Wednesday, December 30, 2015

SLIVERS OAKLEY & MARCELINE: A Comedy Team Commits Suicide by Anthony Balducci


The New York Hippodrome dwarfed neighboring theaters when it opened on Broadway in 1905. The theater, with a seating capacity of 5,200, was twelve times larger than the next largest Broadway theater. Elmer S. Dundy and Frederic Thompson, who were the builders and operators of Coney Island's Luna Park, invested $4 million to make the Hippodrome the most magnificent theater in the world. It was, to all who saw it, an architectural wonder. The stage was capable of holding as many as 1,000 performers at a time. Stages could be raised and lowered by hydraulics. The stage included a 8,000-gallon water tank occupied by boats and adorned with a waterfall. Ken Bloom, Broadway historian, wrote, "Over 25,000 light bulbs were used to illuminate the theater and stage. Nine thousand of these were used for the stage, and another 5,000 were arranged in a stunning starburst pattern in the auditorium."

It was only right that the largest and most expensive theater in the world present the biggest show in the world. The idea was to create a theatrical show that would incorporate a full-sized circus. The producers needed a world-famous clown for the show. They hired Marceline, the resident clown of the London Hippodrome. Marceline claimed that, at age three, he crawled beneath a circus tent and was rescued from a lion by an old clown, who came to adopt him and train him in the art of clowning. Marceline, a bewildered-looking clown in an ill-fitting tuxedo, was always tripping and dropping things. Chaplin later acknowledged Marceline as his greatest influence.

The Hippodrome's premiere production was A Yankee Circus on Mars. Bloom wrote, "The star was one of Broadway's favorites, Bessie McCoy, who made her entrance in a gold chariot driven by two white horses. A thirty-foot airship landed on the stage and disgorged a Martian who asked the Americans to bring a circus to their planet." Marceline came out repeatedly to disrupt the circus acts. The ringmaster got angry when Marceline came along during the trapeze act. The clown got tangled up with the net, causing it to drop on top of the ringmaster.

The Hippodrome's second production, A Society Circus, was designed to be an even greater spectacle than the first. The first show had one star clown and, now, the new show was to have two star clowns. The producers decided to partner the short and stocky Marceline with the tall and thin Frank "Slivers" Oakley. Oakley, the most popular clown of the Barnum & Bailey circus, was excellent at both acrobatics and pantomime. He could thrill an audience by jumping on a springboard and vaulting over four elephants. He could get an audience laughing by performing a one-man baseball game, using his pantomime skills to act out every position on both teams.

A Society Circus involved a rich society woman who falls in love with a circus manager and invests considerable money to put his stranded circus back in business. A cad who intends to marry the society woman for her money orders his servant to kidnap the circus manager and abandon him in the remote wilds of a tropical jungle. Aided by her own servant, the society woman goes into the jungle to rescue her lover. The comic servant roles - kidnapper and rescuer - were specifically written for Marceline and Oakley. The clowns got to team up for comic business in the jungle. At first, the pair performed a burlesque of a prizefight. Later, Oakley hunted duck while Marceline was pursued by a boa constrictor. In a circus scene, Oakley garnered attention for riding around a track on top of two giant lobsters. The show, which was praised by the New York Times for its "vastness, glitter, breadth of conception, and lavish expenditure," was an enormous success.

Marceline played the Hippodrome for nine consecutive seasons. He was always the main comic relief in these spectacles.  Pioneer Days (1906) showed an attack on a stagecoach by hundreds of Indians on horseback. For Sporting Day (1908), the producers staged a baseball game in center stage and featured a rowing match in the theater's great pool. The hydraulics beneath the stage were used to create tremors for The Earthquake (1910).  Under Man Flags (1912) centered on a group of tourists riding a blimp around the world. Oakley reunited with Marceline for another Hippodrome extravaganza in 1910.

