Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Olympic Clowns

By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

World Clown Association Historian

What do Summer Olympic gymnasts and circus clowns have in common?

Some of them use the same skills.


 Both women and men compete on horizontal bars in the Summer Olympics.  The men perform on a single bar while women perform on the uneven bars.

 Circus clowns have performed on the same apparatus.  I have not seen an entire clown bar act, but I have seen short film clips of these acts.  Some of them worked on bars supported by poles at the Olympic height.  Other clowns have worked on aerial bars at the height used by trapeze artists.

 Remember that in the circus there is a fine line between a clown act and a comedy act.  The similarity is enough that we can learn by studying these acts no matter how they are technically categorized.

 Burt Lancaster began his entertainment career performing a comedy bar act with his partner Nick Cravat.  They had their own act, called the Lancastes, on the 1935 Gormon Bros. Circus.  In 1937 they were part of the Brocks comedy bar act touring with the Dan Rice Circus.  I have found a reference to them performing their bar act and a perch pole act on the Kay Bros. Circus but don’t know which year they were there.  They also appeared in vaudeville shows.  In 1941 bookings became scarce and Lancaster retired from the act.  After Lancaster became a movie star he reunited with Cravat and recreated their act as special guest stars appearing for four weeks with the 1949 Cole Bros. Circus.  The duo appeared together in the 1950 film titled “The Flame and The Arrow” and two years later teamed again in “The Crimson Pirate.”  Their acrobatic skill and Cravat’s comedic talents are put to good use in both films.  A little bit of their skill on horizontal bars is displayed in a scene of the 1952 film titled “The Crimson Pirate.”

 Walter Guice was a clown who specialized in performing on the aerial bars.  In 1906 he did an aerial bar clown act with Charles Elliot on the John H. Sparks Old Reliable Virginia Show.  In 1913 he began a two-decade association with the Sparks Circus.  That same year he used his acrobatic skill to introduce an equestrian clown act performed with Flora Bedini, his wife.  The partners in his aerial bar act changed over the years.  His act fluctuated between a duo, a trio, and a quartet.  A review of the 1926 Sparks Circus in Billboard magazine referred to his “twisters over the bar.”  A Billboard magazine review of the 1931 Sparks Circus mentions his leap from the center bar, eluding one bar, and landing on a catcher’s trapeze.  (Sometimes the aerial bar apparatus was part of the frame holding the trapeze rigging allowing performers to move from one to the other.)  The same article reveals that Walter Guice was performing as a tramp clown at the time.  In 1937 Walter Guice, and his troupes, performed comedy aerial bar acts with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus™.  I don’t know how long he performed his aerial bar act, but he was still active as a clown in 1955 appearing as part of the RBB&B Circus™ Clown Alley.

 The Leaps

 Leaping over or onto obstacles was a popular sport at medieval fairs and markets and is the basis for the long jump and vaulting competitions in the Summer Olympics.  The Art of Vaulting, by William Stokes, was published in 1652.  In it he explained how he learned to leap over horses standing side by side, landing upon the furthest horse in a standing position or seated in the saddle.  Since the circus began as an equestrian show, it was natural that horses would be used for the obstacles.  Phillip Astley, the father of the modern circus, performed similar feats in his circus.  (Astley gave his first circus performance in 1768.)  The Franconis also included leaps in their eighteenth century circus performances in England.

 It was not long before clowns began demonstrating their leaping ability.  In 1801, Mr. Porter, a clown at London ’s Royal Circus, would leap from a springboard over a ribbon held 12 feet in the air.  He would also fire two pistols while passing through a hoop surrounded by fireworks.  (A springboard is used by both men and women in Summer Olympic vaulting events.)

 A clown named Campbell cleared five horses in an American circus in 1814.  Three years later he appeared with James West’s English Circus Company in New York .  In addition to leaping over five horses, he threw somersaults through a “balloon of fire.”  (In circus jargon a balloon was a paper covered hoop.)

