By Robert Anderson. 2007



Many famous people over the past have had a relationship with or have been part of clowning.

The humorist Ogden Nash was an admirer - who wrote “I lack the adjectives and nouns to do justice to the clowns”

The master showman P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey circus renown was convinced of and stated unequivocally Clowns and elephants are the pegs upon which the circus is hung”

The noun, clown, is defined in the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as:

A fool, jester or comedian in an entertainment (as a play),

A grotesquely dressed comedy performer in a circus, and as

One who habitually plays the buffoon or joker.

Some famous humorous entertainers who come to mind that fit this characterization are:

Charley Chaplin, the tramp clown with the toothbrush mustache, undersized bowler hat, and bamboo cane who struggled to survive while keeping his dignity in a world with great social injustice.

Charley Chaplin is thought by many to be the greatest comedian of all time on the basis of his many classic motion pictures. He had stated “I remain one thing and one thing only, and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.”

W.C. Fields, another comic star of the past who is best known for his movie performances, was in his youth the most successful comedy juggler of his generation.

Fields was billed as the “Eccentric Juggler”. On stage he dressed as a tramp with a false beard and exaggerated eye makeup. He did not speak during his act but did a lot of physical and character comedy. He might drop something deliberately and blame it on his assistant, or fake behind the back throws by juggling two balls with one hand while waving a third ball behind his back with the other hand.

And finally Red Skelton who, at the age of 15, left home to perform with a traveling medicine show and went on to perform in showboats, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, and circus, including the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus where his father had performed as a clown before him. Here is a typical quote from this man who became a famous motion picture and television star:

“If some day you’re not feeling well, you should remember some little thing I have said or done and if it brings a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart then my purpose as a clown has been fulfilled.”


The above personalities, while performing some years ago (back in the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s), are in reality modern examples of clown artistry. They come from a long history of clowning.

The earliest recorded appearance of a clown dates from Egypt in the year 2270 B.C. when an Egyptian Pharaoh described the clown as “a divine spirit - to rejoice and delight the heart.”

Court Jesters were also known to have performed in China as early as 1818 B.C.

Our Western tradition of clowning has been traced to ancient Greece of the 7th century B.C. where strolling clowns were noted as having been seen in Sparta. These clowns portrayed everyone from soldiers to fools, witches, slaves and Greek gods.

In the Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries jesters or fools perpetuated the art of clowning in the palaces of kings and great nobles where they were allowed great freedom of speech and often spoke out against the ruler’s ideas.

Actually the character of the clown developed through fools and jesters in Elizabethan drama. For example the clown appeared in plays of Shakespeare where some of the principle actors played the part of clowns.

Examples include Feste & Sir Andrew in “12th Night”, Fool in “King Lear”, and Bottom in “As You Like It”.

It was during the 15th century that the improvised Italian theater of the Commedia dell’ Arte, introduced a roster of comic characters, the most famous of which was Arlecchino or Harlequin. With an unusual monkey face of wrinkled brow, pimple and arched eyebrows Harlequin played a series of parts as a quick-witted, funny and sophisticated trickster in a diamond costume of red, blue and yellow. A master of disguises he was a winner in any situation but love.

Note: In Gallery #16 of the Ringling Museum we display paintings by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti showing Harlequin in several disguises including those of Clever Valet, Brigand, Beggar, Scholar & Crippled Soldier.

The development of modern Western clowning, from the Harlequinade of the Renaissance, started during the reign of James I of England (1603-1635) when a troop of Venetian comedians of the Comedia dell’Arte traveled to England. The English people adopted the Harlequinade performances and proceeded to make English versions which became a part of the English tradition. In these comic pantomimes Harlequin, Columbine, Pierrot & the comic Pantaloon were the most important traditional figures. By the 18th century from the combination of Harlequin costumes, and the antics of Pantaloon and Zany, the clown, had evolved into a more modern clown figure.

The most famous and popular of all the clowns in harlequinade and pantomime was London born Joseph Grimaldi (1779-1837). In the popular harlequinade of the early 19th century he emerged as the founding father of the modern day clown. He is the original ‘Clown Joey‘, the term,‘Joey’, being used to describe clowns since his day. His acrobatic jumping and tumbling combined with comic scenes of harlequinade (for example, robbing a pie man, grasping a red hot poker, riding a giant cart horse etc.) received critical acclaim for brilliance. Grimaldi’s comic gift was the flexibility and expressiveness of his face and body. Winces, glances, grins and scowls projected his emotions. His make-up designs, applied over a base of pure white, supplied the basic funny face on which clowns still compose their greasepaint variations today.


The first account of clowns being related to circus activity was reported in 1770 when Philip Astley (1742-1814), a brilliant equestrian, hired a clown, Mr. Merryman, in order to provide spectators attending his riding school performances in London, England, with more diverse entertainment. The performances had become so popular that by 1782 he had added the comedic and acrobatic skills of the clown for performances between and during his equestrian acts.