In 1913, Oakley's estranged wife died and he was left alone to raise their daughter Ruth. The same year, Oakley fell in love with a young vaudeville actress named Viola Stoll. The two had met in Utica, New York, after Stoll had been stranded by her theatrical company. Oakley claimed that, at first, he simply felt sorry for the young woman and offered her a job taking care of his home and looking after his daughter. It soon became obvious, though, that Oakley had developed an attraction towards the actress. The difference in their ages made the situation awkward for Stoll - Oakley was 42 years old and she was only 16. While Oakley was out of town, Stoll disappeared with $4,000 worth of jewelry that had belonged to Oakley's wife. Oakley filed a complaint with the police and, a month later, Stoll was arrested at the home of her stepfather in St. Louis. At the end of her trial, Stoll was sentenced to three years in prison. Oakley remained infatuated with the young woman even after she went to prison and he pleaded with law enforcement officials to parole her.

The story had been in the press for months before Stoll finally gave her side of the story. "I was down and out when I met Slivers," she said. "He went with me to several managers, thinking his influence would get me a position, but it was the end of the season. Then, he said I could stay at his house. I was desperate and went. I had known him only two or three months and wasn't dazzled by his fame because I didn't know how great he was. I was only 16 and hadn't been in the business long. I didn't steal. I didn't like being with him and said so after two weeks. He wouldn't let me go, but while he was in Baltimore, I ran away, pawned one of the rings and went to my friends in St. Louis." She admitted that Oakley tried to help her after her arrest but the efforts that he made on her behalf did not satisfy her. "He didn't stick to me," she said. "After two months he said he had been thinking it over and didn't care enough about me to disgrace his little girl anymore."

By 1916, Oakley was drinking heavily and he was unable to find work. He heard that Marcelline, who was also having trouble finding work, had opened up a restaurant. He went to Marcelline's restaurant to talk about the two of them putting together an act. Marceline, who found Oakley to be pompous and overbearing, rejected the proposal.

Oakley became distraught when his rent fell past-due and his landlady threatened to have him evicted. Nine months earlier, police had removed him from a boarding house in Detroit for unpaid rent. In the midst of this turmoil, Oakley heard that Stoll was about to be released from prison and went to see her in prison to propose marriage. He told her that he was expecting to get a job with Barnum & Bailey to perform on the west coast. She explained that the conditions of her parole presented her from leaving the state and she was looking to lead a quiet, normal life when she got out of prison. She no longer had an interest in the theater and certainly had no interest in marrying an old traveling clown. Oakley was crushed when Stoll rejected his proposal. Stoll asked prison officials to bar Oakley from further visits and make sure he did not get her forwarding address after her release. The superintendent of the prison wrote a letter to Oakley to notify him of Stoll's wishes.

The following day, on March 8, 1916, police officers were called to Oakley's apartment to evict him. The officers smelled gas as they got to the top of the stairs. A chair had been placed against the door to barricade it and it took the officers a half hour to pry open the door with a crowbar. Oakley was discovered dead on the floor of his apartment. The officers found that Oakley had plugged up drafts from the windows and doors before he turned on the gas jets. The coroner ruled that he had died from gas asphyxiation. It was reported in the New York Times, "The bed and trunk were overturned, and the curtains torn from the windows. Letters and many photographs of the clown in his stage clothes were scattered all over the floor." He had not gone gently into that good night.

In 1918, Chaplin visited the Ringling Brothers circus to see Marceline perform. He later wrote, "I expected that he would be featured, but I was shocked to find him just one of many clowns that ran around the enormous ring — a great artist lost in the vulgar extravaganza of a three-ring circus." Marceline's routines were old and outdated and the public had lost interest in him. Whatever money Marceline had managed to save was lost by the failure of his restaurant and bad real estate investments. As more time passed, he was only able to get work at business men's dinners. He became distressed when he found himself out of money and the rent past-due. He decided late one night to kill himself. He put on the record "Moonlight and Roses." He then knelt down beside his bed and spread out publicity photos of himself across the mattress. He had a pistol in his hand. He must have been trembling hard when he raised the pistol as his first shot missed and hit the wall.

