Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


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By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

Not every innovation in the history of clowning was beneficial or admirable.  However, even in the least admirable elements of clown history there are things that we can learn and apply to today.  We can try to avoid the mistakes of the past, but there are also things we can build upon.  This article is just an introduction to a complex and controversial topic.

 A new type of clown character was developed during the early-nineteenth century debate over slavery. This type of clown is often omitted from clown histories today because it is now recognized as being offensive and inappropriate.  That was the Blackface Minstrel.  These clowns portrayed African American characters by blackening their face using burnt cork and then using white make up to make their lips standout so their expressions were easily seen.  Part of the African American stereotype was that Blacks had large feet so the Minstrel clowns wore oversized shoes.  This is the earliest reference that I have found to clowns wearing big shoes.

 During the nineteenth century Blackface entertainers were considered to be clowns.  Many circus clowns who are now remembered for their appearances as Whiteface clowns also appeared sometimes in Blackface depending upon what jobs were available.  Famous clowns who appeared in both Whiteface and Blackface include Dan Rice, Tony Pastor, Robert Sherwood, Dan Gardner, William Burke, Pete Conklin, and Spader Johnson.  Dan Emmett, known as one of the founders of the Minstrel Show, performed as a clown with Welch’s Olympic Circus prior to performing in Blackface. Tom Heath also performed as a circus clown before creating his famous Blackface character.

 According to John Towsen, “white entertainers wearing black make up date back at least to 1769.”  For example, sometimes the singing clowns appearing in one-ring circuses performed Negro songs. These early Blackface entertainers were isolated examples instead of part of a trend. 

  United States in 1822, British comedian Charles Matthews became fascinated with African-American music and dialect. On his return to England , he began to incorporate his observations into skits, sketches, and songs. He is considered an important influence upon the early Minstrel performers.  While Minstrel shows are often thought of as a strictly American theatrical style, they were also very popular in England .  Many American Minstrel performers, both White and Black, toured England and Europe .  British entertainers formed their own Minstrel troupes.  Minstrel shows continued in England into the 1970’s which is after they had been discontinued in America .

 Theater historians generally consider 1830 as the beginning of the Minstrel show period because that is when Thomas “Daddy” Rice introduced his Blackface act.  He said his act was an imitation of a song and dance he saw performed by a crippled African American stable boy named Jim Crow.  T. D. Rice purchased the stable boy’s shabby clothing and wore it for his costume.  His “Jim Crow” act became popular when he performed it at New York ’s Bowery Theater in 1832 and inspired many imitators.  (Although Jim Crow started as the name of an actual specific individual, the stereotype eventually associated with the name turned it a derogatory term.  Finally it came to mean the laws in the Southern United States intended to segregate African Americans from the rest of American society.)

 The originators of the Minstrel characterization claimed that it was based on observation, and they competed for the claim of the most “authentic” portrayal.  A review in the New York Times of Jim McIntyre’s Blackface character said, “His sketch, though conceived more or less in a spirit of caricature, has innumerable touches of real life; it is obviously the result of observation, combined with an exceptional ability to realize Negro racial characteristics.” 

 McIntyre’s act did include one authentic element.  Because he was the first entertainer to perform a dance style called the buck-and-wing on a New York stage (Tony Pastor’s Theater in 1879) he is credited with introducing it into American theater.  The buck-and-wing was created by African Americans and is today known as tap dancing.

 No matter how “authentic” the original portrayals may have been, the character quickly deteriorated into negative stereotype perpetuated by performers copying other performers.

 Minstrel clowns were at first incorporated into the regular circus performance.  In the 1840’s the Minstrel Show was separated from the circus show itself.  After the regular performance was over, audience members could pay extra to stay for a concert or other after show.  Minstrel shows were presented as one type of these extra performances. 

 Originally Blackface performers were known as Ethiopian Delineators.  In 1843 Dan Emmett, Frank Bower, Frank Pelham and Billy Whitlock formed “The Virginia Minstrels,” the first complete Minstrel show.  This was the first time the term Minstrel was used for Blackface performances.  The Virginia Minstrels established the format that would be followed by other Minstrel troupes.