In 1793 John Bill Ricketts (?? - 1800) brought the first circus to America and in that circus employed circus clowns to accompany his equestrian acts. A few years after his arrival in America Ricketts hired John Durang, who it is believed was the first American born clown. It was reported that George Washington, our first president, attended and enjoyed a Ricketts circus.

Dan Rice, the American Grimaldi, (1823-1901) was the first truly great American clown, as well as the first clown star of the circus. He was a wisecracking, cracker barrel philosopher, a forerunner of Will Rogers, who was well known for his Shakespearean quips as well as for his biting tongue. Called the President’s court jester he was a friend of both President Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. In addition to his clowning Rice was an accomplished animal trainer, a composer of songs and a political humorist who became a favorite of both Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. It was Mark Twain who paid him homage in his description of a circus in “Huckleberry Finn.” A number of popular expressions were either coined by Rice or used to describe his show and personal abilities. Some of these were: “One Horse Show”, “Greatest Show on Earth”, “Hey Rube”, and “Jump on the Bandwagon”. He is probably best known today as the political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s model for Uncle Sam.

One of Dan Rice’s famous acts was called “Pete Jenkins’ Ride” or “The Drunken Sailor” where a rube from the audience (really Rice in disguise) would attempt to ride a bucking horse. After many hilarious mishaps he would put the animal through it’s paces in an admirable way.


Around mid 19th century in Germany a new type of clown had emerged. This clown image was garbed in an eccentric outfit and performed a series of actions that seemed stupid and spontaneous. This clown’s performance was greeted by delighted German audiences with cries of “Auguste” which was slang for “silly” or “stupid.”

By the beginning of the 20th century the emergence of the large, new, three ring circus format under the “big top” required a further change to the Auguste in clown appearance and performance. Spectacular movement, bright costumes, oversized props, loud explosives and flamboyant make-up became essential to successful clowning for laughs and applause


The most important element of a circus clown’s appearance is his comical or tragic face. By wearing a bizarre makeup he easily achieves a rapport with his audience.

Note that once a clown face is developed by a clown it becomes his unique personal property. The famous character or tramp clown, Emmett Kelley, and his clown son, Emmett Jr., are reported to have had frequent disagreements over Jr.’s desire to appropriate his father’s face.

The three Basic Categories of clown makeup are Whiteface, Auguste and Character.

Whiteface Clown

The Whiteface category consists of two quite different types of White Face Clowns.

The Pierrot or European White Face Clown is usually the clown in charge. Make up is all in white with regular features which are painted on in black or red. He wears a white skullcap & has no hair on his head. His costume may be quite elaborate. He is a trickster, and is bossy and authoritarian in manner.

Better known perhaps is the Grotesque White Face Clown who is more of a comic character with a bright colored costume that doesn’t quite fit, a large rear or stomach, and exaggerated features which are outlined in bright color. He usually has bushy hair of an outrageous color.

It is Felix Adler (1895-1960) known as the “King of Clowns, who became the most famous white face clown of his time. During his 50 years as a clown, most of which was spent with the Ringling Brothers Circus, Adler paraded with his pet pig, Amelia, while dressed in long yellow shoes, a tiny umbrella and hat, an oversized red nose and padded rear extension. Never missing a performance in 28 years with Ringling, he became the head clown costume designer and trainer for the Ringling Show.

Bozo the Clown, the nationally syndicated clown of early television

fame, with his white face, orange bushy hair, and flamboyant costume might also come to mind when discussing the White Face Clown.

Auguste Clown

The Auguste Clown does pratfalls, gets hit in the face with pies, and is the butt of jokes often instigated by the white faced clown. He also is able to dissolve the whiteface’s well laid plans into chaos. The Auguste Clown is considered the prankster among clowns with actions that are wilder and broader than those of the whiteface or character clowns. The zaniest and perhaps the best loved of clowns, he usually wears big shoes, a bulbous red nose, a red or orange wig and an outrageous, color clashing, oversized costume. He has big features colored in black & red with his lower lip and eyes outlined to exaggerate facial expression.

Lou Jacobs (1903-1992) was America’s premier Auguste Clown and was arguably the most famous clown of his generation. So much so that he was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1966. His make up featured large patches of white around his eyes and mouth and a cone shaped bald head fringed with red hair around the ears. He wore a red rubber ball nose and all of this was all topped with a tiny hat.

Lou spent over 60 years with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show, doing clown routines that became classics in the field. Perhaps his most famous clown gag was entering, driving, and exiting, his fully functioning midget car (2 feet by 3 feet). At over 6 feet, this was accomplished due to the fact that Lou had been and was still a very agile contortionist. It is said that, he at one time drove the little car downtown Sarasota to get gas. Another of his famous clown routines included Lou’s Chihuahua, Knucklehead who, dressed in outsize rabbit ears, played a mischievous rabbit that consistently eluded Lou as the Big Game Hunter.

