Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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What is a Clown Alley?

By Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

In the circus, Clown Alley has two meanings. It is the area where clowns get into make up and keep their props. It is also the group of clowns performing for a specific circus. There are many theories as to the origin of the term. Two theories are given most frequently.

The first theory relates to the location of Clown Alley. Because of powdering their make up, the clowns were given their own section of the dressing tent. This section was nearest the side wall so the clowns could easily duck under the canvass to powder outside. This section was the darkest because it was the furthest from the opening to the tent and the lights hanging from the center poles. The darkness and wall down one side made it seem like an alley, so it was dubbed clown alley. According to this theory, the people who dressed in the alley eventually became known as the clown alley as well.

The second theory is based upon one of the functions of a clown. If there were rigging problems or somebody was injured, the clowns would fill in until the show was ready to resume. The traditional method to signal an acrobat to go (start a trick) was to yell, "Allez Oop." (Pronounced Alley Oop.) According to this theory, if the clowns were needed, the Performance Director would yell, "Clowns Allez," meaning, "Clowns Go." (I donít know of any occasion where a performance director actually used that phrase.) Eventually the group of clowns became known as a clown alley, and later the place where they waited between acts also became known by the same name.

It is kind of a chicken and egg question. Which meaning came first, the location or the group? Nobody knows for sure. It began as undocumented circus slang. By the time it became a formalized term, the origin was forgotten.

The origin isnít important. The thing to remember is that clown alley is both a space set aside for use by clowns preparing for a performance, and a group of clowns working together in a production. Both are important to a clown touring with a circus.

When amateur clown clubs were founded, they liked to use circus slang. They adapted Clown Alley to mean a local club. Many Clown Alleys are affiliated with the World Clown Association, Clowns Of America International, or both.


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