 During the first part of the Minstrel Show the cast sat in a semi-circle on the stage.  The men at the ends were the primary clowns.  (Minstrel shows had all male casts until 1890.)  They were known as the End Men and their names were Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones.  They got their names from the instruments that they played.  Mr. Tambo played a tambourine, which he also used as a prop by spinning it on his finger or manipulating it like a juggler.  Mr. Bones played a rhythm instrument called the bones, which were two pieces of wood held in one hand like chop sticks and clacked against each other.  The straight man sat in the center and was known as Mr. Interlocutor.  The first half of the show alternated between songs by the chorus or soloists and comedy routines featuring Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones.

 A basic component of the Minstrel humor was a riddle known as a conundrum.  It was based on the type of word play that was popular with nineteenth century African Americans. Here are some examples:

When is a lover like a tailor?  When he presses his suit.

What is that which is lengthened by being cut at both ends? A ditch.

Why does a duck put its head under water?  For divers reasons.

 There were many alphabet conundrums.  For example, “Why is the letter T like an island?  Because they are both in the middle of water.”

 The other style of minstrel joke was known as an end gag.  This was an interaction between the End Men and Mr. Interlocutor.  In many cases they were similar to the interaction between the Whiteface Clown and Circus Ringmaster.  Here is an example:

Mr. Tambo:  Why is a woman’s heart like a gold mine?

Mr. Interlocutor:  I can not say, why?

Mr. Tambo:  Because you never know the true value until it’s been prospected.

Mr. Interlocutor: That’s true my friend.

Mr. Bones:  Yes and many a fool has been broke, prospecting.

 Many of the jokes involved wives and mothers-in-law.  For example,

Mr. Bones:  My wife is like a big league umpire.

Mr. Interlocutor:  Why is your wife like a big league umpire?

Mr. Bones: Because she never believes I’m safe when I’m out.

 The second part of the show was known as the Olio and consisted of novelty acts, skits, and dances.  The types of acts and format performed in the Olio were similar to what would later be performed in Vaudeville.  The third part following the Olio was a one-act musical or play.  Originally this concluding part was an idealized depiction of plantation life, but parodies of popular plays were also performed in later years.

 Besides the damage normally caused by being the subject of ridicule, the Minstrel shows were detrimental to African Americans in another way.  Some people used the performances to justify slavery by portraying African Americans as an inferior race that needed the care and guidance of their masters.  For example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is thought of today as an anti-slavery text.  However, according to David Carolyn, when Dan Rice wore Blackface to portray Tom in his 1853 stage version of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin the runaway slaves suffered after they reached freedom  and wished they were back in their plantation home where they were comfortable.  This stereotype was reflected in music composed for Minstrel shows.  For example, Dan Emmett composed “ Dixie ” (“I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there aren’t forgotten.”) as a lament by runaway slaves wishing they were back under the protection of their previous masters.  Even James Bland, the first popular African American composer, used the stereotype in composing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”  Southerners used the Minstrel stereotype to justify their actions by saying they were protecting their slaves.  Northerners used the Minstrel stereotype to justify not supporting abolition because they thought slaves led a carefree life full of song, dance, and play while being devoid of responsibility. After Emancipation the stereotype depicted in Minstrel shows was used to justify racism.

 The irony is that the stereotype became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  African Americans weren’t taught to take control of their lives because people believed they weren’t capable of doing it.  When the Civil War ended and the slaves were freed amidst the economic devastation of the Southern States many weren’t prepared to survive on their own.  While some recent slaves became shareholders on their former master’s property, other freed slaves found themselves unemployed and homeless so they became itinerant tramps. 

