Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


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Wally Boag – Clown Prince of Disneyland

By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

I did a special Halloween night performance in 1987 while on tour with the Family Showcase Theater, a one-ring indoor circus.  When I entered for my first clown act, I was wearing a gorilla mask.  Bill Reynolds, the Ringmaster, told me to take off the mask.  I took it off and then performed my act.  When I entered for my juggling act I was wearing the gorilla mask again.  Bill reminded me that I couldn’t wear the mask while performing.  Reluctantly I removed it slowly.  When I entered to perform my second clown act I was wearing the gorilla mask for the third time.  Bill demanded that I give him the mask.  Quickly I removed the gorilla mask revealing that this time I was wearing an old man mask underneath it.  I performed my act wearing that mask.  That was the only time I have performed that routine.  I thought it was appropriate for the day.  It was also my tribute to Wally Boag, a performer I had seen perform the mask gag.  While I was growing up in Southern California I had seen Wally many times performing in the “Golden Horseshoe Revue” at Disneyland.  It gave me great joy to honor this entertainer who had been an important influence upon me. 

Wally Boag (September 13, 1920 – June 3, 2011) was sometimes referred to as the Clown Prince of Disneyland, which is the title of his autobiography, but most people would probably classify him as a comedian.  However, any variety arts family entertainer can learn from and be inspired by his career and accomplishments.

Wally did have a tremendous influence upon other entertainers.  In their autobiographies, Julie Andrews and Steve Martin each paid tribute to Wally and his influence upon them. 

When Julie Andrews was twelve-years-old, she was an audience plant in Wally’s act in a review called “Starlight Roof.”  When he asked if anybody would like a balloon sculpture he had just completed, Julie would come up on stage from the audience.  After he gave her a balloon dog, he would ask what she did when she wasn’t in school.  She would reply, “I can sing – a little.”  Then she surprised the audience by singing “Polonaise” from Mignon with an F above a C.

Comedian Steve Martin worked at Disneyland when he was a teenager.  When he had a chance he would visit the “Golden Horseshoe Review” to watch Wally at work.  In the foreword to Clown Prince of Disneyland, Wally’s autobiography, Steve wrote, “So, Wally, thank you.  Thank you for being the first comedian I ever saw; thank you for letting me train by watching you; thank you for teaching me about staying fresh and giving the audience everything you got.  I like to think as you inspired me, I may inspire some other kid who loves comedy.”

Wally Boag Autobiography Cover

The cover of Wally's Autobiography

Wally’s first performance was a comedy dance at a family gathering when he was five.  His own career began at the age of seven when he was booked for three weeks doing a “Dutch” dance routine with Shirley Ann Handlesman.  When he was sixteen he had his own dance school where he taught classes while his parents managed the business.  By the age of eighteen he began performing in Burlesque theaters, playing clarinet in the pit band and appearing on stage in sketches.  He began touring vaudeville doing dance routines and serving as the emcee.  These appearances gave him a firm understanding of comedy.  Wally’s dance training equipped him for physical comedy and gave him a feeling for rhythm.  Steve Martin said, “Wally had something about him, an infectious happiness and a mysterious something else I later learned was called comic timing. Everything he did had a rhythm, and it all came together in a kind of comedic concert as he charmed and teased the audience.”

Like many young entertainers Wally tried to find a unique identity for himself.  In 1940 he discovered it when he learned balloon sculpture.  Wally was not the first balloon artist.  In his autobiography, Wally credits Tom Gary with teaching him how to make a dachshund out of four airship balloons.  That is the only balloon sculpture that Tom knew.  Wally invented his own multiple balloon sculptures including a clown, a jockey riding a horse, various animals, and hats accented with strings of beads.  Wally conceived of the idea of building an entire act around balloon sculpture.  Mark Leddy, one of the biggest talent agents in vaudeville in the 1940’s, didn’t know of any other balloon acts when he began booking Wally in 1941. 

