Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


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An Overview of Clown History From Ancient Pharoahs to Modern Times

By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

World Clown Association Historian

The art of clowning has existed for thousands of years. A pygmy clown performed as a jester in the court of Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty about 2500 B.C. Court jesters have performed in China since 1818 B.C. Throughout history most cultures have had clowns.

Dorian Mimes

The first documented professional entertainers are the comic (clown) characters of the Dorian Mimes who started performing in ancient Greece during the seventh century BC. Although called mimes they were not silent actors. Their name came from their ability to mimic others. The Dorian Mime troupes included women who played the female clown roles. The clown tradition started by the Dorian Mimes lasted in Europe for at least a thousand years, and formed the foundation of most Greek and Roman classical theater.

Feast of Fools

By the twelfth century, Feast Days were held by the Catholic Church on the twelve days of Christmas, December 25 through January 6.  On each day a feast celebrated some aspect of Christ’s birth and childhood.  For example, January 6 celebrated the visit by the Wise Men.  Some of these days were given to minor clergy to conduct the church services, stage processions through town, and collect gifts. The day the subdeacons were in charge the celebration evolved into the Feast of Fools.  A subdeacon was elected Bishop of Fools to preside over the festivities. The subdeacons were the least important church officials so the inversion of status led to many satirical jabs at those normally in charge.  The Feast of Fools began in France and was celebrated in many ways throughout Europe.

In Beavais, France, it was called asinara festa (Feast of the Ass). It included a burlesque recreation of the Holy Families flight to Egypt. A caparisoned donkey was led at the front of a procession through town to the Church of St. Etienne. The donkey and its followers were invited inside and a Mass was said. Instead of chanting the traditional Latin responses to the Mass, the congregation brayed back, "Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw."

The donkey inspired the most common item of apparel at the Feast of Fools, a peaked hat with two donkey ears.  (This hat was adopted by court jesters.) Other apparel reflected the day's theme of status inversion. For example, men dressed as women and lay people exchanged clothing with the clergy.

The lesser clergy violated taboos on this one officially sanctioned day of comedy. They rang the church bells improperly and sang out of tune.  They used puddings, sausages, or old shoes as censors. Describing the festival at an Antibes monastery, a writer said, "The lay brothers, the cabbage-cutters, those who work in the kitchen, occupy the places of the clergy in the church. They don the sacerdotal garments reverse side out. They hold in their hands books turned upside down, and pretend to read through spectacles in which bits of orange peel have been substituted for glass." 


One theory is that this day of sanctioned inappropriate behavior preserved order by serving as a relief valve.  People were not tempted to misbehave on the other 364 days because their desire was satisfied during the Feast of Fools.


The Feast was very popular among the minor clergy and the citizens of the cathedral towns, but those being ridiculed didn't always enjoy it.  Several Popes tried unsuccessfully to suppress it. In some localities the clergy tried to refuse to participate. In 1489, in Tournai the churchmen obtained a royal decree from Charles VIII exempting them from participating in the feast.  (Tournai is part of modern Belgium.)  In 1498, laymen kidnapped eight clergymen at Tournai, holding them hostage until one of them volunteered to be Bishop of Fools. The church's protest to the local government was unsuccessful because the town mayor was the leader of the kidnappers. The resulting legal battle between the church and town culminated in the Tournai Feast of Fools being officially abolished in 1500.


In general, the Feast of Fools survived until the Protestant Reformation in 1517. In some locations it was still occasionally celebrated into the 1600's.


When the Feast of Fools was no longer sanctioned by the church it was transformed into a secular celebration. In France, amateur fool clubs called societes joyeuses (joyful societies), were created during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These societies held mock ceremonies in the tradition of the Feast of Fools.  (Some continued to use the name Feast of Fools for their celebrations.)  They were the first organized comedy troupes.  This means the Feast of Fools is part of the foundation for both secular and religious comedy.  The Feast of Fools was depicted in the Disney film titled “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Mystery/Miracle and Morality Plays

The early church had banned actors because of the vulgarity associated with Roman Theater.  However the medieval church recognized the educational value of theater and arts to “elevate the common people to knowledge and to show in some palpable form the eternal truths.”  They believed that people needed to “see to understand, and understand to believe.”  This was particularly true when the official language of the church was Latin, which the local citizens did not speak.  To get around the ban on actors the church used string puppets to portray the Christmas story.  Our term Marionettes, which means Little Mary, comes from these performances. 

 At first the puppets were used to act out the Nativity story while it was read from the Bible.  (A modern version of this was performed on the 1979 television special titled “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.”)  Over the centuries these puppet plays evolved to include other Bible stories and they were performed at festivals year round.  These became known as Mystery or Miracle Plays.  When a story included a miracle, special effects were used to recreate it.  These were the first Christian magic illusions.