In 1874 James McIntyre and Tom Heath created a new variation on the standard Minstrel character, the Tramp clown based on the vagabond former slaves.  McIntyre and Heath wore the standard Minstrel style make up for their Tramp characters which is the origin of the white mouth still used by Tramp clowns today.  (The white Tramp mouth has continued because it no longer has a racial connotation but simply makes the mouth most visible against a painted on beard.)  McIntyre played Alexander Hambletonian, a simple naďve fool, and Heath played Henry Jones, a clever rogue who frequently got Alexander into trouble.  (This type of relationship is common in clown duos, for example an Auguste and Whiteface clown.)  Early in their career they sometimes performed in circuses, but during their 63 year partnership they were best known for their appearances on stage.  Their vaudeville act was expanded into Broadway shows, most notably The Ham Tree.  I have read more than one reviewer say their long term popularity was based on the humanity underlying their characters.

 McIntyre and Heath influenced other entertainers.  While touring in vaudeville they met a young performer named W.C. Fields who was doing a White Tramp juggling act.  They incorporated his juggling act into their Broadway show and gave him a speaking part.  According to Simon Louvish many of Fields’ vocal trademarks were inspired by McIntyre and Heath.

 Actions often have unintended consequences, both negative and positive.  Although it was not the intention of the early Minstrel performers, they helped break through barriers for Black entertainers in heavily segregated America .  Caucasians impersonating Black people made Black characters acceptable to Caucasian audiences.  Once those characters were accepted, Black performers portraying those characters were also accepted.  Unfortunately they were bound by the stereotype and had to impersonate Caucasian’s impersonating their own race to gain acceptance.   Mel Watkins in discussing the career of James Bland, a Black clown and composer, said, “To a great extent, the music industry itself dictated the type of songs that would be published.  Faced with the dilemma of succeeding personally at the expense of publicly denigrating blacks or not being published at all, he opted for success.”

 Then once Black entertainers were accepted they could begin moving away from the stereotype.  James Bland and Sam Lucas were African Americans who started their career as stars of Black Minstrel companies, and then their success and acceptance allowed them to abandon the stereotype branching out into other styles of performances.

 Two very important Black entertainers were George Walker and Bert Williams.  They developed Minstrel characters in 1893.  They were the first Black entertainers to appear in segregated White only vaudeville shows.  In 1897-1898 they toured with Hyde’s Comedians, an otherwise all White Vaudeville company.  Their purpose was to build a national reputation which would aid with sales of their sheet music.  The headliners with Hyde’s Comedians were McIntrye and Heath, who influenced Walker and Williams. 

 Walker and Williams, appearing onstage with their wives, used their clowning to break through racial barriers in entertainment. They were the first Black entertainers to make a phonograph recording. They were the first Black producers to create Broadway shows with all Black casts.  According to Mel Watkins, “the success of the Williams and Walker productions significantly influenced the Black performers’ acceptance on Broadway and the vaudeville stage.”  

  Walker died in 1908, Williams continued with a very successful solo career.  Williams did not consider himself an African American.  He was mixed race, part Dutch and part African.  When he was a child his family immigrated to the United States from Antigua , West Indies .  His family had not experienced slavery.  He was well educated and attended Stanford University for a semester before becoming an entertainer.  To be accepted on stage he had to learn to speak in an African American dialect, which he considered to be like a foreign language.  Williams resented the stereotype of the Blackface Minstrel, but he discovered the make up was liberating.  While in make up, he felt for the first time that the audience was laughing at the character and not himself personally.  He eventually became the only Black entertainer to appear in the Ziegfield Follies.  Florence Ziegfield considered him the funniest comedian to ever appear in that show.  Williams was also the first Black entertainer to star in a motion picture.  He gave his character such dignity that he revealed the humanity beneath the stereotype.  Famous African American scientist Booker T. Washington said, “Williams has done more for the race than I have.  He has smiled his way into people’s hearts.”

 Williams was popular with both Black and White audiences.  That was a careful balancing act for him.  Critics in Black newspapers complained that he stayed too close to the stereotype while critics in White newspapers chastised him for departing too far from the expected character. 

