Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


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Salute to Charlie Chaplin

Written and Illustrated by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson, WCA Historian


The year 2014 is the centennial of the creation of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp

Kid Auto Races in Venice, CA, Charlie Chaplin’s first appearance as the Little Tramp, was released February 7, 1914.  Chaplin is often quoted as saying that as soon as he donned the costume for this short film he understood the character.  He may have thought he understood the character, but his early films show that 1914 was a year of experimentation.  He made 35 films during the year that he spent at the Keystone studios.  He did not use the tramp character in all of them.  When he did dress as the tramp there was not yet a consistent character.  Sometimes the tramp was mean and angry, qualities that would disappear during his most artistic period.  Actually his character continued to evolve during his career.

There is a debate over whether Chaplin is technically a clown.  I consider him as one because he consistently performed one well defined comedy character, used an exaggerated make up (his moustache was painted on or an artificial one) and costume, and created most of his own material. Those who seek to exclude him from consideration as a clown often do so because movies were his primary venue. Whether he was actually a clown or not is unimportant.  He had a tremendous influence upon entertainment and the art of clowning.

While he was an influence on others, he was also influenced by others.  Like any entertainer, he did not create his art in isolation. 

Chaplin’s Influences

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) developed his physical comedy skill while performing with the Karno Pantomime troupe.  It is important to realize that the word Pantomime in the group’s name does not have the modern American definition of silent acting.  The Karno troupe was from England where Pantomime was a specific type of stage show most closely associated with Christmas and Easter celebrations.  A Pantomime was a fast-paced spectacle with knock-about comedy, verbal humor, and topical gags.  The Karno scripts included dialogue and songs.  British audiences would have expected the Karno troupe’s wild comedy based on the title.  American audiences may not have had the same understanding when the group toured the United States.

 Fred Karno was a comedian and producer of comedy acts.  He wrote acts, cast young entertainers who he trained, and booked the acts on tour.  Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s older brother, joined the Karno company in 1906, and recommended that Karno hire Charlie in 1908.  Another member of the company was Stanley Jefferson, who would later adopt Stan Laurel as his stage name.  Glenn Mitchell quotes Stan telling his biographer, John McCabe, “Fred Karno didn’t teach Charlie and me all we know about comedy.  He just taught us most of it.”  According to Laurel, Chaplin was “the most supple, precise comedian of our time” due to Karno’s own performance ability that he passed on, and his insistence on precision brought about by constant rehearsal and performances. 1

 According to Glenn Mitchell, “He (Karno) was also responsible, at least in part, for Chaplin’s blend of laughter and pathos, exhorting his comics to ‘keep it wistful… we want sympathy with the laughter.’” 2

Charlie Chaplin was not the first to portray a tramp character.  The earliest performance of a tramp character I have found is Jim McIntyre and Tom Heath who began their long running tramp act in 1874. 

McIntyre and Heath 

McIntyre and Heath

McIntyre and Heath may have been an influence upon Chaplin who made his first trip to America with the Karno Pantomime troupe in 1910.  An article in the October 4, 1910 issue of the New York Times lists McIntyre and Heath headlining the vaudeville bill at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre and the Karno Pantomime troupe performing “A Night in a London Secret Society” as one of the novelty acts at the Colonial theater.  Although there is no record of Chaplin seeing McIntyre and Heath in performance it is possible.  He certainly would have been aware of their famous act due to the publicity and reviews when they were all performing in New York.  While Chaplin is not mentioned by name in the October 4th article, the author says McIntyre and Heath “supplied twenty minutes of constant merriment.”

 Chaplin’s two tours of America with the Karno Pantomime troupe occurred during the height of tramp clown popularity which stretched from 1890 to 1916, when America entered World War I.  Bert Williams had been performing his tramp act in vaudeville, and joined the Ziegfield Follies in 1910.  W.C.Fields toured internationally as the Great Tramp Juggler before dropping his tramp appearance in 1912.  Robert Clark and Paul McCullough performed as silent tramp clowns in 1912 before developing their famous rapid fire vocal routines.  Lew Bloon, Nat Wills, James Harrigan, George Rowland, Paul Barnes, and Charles R. Sweet were very popular tramp clowns performing in vaudeville during this era.  It is possible that Chaplin saw some of these performers while touring in American vaudeville.  (Laurel certainly did.  John McCabe’s The Comedy World of Stan Laurel has a photo of a young Laurel imitating “one of his idols, Nat Wills, vaudeville’s ‘Happy Tramp.’”  The same book has a photo of Laurel performing with Arthur Dandoe in 1912 between tours with Karno.  Dandoe is wearing tramp clown make up. 3)  These performers definitely created an acceptance of tramps as comedy characters that paved the way for the popularity of Chaplin’s films.