 Five years later a clown named Williams leaped over a stage wagon and six horses.

 Jean-Baptiste Auriol (1806-1881) began appearing at the Circus Olympique, in Paris , in 1835.  He performed as a juggler, tumbler, equilibrist, ropedancer, equestrian, and grotesque clown.  He was particularly noted for his leaping ability.  He could clear eight soldiers mounted on horses or 24 standing soldiers with fixed bayonets.  He was one of the very few acrobats of his era capable of doing a double back somersault.  His popularity as a clown in Paris lasted for 29 years.

 Around the time of the American Civil War, John Lowlow was billed as the Georgia Cracker and Shakespearian Clown. He performed as a leaper.  After completing each trick he was known for shouting, “Bring in another horse!”  Another horse would be led into the ever widening gap between the springboard and landing mattress.  “Bring in another horse/elephant” became a traditional line for use by clowns performing in the leaps.  (Some leaps acts used elephants as the living hurdle the acrobats had to clear.)

 In 1880, Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth™ advertised Robert Sherwood as the “champion acrobatic clown of the world in a double somersault over two elephants and six horses.”  (In circus history only one person was able to surpass this feat.  In 1881, John Worland completed a triple somersault from a springboard during shows in two locations, Eau Claire , WI and La Crosse , WI .)

 Frequently a circus contract includes a clause requiring a performer to “be generally useful.”  This clause was used to force the male performers to participate in the leaps.  This meant that the act was a combination of serious acrobats and clowns.  Some clowns were champion leapers, while others did simpler comedy bits to add variety and humor to the performance.

 Aleck Seibert wore clown make up for his jumps over eight horses with the 1887 Holland & McMahon’s Great World Circus.  In mid jump he took off his clown hat and made faces at the audience.  Just as he cleared the eighth horse he would quickly tuck into a single somersault and land on his feet in the center of the mat.

 At the turn of the century Pepe Jerome and Roberts were leaping clowns with the 1906 Barnum And Bailey Circus™, and William Henchey was the clown in the leaps with the 1907 The Great Van Amburg Shows.                

In 1914, Russian clown Vitaly Efimovich Laarenko became world famous when a short movie showing him somersaulting over three elephants was distributed internationally by the Pathe film company.

 At some point It became standard practice to have a long downward slanting ramp leading to the springboard to help leapers pick up speed.  Some of the comedy bits that were incorporated by clowns into the leaps were based on the ramp.  For example, a clown might run down the ramp, stop just short of the springboard, remove their hat, and scale it over the animals.  Another common gag was to run down the ramp, miss the springboard, and run across the back of the animals.  Some clowns would hit the springboard and continue moving their legs while airborne as if they were running on air like a cartoon character.  Another gag was to come down short landing straddling the center animal in the line up.  Sometimes a clown would wear a break away costume tethered by a wire so it came off when they hit the springboard.  In the early 1970’s I saw a two-man leap act performing with the Polack Bros. Circus at the Los Angeles County Fair.  After the straightman jumped through a balloon (paper covered hoop), the clown jumped through a balloon.  When he landed he was wearing a dress.  The loose fitting costume had been sandwiched between two layers of paper covering the hoop.

 The Downie Bros. Circus featured a leaps act throughout the 1930’s in which the clowns outnumbered the straight acrobats.  The clown participants included Johnny Bossler, Minert De Orlo, Shorty Hiinkle, Roy Leonhardt, Billy Pape, and Stanley White.

 In 1981 and 1983, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus™ Red Unit included a revival of the leaps.  I don’t know any details of this version of the act.