  New York race riot in 1900.  Ten years later, when Williams was hired by Ziegfield, the other Follies cast members threatened to walk out.  When Ziegfield declared that Williams was worth more than the rest of the cast combined, they didn’t carry out their threat.  (Williams did eventually become friends with some of the Follies cast members.)    When he toured, Williams had to stay in inferior hotels reserved for Blacks.  When Eddie Cantor, a Follies cast member, invited Williams back to his hotel room following a performance, the hotel refused to allow Williams to enter through the lobby.  He had to go around to the back and use the servant’s entrance and service elevator.  He told Cantor, “it wouldn’t hurt so much Eddie if I didn’t still hear the applause ringing in my ears.  It is no disgrace being a Negro, but it is mighty inconvenient.”

 W.C. Fields said, “Bert Williams was the funniest man I ever saw.  He was the saddest man I ever knew.” 

  America by the end of World War II.  However, amateur Minstrel shows continued to be performed into the 1960’s.  Wes McVicar wrote Clown Act Omnibus in 1960.  In that book he said, “Clowns should omit anything off color or offensive.  Costumes, words or actions that are in bad taste, or that ridicule any race or nationality have no place in a good clown act.” 

 The heightened awareness brought about by the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s ended all Minstrel performances in America .

 What lessons can we draw from the history of Minstrel clowns?

 First, while clowning is fun, it is not frivolous.  Humor can be a weapon or a tool depending upon how it is used.  Ridicule excludes others and causes harm.  Ridicule of another person due to their race, gender, or other class should not be a part of clowning.  However, humor can unite people.  Clowns often break through barriers that other people can’t because clowning can be a heart-to-heart form of communication.  Laughing at somebody creates barriers.  Laughing with somebody breaks down barriers.

 Second, while all clown characters tend to be stereotypes the most successful entertainers go beyond the stereotype.  (The descriptions of the Whiteface and Auguste characters found in competition rules are stereotypes.)  A stereotype is not necessarily negative.  Stereotypes are relied upon in clowning because it helps the audience get to know the character quickly so they know what to expect.  However, the most successful clowns use their performance to express their humanity.  Many people have said a clown is a cartoon character.  The best clowns are also human.

 Third, when we understand the obstacles and restrictions early Black clowns faced we can better understand their tremendous accomplishments based upon their extraordinary skill as entertainers.  Early Black clowns had to be much better than their Caucasian counterparts to succeed.  Because of what they endured, conditions improved for other Black entertainers.  They paid the price for the freedoms enjoyed by Black entertainers today.  (The process is not complete.  Black entertainers are still sometimes the target of racism.)  I have talked to African American clowns who said they gained increased pride in being a Black clown after they learned about the struggles and triumphs of Bert Williams.  In recognition of his outstanding abilities as a clown and his contributions to American culture and society Bert Williams was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1996.

 Unfortunately those transitional Black entertainers are still the victims of bias.  Because their performances are now considered embarrassing or politically incorrect they tend to be ignored today.  However, when we understand the context of the performances; we can appreciate their talent and skill.  Then we can give them the recognition they deserve.

 Fourth, material created for Minstrel shows can be used to entertain modern audiences when it is removed from the racial context.  It is the stereotype that is offensive, not necessarily the jokes. Conundrums were created for Minstrel shows and spoken in the African American Minstrel dialect, but during the same era Whiteface clowns performed them in circuses without the dialect.    Publications about minstrel shows, including some Circus Songsters, have a wealth of jokes that can inspire us. 


Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian by Eric Ledell Smith

Clowns by John Towsen

Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of by David Carolyn

Introducing Bert Williams by Camille F. Forbes

Man of the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C.Fields by Simon Louvish

On The Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying – The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, From Slavery to Richard Pryor by Mel Watkins.

On With The Show! The First Century of Show Business in America by Robert C. Toll

Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre by Garff B. Wilson

 “Natural Born Gambler,” a short film starring Bert Williams, is included in Volume One of a DVD set called the “Slapstick Encyclopedia.”

  (This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Clowning Around, published by the World Clown Association.)

Copyright 2011 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

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