Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime

 

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A. Robins -- The Original Banana Man

by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

    Adolph Proper (c. 1886 - Dec. 17, 1950) used A. Robins as his stage name to prevent his parents being embarrassed. His father, a textile wholesaler, thought entertainment was not a respectable occupation. Robins began as a chalktalk artist while a teenager in Austria. He selected Robins because it was similar to the name of his favorite artist, Rubens, and because it is pronounced the same in different languages. As a joke, he said, "Robins is a Proper name."

    Robins toured the world, and didn't use any spoken comedy to avoid translation problems. His vocalization was all abstract sounds and laughter. In 1928, he appeared before King George V and Queen Mary. He also gave a private show for the Duke of Windsor and two guests. He made his home in the United States in 1911. He entertained American Presidents including President Roosevelt and his family.

    While young, he toured Russia as a musical comedian, playing some instruments and simulating the sounds of others like a ventriloquist.

    He retained some of his musical comedy in his famous act that was built around producing a large quantity of objects from his coat. He produced 300 bananas, three watermelons, six pineapples, four oranges, two dozen neckties, a broom, an oboe, twelve mandolins, a cigar box, a trash can, a hatchet, a music stand, and other items as he invented new effects.

    The secret was that the props were all collapsible. Most were made from papier-mâché and were fitted with an intricate series of springs to make them expand when produced. For example, his broom, complete with bristles, collapsed into a small tube eighteen inches long that fit into his hip pocket.

    Robins said, "there is a reason for everything that I do. I don't just pull out the broom. No. First, I slip on a banana peel. I get very mad. Then I pull out the broom and sweep it up, so. There must be some sense in clowning. It must be crazy, but there must be some sense in it, just the same."

    According to his obituary, "his study of the art of clowning indicated to him that a good clown must honor himself. He used to play on a musical instrument, imitating its sound by his ventriloquist's voice. Then he would bow, doff his hat, and turn the hat into a bowl of flowers, which he then accepted with gratitude."

    Robins invented and made all his own props and costumes. It took him two hours to load all his props into his costume, which weighed 75 pounds when he was ready to perform. His routine lasted about ten minutes.

    In 1936, Robins starred in Billy Rose's Jumbo at the Hippodrome Theater in New York. (He is not in the movie version of the show.) For Jumbo, he appeared as a whiteface clown for the show that was a combination play and circus. Normally he performed as a natural appearing auguste clown.

    In 1939, he was featured in the Warner Bros. short film Seeing Red.

    Robins was featured in Spangles - The Continental Circus, a one-ring show produced by RBB&B Circus for Madison Square Garden the summer of 1943. His act was described as, "The Banana Man Himself! Pre-eminent Star of Continental Circus and Music Hall Fame -- The Inimitable A. Robins, The Walking Victory Garden, Artfully Assisted by Seductive Spanglettes."

    He appeared in many variety shows, and just before his death was the star of Top Notchers.

    After the death of the original A. Robbins, his act was continued by at least one other entertainer using the same stage name. He appeared frequently on television variety shows including Ed Sullivan, Super Circus, and the Captain Kangaroo Show. According to Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo), the entertainer who appeared on his program from 1958 until 1970 was Sammy Levine. His business manager was Max Roth.

    This is a description of his act as preserved in Seeing Red. This movie includes four minutes of his ten-minute act. He doesn't produce any bananas here, but this segment of his act is full of inventive ideas that can be adapted by clowns. Red introduces Robins as "the walking music shop."

    As the curtain opens, Robins enters pushing a trunk on wheels. He is wearing black pants, an oversized black coat, white dickey, glasses, and hat. His wig sticks straight out from his head, and he has false eyebrows and a bushy mustache. He doesn't say anything during his act. He just sings "la dee dee da" and occasionally gives a soft happy laugh.

    He pulls an oboe out of his pocket, adjusts his glasses, and starts to play. He doesn't disguise that he isn't actually playing the instrument but is singing the music. He pulls the clarinet out of his mouth, and seems puzzled that it keeps "playing." Then he turns it sideways and plays it like a flute. Concluding the song, he takes a little bow.

    As he opens his trunk, he tips it forward onto a second set of wheels. The side of the trunk is painted with an archway with a large keyhole in the center, and with three squares at the top. (When Robins opens the lid, fabric bags can be seen attached to it. These contain the props he needs later in the act. They end up hanging behind the trunk. This way he can throw props in as he finishes with them without worrying about covering something he wants to remove later.)

