Saturday, December 29, 2012


Photo courtesy of Sue Lenz

Unless your name is Otto Griebling or David Shiner, you are likely unfit to shine the oversized comedy slapshoes of the one and only Mr. Dougie Ashton.

Friday, December 21, 2012


As you conclude your holiday gift giving, please consider including the International Clown Hall of Fame with a donation of $10.00 - $25.00 to assist this most wonderful and worthwhile organization in the preservation of the history of physical comedy in circus, stage and screen.

FRANCK MARVIN: Bob Williams et Louie en Français

Saturday, December 08, 2012

IN MEMORIAM: Scott Parker

Photo by Susan Felter

Sarasota Man Dies In Drunken Driving Crash

Scott Parker,55, was hit by a suspected drunken driver who fled the scene and who shouldn't have been on the road driving anyway, according to Florida Highway Patrol.

A 55-year-old Sarasota man has died after a suspected drunken driver struck his car on Washington Boulevard early Friday.

Florida Highway Patrol responded to U.S. 301 and 47th Street at 12:50 a.m. where Siosaia K. Fonua, 29 of Bradenton was driving a 1995 Mercury on northbound U.S. 301 and struck a 1999 Ford Mustang driven by Scott R. Parker, 55, of Sarasota at 47th Street.

The Mercury struck the left side of the Mustang and Fonua fled on foot and was later located by law enforcement, according to Highway Patrol. Parker was pronounced dead at the scene, according to Highway Patrol.

Fonua suffered minor injuries and was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital for his injuries and faces DUI Manslaughter, driving on a suspended license and leaving the scene of a crash involving a death, according to Highway Patrol.

Fonua , of 4324 55th Ave. Drive East, has a lengthy criminal record in Manatee County, according to court records.

In 2001, Fonua at the age of 18, was charged with driving under the influence and was sentenced to probation, which was later violated, and to perform community service, according to court records.

Fonua pled no contest to felony robbery charges in 2006 and received probation, which was violated in 2008, but received credits for time served in jail, according to court records.

In 2009, Fonua was charged and convicted for DUI and providing a false name to Manatee County Sheriff's deputies and driving on a suspended license for a third or subsequent offense. He refused to submit himself to a blood alcohol test during that arrest, according to court records.

Fonua's license was suspended again in October 2011 for not appearing in court, according to court records.


Manhattan’s Forgotten Film Studio

Charles Simic

Buster Keaton (left), Fatty Arbuckle (center), and Al St. John, circa 1917

Here, briefly, is the story. In March, 1917, while walking on Broadway, Buster Keaton bumped into a friend from vaudeville who happened to know Fatty Arbuckle, the famous silent movie comedian and Chaplin’s rival. Asked if he had ever acted in motion pictures, Keaton said no, and was invited to drop by Arbuckle’s studio on 48th Street the following Monday. Keaton first declined, because Arbuckle had stolen one of his vaudeville routines in the past, but then changed his mind because his curiosity was piqued by the opportunity to see how movies are made and especially how the gags are filmed.

The Comique Film Studio was located in a warehouse at 318-320 East 48th Street, in the tough neighborhood west of the elevated subway tracks on First Avenue. On the first floor, the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation was in full swing filming Poppy. Near the precariously built sets, a violinist was attempting to put Norma in the proper mood for a love scene with her leading man. On the second floor, Norma’s sister Constance, who first gained attention in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, was making a new comedy. On the third floor Fatty Arbuckle, who was the first of the silent movie comics to also direct, was at work on a film called The Butcher Boy. There was no script. The director, the actors, and the crew talked over what they were going to do in the next scene and then did it. Keaton with his elegant, laid-back air improvised a routine with a broom and was instantly hired.

Keaton had grown up in show business. His father, Joe, worked in a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the “Mohawk Indian Medicine Company,” which in addition to entertaining rubes, sold patent medicine on the side. Keaton became a part of his parents’ comedy act when he was three. His mom played the saxophone while he goaded his father, who would respond by grabbing the boy by the suitcase handle they had sewn to the back of his jacket and throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, and at times even at the hecklers in the audience. So one might say he had a professional interest in seeing how Arbuckle dealt with the various acrobatic feats that were the staple of silent comedy.

On April 23, 1917, The Butcher Boy opened in two hundred theaters across the country, including the Strand in Times Square, and soon became a big box office success. Following that, Arbuckle and Keaton made, I believe, two other films in the same building—A Reckless Romeo and Rough House, the first of which no longer survives as far as I know. The company then moved to the Biograph Studio on East 175th Street where Coney Island, His Wedding Night, and a couple of others films were made before it relocated to Long Beach, California in October 1917.

Roughly twenty to twenty-five minutes long, these shorts, which can be seen on YouTube, are still very funny. Along with Arbuckle and Keaton, they feature Al St. John, Arbuckle’s second banana (and nephew), a gangly, loose-limbed acrobat dressed like a scarecrow who played country bumpkins and various kinds of villains. Beyond the slapstick and roughhouse typical of the times, the number of thoroughly original and brilliant comic ideas found in these shorts is staggering. (See, for instance, the marvelous clip on YouTube of the boys eating spaghetti in the 1918 film The Cook.) Keaton once said that making funny pictures is like assembling a watch; you have to be sober or it won’t tick. He also said afterward that everything he knew about film comedy he learned from Fatty Arbuckle, who by the time they met had already been in some twenty films.