 The church recognized the value of humor as an educational tool.  Little by little comic characters and scenes were introduced into the puppet plays.  The shepherds at the nativity, Noah’s wife, demons, and sinners doomed for hell were turned into comedy characters similar to clowns.  Like the Feast of Fools, these puppet plays reached the height of their development in the fifteenth and sixteenth century.  In The Art of the Puppet, Bil Baird describes a performance of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary at the Church of St. James at Dieppe in 1443.  This performance included Grimpesulais, a marionette clown, who is an extraneous impudent character mocking the action of the play.

 Once these characters were accepted, actors playing them were accepted by the church.  Plays originally performed by puppets were taken over by actors and new plays were developed.  This is how clowning was introduced into the church and is the beginning of Clown Ministry.

Gradually the Mystery Plays were gathered into collections called Cycles.  Each Cycle was developed and performed in a specific town.  As they became larger and more elaborate they were moved outside.  The set for a Mystery Play Cycle was a large open performance area, called the platea, and a row of small temporary buildings, called the mansions.  Sometimes cloud cutouts would be placed on the roofs of nearby buildings to hide the winches used to fly characters.


he Wakefield (aka Towneley) Cycle was a series of 32 plays that began with the Creation and concluded with the Last Judgment.  It was first performed in about 1450.   One of the plays was “The Second Shepherd’s Play,” performed by clowns.  It is perhaps the best known of the English Mystery Plays.


Eventually some Mystery Play performers reached too low for their humor and the plays eventually became vulgar.  This led to the church banishing them in some locations.  They became secular in nature and were transformed into Morality Plays teaching lessons about being a good person.   They were an important step in the development of clown type characters and in comedy performances.

Glee-men and Glee-Maidens

In Medieval England, itinerant male clowns were called Gleemen. Many of them worked in partnership with a "glee-maiden", a female clown who was a skilled musician, dancer, and acrobat. Glee-maiden's also worked on their own or as an assistant to male troubadours burlesquing his skill.


When Cortez conquered the Aztec Nation in 1520 A.D. he discovered Montezuma’s court included jesters similar to those in Europe. Aztec fools, dwarf clowns, and hunchbacked buffoons were among the treasures Cortez took back to Pope Clement VII. Most Native American tribes had some type of clown character. These clowns played an important role in the social and religious life of the tribe, and in some cases were believed to be able to cure certain diseases.

Clowns who performed as court jesters were given great freedom of speech. Often they were the only one to speak out against the ruler’s ideas, and through their humor were able to affect policy. In about 300 BC Chinese emperor Shih Huang-Ti oversaw the building of the Great Wall of China. Thousands of laborers were killed during its construction. He planned to have the wall painted which would have resulted in thousands more dying. His jester, Yu Sze, was the only one who dared criticize his plan. Yu Sze jokingly convinced him to abandon his plan. Yu Sze is remembered today as a Chinese national hero.

One of the most famous of the European court jesters was Nasir Ed Din. One day the king glimpsed himself and a mirror, and saddened at how old he looked, started crying. The other members of the court decided they better cry as well. When the king stopped crying, everyone else stopped crying as well, except Nasir Ed Din. When the king asked Nasir why he was still crying, he replied, "Sire, you looked at yourself in the mirror but for a moment and you cried. I have to look at you all the time."

There were many female court jesters. Early Female Clowns


Commedia del Arte

The Commedia del Arte began in Italy in the sixteenth century and soon dominated European theater. It was a highly improvised theater based upon stock characters and scenarios. It contained many comic characters divided into masters and servants. There were three types of comic servants: the First Zany, the Second Zany, and the Fantesca. The First Zany was a male servant who was a clever rogue often plotting against the masters. The Second Zany was a stupid male servant that was caught up in the First Zany’s schemes and often the victim of his pranks. The Fantesca was a female servant, played by an actress, who was a feminine version of one of the Zany characters and would participate in the schemes and provide a romantic story among the servants.

The history of clowning is a history of creativity, evolution, and change. Harlequin started off as a Second Zany, the victim of Brighella. Performers portraying Harlequin gradually made him a smarter character until he eventually usurped Brighella’s position. In English Pantomime, a style of theater based on the Commedia del Arte, John Rich completed the evolution of Harlequin elevating it to starring position. New characters evolved to assume the position of Harlequin’s stupid victims. One of these was the whiteface clown.