The next afternoon, a maid came into the room and saw Marceline kneeling beside the bed. She assumed that he was praying and left quietly. The maid grew suspicious about what she had seen and returned later with the manager and a police officer. It was later reported in Time magazine, "A man was kneeling by the bed, his hands stiffly and desperately twisted together, his head pushed down against his arms. He did not say anything when the three people came into the room. The policeman touched him, shook him a little, then saw the smear of blood that ran down his cheek from a hole in his temple." Some of the photos that Marcelline had laid upon the bed had slipped onto the floor. The details of the death scene, including the publicity photos scattered across the floor, made this eerily similar to the tableau left behind by Oakley's suicide.

Marceline and Oakley will be forever linked by their sensational partnership at the Hippodrome and the fact that their lives came to similar and equally tragic ends.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


We have a day for giving thanks.
On Tuesday, December 1, 2015, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give.
So if you feel that the mission of the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center is something you can lend some financial support to at this time, please consider donating at our website, (the PayPal link ), or sending a check direct to ICHOF PO Box 204 Baraboo, WI 53913.
The Board of Directors thank you, your fellow clown historians and performers thank you, but especially the clowns themselves thank you!

WC FIELDS: A Master of Comedy

WC Fields: a master of comedy

WC Fields in The Bank Dick

WC Fields, a most defiantly disreputable comedian, has fallen out of the public consciousness, but the 75th anniversary of his masterpiece film The Bank Dick seems like a good time to salute one of the 20th-century's most original comic talents. Fields was doing Python-esq things long before Python, admits John Cleese. 
William Claude Dukenfield has not been entirely forgotten since his grim alcoholic's death on Christmas Day in 1946, aged 66, of course. He is one of the faces on the cover of iconic album Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he even pops up in an episode of The Sopranos: Tony does an imitation of Fields after watching The Bank Dick. Cleese believes that Fields "had the courage and brilliance to make riskier and more profound jokes than Chaplin and Keaton”, and that's certainly true of the subversive humour of The Bank Dick.
At a time when Hollywood was offering a cloying version of family life (such as MGM's Andy Hardy movies), Fields showed the family as a festering hotbed of resentments. In the Bank Dick, written by Fields under the glorious nom de plume Mahatma Kane Jeeves, his character Egbert Sousè is at war with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law. With Fields, there is usually a subtle malice in play about family life, masked by mock affection: "Did you warble my little wren?" he says to his grim-faced wife Agatha. His status-minded wife insists that Sousè "is pronounced Sou-sè. Accent grave over the ‘e’”. 

WC Fields and  J. Pinkerton Snoopington
WC Fields with Franklin Pangborn as J Pinkerton Snoopington in The Bank DickCREDIT: REX FEATURES
Soused, of course, is Egbert's default state. As the drunken buffoon of Lompoc, California, Egbert's favourite refuge is the Black Pussy Cat café.  Fields was a master of mordant quips ("start everyday with a smile - and get it over with") and his routines in the café, including his bantering with bartender Joe, played by Shemp Howard (whose brothers were comedy legends Curly and Moe), are marvellous:
"Was I in here last night, and did I spend a twenty-dollar bill?"
"Oh, boy! What a load that is off my mind. I thought I'd lost it."

Fields had a serious drink problem by the time the film was made in 1940, although he made light of it on screen, either through mock formality ("take your hat off in the presence of a gentleman" he says to an unopened bottle of whisky) or jokes at his own expense ("Is that gun loaded?" he says to a child with a toy gun to which his mother retorts: "Certainly not. But I think you are.")

Incredibly, the vast consumption of alcohol had not dampened the physical dexterity of a 60-year-old, who had been one of America's greatest vaudeville jugglers in his youth. In one scene in the Black Pussy Cat café, Fields scrunches up a paper napkin, throws it in the air, catches it on his foot and kicks it away. He made a complex routine look simple.
The plot of The Bank Dick is little more than a series of sketches. After inadvertently capturing a bank robber while drunk, he is given a job as a bank security guard – and is characteristically inept. He sends up small-town pomposity. There is a funny scene in which the fussy bank president Mr Skinner (Pierre Watkin) congratulates Sousé on his daring deed, saying: "I wish to personally give you a hearty handclasp." Of course, the hearty handclasp is as limp as they come.