Part of Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle's 48th Street movie studio, now a parking garage

I know a bit about the subject because years ago, I read everything I could find on Buster Keaton, and collected his movies and those of other silent movie comedians. Still, if my son had not lived for a time on First Avenue and 48th Street and I had not started parking my car at the 20th Century PARKING GARAGE, which turned out to have been part of the old Comique Film studio, I would not have made the connection.

Just recently I took a look at a documentary on Keaton made years ago, which to my shock placed Arbuckle’s studio in California, though it did not move there till the fall of 1917. Regardless, I was astonished that the building that held the studio run by Joseph Schenk was still there. It would be interesting to find out its history and that of the neighborhood over the decades. I love the idea that the garage was just three blocks from the United Nations and that over the years many world leaders and high diplomatic officials must have ridden past it in their bullet-proof limousines, throwing a casual glance at the entrance through which, almost a century earlier, Fatty, Keaton, and St. John went, if they were not already in the studio whacking each other over the heads with pillows, making feathers fly out of windows.

A few days ago, I took a stroll during the lunch hour past nail salons, stores selling cell phones, and pizza joints to take another look at the building, thinking the only familiar establishments in the neighborhood that the members of the Comique Film Corporation would still recognize are the Irish pub and the funeral parlor. The garage was still there, but to my surprise and horror I discovered that the wing of the old warehouse that contained the studio had recently been torn down and the government of Singapore was raising some kind of building in its place.

December 7, 2012, 12:18 p.m.

Friday, December 07, 2012


Bill Irwin and David Shiner Collaborate With Tina Landau and Nellie McKay for Old Hats World Premiere at Signature
By Kenneth Jones
06 Dec 2012

Bill Irwin
Bill Irwin
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Old Hats is the name of the new work by clowning Tony Award winners Bill Irwin and David Shiner, who will appear in the show's world premiere by Signature Theatre Company starting in February 2013. Tina Landau directs the work, with music by retro-pop star Nellie McKay, who is also featured in the production.

Irwin, the renowned clown, is an alumni playwright from Signature's past. This presentation is part of the Off-Broadway's continuing effort to showcase work by alumni, in its Legacy Program.

Performance of Old Hats begin Feb. 12 toward a March 4 opening on The Irene Diamond Stage within the Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street.

According to Signature, "2003-04 Playwright-in-Residence Bill Irwin reunites with fellow clown David Shiner for a new work combining their inimitable magic, slapstick, and hilarity. Using music, technology, and movement, plus other tricks up their sleeves, Irwin and Shiner create another wild and remarkable outing of theatre for a new generation of audiences. Signature is proud to present this dynamic duo's first collaboration since the smash Broadway hit Fool Moon."

Tina Landau directed Off-Broadway's Civil War Christmas, Floyd Collins, Dream True, In the Red and Brown Water, Iphigenia 2.0, Wig Out, Mary Rose, Saturn Returns, Orestes, Trojan Women; La Jolla Playhouse's Beauty, Cloud Tectonics and Marisol; Actors Theatre of Louisville's 1969; Broadway's Superior Donuts and Bells Are Ringing; and many other productions.
  The design team includes G.W. Mercier (scenic and costume design), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting design), John Gromada (sound design), and Wendall K. Harrington (projection design). David H. Lurie is the production stage manager.

Production support for Old Hats is provided by the Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation and the Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater.

All tickets for the initial run of the production (to March 31) are $25 as part of the Signature Ticket Initiative: A Generation of Access. Tickets go on sale Jan. 8, 2013.

The Pershing Square Signature Center is located at 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.

For tickets and information, visit

Bill Irwin is a Tony Award winner for playing George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His many Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional stage productions include The Goat or Who is Sylvia, opposite Sally Field; Waiting For Godot with Nathan Lane, for which Irwin was nominated in 2009 for a Drama Desk Award; The Tempest opposite Patrick Stewart; Texts for Nothing; Largely New York; The Regard of Flight; Garden of Earthly Delights; Accidental Death of an Anarchist; and the Tony Award-winning Fool Moon, which he created with David Shiner. He was Playwright in Residence for the 2003 Signature Theatre season. He was Mr. Noodle on "Sesame Street."

David Shiner made his American debut starring in the renowned Canadian Cirque du Soleil and toured North America in Cirque's Nouvelle Experience from 1990 through the spring of 1991. American-born David began his career on the streets of Boulder, CO. In 1981, he moved to Europe and honed his craft on the streets of Paris, Rome, Florence, London and Munich. He then began performing in Europe's most prestigious circuses, including starring in the German National Circus' Ronacalli and the Swiss National Circus' Knie. Between circus engagements, Shiner and partner Rene Bazinet toured Europe in a two-man show. In 1993, 1995 and 1998, Shiner starred with Bill Irwin and The Red Clay Ramblers in Fool Moon (Tony Award for Unique Theatrical Experience), touring the show throughout the U.S. and Europe. He also starred on Broadway as The Cat in the Hat in Seussical The Musical. Shiner's home base is Munich.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

JAMES THIERREE: Article by Jenny Gilbert

In Chaplin's footsteps: How James Thiérrée became vaudeville royalty

James Thiérrée is the scion of vaudeville royalty. Just don't tell him that he's the image of his grandfather...

