Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


Home Up Definition Types PhilosophyOfHistory Multicultural Asian Christmas Native Women Dressler Minstrel Nat Wills Clarabell Felix Adler Jim Howle Olympic Clowns Wally Boag Bill Irwin Snowberg Rone and Gigi Baseball Meadowlark Victor Borge Mombo Charlie Chaplin Chaplin Circus Banana Man ICHOF Inductees Recommend Overview Ice Skating Clowns StarsOnIce Kurt Browning

Rone and Gigi --

Open Sesame,

Japan ’s Theatrical Clown Troupe

By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

Two clowns with very large ears stand on stage, each reading a page from the newspaper.  Suddenly the short fat one accidentally tears his paper in half.  His tall thin partner tries to copy him, but only manages to tear a small piece off the paper.  The short one tears his paper in half several times.  The tall one tears another small piece off and then manages to tear it in half.  Excitedly he repeatedly tears his paper.  The short clown then restores his paper revealing that the name Gigi is spelled across the center in large red letters.  The tall clown tries to restore his paper, but it is still in small pieces.  When Gigi begins to laugh at him, he throws the wadded up newspaper at him.  Then he gets a sign announcing that his name is Rone.  Gigi grabs his sign pulling it away from him revealing that he has a second smaller Rone sign that had been hidden behind the first.  Gigi grabs that sign, and Rone tips his hat allowing a banner with his name on it to unfurl.  Gigi tries to hit him with the signs, but he ducks and accidentally hits Gigi with his hat.  Rone runs around behind a waist high wall set up across the back of the stage and descends an escalator.  Gigi tries to follow him but gets onto a conveyor belt that does not descend.  Their chase scene behind the wall includes walking down stairs, riding the moving slide walk, ascending and descending escalators, and going up and down in elevators.  At the end, Rone pulls an overhead chain and as the sound of a toilet flushing is heard Gigi spins around as she is pulled down.

That is the signature piece of Rone and Gigi, the Open Sesame theatrical clown troupe from Japan.

Rone and Gigi

Rone and Gigi

Illustration by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

I had the pleasure of appearing in a show with them at the 1997 U-W Clown Camp ®.  I spent the rest of the week looking for the Japanese men to tell them how much I enjoyed working with them.  It wasn’t until they returned the following year that I learned two beautiful young women were behind the male characters.

Gigi is Chizuko Hashimoto.  She began clowning when she attended the first session of the Ringling Bros Clown College held in Japan in 1989.  She returned the second year as a member of the staff assisting Tuba Heatherton with the juggling classes.  One of the students the second year was Kumi Somayama who would become Rone.

Rone is from a theatrical family.  Her father was a Kabuki actor.  Rone was an actress appearing in straight plays, musicals, television, and movies prior to attending the Ringling Bros. Clown College . 

Rone said, “I was a lazy student at Clown College .  I would rather talk than practice.  In conversations with Gigi we discovered that we were both interested in performing clown plays.  We understood each other very well so we decided to become partners.”

Gigi said, “There are three approaches to being a clown.  You can approach it as a business.  You can approach it as art.  You can approach it as a caring clown.  All three are okay, but our approach is to try to combine clowning and art.”

Inspired by a performance in Japan by Mimicrech, a six-member clown troupe from the Ukraine , they decided to go to Moscow , Russia to continue their education in 1991.  At that time they did not speak any Russian.  Gigi said, “The classes were based on mime.  Even though we could not understand what the instructors said we could understand and copy the movement.”

In addition to the language barrier, the duo faced the food shortage caused by the break up of the Soviet Union .  According to Rone, “We stood in lines for bread.  The Russian people were very kind to us and they did everything they could to help.”

“At first we were both goofy characters,” Rone said, “but that didn’t work.  Then Gigi created her new character.”

“My first character was a silly girl,” said Gigi.  “In Russia , I created a fat older man character.  My name came from Zsa Zsa which is a Russian term for grandfather.  Also, many young kids in Japan call their grandfather Gigi.  Combining the two gave me Gigi as my name.”  Gigi’s new character had a beard and mustache drawn on using an eyebrow pencil.  Gigi’s new character was arrogant and demanding.  Rone’s character remained naďve and impish.

They have since created younger characters with more exaggerated Auguste make up including their trademark big ears attached to skull caps.  Gigi constructed a fat body suit that she wears with both of her male characters.  They perform most often as their Big Ears characters, but still use their original old men in some of their clown plays.

They have recently created even younger characters, two little children.  They strap shoes to their knees and perform while kneeling to make themselves shorter.  That allows for some amazing lean effects.  In one very charming scene the children are in a day care center waiting for their mothers.   At first the two children do not get along, but they end up becoming friends. The highlight of the scene is playing a song together on bells.

In 1992, the duo went to Kiev to study more Russian style clowning.  They later studied clowning and mime from Nola Rae, a clown/mime based in London . 

Their mime training is evident in their wall routine.   While the mechanics of their mime illusions are simple, the details they have added are what makes it effective.  For example, the mime elevators stop with a little bounce.  They practice yoga and work out at gyms to maintain the strength and flexibility necessary to perform their routines.

Mime is just one basis for their comedy movement.  Clowns have been described as living cartoon characters.  Rone and Gigi studied Tom and Jerry cartoons to learn more about comedy, timing, and movement.