WC Fields
WC Fields and Grady Sutton as Og Oggilby CREDIT: REX FEATURES
Fields was always able to send himself up, too. When a little boy points at Fields's bulbous nose and says, "Mommy, doesn't that man have a funny nose?", Fields watches deadpan as the woman replies: "You mustn't make fun of the gentleman, Clifford. You'd like to have a nose like that full of nickels, wouldn't you?"
Lots of Fields's films contain fine slapstick and comedy (and that's true of the whole mean treatment of bank inspector J Pinkerton Snoopington), but the finest thing about Fields is his wordplay.

WC Fields
WC Fields wrote a book in 1940, in which he said: "Remember, folks, cast a vote for Fields and watch for the silver lining. Cast several votes for Fields and watch for the police."CREDIT: AP
In a scene with his daughter's dimwitted boyfriend Og Oggilby (played by Grady Sutton), Fields allows his full range of wonderful language to flow as he persuades Og to embezzle for him to finance a mad investment. "Take a chance," says Egbert. "Don't be a luddy-duddy. Don't be a moon calf. Don't be a jabbernow. You're not one of those, are you?"

WC Fields
In one scene in The Bank Dick, WC Fields pretends to be a film director CREDIT: REX FEATURES
Fields's characters always blunder along in life and when the money scheme goes wrong, Og shouts: "Oh, I knew this would happen. I was a perfect idiot to ever listen to you." "You listen to me, Og. There's nothing in this world that is perfect," Fields drawls, with his usual exquisite timing.
The Bank Dick was the first solo film Fields made under a new contract at Universal Pictures, after a difficult time at Paramount. It's a glorious testament to his skill and independent thinking.
Don't just take my word for it. The acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert called Fields "the most improbable star in the first century of the movies," adding, "if you are not eventually familiar with Fields you are not a movie lover at all."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

IN MEMORIAM: Jimmy "Happy" Williams (1942-2015)

Jimmy "Happy" Williams performing at Circus World Museum with
longtime comedy partner Bill "Mr. Bill" Machtel

Jimmy Williams, better known to a generation of circus fans as Happy the Clown, died Sunday in Baraboo.

During his 30 years at Circus World Museum, Williams became the grinning face of the historic site. He was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1995.

“Jimmy was a dedicated career clown who managed to create lasting memories for generations of local Baraboo residents as well as guests worldwide visiting our community,” said Greg DeSanto, the Hall of Fame’s executive director.

Williams was born in 1943 in Milwaukee. He was working as a clown at Mayfair Mall when he was befriended by Circus World wagon master Ernest Zimmerly, who introduced him to Chappie Fox. Williams came to Circus World in the early 1960s, then traveled with the Kelly Miller and Cole Brothers circuses.

He later enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a medic/ambulance driver, but returned to Circus World in 1967. Williams remained at the museum, eventually becoming its display director, until his retirement.

Williams supported up-and-coming clowns like Jed Crouse, a Baraboo pastor who moonlights as Presto the Clown.

“Happy was willing to take me under his wing and invest in me with not only props and memorabilia, but he also blessed me with his vast wisdom and generous encouragement,” Crouse said.

Another grateful protégé was Dave SaLoutos, who shared a dressing room with Williams in 1978, his first season as ringmaster. SaLoutos is now the museum’s performance director.

“He was one of the people who shared his passion and love for the circus with me,” SaLoutos said. “A major influence on the direction of my life, Jimmy was always helping people out, with all kinds of things.”

There’s a Facebook page dedicated to Happy the Clown, and Williams won the Baraboo Gem Award this summer for his contributions to the community. He was a longtime fixture at clown conventions and camps, and was a regular visitor to the International Clown Hall of Fame once it moved to Baraboo.

“He was able to visit the guests and tourists and share some of the magic that made him Happy the Clown,” DeSanto said. “He will be missed, but his legacy will live on.”

Williams died at St. Clare Meadows Care Center. Services will be held Saturday at 3 p.m. at Redlin Funeral Home. Visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the funeral home as well as from 1 p.m. until the time of service Saturday. Memorials may be made in Williams’ name to Circus World or the International Clown Hall of Fame.