    Robins puts the clarinet, hat, and glasses into the trunk. He takes off his right glove and tosses it in. He takes off his left glove, but drops it onto the floor. He removes a giant horseshoe magnet from inside his coat, and holds it above the glove. The glove leaps up to the magnet. (This is accomplished by having a magicians device, called a reel, built into the papier-mâché magnet.)

    Next Robins pulls an oversized hand mirror and giant comb out of his coat's inside pocket. After fixing his hair, he tosses the mirror and comb into the trunk.

    He gets a book box from his hip pocket. He opens the box, removes a cigar, and tosses the box into the trunk. He gets a hatchet from a coat pocket to use to trim the end off the cigar. He pretends to produce a lit match and light the cigar. Everything goes into the trunk.

    Robins gets a serving tray and cocktail shaker from his pockets. He produced a bottle, and pours some liquid into the shaker. He produces a second bottle, and pours in some of its contents. Then seltzer streams out of his lapel. He shakes the drink, sips a little of it, and turns the shaker upside down to prove it is empty. He laughs in delight, and everything goes into the trunk.

    From an inside pocket, he produces a collapsible music stand, which he sits up. He removes his dickey, turns it around revealing a music score on it, and hangs it on the music stand. He pulls out a flat cut out mandolin and a campstool. He sets up the stool, starts to sit down, changes his mind, and starts "playing" the mandolin. Again, he doesn't actually play, but sings the music. The mandolin splits into twelve flat mandolins strung together. He manages to gather them together as the song finishes.

    His right hand goes into his coat pocket as he takes a quick little bow. He pulls out a giant papier-mâché hand that he holds in front of his stomach as he takes two formal bows.

    After the hand, stool, and mandolins go into the trunk, he pulls up an inner lining that latches into place making the trunk twice as tall. This has painted arches that line up with the squares on the trunk to form arched windows. There is a second row of windows and shutters painted near the top. His trunk is turning into a two-story building.

    Robins steps behind the trunk, and removes his coat, which goes into the trunk. The front of his shirt and pants rip away and goes into the trunk. He tosses into the trunk his mustache and wig, revealing a second wig underneath with buns over each ear.

    Robins steps in front of his trunk revealing he is wearing a dress and looks like a "school teacher." He curtsies, and laughs with pleasure.

    He gets a violin and bow out of a bag hanging on the back of his trunk. He smoothes his hair with his right hand, pulls off his bun, releases it and it flies back to his head. He repeats this with his left hand and the other bun.

    He begins to "play" by singing the notes. The violin collapses. (It appears to be made from felt.) Robins straightens out the violin, but when he tries to resume playing hits himself in the head with the bow. Then the tip of the bow gets caught in his other hand so it bends when he pushes instead of gliding across the strings. (The bow is made of spring metal.) He discards the bow to play pizzi cato. As he curtsies at the end of the song, he pulls a feather bouquet out of the top of the trunk. He takes a bow. The flowers and violin are tossed in the trunk.

    He pulls up a second liner from inside the trunk and latches it into place making the trunk about shoulder height. The peaked roof of a schoolhouse is painted on this liner, and it has a small American flag attached. Robins stands next to his trunk transformed into a schoolhouse.

    He transforms his appearance. His dress is slit up the back. He folds the skirt forward, then brings the bottom hem up to the waist, and flips the whole thing up. The inside is black with a white dickey attached. The straps from the dickey fasten around his neck holding everything in place. The pants he was wearing under the dress are revealed. A short conductor's jacket is attached to the waist of the pants and hanging down in back. He slips his arms into the sleeves, and pulls the jacket up and on. He removes the school teacher wig revealing a skullcap with fringe of hair. He nods his head, and a walrus mustache and bushy eyebrows on wire arches flip from the back of his head into proper position. He drops the schoolteacher wig into the trunk, and pulls out a conductor's cap which he puts on. The entire transformation from female schoolteacher to male train conductor has taken only twenty seconds.

    Robins closes the trunk. He tips his hat as he exits pulling the schoolhouse. The curtain closes.

Reprinted from The Clown In Times Volume Six Issue One.

Copyright 1999 by Bruce Johnson. All rights reserved.

 

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