Charlie The Juggling Clown
Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime
By Bruce Johnson
The Harlem Globetrotters combine clowning with basketball. The star player entertainer with the team is known as The Clown Prince of Basketball. Many people have held that position through the years. (In 1956, there were four units of the Globetrotters on the road, each with their own Clown Prince of Basketball.) Three men became internationally famous in the role of the Clown Prince of Basketball, "Goose" Tatum, Meadowlark Lemon, and Geese Ausbie.
One of their standard routines is the Bucket Chase that circus clowns use as a finale for Washerwomen. The Globetrotters though will often actually through a bucket of water at an audience stooge. When they performed at Ithaca Prison shortly after the riot there, they doused a prison guard with water, to the great delight of the prisoners.
Another gag is for the Clown Prince to be knocked down by an opponent. They collapse in pain, and are carried over to the bench, where their arm is attended. They moan loudly while the arm is bandaged. They continue moaning, so another player asks them what's wrong. They reply, "I hurt my other arm." (This is a variation of the wrong tooth gag used by circus clowns.) As the routine continues, the team's Clown Prince goes to the free throw line. He shoots, but the ball returns to his hands because it is on the end of a long elastic band. He goes to the bench to get another ball, but when he shoots the ball wobbles in the air. The referee blows his whistle, gets the ball, and rolls it down the court to test it. It bounces crazily because it is weighted on one side. The referee gets a ball himself. When he tests the ball, it won't bounce. (This is a variation of the clay ball gag used by clown jugglers.)
It is no coincidence that the Globetrotters have incorporated their versions of traditional clown gags into their show. Goose Tatum, the first of their great Clown Princes, attended circuses to study the clowns.
The team's Clown Prince of Basketball has been a vital part of their success. The Clown Prince stars in their show, performs much of the comedy, directs the comedy routines from the floor, and determines the pace of the game. The Clown Prince is also responsible for making the gimmicked basketballs.
In 1952, Meadowlark Lemon tried out for the Globetrotters. As a child, Meadowlark had seen a news reel of the Globetrotters, and made clowning with the team his ambition. Goose Tatum encouraged the young player, and predicted that he would become a great clown with the team. After two years in the military, Meadowlark was given a contract with the East Coast unit of the Globetrotters in 1954. He was an understudy to "Rookie" Brown.
Tatum left the Globetrotters in 1955. Two years later, Meadowlark was given a tryout in the role of Clown Prince, a position he was assigned to permanently in 1958, and filled for twenty years.
Meadowlark Lemon starred in most of the team's appearances on the ABC Wide World of Sports. Meadowlark was portrayed in the Saturday morning animated show, The Harlem Globetrotters from 1970 to 1971. In 1972, he starred in The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine, a one-hour musical-variety TV series. He had a distinctive high-pitched penetrating voice that he could use only while performing. People in the top seats in arenas could hear him.
In 1963, Frederic Douglas "Curly" Neal, a new dribbling specialist and long distance shooter, joined the team. Just like Haynes, Curly became sidekick to the Clown Prince. Meadowlark came to consider Curly his clown partner.
During the 1960's, civil rights leaders accused the Globetrotters of being Uncle Toms, perpetuating negative stereotypes. Bill Cosby said, "you have to understand, if the Negroes were Uncle Toms, what were the white people. This is the thing that has to knock you out. Saperstein gets five white people to be the straightmen, and look foolish and not know where the ball is. The black guy goes hup, the white guy turns, and the black guy makes the basket."
Although the Globetrotters did not participate in the Civil Rights protest marches, and thus were not considered a part of the movement, they had done a lot to advance civil rights. Quietly they had begun demanding that they be accommodated in the best hotels and restaurants. They had begun breaking through racial barriers by winning people's respect and earning a place in their heart. They could be considered racial Ambassador's of Goodwill. They have officially been America's Ambassador's of Goodwill since 1951.
In 1957, the Globetrotters began annual performances at air force bases and on naval aircraft carriers during Christmas week without pay. In 1960, the Globetrotters traveled behind the iron curtain to perform a series of shows in Moscow.
It wasn't just in diplomatic appearances that the Globetrotters have generated good will. They have always been very involved in charity work; especially anything involving crippled children. Curly Neal remembers playing a game with children in wheelchairs, a game that the kids won. Despite their busy schedule, many of the players would visit children's hospitals wherever the team played. One of the things they would do is start a ball spinning on their finger, and then transfer it to the finger of a child.
In 1971, Meadowlark Lemon became the team's player-coach. Now seen as part of management, his relationship with the other players began to deteriorate.
On December 6, 1974, the Globetrotters were the guests of President Gerald Ford at the White House. He gave them a special Presidential Citation for giving millions of people "much more than basketball, but also the priceless gifts of love and laughter."
In 1978, a nationwide poll named Meadowlark Lemon the fourth most popular personality in America. (John Wayne, Alan Alda, and Bob Hope beat him.) That year he left the Globetrotters to pursue a career in Hollywood. For a while he had his own basketball/entertainment team. Now he is a minister travelling the country to preach.
Hubert "Geese" Ausbie took Meadowlark's place as Clown Prince. Like Lemon, Ausbie had seen the Globetrotters play when he was a child, and made playing with the team and making people laugh his lifetime goal.
Meadowlark Lemon was the 2000 recipient of the International Clown Hall Of Fame Lifetime of Laughter Award.
Excerpted from The Clown In Times Volume Six Issue Four
© Copyright 2000 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson. All rights reserved