“He truly cared about people and did the best he could to make this world a better place,” SaLoutos said. “As Happy, he was concerned about making people laugh and helping them forget about any troubles, if even for a short time.”

From the Baraboo News Republic

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

CLOWN ALLEY: Ringling Bros. Circus (1903)

Second row, second from left: Slivers Oakley
Second row, second from right: Spader Johnson
(Photo courtesy of the Tegge Circus Archive)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Matajuro Yagyu was the son of a famous swordsman. His father, believing that his son's work was too mediocre to anticipate mastership, disowned him.

So Matajuro went to Mount Futara and there found the famous swordsman Banzo. But Banzo confirmed the father's judgment. "You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?" asked Banzo. "You cannot fulfill the requirements."

"But if I work hard, how many years will it take me to become a master?" persisted the youth.
"The rest of your life," replied Banzo.

"I cannot wait that long," explained Matajuro. "I am willing to pass through any hardship if only you will teach me. If I become your devoted servant, how long might it be?"

"Oh, maybe ten years," Banzo relented.

"My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him," continued Matajuro. "If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me?"

"Oh, maybe thirty years," said Banzo.

"Why is that?" asked Matajuro. "First you say ten and now thirty years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the shortest time!"

"Well," said Banzo, "in that case you will have to remain with me for seventy years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get results seldom learns quickly."

"Very well," declared the youth, understanding at last that he was being rebuked for impatience, "I agree."

Matajuro was told never to speak of fencing and never to touch a sword. He cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his bed, cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word of swordsmanship.

Three years passed. Still Matajuro labored on. Thinking of his future, he was sad. He had not even begun to learn the art to which he had devoted his life.

But one day Banzo crept up behind him and gave him a terrific blow with a wooden sword.

The following day, when Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo again sprang upon him unexpectedly.
After that, day and night, Matajuro had to defend himself from unexpected thrusts. Not a moment passed in any day that he did not have to think of the taste of Banzo's sword.

He learned so rapidly he brought smiles to the face of his master. Matajuro became the greatest swordsman in the land.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

PAUL JEROME: Obituary in the White Tops (November/December 1960)

"The small procession left the administration office of Arlington National Cemetery at 1 PM November 21, 1960. It wound through the beatutiful landscape of our burying grounds of our nation's defenders. Past the Tomb of the Unknowns on its way to its final destination.

Grave 4675 Section 12 were the cold numbers describing the final resting place of Paul Jerome James, clown for years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The procession was met by a Navy chaplain at the gravesite, while on a nearby knoll the ceremonial Firing Squad stood at rigid attention. Services were conducted after which the traditional three volley salute and the playing of Taps by a lone bugler were heard. Then the mortal remains of Paul Jerome were lowered into their final resting place.

Present at services were only three persons, members of the Circus Fans Association. The only flowers, a wreath of circus roses from lifelong friend Emmett Kelly. A rather sad ending for a clown applauded by millions and known to many for his wide white collar and flashing red nose. "

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

KIRK MARSH: Circus Sarasota (July 11, 2015)

