Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


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History and Philosophy

by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

World Clown Association Historian

“In order to have any movement forward in clowning, you have to have a philosophy of clowning.  In order to have a philosophy of clowning, you have to have a history of clowning.”  -- Victor Vladimirov, Director of the Moscow State College of Circus and Variety Arts, speaking at the 1993 World Clown Congress.

 Knowing where we have been and how we got to where we are today, can indicate where we are going.  Also, looking back we can discover trends that reveal general principles we can apply to modern day clowning.

 An example is how the appearance and status of specific types of clowns have evolved over the centuries.  In the Commedia del Arte performances of the 1600’s, Brighella was a clever rogue often partnered with naïve, stupid Harlequin who was the target of Brighella’s schemes.  They were both servant characters.  They often appeared with Pantaloon, an authority figure as a “master.”  Brighella and Harlequin both tried to undermine Pantaloon’s authority.  Gradually performers portraying Harlequin made him more intelligent.  During the 1700’s Harlequin was the clever rogue, and  Brighella faded away.  A new character was needed to be Harlequin’s victim, and Whiteface clown was developed to fill that role.  In the eighteenth century circus, the Ringmaster was the authority figure paired with the Whiteface clown.  By the early nineteenth century Whiteface clown had evolved into a more intelligent, authoritarian character that began replacing Harlequin.  By the end of the nineteenth century Harlequin was a historical novelty and a new naïve victim was introduced, the Auguste clown.  Now a century later, the Auguste character has evolved into a more intelligent character that is replacing the Whiteface clown.

 The appearance of the characters evolved in correspondence to the evolution of their status.  Originally Harlequin’s costume had randomly placed irregular shaped patches.  By the time he turned into a rogue, the patches were formalized into a diamond pattern covering the costume.  As an authoritarian character, Harlequin wore satin clothing trimmed with ribbons.

 The appearance of the Whiteface clown has also evolved.  Joseph Grimaldi’s costumes in the early nineteenth century were colorful but not elegant.  The very beautiful style of clothing that we associate with the classic Whiteface clown was developed during the twentieth century as the character became more of an authority figure than a prankster.

 What philosophy can we derive from this history?  First, that clowning is not bound by rigid rules.  The history of clowning is one of creativity and evolution.    Specific clown characters generally start as the stupid victim, gradually become the clever rogue, transform into the authoritarian, and then fade away.

 Second, although the rules are not rigid, they do have a purpose.  Before you break the rules, you should understand why they were created in the first place.  While specific clown characters have changed, the general roles of clown characters have stayed consistent.  They are an authoritarian, a clever rogue, and a stupid victim of the rogue’s pranks.  There is an advantage to entertainers playing those roles as they interact with each other.

 (Disclaimer:  You can not break the rules in competition.  By their very nature, whether it is the National Football League or clowning, competitions are designed to eliminate participants until a winner is left. If you break the rules, you are eliminated.  However, rules are valid only for a specific competition and you must learn what they are.  For example, in the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians Children’s Entertainment Competition you are scored on how well you select and use audience volunteers.  In the 2010 WCA Skit Competition working with audience volunteers is prohibited.)

What principle can we apply today?  I believe that we are in a period where the Auguste clown is replacing the Whiteface clown, which is fading away.  The costumes worn by some Auguste clowns have evolved until they are very similar to those worn by many Whiteface clowns.  That is why you now often see clown duos where both entertainers look like Auguste clowns but one partner plays the authoritarian role while the other plays the clever rogue or stupid victim.  I think that is okay as long as the performers are clear about the roles that they play.

What prediction can we make?  I think the Whiteface clown will continue to become rarer.  Auguste clowns will take over the leading role in acts.  A new stupid, naïve character will develop.  Perhaps that character will be what people now refer to as European Auguste or the Auguste Lite character.

My addition to Vladimirov’s statement about history and philosophy is that in order to have a valid philosophy of clowning you have to have an accurate history of clowning.

I’ll use the Tramp character as an example of how misinformation about clown history has lead to some invalid philosophies. 

When I first started clowning Emmett Kelly was the most famous Tramp clown that I knew so I assumed that he had created the Tramp character and was the prototype to follow.  (That is a common misconception.  One competition judge told me his sole criterion for evaluating Tramp category participants was how closely they imitated Emmett Kelly.  That is an extreme exclusive definition.)  I based my character on the image that I had of Emmett Kelly.  I saw black and white photos of Kelly in books on clown and circus history so I assumed his costume was drab.  During the first decade that I performed as a Tramp, I used subdued colors, mainly beige, grey, and black, in my costumes.  When I learned that Nat Wills, the Happy Tramp, wore plaid vests in the early twentieth century, I added a dark red plaid vest to my costume.  It wasn’t until I learned that Emmett Kelly wore a bright green shirt specifically because he felt a Tramp costume needed some color that I began using blue as the dominant color in my Tramp costume.  When I made the change I got many more positive comments on my costume for lay people and other entertainers.  I also discovered that when I performed in a variety show on a stage with black curtains the audience could see my movements much better because I stood out from the background.