William Kemp and Robert Armin - Shakespeare’s Clowns

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, clowning in England was basically a theatrical art form. Shakespeare was the playwright for the Lord Chandler’s Men acting troupe. Of the 26 principal actors in the Lord Chandler’s Men listed in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, two, William Kemp and Richard Armin, were clowns. William Kemp was the first clown to appear with the troupe. He was such an important star that he was a part owner in both the troupe and the Globe Theater. He specialized in playing stupid country bumpkin type characters.

Robert Armin (c.1568 - 1615) joined the company when Kemp left. He specialized in playing court jester style fools. He wrote Foole Upon Foole, a book on famous court jesters, one of the first histories of clowning to be published.

The style of Shakespeare’s plays changed when Armin replaced Kemp so it is known that he tailored them to the style and abilities of his clowns. Scholars believe that part of the existing scripts were actually ad libs by the clowns that were written down after they proved popular.

According to tradition, Hamlet’s order that clowns speak only what had been written down for them was in reality Shakespeare’s criticism of Kemp’s ad libbing.

 The First Circus Clown

Philip Astley created what is considered the first circus in England in 1768. He also created the first circus clown act called Billy Buttons, or the Tailor’s Ride To Brentford. The topical act was based on a popular tale of a tailor, an inept equestrian, trying to ride a horse to Brentford to vote in an election. Astley impersonated the tailor attempting to ride the horse. First he had tremendous difficulty mounting correctly, and then when he finally succeeded the horse started off so fast that he fell off. As the circus grew and Astley hired other clowns, he required them to learn Billy Buttons. It soon became a traditional part of every circus for 100 years. Variations of the routine with somebody coming out of the audience to attempt to ride a horse are still being performed in modern circuses.

Pantomime or Harlequinade

During the early eighteenth century a new type of stage show developed in England.  It was known as the Pantomime or Harlequinade.  At that time Pantomime did not have our current meaning of silent acting.  It meant actors portraying more than one character.  (In Greek “panto” means “all” and “mime” means “imitate.”)  The Pantomime grew out of the rivalry between John Weaver and John Rich, the performer/directors at two theaters near London.  Weaver and Rich introduced Commedia Del Arte characters into classic fairy tales, legends, and literature.  John Rich became famous for portraying Harlequin, a character that had originated in the Commedia Del Arte.  Rich’s Harlequin was an acrobat, thief, practical joker, and a magician.  His spectacular shows included elaborate transformation scenes with the entire set instantly changing into a new location.  During Rich’s 43-year career, Harlequin was the main character and star.  The productions usually included Harlequin’s name in the title and became known as Harlequinades because of the character’s prominence.  In his productions, Rich introduced Pierrot and Whiteface clown as minor supporting characters played by other actors.

 Ten years after John Rich retired; Carol Delpini began performing as Pierrot at the Drury Lane Theater.  He was the first Pantomime performer to become famous for playing what we would recognize as a modern clown character in appearance.  Delpini developed a new Pantomime format.  It began with the dramatic story.  Then at a moment of crisis the original characters would be transformed into the Commedia characters and an extended comic slapstick chase would conclude the production.  In the first half of the show the principal actors wore oversized masks and breakaway outer costumes.  During the transformation they would drop their masks and outer costume down trapdoors revealing their appearance as Commedia characters.  For example, in the 1781 production titled “Robinson Crusoe: or Harlequin Friday,” Delpini played Robinson Crusoe in the dramatic part, and then transformed into Pierrot for the comic scenes.  The duo role of Friday and Harlequin was played by Guiseppe Grimaldi, Joseph’s father.

 Pantomimes became a traditional part of two holiday celebrations, Christmas and Easter.  Originally the new Christmas Pantomime debuted on December 26, Boxing Day in England.  The format and style of the Christmas Pantomime has changed, but it still remains an important venue for clown and comedy performers.  Modern day Christmas Pantomimes debut in mid-December and continue until mid-January.

Joseph Grimaldi - The Father of Modern Clowning

Joseph Grimaldi (1778 - 1837) was exclusively a theatrical clown. He is considered the Father of Modern Clowning because he is the entertainer who elevated the Whiteface clown to a starring role replacing Harlequin.

Grimaldi grew up in the theater, and excelled at designing elaborate trick special effects. The type of production he starred in resembled a live action Roadrunner Cartoon with chase scenes and comic violence with extreme but temporary results.

Grimaldi was known for his comic songs, in particular an audience participation song called Hot Codlins. Besides appearing as a whiteface clown, Grimaldi also performed in blackface portraying "noble savages" such as Friday in a comic production of Robinson Crusoe.