Physical gags in the Tom and Jerry cartoons are punctuated with sounds.  Gigi and Rone do the same thing in their live performances.  Using a collection of sound effects recorded on a mini-disc Cathy, a third member of their troop, provides the sounds in synchronization with their actions.  They rehearse extensively to perfect their timing.  However, even when they improvise, Cathy is able to anticipate their actions and provide the appropriate sound.  Rone said, “Cathy knows how we prepare for a hit.  We never just hit each other.  We always prepare.  (Rone demonstrated how she draws her arm back before moving it forward in a slap.)  Also, Cathy observes our breathing to know when we are going to do something.”

When they rehearse, they make extensive use of video tape to see what they look like because they do not work with an outside director.  Gigi directs their performances as well as those of their students.  (Gigi is the artistic director of Open Sesame while Rone is the business manager.)  She takes her role seriously and her students joke that she always says “one more time please.”

Their desire to do clown plays has come true with several full theatrical performances complete with sets and special lighting effects.  One of their plays told the story of two old men checking into a sanitarium.  In another the clowns are tourists traveling on the Titanic.  Members of their ongoing professional clown classes fill out the cast of their plays.

Gigi teaches clowning three nights a week at their Tokyo studio.  Two nights are devoted to their professional students, while the third is a course for those interested in clowning as a hobby.  Some of their previous students were actually working for their business rivals at the time.  Gigi and Rone do everything they can to improve the quality of clowning in Japan because it is a relatively new art form in their country.  The majority of Japanese residents have never seen a clown.  When they see one for the first time it establishes their opinion of clowns because they assume all clowns are the same.  Rone explained that if the clown is good and contributes to the success of the event, they are likely to hire another clown in the future.  If the clown is of a poor quality, they are not interested in hiring any other clowns.  Because clown educational materials printed in Japanese are scarce, Rone is working on developing the ability to translate some material originally printed in English.

Rone and Gigi choose Open Sesame as the name of their troupe because it is known in Japan as a magical phrase that opens doors.  They hoped that the name would bring them good luck in opening opportunities for clowning for themselves and others.

Although they spoke very little English at the time, Gigi and Rone attended the University of Wisconsin Clown Camp ® in 1997 as participants.  They have led a contingent of Japanese clowns to the U-W Clown Camp ® every year since then.  Rone explained, “We tell our students to go to Clown Camp ® even if their English is not good enough to understand everything the instructors say.  We tell them to go to make a friend that will expand their brain.  It is important to learn magic and juggling, but in clowning it is even more important to learn hospitality.” 

Gigi and Rone have taught the core of regular Clown Camp ® instructors how to communicate more effectively with students from other cultures.  One of the keys is speaking slowly so they can distinguish between words and have time to think about the meaning.  Another key is writing things down because people can often comprehend print better than spoken words.  Also, letting somebody mirror something in hands-on training allows them to understand without words.

During their first year at Clown Camp ®, Rone and Gigi impressed everyone with their skillful performances during Open Mike.  Richard Snowberg, the director of Clown Camp ®, invited them to return the following year to perform one of their clown plays.  I was seated next to Lee Mullally, Clown Camp ® Assistant Director, during that ninety-minute show.  Suddenly he leaned over to me and said, “And they come here to learn from us!”  Everyone was amazed by their outstanding timing and exceptional technical skill combined with clearly defined characters and dramatic conflicts.

Richard and Lee work hard to find staff members for Clown Camp ® who are adept both at performing and teaching.  Performances by the Open Sesame students were testimony to the effectiveness of Rone and Gigi as instructors, so they were invited to teach at Clown Camp ® – Canada in Medicine Hat the next summer.  They have been regulars on the Clown Camp ® staff every year since 1999, and were honored on the 2001 Clown Camp ® logo.  They were part of a group of ten Clown Camp ® instructors from around the world invited to teach and perform in Singapore at the 2004 Clown Around The World Festival. His Excellency H.R. Nathan, the President of the Republic of Singapore , attended one of the shows. Rone and Gigi were part of a group of six instructors that went on to Malaysia following the festival to promote clowning, particularly caring clowning and clown ministry, in that country.  A year later they returned to Singapore to spend a month working with Knick Pang’s CircusOUTREACH.  They performed in prisons and taught clown classes to prisoners and at risk youth.

They were also part of the Clown Camp ® program at the 2005 World Clown Festival in Nagoya , Japan .  In addition to the Clown Camp ® programs, they have taught and performed at the 2001 Clowns International Festival in Bolton , England .  Rone and Gigi were the headliners for the 2003 World Clown Association Convention in Jacksonville , Florida and the 2004 World Clown Association Convention in Albuquerque , New Mexico .  They attended the 2004 International Clown Festival in Korea .  They have both worked hard to improve their use of the English language for business and instructional purposes. 

Both clowns were initially silent, but as she has learned more English, Gigi has become more vocal uttering sounds and short sentences.  Their acts and skills continue to evolve and improve.

Their entertainment excellence was recognized in 2002 when Clowns International named them as the Best Clowns in the Non-member category.  A year later they won the second place award at the prestigious 2003 International Clown Festival in Monte Carlo .  In 2004, they competed at Angel Ocasio’s Comedifest tying for first place and winning the People’s Choice Award.  

Rone said, “Winning awards is important because they give us credibility in Japan .  Somebody once asked Nola Rae what is the hardest part of being a professional clown.  She said, ‘Getting the job.’  It is not easy being a clown in Japan , but we love it very much so what else can we do.”

This article originally appeared in The Funny Paper magazine Volume 7 Number 1.

Copyright 2007 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

Following the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan in 2011, Rone and Gigi started Big Ears 4 Kids, a project to bring clowning into the areas hit hardest by the devastation.  They have taught clown classes in one town and are raising funds to perform a series of clown shows in the area.  For more information go to

Big Ears 4 Kids


 Home Index