 The RBB&B Circus™ revived the leaps again in 1995 for the 125th Edition of the show.  The Chicago Kidz had toured with the previous edition performing a jump rope act that included elements of hip hop dancing.  Janos Novak, a former acrobat from Hungary , coached them in performing the leaps for the new production.  The kids learned to jump over PVC hurdles the height of an elephant.  If they missed, the hurdle tipped over harmlessly.  Only after they could consistently clear the hurdles were elephants introduced to the act.  David Larrible joined the young gymnasts in the act.  He recreated many of the traditional clown bits associated with the act.


 In Summer Olympic vaulting competitions a padded hurdle is used instead of a living animal.  However, its origin is preserved in the name of the apparatus, a horse.  The horse has been used as a prop for clown acts.

 The leaps were a slow paced act with the acrobats taking turns and carefully setting up their approach.  In the circus a Charivari is a face paced act with tumblers rapidly leaping and somersaulting over a horse.  (Terms often have more than one definition.  A circus Charivari can also be a noisy parade, particularly starting a show.)  Naturally this type of act would be parodied by clowns. 

 Among the acrobatic acts Digger Pugh produced for Tom Arnold's 1947/48 Haringey Circus in London was a Clown Charivari with 15 or more clowns.  The following year there were 20 clowns in the Charivari act.  That is the earliest reference I have found for the act.

 In his book, Clown Alley, Bill Balantine describes origin of the act on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus™.  During a scouting trip to Europe in 1973 Irvin and Kenneth Feld, producers of the RBB&B Circus™, saw a group of Swedish acrobats, billed as the Stupids, perform a speedy comedy vaulting act using a mini trampoline to propel them over a chest-high horse.  They landed on a crash pad.  There was one other foreign act performing a similar act at the same time.  The Stupids and the other group had only ten people in their act.  The Felds wanted to produce a similar but larger act.  They asked Victor Gaona, patriarch of the Flying Gaona family of trapeze artists, to create and direct the act which would feature thirty entertainers performing forty-five leaps and falls in ninety seconds.  The act would include forward somersaults, some with half and full twists, and some double forward somersaults.  Victor began teaching acrobatics to the 1973 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College™ students.  Using a safety belt and lunge line to prevent injury, they began learning the tricks on a trampoline.  When Victor felt they were ready, he had them begin vaulting over the gym horse.

 In addition to performing the tumbling tricks, the clowns had to learn to incorporate them into a comedy routine.  For example, one of the clowns would land standing upright on top of the horse.  Then he would side step the other clowns diving over the horse.  Some of the clowns would pass between his legs.  Finally, another clown would land on his chest and they would both fall backwards to the mat.  Another gag frequently included was for one clown to land lying on the padded top of the horse.  The next clown would land lying down on top of him. The rest of the clowns dog pile on top until they finally all topple over sideways onto the mat.  Usually a clown in a harness, or a dummy, is pulled high into the air on the end of a wire.

 Sometimes the clown act followed a straight acrobatic act as a parody of it.  For example, the 1976 RBB&B Circus™ Blue Unit program lists the twelfth act in the performance as “Charivari … Followed by a Platoon of Pranksters in their own Sporty Spoof ... The Crazy Klods.”

 Most often Clown Charivari was a stand alone act with its own theme.  For example, the 1984 RBB&B Circus™ Blue Unit clown alley performed the act costumed as convicts who were attempting an escape by going over the wall. 

 The 1996 RBB&B Circus™ Blue Unit production used a clown family as a unifying theme.  For the Clown Charivari act the top of the horse was built to look like a bed.  “Baby” lay down to go to sleep and began counting sheep.  The sheep were all costumed clowns vaulting over baby and the bed.  After their first time over, Baby got up and joined in the acrobatics.  Clown Charivari often does not have a definite ending, but in this version it concluded with the entrance of a wolf that chased all of the sheep away.

 The acrobatic Clown Charivari is most closely associated with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus™, in particular the Blue Unit, but that is not the only place it has been performed.  In 1982 I saw Mexican clown Peluzza performing a variation with the Ice Capades.  In his version, Peluzza played a convict being chased by four keystone style cops.  (Although it was performed as a novelty act in an ice show, Peluzza and the Koppers did not wear skates.   They performed on mats covering the ice.)