 Nat Wills

Nat Wills - The Happy Tramp

An acceptance of tramps had to be created because during the depression following America’s Civil War real tramps were feared and hated.  Newspaper editorials advocated poisoning food given to vagrants and Pinkerton guards killed tramps found riding trains.

 According to John Towsen,  “In the early twentieth century, mixed feelings of envy and guilt on the part of more respectable and prosperous Americans elevated the once despised tramp to the level of philosophical vagabond and folk hero.  He became known to millions through the comic strips in their local newspapers.  Opper’s cartoon character, ‘Happy Hooligan’, and Zim’s Hoosier tramp, ‘Weary Willy’, conformed to the new image of the tramp as a harmless eccentric, more to be pitied than feared.” 4

 Happy Hooligan, a comic strip by Frederick Burr Opper, debuted in the New York Journal on March 11, 1900, and ran until August 14, 1932.  Happy Hooligan was the first major cartoon character to be the victim of comic violence instead of its instigator.  He was a good-hearted failure and generous soul whose attempts to be helpful backfired because he was misunderstood.  Often the person he tried to assist ended up attacking him.  Opper referred to Happy Hooligan as “a favorite son of misfortune.”  In Chaplin’s earliest films, he was the aggressor.  However, as his character developed it began to take on more of the qualities of Happy Hooligan.  Happy Hooligan is possibly another source of the pathos that would be an important part of Chaplin’s success.  According to Richard Marshall, “Not only did he (Opper) adapt to several trends in American humor, but he largely helped define them.  His slapstick and his tramp hero may very possibly have been responsible for the figures which evolved into W.C. Field’s Tramp Juggler (the comedian’s first persona) and Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp; at the very least Happy Hooligan created a climate receptive to such characters.”

 Mabel Normand was an important influence upon Chaplin.  According to some accounts she is the one who discovered him.  After seeing him perform with the Karno Pantomime troupe she convinced Mack Sennet to offer the young comedian a film contract at Sennet’s Keystone studio.  She was already an established movie star when Chaplin began his film career and was an accomplished comedy creator.  She is credited with creating the Keystone Kops and throwing the first pie in the face.  Normand appeared with Chaplin in many of his early films and directed some of them.  Her importance is indicated in the titles of some of Chaplin’s films at Keystone.  He appeared in “Mabel’s Strange Predicament”, “Mabel at the Wheel”, “Mabel’s Busy Day,” and “Mabel’s Married Life”.  He was almost fired when he quarreled with her direction in “Mabel at the Wheel”.  However, a telegram from a film distributor requesting more of the popular Chaplin movies convinced Sennett to keep Chaplin under contract.  Normand and Chaplin received credit as co-directors on some of his films, and then he took over solo direction.  He learned a lot about movie comedy and direction from Normand. 

 When Mack Sennett decided to produce the first feature length comedy film in America, he felt that none of his established stars were popular enough to fill theaters.  So he hired Marie Dressler, the most famous comedienne in America at the time, to star in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”, a film based on a character she played in her Broadway shows.  Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand were cast in supporting roles in the film.  Chaplin had been concentrating on developing his Tramp character and learning the art of directing, but this film required him to play a different character directed by Sennett himself.  However, the international fame that resulted from Chaplin’s role in this film released on November 14, 1914 brought him to the attention of other producers. 

 By the end of November 2014, Chaplin signed a contract with Essanay studios.  Chaplin made two more short films to complete his Keystone contract, and moved to the Essanay studios in Chicago early in 1915. Starting with his Essanay contract, Chaplin was in charge of his films.  When he worked for other studios, he had his own unit within the studio.  Eventually he opened his own studio.