By Jenny Gilbert

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

If anyone ever had good reason to want a nice quiet job in a bank when he grew up, it was the young James Thiérrée. From the age of four, alongside his three-year-old sister, he spent his childhood appearing in theatres across Europe and North America as a piece of luggage that sprouted little legs and ran around.

The show was his parents' own Cirque Imaginaire, a novelty in the late 1970s as one of the first circus shows to do without sawdust and trained animals. Its successor, Le Cirque Invisible, pushed the envelope further, and British theatre-goers of the late 1980s who managed to find their way to the old Thames-side venue The Mermaid may recall – along with memories of an elfin gymnast who turned herself into fantasy monsters by carrying quantities of chairs, and an older man with a dippy Harpo Marx smile who performed opera with his kneecaps – an uncommonly pimple-free youth, his long wavy hair flaring out in a halo, soaring about on bungee ropes like the Angel Gabriel. It was almost certainly that performance that gave Peter Greenaway the idea of casting the teenaged Thiérrée as Ariel in his 1991 film Prospero's Books.

James is lumbered with performing ancestry: his dad Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée gave up a career on the classical French stage to develop his musical vaudeville act; his dancer-cum-designer mother Victoria was the third' of Charlie Chaplin's eight children with Oona O'Neill, herself the daughter of the playwright Eugene O'Neill. So, at an early age, he had to decide to do something defiantly ordinary, or seize his genetic fate.

In the vacant tearoom of a smart hotel in the French city of Lyon, where Thiérrée is touring his new one-man show Raoul before bringing it to London, he is, by his own admission, wiped out with exhaustion, yet strong physical family traits still shine through. His face echoes his grandfather's fine-boned wolfishness. His dark hair is the same vigorously curly mop, which at the front is prematurely blotched with silver (he turned 37 this year). Even slumped in an armchair, shod in orange trainers, Thiérrée's light frame has the high-tuned look of a body that can do pretty much anything its owner asks of it, be that descending a long ladder by slithering slowly head-first between alternate rungs, or tripping over a non-existent ruck in a carpet, only to bounce straight back up and trip over again. But if you think this sounds like stuff you've seen before, perhaps in a black-and-white silent film, you are only partly there. Thiérrée's medium is an amalgam of live theatre with elements of vaudeville, circus and dance – and you can forget about Cirque du Soleil, too. Those terms hardly begin to describe Thiérrée's celebration of low-tech, high-impact stage design, its extraordinary atmosphere, or the existential questions it lightly touches on.

"I'm still trying to find the rhythm of the new show," he confesses. "Having done three previous shows with a cast of four or five people around me [all these shows have travelled to London in the past 10 years], being alone on stage each night feels hugely different – a liberation in its way, but daunting."

Strictly speaking, Thiérrée isn't alone on stage. Raoul, the fictional hermit whose wordless story this is, makes his first entrance scrambling on to the stage from the stalls as if it's the last ridge of a mountain range he has had to cross to reach his home, a precariously constructed giant tepee of scaffolding poles. Wild-eyed and dishevelled, Raoul may be returning from fighting a war, or fending off global meltdown – we never know. What we do soon discover is that an intruder – an impersonator, even – has stolen his identity and inveigled his way into his hearth and home. To his fury and dismay, Raoul finds himself usurped.

The sleight-of-hand comedy Thiérrée mines from this situation is at once frenetic, unsettling, hilarious and profound. In the hand-to-hand combat that ensues, the audience keeps thinking the invader is about to be unmasked (as indeed, he is, repeatedly), but each time it is Thiérrée's face and body that emerge, raising the outlandish possibility that Raoul/Thiérrée really does have a doppelgänger.

More whimsically, Raoul also entertains various non-human visitors, fantastical creatures fashioned from scrap materials: a crayfish immaculately crafted out of industrial metal tubing; a giant jellyfish in shimmering antique silk; a skeletal wading bird made from frayed string; and, most fantastic of all, a spectral, life-size fabric elephant. You never see wheels or pulleys or a body inside. Part of the beauty of each scuttling or lumbering creature is its seeming self-locomotion.

Thiérrée loves the sense that, exquisite as these objects are, they're the result of someone sitting down with a needle and thread. He's also a stickler for using outmoded theatrical machinery, so no electronics. The movement of the cloth we see in the opening – a vast Gericault-like tableau of swathes of grubby sailcloth – is all controlled with cords and counterweights filled with sand. But why make life so difficult?

"Because the result is warm, and operates on a human scale. It's the same with the props. They're all things picked up in flea markets and salvage yards, with a sense of having lived a life already. You just can't compete with film and computerised imagery, so I deliberately go in the opposite direction." That's why, in a flying sequence near the end of the show, he has the lighting swing round to show the stage hands manipulating the flying crane, with Raoul, oblivious, doing his soaring through a night-sky bit, strapped to the other end. What the audience gets is a layered reality. By showing the mechanics, the routine is doubly interesting, yet the magic remains intact.

While Thiérrée himself takes the credit as set designer – along with lighting design and musical direction – it was his mother he invited to devise and make the creatures; clear evidence, if any were needed, that her son is perfectly at ease picking up the family baton. They are hardly in each other's pockets these days, though: James lives with his girlfriend in Paris, while his parents are based in Burgundy. And given the amount of time they spend on their separate tours (missing each other by a matter of weeks in London, this time round) they see each other rarely.