The truth is that Emmett Kelly did not originate the Tramp character.  McIntyre and Heath created their Tramp characters in 1874, almost sixty years before Emmett Kelly became a Tramp clown.  Emmett Kelly became a Tramp clown in 1933.  The first period of great Tramp clowning was from 1890 until 1916 when the United States entered World War I.  There was a great variety of Tramp clowns during that period.  There were happy Tramps, singing Tramps, philosophical Tramps, Tramp burglars, Tramp monologists, Tramp magicians, and a Tramp pianist performing on vaudeville stages.  By limiting Tramp clowns to Emmett Kelly impersonations we have lost the rich texture that is part of the Tramp tradition.  When I learned the variety possible within the Tramp clown character I expanded the range of emotions that I portray on stage.  That has improved my audience rapport.

When I first started performing as a Tramp clown in the 1970’s, I heard many times that young people could not perform the Tramp characterization because Emmett Kelly, Otto Griebling, and Mark Anthony were old.  (Otto had passed away but Emmett and Mark were both still performing at that time.)  It is true that those three clowns were old at the end of their careers which is how many people remembered them.  However, they were not old when they became Tramp clowns.  Otto Griebling and Emmett Kelly were each 35 when they became Tramp clowns.  Mark Anthony was only 23 when he switched from Whiteface to Tramp.  I think it is interesting that Arthur Pedlar, who saw Emmett Kelly early in his career, was a Tramp clown for 25 years and then switched to Auguste because he felt he was getting too old to play a Tramp character.

Another person told me that Tramp clowns were not allowed to juggle because it was inconsistent with the slow movement required of them.  Emmett Kelly did move slower than other circus clowns of his era because he thought that the contrast was a good way to attract attention.  Other Tramp clowns at that time moved more quickly.  Even though Emmett’s overall movement was slow, he performed a juggling routine.  Otto Griebling’s most famous routine involved juggling four pie pans.  W.C.Fields first became internationally famous as the “Great Tramp Juggler.”  There were over 40 top vaudeville acts featuring Tramp jugglers.  That means juggling Tramps is a major subcategory of the Tramp clown character.

Female clowning is another area where historical misinformation has led to invalid philosophies.

In 1990, another variety arts magazine published an editorial written by a man complaining that male clowns were having a difficult time finding work because of the sudden influx of female clowns who were more popular.  He implied that women were hurting the art of clowning.  He supported his position by claiming the only woman to star in a circus until recent times was Annie Oakley and that female clowns had not existed until late in the twentieth century.

I wrote a rebuttal to his article pointing out many women who had been circus stars and describing the long history of women as clowns and clown type characters.  The truth is women appeared in circuses from the very beginning.  Philip Astley began the first circus in 1768, and his wife appeared, as a drummer, in his original performance.  As his show expanded she began performing equestrian acts.  When Astley could afford to hire other performers he added two other women to the cast of his original circus.  Since then many women have continued to star in circuses.  Evetta Matthews, a feminine clown, was a star featured on an 1895 Barnum & Bailey Circus poster.

The author of the editorial replied to my rebuttal by writing, “My concern was for the future of the male clown, not the past (and notable) of the ladies.  I hope Charlie is around 10 years from now to write about the demise of the male role in clowning.”

I am pleased to report that twenty years later I am still around to write about the continued strength of the male role in clowning.  The philosophy expressed in the editorial, based on a false history of circus and clowning, was invalid and the prediction of the future did not become true.

The history of female clowns is a subject that I am still learning about.  I am constantly amazed by what I have found.  I am discovering that women clowns have been more prevalent through the ages than I originally thought. 

I am not the only clown historian.  Over the years when I have made a mistake in something I have written about clown history, there has often been somebody to correct me.  I am grateful to them.  I continue to study the history of clowning and learn new information that improves the accuracy of what I think I know.

Clown history is not cement that hardens around our feet holding us in place.  It is a foundation forming a launch pad for our future.  However, if our foundation is slanted by bias or misinformation we will be tilted off course.  That is one reason why accurate clown history is important. 

 Copyright 2010 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Clowning Around published by the World Clown Association as part of the history column written by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson who is serving as the World Clown Association Historian. 

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