Wally’s accomplishments as a balloon artist are impressive.  He performed his balloon act in New York nightclubs, including the Follies Bergere, and appeared several times at the Radio City Music Hall.  His act received a rave review in Walter Winchell’s newspaper column and was profiled in a 1942 Life magazine article.  He entertained President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1944 White House Correspondents Association dinner.  In 1947 he traveled to London where he spent 54 weeks performing in a revue called “Starlight Roof” at the London Hippodrome.  The same year he entertained King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret in a Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium.  In 1948 his balloon act was featured in the Cirque Medrano, a permanent one-ring indoor circus in Paris, and he appeared in a Paris nightclub.  He returned to England to perform in a revue in Blackpool, a Christmas Pantomime in Newcastle, and an ice show at the London Hippodrome.  He spent two years performing in Australia. He also performed his balloon at the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.   His television performances included three appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” four appearances on “The Mickey Mouse Club”, and an appearance on “The Muppet Show.”  He performed a brief excerpt from his balloon act in “Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Revue” for 27 years.

How did Wally manage to achieve so much with a balloon sculpture act?  First, he developed an entertaining premise.  He entered holding four uninflated balloons in his hand.  He introduced his balloon sculptures by saying, “I have a new approach to psychology.  Now you may not know much about psychology, but let me explain.  You can never be happy in life unless you understand what makes you miserable. – Now you can tell something about a person’s character by the way they blow up a toy balloon.  For example, this is a straight forward type.”  Then he inflated a balloon so it filled from the nozzle towards the nipple.  “That is how a straight forward type would fill a balloon.  Now some people are backwards.”  He inflated a balloon so the air filled the nipple first and then continued towards the nozzle.  (He accomplished this by stretching the nipple end of the balloon before he entered the stage.)  “Then there are those who are scatter brained.”  He inflated a balloon so it started filling at the nipple end, and then the nozzle end started inflating, and finally the center of the balloon filled.  (He accomplished this by stretching the nipple end before the show, and then after the balloon started inflating he pinched the center closed so the air was limited to the nozzle end.)

Each time he inflated a balloon he had a different method and joke.  When he announced his impression of a near sighted person the balloon curved around while he inflated it so the end hit him in the eye.  He announced the thoughts of some people go around in circles, and then curved a balloon as he inflated it.  Without tying it he curled it further into a circle.  When he released the balloon it spun around in midair in front of him as he commented, “Their life doesn’t seem to go anywhere.”    When he inflated a small balloon for the ears of a giraffe he said, “This is a boring person.  As you can see he doesn’t have very many thoughts.”

While he twisted balloons together, he told jokes.  Some were related to the animals he sculpted.  For example, while making a dog he said, “I had to sell my dog.  He ran in front of my lawn mower and I accidentally cut off his tail.  I had to sell him wholesale because I couldn’t retail him.”  Some of his jokes were topical.  For example, while performing in New York during WWII he said, “I went walking in Central Park today and that is the first time I ever saw a bald man with a WAVE.”  (A WAVE was a woman enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves during WWII.)  Some of his jokes were self-deprecatory.  For example, “I’ve made quite a name for myself with this act – and I don’t like it… My name is Wally Boag.  Remember my name because you’ll be reading about me in the paper – I smoke in bed…”

Wally used convoluted statements.  For example, after his balloon act, Wally would announce, “At this time, I would like to feature the pedal extremities using the metatarsal portion of the flanges and the vulnerable part of the Achilles anatomy, and with my soles spasmodically coming into direct contact with the flooring, I shall endeavor to perambulate to the tempo of the musical composition.  Or, in other words, I’m gonna do a dance.”

Wally also used alliteration.  For example, at the “Golden Horseshoe Review” he introduced himself to the audience as “Wally Boag, that loud, long, lean, loquacious, sometimes laconic lunatic who loves to deal, delve, and dabble into delirious dialogues and dynamic dissertations … In other words, I’m a traveling salesman.”

Over the years Wally added more variety to his acts.  In 1947, while performing in Edinburgh, Scotland, he purchased a set of bag pipes and took lessons in how to play them.  He never became an accomplished player, but he eventually mastered one song, “Swanee River”, which allowed him to add the instrument to his act.   He made it topical by playing the song to the rhythm of a popular dance style that year.  Wally introduced his act by explaining a little about the bagpipe and its history.  He explained that the instrument had five pipes.  Three of them, the drones, had a single reed and played a constant note creating the instrument’s distinctive sound.  You blew into one of the pipes, and the remaining pipe was for playing the melody.  When he demonstrated how to play the pipes, a balloon on top of the center drone inflated.  He would stop blowing into the instrument, but it continued to make a moaning sound as the bag deflated.  He repeatedly told the instrument to relax.  The balloon stayed inflated as long as air was exiting the pipes and then it suddenly fell limp.  Wally realized that most people can’t hear the difference between two and three drones playing so he took the reed out of the center drone to use for the gag.  Wally would place a plug in that drone before concluding by actually playing his song while doing a few dance steps.