"People assume it must have been a problem for me, my parents being such a global success and my choosing the same creative line. But just as my father was an actor who taught himself clowning, and my mother a dancer who taught herself other skills, I've also taken bits and pieces from all over. We're all bouncing between different disciplines and I've perhaps moved further away from circus than they have. My only responsibility is to the audience, in taking them to a place in their heads where they don't feel quite secure. It's tempting to rely on rewards for comic effects, because that's immediately gratifying. But Raoul isn't meant to be pure comedy. I try to think of it as a moving sculpture, with comic moments." That said, some of the funniest at Lyon's vast Maison de la Danse passed so solemnly that my yelps of mirth had to be muffled, if only out of politeness. "Oh, that's typical French," Thiérrée quips. "They think it's terribly serious as I used the Schubert quintet on a loop earlier on, and they didn't feel they'd been given licence to laugh."

Be that as it may, the moment involved Thiérrée's character slithering stealthily down a scaffolding pole with extreme control, then bouncing vigorously on his backside when he reached the bottom, as if having fallen from a great height. Isn't that the very area of sly humour, based on subverting expectation and undermining physical laws, that his grandfather traded in as a performer?

There is a faintly hollow sense of victory in getting Thiérrée to admit that, yes, if you must, some of what he does could be seen as Chaplinesque. He is, after all, entitled as an artist to carve out his own path, not to have to retread the tracks left by a man he can barely remember. But then, as Thiérrée properly points out, Charlie may not have been the first to do those Chaplinesque gags either. He, too, was working within a genre, applying his skills to standard vaudeville tropes. Tradition, as Thiérrée describes it, "is like a strong wind at your back. You don't necessarily pay it attention, you just feel it."

I ask him, as a final throw, whether he intends his curtain calls as a tidbit tossed to fans who have come hoping to witness some directly channelled Charlie-isms. It is indeed a delicious moment when Thiérrée comes bowling on like a blown leaf, running and twirling in tiny irregular steps as if imminently about to trip over both feet, at once delighted and a touch affronted to see how many people have been out there watching him all along. And it does come across as a truly Chaplin moment.

Thiérrée's brow darkens. "Did it really look like I meant to do that? Then I must look again at those curtain calls. That was me just having fun and messing about. I really don't want anyone to think I'm making a reference. I don't want people to think that at all."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

OTTO GRIEBLING: Haruki Murakami Quote

"I've carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I'm not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I've carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry."
-Haruki Murakami

This Murakami quote makes me think of Otto Griebling.  This photo of Otto makes me think of the Eric von Schmidt and Rolf Cahn version of the song He Was a Friend of Mine.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Jacko Fossett and Little Billy Merchant

Happy 90th Birthday today to Mr. Jacko Fossett

Jacko Fossett

Clown from the world's oldest circus clan

Jacko Fossett was Britain's best-loved clown, with a career that spanned nearly 60 years. When asked what were his happiest memories under the Big Top and in the enchanted sawdust ring of the circus, Fossett's response was straightforward. "They were all happy memories. I was lucky to have been born in the business. I have no regrets and would do it all again."

The man who became Clown Jacko, known to his many friends as plain Jack, was born Robert George John Francis Fossett into England's oldest circus dynasty. The son of a clown, also known as Jacko, and a wire walker, Maria Proctor, he first saw the light of day in Hull in 1922 where his parents were appearing at the famous Hull Fair. By the time he was about eight he was performing in the ring himself, following in the footsteps of his sisters Margaret, Louise and Emmie, who all became trapeze artists.

"When I was six years old," said Jacko Fossett,

I remember my father as a clown, making up his face in the caravan. He made the white colouring out of zinc and lard, a stick of red for his nose, and the black for his eyes came from the soot in the chimney.

There was no designer theatrical makeup in those days.

Jacko's earliest years were spent with his Uncle Bob's show, Sir Robert Fossett's Circus, and with Chapman's, a leading circus in the 1930s. While Jacko was at Chapman's, his father died and he was packed off to school in Northampton, the home of the Fossett clan.

Of the Fossetts, many of whom still populate the circus world, he was fond of saying, "It's not a family, it's a disease." It is the world's oldest circus clan, and at one time it was said that every circus in Britain contained at least one member of the family, who are noted for their red hair.

Jacko Fossett's happiest days before the Second World War were spent with Chapman's, earning 12 shillings a week for a daring trapeze act with his sisters. He was appearing in Morecambe when war broke out, and soon afterwards he enlisted, serving in the RAF and being posted to Ensa.

Ralph Reader was producing shows to entertain the troops, and Fossett found himself in the company of performers who later became great stage and television stars, among them Peter Sellers, Cardew Robinson, Dick Emery and, his best chum at the time, Tony Hancock. Fossett already had a desire to be a clown, and performing in comedy skits with these artistes developed his abilities, so that when he came out of the forces he joined the circus of his cousins, Bobby and Tommy Roberts, as their principal clown.

He stayed with the Robert Bros Circus for 14 years, despite offers from Bertram Mills Circus. He was not only principal clown, but its tent master too, and nightly got kicked around by a mule, and performed in a comedy boxing bout with a very lively kangaroo. "When the kangaroo died, I cried like a kid because it felt like I had lost one of my family," he said.

When Bertram Mills Circus finally persuaded Fossett to sign a contract, he entered the world of "big time" circus. He travelled with this prestigious show until its tenting circus closed in 1964 and worked at Olympia, London, with it until the final season there in 1967.

