. His dirty palm (the remains of greasepaint or the result of a bout of rousting?) faces the camera. In his left arm, he cradles the handle of a bucket. His expression is deadpan, however, and his stony mien suggests that Oakley is wholly unaware that he is about to be hit with a cane wielded by fellow clown Alex Seabert. Seabert sits precariously on the back end of a mule. His curly shoulder-length wig (obscuring much of his face) and his outsize puttynose are in the tradition of the grotesque. He's wearing a tutu of the sort that might be worn by a lithe funambulist, his muscular calves sheathed in white tights. In the left corner appear the words "Oakley and Seabert" in an ornate hand, but there is no record as to whether this is perhaps the penultimate moment of their act, preceding a roaring "blow-off."
Oakley, a reedy Swede, was born in 1871, and by the time he appeared in this photograph, he was a bright star in Barnum and Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth." This in an era when being a "star" of the circus meant something, when the great traveling tent cities --Barnum and Bailey, Ringling Brothers, the Great Forepaugh Shows -- were at the center of America's cultural life. In his prime, Oakley performed for 20,000 people a day. And in that first decade of the twentieth century, when the circus still held sway, the sawdust spectacle perhaps most revered was Oakley's pantomimed baseball game. All the rings in the massive tent stood empty to make way for a lone and silent rail of a man, a "Sliver," acting out a scene from the nation's pastime. The “Ball Game” act was so popular that the sheet music to the tune that accompanied the performance, "Slivers: Rag Eccentric," was for sale at shops across the country.
Few other artifacts remain to attest to Oakley's facility under canvas. There are a scattering of photos, cartoon renderings, and newspaper clippings. A thumbnail description of Oakley's “Ball Game” survives in a Detroit obituary, and the routine seems to have been wholly based on exploring Americans' hatred of umpires. After setting up a diamond in center ring, Slivers acts out the great cry of the American sports fan- “Kill the Umpire!"-in a jaunty panto.
At the start of the routine, according to the Detroit writer, Oakley emerged as a catcher, with his "bird cage" mask and heavily padded mitt. He popped his fist in the glove a few times and set up, crouching behind the plate. He feigned receiving a pitch, and then in the midst of the motion of tossing the horsehide back to his battery-mate he suddenly wheeled to argue the call with the imaginary ump, throwing off the mask, gesticulating wildly and jawing with his adversary. Later he took a turn at bat, and, after working the count full, "hit" one in the gap, but was thrown out trying "to stretch a three-bagger into a home run." Another rhubarb with the umpire ensued. By all accounts, at this point the crowd watching Slivers was delirious. One circus memoir of the period references the need for extra medical personnel because so many in the audience were passing out from laughter. "The entire act was in pantomime," the writer states. "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."
There is no film of Slivers performing the “Ball Game” routine, but considering Buster Keaton’s comments about Oakley, it’s not hard to conclude that the masterful solo baseball interlude in Keaton’s classic 1928 film “The Cameraman,” replete with threatening gestures, crazed pratfalls, and pick-off plays, is an homage to Oakley. With the aid of that cinematic paean, the press clippings, and the photos of the stained and billowing tents laid out on the scruffy lots where Slivers performed -- the gilded cage wagons with their exotic cargo of giraffes and hippopotami, the elegant equestriennes, the army of clowns -- we can try to put Oakley inside, put him under canvas, and imagine what it might have been like in mid-summer, in Omaha or French Lick, around the turn of the century, the “Circus Age,” when whole towns would shut down for the arrival of the big show. The heat amplifying the heady smells of elephant dung and sawdust, the din of the crowd, peppered with the cries of candy butchers-"Cracker Jack . . . Lemonade." Anticipation, the floor of the big top empty, and then release as the band, forty men strong, plays the first strain of his spry namesake rag. Here comes Slivers "the only clown in the circus history for whom the three rings were ever cleared." Thousands of faces focus on the silent figure in the center of the big top. "Hardly human is Slivers," a Detroit newsman writes, "He is, rather, a vitilized caracture (sic); a Sunday comic supplement character, life-sized and animated; he endures blows, buffets, kicks, falls without a sound. The children, and at a circus everyone should be a child, watch him with rapture." They have probably all been waiting for this day, circus day, and this moment. Slivers Oakley, the clown pictured on the heralds that have been pasted all over the town for weeks. Peals of laughter. Surprise. Like that of a young Studs Terkel who said of the sight of the vaudeville clown A. Robin, "the Banana Man", on the stage of the Palace Theatre in Chicago: "Me flesh and blood, him on the stage flesh and blood, ecce homo, behold the man."