First female circus clown

The first female American circus clown that we have records of was Amelia Butler who portrayed a recognizably feminine clown in 1858 while touring with a show called Nixon’s Great American Circus and Kemp’s Mammoth English Circus.

Dan Rice

Dan Rice (1823-1901) was a clown of the Civil War era. Like Will Rogers and Bob Hope he commented humorously on current events. A composer, he created many popular topical songs.

Rice had a goatee and wore a patriotic costume he referred to as his flag suit. According to legend political cartoonist Thomas Nast based his drawings of Uncle Sam on Rice and his costume.

Dan Rice was an accomplished animal trainer. He specialized in pigs and mules, which he trained and sold to other clowns. He also presented an act with a trained rhinoceros and is the only person in circus history to present a tightrope walking elephant.

Singing Clowns

During the mid-nineteenth century, before the invention of the phonograph and radio, popular songs were spread across the country by singing clowns who would then sell Songsters with the lyrics and music following the show. They played an important role in the musical culture of the nation.

Origins of the Auguste character

There is a widely told legend about the origins of the Auguste clown. According to the legend, an American acrobat named Tom Belling was performing with a circus in Germany in 1869. Confined to his dressing room as discipline for missing his tricks, he entertained his friends by putting on misfitting clothes to perform his impression of the show’s manager. The manager suddenly entered the room. Belling took off running, ending up in the circus arena where he fell over the ringcurb. In his embarrassment and haste to escape, he fell over the ringcurb again on his way out. The audience yelled, "auguste!" which is German for fool. The manager commanded that Belling continue appearing as the Auguste.

Most serious historians doubt that the legend is true. For one thing, the word Auguste did not exist in the German language until after the character became popular. One of the theories of the actual origin is that Belling copied the character from the R’izhii (Red Haired) clowns he saw when he toured Russia with a circus.

Characters like the auguste certainly existed previously. Whether or not he was the first, Belling was not very successful as an Auguste and soon left clowning to perform as a magician.

Footit and Chocolat

One of the first truly successful Augustes was Chocolat (Raphael Padilla) ( - 1917), a Cuban born Black orphan. He was sold as a servant to a European, and eventually worked as family servant for Tony Grice, a whiteface clown. Part of his duties was appearing as an Auguste in Grice’s clown acts. It was after he teamed with English Whiteface clown George Footit (1864-1921) that he became extremely popular. The duo demonstrated the dramatic comedy inherent in a whiteface- auguste duo. Footit was the haughty, authoritarian, demanding, physically abusive Clown. Chocolat was a lazy fool unsuccessfully attempting to appear dignified, a naive hapless scapegoat who obeys without complaining and doesn’t react to the abuse he suffers. They recreated Grice’s train station sketch, and performed some traditional routines, but they were most noted for their original parodies rich in dialogue. Their success inspired many imitators establishing the auguste character.

Chocolat did not wear make up. His dark skin contrasted nicely with Footit’s white make up.

Early auguste clowns had a naturalistic appearance as if they had just wandered off the street into the circus ring. The exaggerated make up associated with the auguste clown today was introduced by Albert Fratellini, of the Fratellini Brothers.

 Origins of the Tramp Character

James McIntyre ( -Aug. 18, 1937) and Tom Heath ( -Aug. 19, 1938) created a tramp clown characterization in 1874.  (That is the earliest of the modern tramp characters that I have discovered.  Some of the Native American tribes had clowns who dressed in rags while begging for food.  However there is no evidence that those performers who portrayed tramp characters on stage, in movies, or in the circus were aware of this earlier version of the character.)

McIntyre and Heath portrayed Henry and Alexander, African Americans made homeless by the Civil War. They based their characters on blackface minstrel clowns which is the origin of the white mouth used by tramp clowns. They studied African American culture attempting to accurately portray it. McIntyre is credited with introducing an African American dance called the Buck and Wing to the American stage. The dance later became known as tap dancing.   Although McIntrye and Heath claimed to be authentic presenters of African American culture, the minstrel character had rapidly deteriorated into a negative stereotype.  Some performers had used it to justify slavery by representing African Americans as an inferior race needing protection and being happier on plantations than under the stress of freedom.

During their 63 year career McIntyre and Heath influenced many of the tramp performers that came after them.  They were a particularly important influence on W.C.Fields who began his entertainment career as a tramp juggler and later appeared in McIntyre and Heath’s 1906 Broadway production title The Ham Tree.

There was originally great resistance to tramps in American culture.  A newspaper editorial suggested poisoning the food given to tramps.  This antagonism carred over to tramp performers.  Charles Burke, a tramp clown performing in circuses in 1882, introduced his act by reciting a poem that began,

“Lemme sit down a minute, a stone’s got in my shoe;

Don’t you commence your cussin’ I ain’t done nothin’ to you.