In 1950 Wally developed a ventriloquist act while performing in Australia.  When he was booked for an ice show in London in 1953 he performed his balloon and dance act on a wooden floor during the first half of the show.  During the second half, he performed his vent act on the ice.  He put snowshoes on George, his vent figure, and added a series of puns based around the shoes looking like tennis rackets.

In 1955, a friend suggested that Wally audition for a new amusement park opening in Anaheim, CA.  That park was Disneyland.  Wally performed his acts for Walt Disney who offered him a two-week contract for a family show called the “Diamond Horseshoe Revue” that would be part of Frontierland.  Wally stayed at Disneyland for 27 years and appeared in over forty thousand performances of the revue. 

Wally performed three acts in Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Revue.  In the first was the Traveling Salesman.  Slue Foot Sue, played by Betty Taylor, would ask him what he had in his carpet bag.  Then he would pull out gag items.  For example, during the Davy Crockett craze he would pull out a coonskin cap, predict that it would never sell, and toss it over his shoulder. 

He removed a pack of cards from his carpet bag, announced his impression of Niagara Falls, and let the cards cascade from one hand to the other.  Then he turned the cards around so the faces were towards the audience and say, “From the Canadian side.”  Next he started to let the cards slide a third time but stopped so they dangled from his hand, and say, “Frozen.”  The deck was an Electric Deck which means the cards are all connected together with short pieces of thread.  I don’t know if Wally originated this joke with the deck, but there were certainly many entertainers who copied it from him.

Wally included a short portion of his balloon act in the Traveling Salesman routine.  After making a dachshund from four balloons he would bring a child up from the audience.  He interviewed them before presenting them with the sculpture.  He would start to extend the dog to them with his left hand.  When they began to reach for it with their right hand he would shoot out his right hand to shake with them.  He would repeat this several times before letting them succeed in getting their prize. 

Wally ended his routine by asking the pianist if he knew a little ditty titled “When They Operated on Father, They Opened Mother’s Male.”  While the pianist played a few bars, Wally did some dance steps.  Then he removed his toupee commenting on how hot it was getting.  When people laughed he would say, “What did you expect … feathers?”  Sometimes he would respond to an audience comment he pretended to hear by saying, “I heard you madam.  She said, ‘He looked so young.’”

In his second act, Wally would join Slue Foot Sue in singing “Pecos Bill,” a song from a Disney cartoon.  Wally would announce that he was the fastest draw in the world.  Then he stood motionless as a pistol was fired in the wings.  He would ask the audience, “Want to see it again?”  That is a gag I have used when I produced clown sharpshooter routines.

When Wally and Sue got to the line “ he gathered up those crooked villains and knocked out their fillings,” Slue Foot Sue hit him in the jaw and he began spitting out teeth which were actually Navy Beans.  He discovered that he got better audience reaction the more beans he used because people were curious about how many he was able to hold in his cheeks.  In one performance I counted over 50 beans.  He started doing dance steps while he continued spouting beans.  The piano and trumpet player would grab ping pong paddles to hit the beans back up onto the stage.

When Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Wally Boag moved there to establish the “Diamond Horseshoe Revue.”  He taught Bev “Rebo” Bergeron to perform the Pecos Bill act.  Bev took Wally’s place in Orlando, and Wally returned to Anaheim.  When Bev was one of the featured performers and lectured at the 2001 WCA Convention in Orlando, he recreated Wally’s teeth routine with Richard Snowberg accidentally hitting Bev in the mouth while testing a rope for a magic trick.

During the “Golden Horseshoe Revue,” Wally joined the rest of the cast in the finale which included a rousing rendition of the Can Can.  He would sometimes join the dance hall girls and show off some of his steps.

As people left the Golden Horseshoe Saloon they could purchase Wally Boag’s Boag-aloon kit.  It contained some air ship balloons and balloon sculpture instructions.  During his night club days Wally had sold balloon kits in envelopes.  At Disneyland he sold his kits in boxes that looked like his revue character.  I don’t know how many people learned balloon sculpture from the kits.  However, Wally’s inspiration led Steve Martin to include balloon sculpture in his stand up comedy act.