 Chaplin had started 1914 with no understanding of the film business, but the year was one of tremendous growth and learning.  Starting the next year he had a tremendous impact on entertainment.

 Chaplin’s Influence

 Stan Laurel

 When Chaplin toured America with the Karno Pantomime troupe, his room mate and understudy was Stanley Jefferson.  (Jefferson eventually adopted Stan Laurel as his stage name.)  When Chaplin left the group, Stan took over his role as “the Drunk” and did a perfect imitation of Chaplin.  The American troupe soon disbanded, and Laurel decided to stay in America.  In 1915, after Chaplin’s Keystone comedies had become enormously popular, Laurel toured vaudeville in an act called the Keystone trio.  In the act, Laurel impersonated Chaplin’s tramp, while Edgar Hurley imitated Chester Conklin, and Wren Hurley imitated Mabel Normand.  The act lasted less than a year, but it introduced him to a “big time” booking agent who would continue to find work for him with other partners.  Over the years Laurel experimented with different characters, and even abandoned performing to become a writer.  Eventually he was teamed with Oliver Hardy, created his own unique character, and made his own important contributions to comedy.

 Walt Disney

 Chaplin’s popularity inspired many imitators.  When Walt Disney’s family moved to Kansas City while he was in grade school, Disney became friends with a neighborhood boy named Walt Pfeifffer.  Disney and Pfeiffer developed an act they called the “Two Bad Walters” which they began performing at school and then in amateur contests.   At first they performed as “Dutch” comics.  However, they became more successful when Disney began impersonating Chaplin, and Pfeiffer played Chaplin’s nemesis, a character that they called the Count.  When each Chaplin film was released they would see it several times and then discuss his technique.  Disney learned to copy many of Chaplin’s moves including tossing a cigarette over his shoulder and then kicking it behind him.  Disney said, “We always got a little more applause than someone else imitating Chaplin because we were younger and it was a team of us… (Those performances) reacted on me like the taste of blood on a lion.  In other words, I liked acting!  Liked the applause, liked the cash prizes that were being handed to us, liked the weird smells and weirder sights behind the scenes.” 5

 Disney’s experience imitating Chaplin had a profound impact on the rest of his life.  First, it inspired an interest in being an entertainer.  Second, it taught him comedy structure and how to create an act.  Third, it taught him to be an actor.

 Disney’s other interest was drawing, which led him into the animation branch of entertainment where he used the skills he had developed as a youngster.  In giving direction to the animators at his studio, Disney would act out the actions for the cartoon characters.  (He played all the roles in acting out the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for his animators before any work was done on the film.)  The animators would base their drawings on his acting.  He used the knowledge he developed by performing and watching other acts in the shows to structure the cartoons.  He also became a voice over actor by performing the voice of Mickey Mouse for his cartoons. 

 Former circus and vaudeville clown Pinto Colvig, who also became a voice over artist and gag writer at the Disney Studios, said, “A cartoonist is a clown with a pencil.”

 I have learned a lot about comedy structure and movement by studying the Disney animated films.  I know many other clowns who have also learned from the films.  They all started with Disney’s experience imitating Chaplin.

 Harold Lloyd

 When Harold Lloyd (1893 – 1971) broke into the movies as a young comedian he decided he did not want to imitate Chaplin.  In describing the creation of his Lonesome Luke character, Lloyd said, “My father had found a worn pair of Number 12AA shoes in a repair shop… In a haberdashery Dad found a black-and-white vertical striped shirt and bought out the stock.  The coat of a woman’s tailored suit, a pair of very tight and short trousers, a vest too short, a cut-down collar, a cut-down hat and two dots of a mustache completed the original version of Lonesome Luke.  The cunning thought behind all of this, you will observe, was to reverse the Chaplin outfit.  All his clothes were too large, mine all too small.  My shoes were funny, but different; my mustache funny, but different.  Nevertheless, the idea was purely imitative and was recognized as such by audiences, although I painstakingly avoided copying the well-known Chaplin mannerisms.” 6

 Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke films were successful, but did not equal the popularity of Chaplin’s films. His reverse imitation of Chaplin did not work because Lloyd’s choices were still dictated by Chaplin.  However, Lonesome Luke gave Lloyd something to perform while developing his skills and learning the motion picture business.  Lloyd said he particularly had a difficult time learning timing, something he considered Chaplin to have mastered.