Fossett was invited to appear in Denmark with Cirkus Schumann, 1966-69, and then went to Cirkus Benneweis. After seven summer seasons in Denmark, he was back in England, spending six years from 1973 in Great Yarmouth at the Hippodrome Circus. After the closure of Mills' seasons at Olympia, he was invited to work at Belle Vue, Manchester, and appeared there from 1968 until 1982.
But Fossett, along with his long-term clowning partner Little Billy, a British dwarf comic who worked with him for years and with whom "I never had an argument", was always in demand for work with top circuses around the world. He worked in Munich for Germany's biggest circus, the Circus Krone, run by Carl Sembach, whom he had known before the war at Chapman's Circus, and who had courted one of Fossett's sisters. He was in Paris with Cirque Jean Richard, in Italy with Circo Enis Togni, in the huge winter circus of Vienna, in Puerto Rico, and in 1983 was in Australia with "The World's Greatest Circus Spectacular".

He said that his worst experience on the Continent was when he left Circus Krone in Munich to join Jean Richard. "I'd paralysed them in Munich, we went so well . . . and then I went to Paris, did the same gags, same acts, and died a terrible death." Of all circus acts, comedy is the thing that travels least well. What appeals in one country does not always go well elsewhere. Luckily, British clowns have often found success abroad.

In 1983 Fossett went to the prestigious International Circus Festival of Monaco for Prince Rainier, but on the opening night he was despondent at the reaction he had had from the rather starchy audience and asked the ringmaster to help him. Together they worked out a way of presenting his Anglo-Saxon humour to advantage, and he ended up a success.

Fossett's biggest ambition had been to appear as a clown at the Blackpool Tower Circus, where his idol Charlie Cairoli had starred for nearly 40 years. He got his wish in the summer of 1990, but his success was short-lived. He had already suffered a number of minor heart scares but in the middle of the Blackpool Tower season he had a major heart attack and doctors advised his retirement from the ring. The old trouper was, however, well enough to return on the final night of that season, the recipient of a special award from the Circus Friends' Association of Great Britain. Ten years later, the showmen's newspaper The World's Fair gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at Blackpool.
Jack Fossett retired to Skegness with his wife, to the bungalow they shared with his wife's twin sister.

He had married Constance Reid in 1960, having courted her for some two decades. Connie and Marjorie Reid had toured in variety for 25 years as the Reid Twins, one of Britain's leading novelty acrobatic acts, and Fossett waited patiently until variety and music hall were dead, and the girls' own careers over, before marrying Connie.

And, although Connie became the butt of many of his jokes in the circus ring, theirs was an ideally happy marriage. She was indeed a long-suffering partner, especially in bed. "I used to lie in bed at night," he recalled, "and a gag would come to me. I'd have to wake up my wife Connie and she'd have to write it down in case I forgot it by the morning."

D. Nevil


We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Monday, October 22, 2012

CLOWN ALLEY: Hagenbeck-Wallace (Circa 1930s)

This looks to be from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. The clown cop on the far right is Jojo Lewis, next to him with the saxophone is Paul Jerome. Emmett Kelly is next to Jerome in the spotted derby. The tramp next to Emmett with the clarinet looks like he might be Mark Anthony but he's far too old to be. Behind them might be Roy Barret.

Down front with arms outstretched is Jerome's pal, Bill Ward's uncle and longtime Ringling advance clown, Earl Shipley.

The whiteface playing clarinet at Earl's left hand may be Frank Luley. The whiteface trombone player at the bell of Frank's clarinet is Horace Laird and next to Horace is Billy Rice. I'm not sure about the other whitefaces.

I *am* sure that, in the center, that is Otto Griebling in drag.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


If there is anyone out there with the current issue of CIRCUS REPORT, and wouldn't mind scanning the photo of me, I would very greatly appreciate it. I'd like to see it!

Pat Cashin


Mikhail Nikolayevich Rumyantsev (Russian: Михаи́л Никола́евич Румя́нцев) (10 December 1901 – 31 March 1983), better known under his stage name Karandash (Russian: Каранда́ш which means pencil), was a famous Soviet clown. He was a People's Artist of the USSR, and was the teacher of the famous Russian clowns Oleg Popov and Yuri Nikulin.

Another Potential Christmas Card

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Coco's soap gag performed outdoors. After Ringling stopped touring under canvas the Greatest Show on Earth still continued to perform grandstand dates until the mid 1960s. 

Michael "Coco" Polakovs

Friday, August 10, 2012

IN MEMORIAM: Frank Curry

Deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my friend, Frank Curry.

Men like Frank are all too rare and his generous spirit will be very sorely missed.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


by Tim Torkildson

American clowning reached its zenith in the 1950’s. Reliable records indicate that there were over five-thousand professional circus clowns working in North America. Besides Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, there were dozens of independent tented circuses, called ‘mud shows’, that traveled by truck throughout the United States and Canada. The interstate highway system was a godsend to them, allowing them to travel quickly from town to town without worrying about muddy, impassable back roads. And there were several dozen showmen who put together Shrine circuses; these shows used only premium acts and paid very well. A clown who got on with a Shrine circus outfit could work seven months of the year and then spend the rest of his time fishing down in Florida or augmenting his income with work on one of the year-long mud shows. If you knew your funny business, it was a good career with steady work and pay. And recognition. President Harry Truman started the tradition of inviting a notable circus clown to come to the annual White House Easter Egg Hunt, as a treat for the children. The fortunate funster who was chosen usually made the front page of the New York Times, as well as the cover of LIFE magazine.