Yes, I’m a tramp.  What of it?  Folks say we ain’t no good,

But tramps have to live, I reckon, though folks don’t think we should.”

The rest of the poem explained that he found himself in his current condition because his daughter’s death drove him to drink.  After winning over the audience’s sympathy, Burke was able to continue with his act.

Tramps first became acceptable comic characters through cartoons and comic strips appearing in magazines and newspapers.  The most popular cartoon tramps in America were Happy Hooligan, created by Frederick Burr Opper, and Weary Willy, created by Zim (Eugene Zimmerman.)  A British comic strip about tramps was Weary Willy and Timid Tim, created by Tom Brown.  These three comic strips were influential in the development of the tramp cartoon character.  First they transformed tramps from a threatening figure to be feared into a philosophical vagabond and folk hero.  Their popularity paved the way for acceptability of tramps as comic characters.  Happy Hooliigan has also been identified as an influence upon the tramp characters created by W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin.  Chaplin himself became an influence upon tramp style characters around the world and Tramp clowns are known as Charlie in Europe.  Emmett Kelly took his clown name, Weary Willy, from the comics by Zim and Brown.

There is a myth that the appearance of the tramp clown’s make up came from tramps getting their faces sooty while riding the rails and then wiping their eyes and their mouth with their sleeve leaving pale patches around those features.  Justification is a theater term meaning that you explain your choices based on the character’s personality.  The story about wiping their face was probably one entertainers justification that was then copied by others.  However, it is not the origin of the tramp appearance because early tramp performers did not use white around their eyes.  It was only later in their development that tramp clowns began copying auguste clowns in using white around their eyes, and then a minority of tramp clowns have used that style.  The purpose of the white around the eyes, in both the auguste and tramp make up styles, is to focus audience attention on the eyes which are one of the most expressive facial features.

 Bert Williams

Early vaudeville was segregated. Bert Williams (Egbert Austin Williams) (Nov. 12, 1874-March 4, 1922) , a black man performing a tramp clown character in the tradition of McIntyre and Heath, broke through many racial barriers. He was the first black performer to star in a motion picture, and his recordings with George Walker are the earliest documented appearance by Blacks on phonograph records. He broke down barriers for Blacks in vaudeville and on Broadway.  The dignity he gave his tramp clown character humanized the caricature created by white minstrels and forced upon Black minstrels. His accomplishments were such that famous Negro scientist Brooker T. Washington said, "Williams has done more for the race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts."

In 1893 he teamed with George Walker considered one of the best straightmen in vaudeville. Walker and Willams formed a black production company in 1898. They produced A Lucky Coon, Senegambian Carnival, The Policy Players, In Dahomey, Abyssinia, and Bandana Land. According to Mel Watkins, "the success of the Williams and Walker productions significantly influenced black performers’ acceptance on Broadway and the vaudeville stage."

Bert Williams played to two main audiences.  He appealed to both Black and White audiences although he was criticized by members of both races.  Some Whites felt that he strayed too far from the Negro stereotype and some Blacks felt that he stuck too closely to the stereotype.  The stereotypical Minstrel performances had an unexpected benefit not intended by those who had originated it.  The Minstrel performers made Black characters an acceptable form of entertainment.  Eventually Black performers, confined by the stereotype, were accepted.  Once Black performers were accepted they were able to move beyond the stereotypical boundaries.  (A similar thing happened in the early days of Rock and Roll.  Black musicians were not accepted in many communities.  Stars like Ricky Nelson copied songs created by Black musicians, a practice known as covering the song.  Once the songs were popular those who had created them were accepted.)

After Walker retired due to illness, Williams continued with a solo act in 1910.  His act interspersed monologues, songs, and pantomimes. His most famous pantomime was a poker game where he silently portrayed all the players as they dealt, bet, and cheated by glancing at each others cards. He joined the cast of the Ziegfield Follies that year. He was in every Follies edition for the rest of his career.  His appearances in the Ziegfield Follies were controversial in the black community because the Follies admitted only white audience members.  Williams was considered America’s greatest entertainer by his contemporaries.

No matter what his accomplishments were on stage, Williams still faced the racism of his era. He was caught in the 1900 New York race riots. Although a vaudeville headliner, he had to stay in inferior black only hotels while on the road.  He once commented, “It is no disgrace being a Negro but it is mighty inconvenient.”

W.C .Fields described him as "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew."

First Edition © copyright 1992 by Bruce Johnson.  All rights reserved.

Revised and Expanded Second Edition  © copyright 2010 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson. All rights reserved.

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