"There is a moment in each person’s life that most of us don’t remember, but parents dread; the moment when magic ceases to exist for a child. For years children live in a blissful ignorance believing that Daddy can fix anything broken, Mommy can kiss away any injury and, when all else fails, there is always that wish they’ve been saving since blowing out last years birthday candle.
Eventually that changes. Four-leaf clovers become weeds and shooting stars become meteorites. Eventually, “Prince Charming” becomes the reason daddy insisted she carry pepper-spray.
Eventually . . . but until then, we delight in letting them enjoy the magic.
“Eventually” came on a Saturday for my 5-year old daughter, Alexis. To be precise, it was Saturday, July 11th 2015, at 5:45 pm EST when she faced the death of her magic.
To call Kirk Marsh a “clown” is like calling Michael Jordan a basketball player. It’s accurate, but begs for an asterisk. He is an amazing performance artist that gives the greats like Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx a run for their money. We saw him at the historic Asolo Theater at the Ringling complex in Sarasota, Florida.
Kirk Marsh entertained the audience that evening uncanny with antics and performances between the various acrobats and jugglers. His official performance however was saved for the finale.
Alexis was so excited, I could barely restrain her loud belly-laugh or keep her from yelling out comments: “It’s behind you, silly”. Occasionally he would scan the crowd and bring someone on stage as part of the act. When he started scanning the crowd, Alexis became so excited she thrust her hand in the air determined to become a part of this incredible show.
I’ve never seen her so serious. She was not waving her hand and carrying on, but instead, was careful and strategic. She thrust her hand up as soon as he started looking, sat straight up in her chair and remained perfectly still and quiet. She was giving him no excuse to overlook her.
There was a curious confidence about her. She was certain she would be picked because she wanted it more than anyone else and, as we all know, magic rewards pure desire.
Part of Kirk’s act was throwing his hat into the crowd. When they threw it back he would catch it on his head. Surprisingly, he threw it directly to me. Alexis exploded with excitement and she told me she wanted to throw it back.
However, we were too far from the stage and it would be impossible for her to ever throw it back that far. The audience waited for me to do something with the hat. Not wanting to delay the show further, I threw the hat toward stage and hoped she would forgive me. I missed. (Like I said, it was far). Kirk threw the hat back for a second try.
I tried to avoid looking at Alexis but I felt her little hand on my leg and I heard her soft whimper, “Please, Daddy. I want to throw it”. I silently cursed that damn clown for putting me in such a position. I looked at Alexis as my mind raced to find a solution, “I’m sorry, sweetie. It’s too far.”
“Daddy, please . . .” I threw it and Kirk maneuvered so it landed on his head. I was relieved that the ordeal was finally over.
As I turned to Alexis, the look on my daughter’s face was almost more than I could handle. It was a combination of disbelief and disappointment like I had just cooked the Easter Bunny. “But, Daddy, I wanted to throw the hat.”
At that moment, every father’s nightmare became my reality. I saw my little daughter mature in front of my eyes as she fought back the tears like someone twice her age, that I had most assuredly caused. I could see the magic leave her eyes as she realized her dream would not come true. It didn’t matter how many prayers she offered or how many birthday wishes she made . . . I saw a single tear roll down her cheek as she turned away from me.
Kirk Marsh was working his way around the crowd now, obviously looking for another volunteer. Alexis looked at him, but then looked away. She sat back down in her chair and, for the first time all night, did NOT raise her hand.
I was devastated. What did I do? Had I been responsible for killing the magic? What could I have done differently? What could I do to repair this and return the magic?
The only thing I could think to do was embarrassingly childish. I closed my eyes and made a silent wish: “Please mend my daughter’s broken heart”.
I opened my eyes to see Kirk looking directly at Alexis. The devastated look on my daughter’s face told the whole story to whoever was kind enough to notice. Kirk had noticed and he leaped forward, reaching his hand out to my daughter.
At first she stood frozen, not quite believing what was happening to her. She had been chosen! Within seconds the shock dissipated and she was again able to move. At that moment Alexis flashed a smile I will not soon forget and reached out to take his hand.
On stage she was a natural. Together they brought down the house and, for a brief moment, Alexis Marie Bowser was the star of the show. She was performing with her favorite Clown and creating a memory she will never forget.
I am indescribably proud of my daughter. I too will carry that moment with me for the rest of my life. Also, I will never forget the kindness and perceptive instincts of one very special clown, Kirk Marsh. Beyond his talent as a performer his is undoubtedly one of the kindest human beings I have ever met.
He noticed my daughter and singled her out of the entire crowd. Kirk could see how much it meant for her to be up there. He took a risk, but his only concern seemed to be making one small girl smile instead of cry.
Soon after, when retelling the story, Alexis said, “He had to choose me”. I asked, “Why did he have to chose you?” and she replied very matter-of-factly, “Because I wanted it more than anything, Daddy”.
One day soon, Alexis will realize that pixie dust is just cheap glitter that is difficult to get off of your clothes. On Saturday, July 11th, 2015, Kirk Marsh pushed off that realization for at least one more day. He gave her a miracle and recharged the magic in her life for a little longer.
Kirk, wherever you are you have the undying gratitude of a father who also believes in magic again. Thank you!"
          - Michael Bowser