All of these circuses were determined to have the largest clown alley around. Ringling Brothers kept that record for many years, boasting on their posters that their clown alley contained “A Congress of One Hundred Clowns!” But several of the more ambitious Shrine circuses were determined to top Ringling’s haughty boast. In 1953 the Hanneford Shrine Circus put on a show that featured, according to their publicity posters, “An unparalleled collection of two-hundred leaping, laughing circus clowns!” The word around circus lots was that Hanneford had simply grabbed all its roustabouts – the working men who put up and tore down the rigging for the show – and slapped makeup on them, then marched them out into the ring with the regular professional clowns. However it was done, it proved to be a ticket-selling coup for Hanneford; they played to straw houses until the end of the season in September. (A ‘straw house’ is circus jargon for a full house – back in the old days when seating ran out, the show would provide bales of straw for the surplus audience to sit on.)

This was a time before anyone had any reason to fear clowns – no Stephen King stories or clown serial killers – and so the whole family could enjoy the slapstick antics of these wonderful performers in their baggy clothes and exaggerated makeups. Insurance companies, ever mindful of potential markets for their policies, commissioned a study in 1956 to find out how prudent it would be to offer life insurance and annuities to circus clowns. Their actuaries interviewed hundreds of professional clowns and came close to developing diabetes from eating so much cotton candy while watching circus performances. The consensus was that circus clowns could prudently be offered life insurance or disability insurance, and the reports went on to list the top six ways that circus clowns usually died. This information is in the history library at the Circus World Museum, in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I’ve gone through the reports, and hereby give you THE TOP SIX CAUSES OF DEATH IN CIRCUS CLOWNS:

1) Jake leg This was circus jargon for white lead poisoning. Up until the late 1920’s or early 1930’s circus clowns whitened their faces with a compound of beeswax, mineral oil, and white lead. Since they wore their makeup for an average of 16 hours per day, the white lead had a chance to seep into the skin pores and make its way into the vital organs, including the brain. The most common symptom was a tremor while walking, and eventual paralysis of the legs. In many instances when the clown would stop using white lead the symptoms would clear up – but unfortunately the lead would not be flushed from the system and would catch up with the clown when he grew older, leading to migraines, confusion, and often premature death from irreversible liver damage. White lead has been outlawed for any kind of cosmetics since 1945.

2) Transportation accidents Clowns drove many of the circus trucks between towns for the mud shows. This was known as ‘cherry pie’ – doing more than one job on the show. Most performers did cherry pie; they drove, they sold popcorn, or helped with the set up and tear down. The tour schedule of a mud show was exhausting; they played just one day in a town, then packed up and drove to the next town, usually about a hundred miles away. So lack of sleep was a constant problem for everyone, including the clowns. Nodding off while behind the wheel of a large equipment or animal truck was an occupational hazard for clowns. Another source of transportation accidents was the circus train; it could be a bumpy ride, since railroad tracks had been neglected during World War Two and after, and an occasional unwary clown would be ejected from the vestibule of a speeding circus train when it rounded a corner or hit a rough patch of rails.

3) Septicemia Blood poisoning, in layman’s terms. This one lacks any concrete explanation, except for the fact that animal dung is everywhere in a circus, and when it gets into an open cut it can cause blood poisoning quite fast. But why clowns were more susceptible to blood poisoning than other circus workers remains a minor mystery.

4) Accidents during clown gags This one is a no-brainer, since the typical circus clown gag back in the 1950’s resembled a pitched battle more than anything else. There would be explosions, guns going off, punching, kicking, falling, and huge plumes of flame. Virtually all professional clowns who worked with a circus in the 1950’s, or earlier, had some black powder marks etched into their faces and hands.

5) Cirrhosis of the liver Okay, it seems like a unimaginative cliché; but clowns were notoriously heavy drinkers, and who can blame them for taking a couple of snorts after a hard day of dodging pies, being blown up, and stepping in elephant poo?

6) Hardening of the arteries A garden variety illness that was currently affecting 20 million other middle-aged, Caucasian males in America. Clowns were rather more mainstream than we give them credit for!

Tim Torkildson spent 20 years as a professional circus clown. Today he is a free-lance blogger

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

CIRCUS PEOPLE (Circa 1940s)

Shot on the Cole Bros. Circus in the 1940s. At about the six minute mark they begin to feature the clowns. I believe Horace Laird is misidentified at "Otto", Otto Griebling is misidentified as "Mike" and Mark Anthony is correctly identified as "Tony".

In the background there may be Art Cooksey and Bobby Kay. If someone could ID them for certain we'd have a better idea of when this footage was shot.

Friday, June 08, 2012


The first in a series of "collector to collector" DVDs, THE GREAT CLOWNS OF VAUDEVILLE (Volume 1) is now available by clicking here.

Future volumes will focus on American, European and Russian circus, burlesque, music hall, variety, ice shows and more.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Put on a pot of coffee. You're going to be here a while.

Copeland, you're going to want to bring a change of underwear.