 Harold Lloyd

Harold Lloyd who was initially inspired by Chaplin, but whose thrill comedies later inspired Chapliln.

Eventually Lloyd ignored Chaplin and created his own “glasses character” that was an expression of his personality.  Then he reached his potential.  Chaplin, Lloyd, and Buster Keaton are often referred to as the three Kings of Silent Film Comedy.  In some years, Lloyd’s films were more popular than Chaplin’s.  Viewing the feature films of all three stars reveals that they inspired and influenced each other.  For example, the high wire scene in Chaplin’s “The Circus” was inspired by Lloyd’s very popular thrill comedies.  Lloyd continues to influence clowns today. 

 Topical Routines

 Chaplin had a tremendous influence upon circus clowns who frequently perform topical routines inspired by current events and pop culture. 

 According to a Billboard magazine review of the 1915 Sells Floto Circus, Carlton Emery did a walkaround listed as “Made in America Charlie Chaplin.”

 A Barnum & Bailey Circus poster depicting clowns in 1916 included a Chaplin impersonator.  (Note: Circus posters were not always accurate.  Sometimes the poster artist created their own vision of a show before seeing the actual performers.)

 John Towsen refers to Frankie Saluto performing as a miniature version of Charlie Chaplin.  I don’t know during what season this occurred. 7

 Frankie Saluto

Dwarf clown Frankie Saluto

The running order for the 1942 Holland Classical Circus (actually an American show) lists act #12 as “Trampoline act with Adriana and Charles, Charles performed comedy in Charlie Chaplin make up and costume.”

Charlie Rivel

Pepe Andreu (1896-1980) grew up performing with his large family in circuses.  In 1915 his father began his own show in Spain titled Circo Reina-Victoria (The Queen Victoria Circus).  In 1916, Pepe created a parody of Charlie Chaplin performed on a trapeze.  It was originally billed as ‘Pepe Andreu in his great Charlot-entrance and the Astonishing Charlot Imitation.”  (Charlot is the European version of Charlie.)  In his autobiography, Rivel claims that he entered a Charlie Chaplin look alike contest and took first place.  The person who came in second was the real Charlie Chaplin who entered under a false name. 8

According to Rivel’s autobiography, Chaplin sued Rivel claiming his impersonation was plagiarism.  However, the judge ruled that Rivel’s trapeze act was actually a brilliant parody. Legally there is a fine line between plagiarism, which is illegal, and parody, which is protected by free speech doctrines.

Most of the acts in the Circo Reina-Victoria were performed by family members so the name Andreu appeared many times in the circus program.  It is common for circus performers to use a different stage name for each of their acts to make the cast seem larger and more varied.  Pepe Andreu decided to use a different name while performing his Charlie Chaplin parody.  By combining letters at random he settled on Rivel as his new last name.  He decided to change Charlot to the English version.

Charlie Rivel 

Charlie Rivel performed a Chaplin parody on the trapeze, and used an Auguste make up for his other acts.

He also used Charlie Rivel as his clown name when he performed entrée acts with his brothers.  He developed a second clown character, an Auguste with a distinctive square nose.  He continued performing his Chaplin on the Trapeze act and his Auguste clown acts throughout most of his career.  He became internationally famous as Charlie Rivel and was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1999.



 Stars of silent films produced in America became international celebrities because there was no language barrier.  In order to export a film to a foreign market the producer simply had to replace a few title cards translated into another language.

 Following the Russian Revolution clowns in the new Soviet Union searched for a more culturally relevant form of clown.  Many of them copied Chaplin.  Karandash (Michael Rumyantsev) (1907 --  ), the Father of Soviet Clowning, started as a Chaplin imitator.  Eventually his appearance evolved to be even more reflective of the common Soviet citizen.  Karandash was tremendously influenced by American silent films.  His most famous routine, the Mismade Statue, was inspired by a 1929 Laurel and Hardy film titled “Wrong Again”.


Karandash performing his break away statue routine

Emmett Kelly

 Emmett Kelly (1898 --1979) didn’t imitate Chaplin, but he was inspired by him.