 The 1996 Clyde Beatty and Cole Bros. Circus clown alley performed their version of this routine.

 The Dell’Arte International clown school used a version of an acrobatic Charivari for the finale of their 2010 clown show. 

 The Italian Circus Medrano, currently performing in Israel as part of an eight-month tour of that country, concludes with a comedy vaulting act performed by male acrobats dressed as women.


 Another acrobatic Summer Olympic sport using a springboard is diving. 

 One of the most unusual venues for acrobatic clowns was aquatic shows.  In one version, diving exhibitions and synchronized swimming were combined into an entertaining production.  In the Seattle , WA area there was an aquatic show amphitheater built on the shores of Greenlake.  Marineland of the Pacific, just north of Los Angeles , sometimes had a diving show in the dolphin pool.  Diving exhibitions were performed at other amusement parks and sometimes toured municipal pools.  These shows often included clowns performing comedy diving.  I worked at Raging Waters, in San Dimas , CA , in 1993 as a clown.  The park’s entertainment that summer included an act billed as the All American High Dive team.  Their exhibition included some comedy dives.

 Sometimes these comedy diving acts were called the Aquamaniacs.  (That name is currently used by scuba diving schools and people interested in keeping fish in aquariums.)   They wore old fashioned swimsuits or other comedy wardrobe.  If they worked solo, the clown would get tangled up in the rails on the diving platform and slip and fall on the board.  When they performed as teams they would often they do tandem dives or the type of stunts performed as part of Charivai.  To view some diving clowns in action go to

 When Chuck Sidlow was a young boy his parents knew George A. Hamid, Sr., the owner of the Steel Peer in Atlantic City , NJ .  The attractions on the peer included Diving Horses.  Chuck told me that as an attention getting pre-show Acapulco cliff divers would come out of the audience and “fall” into the water.  The group included a midget dressed as a little boy.  The announcer would warn his “mother” to keep her boy away from the edge.  Of course, the boy ended up diving into the water.  Chuck said that when the midget was not able to perform he took his place.

 The clowns working at the Circus World amusement park in Florida between 1976 and 1986 performed a comedy diving show.  Kenny Ahern began his professional career performing at that park.

 A group of swimming and diving clowns appeared at Clown Camp ® in 2000 as part of the Twentieth Anniversary Celebration.  They were the Triton Aquatic Clowns from Tokyo , Japan .  The did not do high diving, but performed their comedy on the regular diving boards, the deck around the pool, and in the water of the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse swimming pool.

 In 1957 Arthur Concello produced a unique comedy high dive act for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus™.  A diving board and changing booth were built into the frame for the aerial rigging.  Concello recruited members of the flying trapeze acts to perform the standard clown diving gags.  However, instead of landing in water, they landed in a new style safety net that provided more spring than the nets formerly used by trapeze acts.

 In another interesting hybrid a solo clown performs some of the diving gags, but instead of landing in a pool of water they land on a trampoline.  Larry Griswold’s performance of this type of act on Frank Sinatra’s television show Nov. 13, 1951 has been preserved and is available for viewing on YouTube at

 More recently Don Otto performed a similar type of act titled the Diving Fool.  I saw him perform his act in an edition of the Ice Capades about twenty years ago.   Don’s act is also available for viewing online at

 When you watch this year’s Summer Olympics from London keep in mind that the history of clowning includes many comedy gymnastic acts by Olympic caliber athletes.  That is one more thing we can take pride in when we think about our wonderful art that has embraced many different performance styles over the centuries.

 Barnum & Bailey Circus™, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus™, RBB&B Circus™, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College™, and the Greatest Show On Earth™ are all trademarks of Feld Entertainment, Inc.

 Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Clowning Around.

Copyright 2012 by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson.  All rights reserved.


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