Friday, April 20, 2012

BUSTER KEATON: Cirque Medrano (1947)

Promotional postcard for Keaton's appearance at the famed Cirque Medrano in Paris, 1947

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Photo courtesy of David Burd

A photo taken on location from the first day of shooting the latest incarnation of Captain Kangaroo. 

We were fortunate enough to have a wonderful cross-section of variety artists join us that day and it never ceases to amaze me just how many talented people I've been lucky enough to meet and work with in my travels.

I deeply appreciate everyone who joined us and so generously shared both their time and their talents.

Friday, March 09, 2012

WHO'S WHERE 2012: Scandanavian Edition

Courtesy of John Cooper

Cirkus Arena: Jimmy Folco; Toto Chabri & Co.
Cirkus Arli:  Martino & Co.
Cirkus Baldoni: Danilo & Danila.
Cirkus Benneweis: Versace.
Cirkus Dannebrog: Cesar Dias.
Cirkus Krone: Alando
Cirkus Macot: Alex and Lulu.

Cirkus Brazil Jack: Jose Michel Clowns.
Cirkus Maximum: Totti (Totti Alexis)
Cirkus Olympia: The Balders.
Cirkus Merano: Don Christian.
Cirkus Arnardo: Sterza Family.
Sirkus Finlandia: Bonbon & Tiina.  (N.B. "Sirkus" and "Tiina" are spelt correctly here!)

Thank you, John!

Friday, February 10, 2012


The following is a list of what clowns are on what American circuses this season. This list is not intended to be exhaustive as clowns perform in all manner of venues outside of the traditional circus.  If you know of any clowns or shows not listed please let us know so that we can update the list...

                        WHO IS WHERE 2012

Big Apple Circus

Barry Lubin
Scott & Muriel

Kelly Miller Circus

Ryan Combs
Steve Copeland
Raul Oliveras

Universoul Circus

Shuckey Duckey

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Blue Unit

Andrew Hicks
Jared Monjeau
Frances Tiffin
Kelli Argott
LaRena Rose
Taylor Albin
Billy Murray
Alex Barney
Henry Castillo
Sandor Eke
Ivan Vargas
Oscar Liendo

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Red Unit

Kyle Barker
Jeffrey Branin
Kelli Brown
Sean Davis
Rodger Fisher
Brandon Foster
Joy Powers
Dustin Portillo
Julio Ramazini
Richard Stringer
Chris Sullivan
Rudy Wollrabe

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Gold Unit

Dean Kelley
Victor Franke
Anton Franke

Circus Vargas

Jon Weiss
Matti Esqueda

Circus Sarasota

Bello Nock

Circus Zoppe

Giovanni "Nino" Zoppe

Circus Flora

Giovanni "Nino" Zoppe

Carson & Barnes Circus

Alex Acero

Clyde Beatty Circus

Elmo Gibb

Culpepper & Merriweather Circus

DJ Weiss

Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars

Kellan & Company

Circus Gatti

Leo Acton

NoJoe's Clown Circus

Joey Thurmond
Lee Andrews

Royal Hanneford Circus


Walker Bros. Circus


Piccadilly Circus

Jack Cook

Hamid Shrine Circus

Larry Clark

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

Keith "Kinko Bindlestiff" Nelson

Circus World Museum

Nathan Holguin
Michelle Musser

Circus Circus Hotel & Casino

Benny Schultz
Huel Speight
Dave DeDera
Scott Linker

The Yankee Doodle Circus

Pat Cashin

(overseas Jessi Hoffschildt and Kelly Van Cleave are on Circus Kinoshita, Tom Dougherty and Lorenzo "Pepe" Silva are on Circus Arlette Gruss, David Larible is on Circus Roncalli and dozens of people working theme parks and cruise ships)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

ROAD REPORT: Kelly-Miller Clown Alley

Word comes to us today from Steve Copeland, today beginning his fourth season with America's One Ring Wonder - The Kelly-Miller Circus...

"Today is opening day for the 2012 season of Kelly Miller. Ryan and I are debuting six new numbers: an opening, a cover for the tiger cage strike, a chase, and three production gags."

The very best to the entire cast and crew. Last year's production will be very difficult to top and we're all eager to see what you two have come up with this time!

Saturday, February 04, 2012


Stephen Colbert is carrying on in the proud tradition of Dan Rice. With all due respect to Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Chevy Chase, Dana Carvey, Darrell Hammond, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey, not since Pat Paulsen in 1968 has a comedian had so much impact on American politics...

Colbert v. the Court

Why, in the battle over Citizens United, the Supreme Court never had a chance.


Comedian Stephen Colbert hosts a rally in Charleston, S.C. on Jan. 12, 2012.
Photograph by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.

The Supreme Court has always had its critics.  Chief Justice John Marshall had to contend with the temper of President Andrew Jackson (“John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!”). And Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes went toe-to-toe with FDR, who wouldn’t let up with the court-packing. But in the history of the Supreme Court, nothing has ever prepared the justices for the public opinion wrecking ball that is Stephen Colbert. The comedian/presidential candidate/super PAC founder has probably done more to undermine public confidence in the court’s 2010 Citizens United opinion than anyone, including the dissenters. In this contest, the high court is supremely outmatched.