 Emmett Kelly’s daughter, Monika, told me, “Daddy admired him (Chaplin) for his work in silent films and his ability to convey without speaking.”

 In a 1976 interview with UPI writer David L. Langford, Emmett Kelly said, “I think he (Chaplin) was the greatest pantomime artist we have ever known.  He makes us laugh.  You don’t laugh at Marcel Marceau, the French mime… I had the presence of mind to copy his mannerisms.  I even thought of using a cane, but I decided everyone would think I was aping him.”

 Emmett Kelly

Emmett Kelly

I never watched Kelly’s performances as his character Weary Willy and thought he was copying Chaplin.  One thing Weary Willy and Chaplin’s Little Tramp both had in common was the combination of humor and pathos.  People were sympathetic towards Weary Willy.  According to Kelly’s autobiography this led to one of his most famous routines.  A circus patron gave Willy a roasted peanut.  Looking around for something to use to crack the peanut, Kelly spotted a sledge hammer used for pounding stakes holding rigging.  He tried to tap the peanut gently, but the hammer was so heavy it completely smashed the shell and the kernel inside.  His reaction to his failure brought great audience response.  Kelly turned the impromptu bit into a regular part of his repertoire.  9

 Many clowns, including me, were inspired by Kelly.  So, like ripples expanding in a pond, Chaplin’s influence upon Kelly grew through Kelly’s influence on others.

 Doug Ashton

 Doug Ashton, a descendant of Australia’s famous Ashton circus family, was an early graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College™.  He toured with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus™ in the 1970’s performing as a Chaplin type clown.  He was not an exact copy, but his source of inspiration was obvious.  His make up, costuming, and style of movement made him stand out from the rest of the clown alley and he became very well known.

 After he left the RBB&B Circus, I saw him perform his very funny solo clown act as part of a one-ring circus that was a summer feature at Knott’s Berry Farm during the early 1980’s.


 Early in my career, after I had already chosen Charlie as my clown name, I was told that all tramp clowns in Europe are referred to as Charlie in honor of Chaplin.  I have not confirmed if that is true. 

 In recognition of his contributions to the art of clowning Charlie Chaplin was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 2001.


 Because of his popularity and influence many books have been written about Charlie Chaplin.  His films are available in many DVD sets making them available for our study.  I invite you to celebrate this centennial year of Chaplin’s Little Tramp by watching some of his films and reading more about him.

 Chaplin’s popularity spawned imitators.  Many entertainers learned principles of clowning through the imitation, but then achieved success by applying what they learned to create their own unique characters.  I don’t advocate plagiarism among clowns, but it is okay to learn by copying standard routines.  However, to reach your potential you need to move beyond that.  Who has been an influence upon you?  What have you learned from them?  How can you apply that to create something new?

 If Chaplin has been an influence upon you, I invite you to share with other WCA members what you learned from him and how you have applied that to your clowning.  WCA Alleys can have a tribute at one of your meetings by sharing memories about seeing his films and how they influenced you.  You could include a Chaplin look-alike contest or watch one of his films.  You can also write an article about Chaplin’s influence upon you and submit it to Clowning Around.

 I am always interested in your questions and comments.  You can contact me at 1602 Locust Way, Lynnwood, WA 98036 or

 Original drawings by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

1 Mitchell, Glenn  The Chaplin Encyclopedia, B.T. Batsford Ltd. London,  1997

2 Ibid.

3 McCabe, John The Comedy World of Stan Laurel, Moonstone Press,  Beverly Hills, CA, 1974

4. Towsen, John Clowns Hawthorn Books, Inc. New York, 1976

5. Gabler, Neal Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Vintage Books, New York 2006

6. Cahn, William  Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York 1964

7. Towsen, John Clowns Hawthorn Books, Inc. New York, 1976

8. Rivel, Charlie Poor Clown, Michael Joseph, Ltd. 1973

9. Kelly, Emmett with Kelly, F. Beverly Clown: My Life in Tatters and Smiles, Prentice-Hall, Inc. New York 1954


Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are trademarks of Feld Entertainment, Inc.


This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Clowning Around published by the World Clown Association. 

To learn more about the World Clown Association go to

 Copyright 2014 by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson.  All rights reserved.


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