In 1907, his last season with Barnum and Bailey, Slivers was at the height of his popularity and fame, but according to an interview he gave the Times in March of that year, that height didn’t bring happiness. The headline read “Mr. Slivers on the Serious Business of Being a Clown,” and right below, a subheading: “There are Bruises and Hurts and Moments of Mental Anguish, But the Public Laughs at Them All and Wants the Clown to be Funny in Private Life as Well.” In the article, Oakley describes a multitude of indignities suffered at the hands of children of all ages: “It’s funny how people can’t understand that we clowns are fellow human animals with just about the same outfit of feelings that the rest of ‘em have.” And later, “I’m afraid I’m a social failure.”
Professionally, however, he was at his peak. After studying the audiences in the large theatrical palaces of New York, Oakley, at the end of the 1907 season, left the circus and translated his act from center ring to center stage. And for a while he was a success. Although a mere speck on the grand expanse of stage of the New York Hippodrome, he was able again to “carry the house.”
But things didn't go as planned. He was married, but soon divorced. Then the story becomes sordid. He played the vaudeville circuit and took to drinking. For a time he bummed around Detroit and "during a spree he got in a row.” When the police were called, and he told them that he was the famous clown Slivers, the Detroit Free Press reported that they “were not impressed in the least." And then in Utica, New York in 1913, came the beginning of the end. At a vaudeville house he met Viola Stoll, seventeen, a young "hoofer". Oakley was forty-two. Stoll was a kid down on her luck. The show business wasn't working out for her, so she set up house with Slivers in Manhattan. He showered her with jewels, $4,000 worth that he had bought for his ex-wife. The Times explained that after a few weeks she felt "a revulsion" towards the older man. She took a train to St. Louis, with the jewels, and Oakley had her arrested. She was sentenced to three years in the reformatory.
But Oakley never stopped pining for young Stoll. Six months before her scheduled release he sought out her mother. He had a message for Viola, he wanted to marry her, to make an honest woman out of her. The mother relayed the message, but two-and-a-half years of confinement had changed Viola Stoll. She wanted no more of the stage and even less of Oakley. She found the prospect of life with a "traveling clown" unappealing. She wanted to be a dressmaker. He didn't take the news well. And then the headline, "Slivers, Clown Suicide for a Girl."
While the Times focused on the tawdry intrigue in its report on the suicide, an uncredited writer for the Detroit Free Press composed a sort of elegy to Oakley, detailing his many triumphs including a long loving paean to “The Ball Game,” before more thoughtfully noting his troubled end: "Shattered by whisky, penniless...America's greatest chalk-faced comedian finished his act in tragedy. For years, Slivers’ salary was close to $1,000 a week. Night before last he tried to borrow a quarter and failed. And so he who was the peer of clowns passed unknown and in poverty, and an art went out with him."
After 1925, Oakley’s name, at one time among the best known in show business, didn’t appear in the pages of the Times again until 2004. On October 17 of that year, an article in the Real Estate section reported the opening of the 300 block of West 71st Street, which since the turn of the century had been a dead end. It remains so for Slivers Oakley and his legacy, both a literal and figurative one. While the article, in discussing Oakley and the site of his death, details the Stoll affair and the suicide, there is no mention of his importance or renown, merely that he was “known as Slivers the clown and toured with the Barnum and Bailey circus.” An art went out with him, indeed.