Citizens United, with an assist from a 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo, has led to the farce of unlimited corporate election spending, “uncoordinated” super PACs that coordinate with candidates, and a noxious round of attack ads, all of which is protected in the name of free speech. Colbert has been educating Americans about the resulting insanity for months now. His broadside against the court raises important questions about satire and the court, about protecting the dignity of the institution, and the role of modern media in public discourse. Also: The fight between Colbert and the court is so full of ironies, it can make your molars hurt.

When President Obama criticized Citizens United two years ago in his State of the Union address, at least three justices came back at him with pitchforks and shovels. In the end, most court watchers scored it a draw. But when a comedian with a huge national platform started ridiculing the court last summer, the stakes changed completely. This is no pointy-headed deconstruction unspooling on the legal blogs. Colbert has spent the past few months making every part of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizen United look utterly ridiculous. And the court, which has no access to cameras (by its own choosing), no press arm, and no discernible comedic powers, has had to stand by and take it on the chin.

It all started when Colbert announced that, as permitted by Citizens United, he planned to form a super PAC (“Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow”). As he explained to his viewers, his hope was that “Colbert Nation could have a voice, in the form of my voice, shouted through a megaphone made of cash ... the American dream. And that dream is simple. That anyone, no matter who they are, if they are determined, if they are willing to work hard enough, someday they could grow up to create a legal entity which could then receive unlimited corporate funds, which could be used to influence our elections."

Then last June, like a winking, eyebrow-wagging Mr. Smith, Colbert went to Washington and testified before the FEC, which granted him permission to launch his super PAC (over the objections of his parent company Viacom) and accept unlimited contributions from his fans so he might sway elections. (He tweeted before his FEC appearance that PAC stands for "Plastic And/Or Cash.") In recent weeks, Colbert has run several truly insane attack ads (including one accusing Mitt Romney of being a serial killer). Then, with perfect comedic pitch, Colbert handed off control of his super PAC to Jon Stewart (lampooning the FEC rules about coordination between “independent PACS” and candidates with a one-page legal document and a Vulcan mind meld). Colbert then managed to throw his support to non-candidate Herman Cain in the South Carolina primary, placing higher on the ballot than Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann.

The line between entertainment and the court blurred even further late last month when Colbert had former Justice John Paul Stevens on his show to discuss his dissent in Citizens United. When a 91-year-old former justice is patiently explaining to a comedian that corporations are not people, it’s clear that everything about the majority opinion has been reduced to a punch line.

Colbert took the mainstream by storm in interview after interview that schooled Americans about the insanity of Citizens United and garnered blowback from NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd, who complained that Colbert is “making a mockery of the system” and questioned whether the real agenda was to “educate the public about the dangers of money and politics ... or simply to marginalize the Republican Party?” Then came the un-ironic defenses of the irony of Colbert and the obligatory navel-gazing about whether Colbert is in fact effecting real change or in peril of succumbing to “irony fatigue.”

At one level, this is all just comedy, and it’s hard to measure whether Colbert’s sustained attacks on the court’s campaign finance decisions are having any real impact, beyond making us laugh. On the other hand, when the New York Times declares that Colbert’s project is deadly serious, and it’s just the rest of politics that’s preposterous, something more than just theater is happening. I spoke to Trevor Potter, former chairman of the FEC and adviser to John McCain, and the man Colbert has designated his “personal lawyer,” about the consequences of Colbert’s assault on the campaign finance regime. Potter is very careful not to ascribe an end game to Colbert’s efforts but says that he has seen Colbert’s campaign finance crusade as an “opportunity to open up to the rest of the world what we lawyers already know: that the whole area of campaign finance is a mess.” He adds that Colbert’s antics are “having a real effect in terms of public understanding about how the system works” and getting people to start to think about how to fix it.

Potter is also emphatic that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is not the sole cause of the problems he sees. (You can thank the media for its bang-up job of suggesting that the court singlehandedly designed super PACs with its decision in CU). Potter says Kennedy’s majority opinion is not so much disconnected from reality but, rather, “assumed that the world would work in the way he thought it would.” (In Kennedy’s fantasy, there would be no chance of corruption, no coordination between PACs and candidates, and full disclosure of corporate contributions.) And had the FEC done its job, had Congress passed better disclosure rules, had shareholders been better able to control corporate activity, the Kennedy decision would have been less monumental. (Potter is quick to point out that the court needn’t reverse itself completely for the country to fix the worst problems in the post-CU system.) Still he adds that Citizens United “epitomizes the problem of having a court where no justice has ever run for any office, including dogcatcher.”

Of course that’s precisely the problem: The institutional aloofness that allowed the Roberts court to pen such a politically naive decision is the same blind spot that precludes them from even understanding, much less responding to, the media criticism. And as professor Lyrissa Lidsky, who teaches law at the University of Florida College of Law, reminded me last weekend, there is amazing language in Justice Kennedy’s majority in Citizens United about the need to elevate corporate speech to the same protected status as that enjoyed by the cable news shows. As Kennedy observed, “Speakers have become adept at presenting citizens with sound bites, talking points, and scripted messages that dominate the 24-hour news cycle. Corporations, like individuals, do not have monolithic views.”

In other words, (if you can stand the irony) in Citizens United, the Supreme Court empowered Colbert to create a super PAC so he could answer back to, well, folks like Stephen Colbert. The opinion even notes thatMr. Smith Goes to Washington may be fiction and caricature; but fiction and caricature can be a powerful force.” Now, courtesy of Mr. Colbert, no one knows that better than the court itself.