Wally Boag's Boog-aloon Kit

In the early days Disneyland was open five days a week.  The entire Golden Horseshoe Revue cast performed five shows a day every day the park was open.  When the park began staying open seven days a week Wally needed some time off.  So he trained some understudies to take his place.  That allowed him to make other contributions to the Disney organization. 

He wrote the “Enchanted Tiki Room” show and provided the voice of Jose, one of the four host birds. In 1980, Wally re-wrote the show for Tokyo Disneyland.  Verbal jokes don’t translate well so he worked with a Japanese comic in developing the script.  He asked for a line that would cause the children to laugh when the thunder and lightning began.  The comic suggested “cover your belly button.”  According to Wally while that line isn’t funny in America, it works in Japan.

Wally learned that culture plays a part in a joke’s acceptance internationally.  When he performed in Paris he had his act translated into French and learned it phonetically.  His act included a mother-in-law joke which was a common practice in America.  The Parisian Nightclub manager asked him to edit out that joke because French men treat their mother-in-law respectfully.

The “10,000th Golden Horseshoe Revue Performance” was expanded into an hour long show by using guest stars and filmed for the 1961 Season opener of” Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” television show.  It was then turned into a theatrical featurette film distributed internationally.  The special performance concluded with a bar room fight that showcased some of Wally’s physical comedy.

In 1962 the bar room scene was included in a stage show titled “Disney’s America” that opened at the Hollywood Bowl and then went to Radio City Music Hall.  Wally performed his Pecos Bill routine as part of the show.

Wally did promotional tours for Disney movies.  In 1961, he toured the country doing live performances promoting the film “One Hundred and One Dalmations.”  The tour included an appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” where he did his balloon act concluding with presenting Ed with a dog made out of white balloons covered in black spots.  He also went on personal appearance tours to promote “The Jungle Book” (1967), “Alice in Wonderland” (1974), “Pete’s Dragon” (1977), and “The Aristocrats” (1980).

Wally appeared in some of the Disney movies.  In “The Absent Minded Professor” he played a reporter, and he also doubled for Fred MacMurray in one scene by wearing a special customized mask to portray Professor Brainard bouncing around in the gymnasium.  Wally appeared as the father in a Flubberoleum television commercial that was part of the “Son of Flubber.”  He also made a cameo appearance in “The Love Bug.”

Wally retired from the Golden Horseshoe Revue on January 28, 1982, and was honored with a window on Disneyland’s Main Street.  His window above the Carnation Company says, “Theatrical Agency.  Golden Vaudeville Routines.  Wally Boag, Prop.”   In recognition of his contributions to the Disney company, he was named a Disney Legend in 1995.

Some of Wally’s performances have been preserved for our study.  He performed an acrobatic dance routine in MGM’s “It’s Always Fair Weather.”  An audio recording was made of the “Golden Horseshoe Review “that was released as an LP Album in 1956 and re-issued as a CD in 2004.  A CD of one of the practice sessions prior to Disneyland’s opening is also available.  The “10,000th Golden Horseshoe Performance” exists on DVD but it is rare limited edition and difficult to locate.  Wally’s entire balloon act and his bag pipe act are included in “Disney Treasures: The Mickey Mouse Club” DVD set.  (He was a guest star appearing in the second episode of the series.)  His appearance on “The Muppet Show” during its fifth season is also available on DVD.  That performance includes part of his balloon act, his bagpipe routine, and the Pecos Bill act.

However, the most important thing that I learned from Wally Boag was possible only from being fortunate enough to see him in many live performances over a period of years.  Each performance was a little bit different.  While he had his standard bits that he always performed he constantly added new little bits and jokes.  In his autobiography Wally said, “Most of all, I’d learned how to work with my audience.  People often said they liked my act from the first minute because I appeared to be friendly – and I was.  I really loved interacting with the audience, and I had learned how to handle those once-in-a-lifetime moments that happen when your audience is really in tune with you.  I learned how to ad-lib and deal with those unanticipated situations.”

My audience interaction style of performing is based on what I absorbed from watching Wally entertain his audiences.  As he inspired me, I hope to inspire other entertainers.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Clowning Around, published by the World Clown Association. 

Copyright 2013 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

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