Ronald McDonald is also a well known commercial Auguste clown.

Character Clown

The Character Clown is usually an exaggerated version of a real type of person. His or her makeup often resembles a normal human face but with larger than life features featuring large noses, strange hair or warts. The costume shows the character’s personality (distinctive qualities and traits).

The most popular character clown is the hobo or tramp clown. It’s origins go back to the mid 19th century when they were based upon hungry and out of work laborers, and African Americans made homeless by the Civil War. Bert Williams, an African American performed the tramp clown in the late 1880’s and broke through racial barriers by performing on Broadway, early vaudeville and motion pictures. Today the character clown has the run of the circus tent and can work wherever and however he wishes.

The hobo or tramp clown was further developed during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, inspired by Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), “the Little Tramp”. This clown is na ve and sad but has considerable dignity. His face is darkened with black, he is unshaven and his clothes are tattered. Other famous tramp / character clowns of the past would include the following.

Emmett Kelley (1898-1979), a master of pantomime, was a forlorn little hobo, dressed in dirty rags held together with safety pins, and a tattered hat, who always got the short end of the stick but who kept on trying. He never smiled, had a bulbous nose, a long sad look emerging from natural eyes and a wide mouth set against a dark ‘five o’clock shadow. Starting as a trapeze artist he introduced his “Weary Willie” character in 1935 to circus audiences. One of his famous entrances saw him enter munching a head of cabbage. He would stare at a woman in the audience unblinkingly and occasionally offer her a leaf. A second entrance would see him enter with a broom to sweep up. When a spot of light would appear at his feet he attempted to sweep it away or into a tiny pin-spot to be loaded into a dust pan but was frustrated by being confronted by another spot of light.

Emmett was the star clown of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show from 1942 to 1955 after which he became the mascot of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, performed on broadway, motion pictures as well as in casinos in California and Nevada.

Otto Griebling (1896-1972) was a loveable round faced tramp who had been a bareback rider but who turned to clowning after breaking both legs. His act included both sad and saucy antics and a great gift for pantomime. He was best known for trying to deliver some odd piece of merchandise to an audience member who he claimed had ordered it. The merchandise might consist of a block of ice which would melt and become smaller as he continued to try to deliver it throughout the circus performance. Otto did the same act with an ever growing plant which grew from a small plant into a rather large tree.

Otto Griebling performed with a number of circuses and completed his career as a featured performer with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey show until his death in 1972.

Red Skelton (1913-1997) the great American tramp clown was the son of a former clown with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus. Before Red had turned 16 he had also clowned for the same show, and had acted, sang, or did stand up comedy in medicine shows, minstrel shows, and on board a river showboat.

Red started a very successful radio career in 1937 with an appearance on the Rudy Vallee show and then turned to television in 1951 where his clown characters of ‘Freddy the Freeloader’, ‘Klem Kadiddlehopper and ‘Willy Lump Lump’ among others made him a highly paid star on CBS. These characters are fondly remembered by many of us today and appeal today to children who know him only from re-runs of his past programs.

Red is also known for humanizing the caricature of the blackface clown.


Solo clowning ended for a time with the increased size of the circus as personal contact could no longer be practical under Big Tops. Talking and singing clowns then went into vaudeville and touring variety shows.

Singing Clowns - Early musical clowns introduced music into the circus. The first singing clown was Dan Rice (1823-1901) who introduced such songs as “Turkey in the Straw”, “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “Root Hog or Die”.

Tony Pastor (1837-1908), often called the Father of Vaudeville, started his career in the circus as a singing clown and acrobat.

More recently singing clowns might be identified as Mark Russell (b.1932), and Tom Lehrer (b.1928)

The New Vaudeville Clown does not wear makeup and entertains audiences by involving them in his performance. He utilizes a combination of skills in his act which may include mime, juggling, acrobatic and magic tricks. These clowns today make their mark in theaters, nightclubs and casinos across the land.

Women Clowns - Until recently clowns were usually men. Today there are many female clowns performing with circuses and in other venues. Some of the noted female clowns who were involved in the emergence of ladies to clowning were:

Peggy Williams who broke the sex barrier in 1970 when she became the first female graduate of Ringling’s Clown College .

Bernice Collins who became the first black female clown and

Ruth Chadwick who became Ringling’s foremost female stilt walking clown. She subsequently made life casts of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey clowns and each Clown College Graduate.


Clowns bring surprise and laughter to people, yet the art of evoking emotion is serious business. Performing clowns develop unique characterization or styles that emerge eventually from the individual’s talent, creativity and personality. The aspiring clown will in addition require special training in the performing arts as well as skill, dedication, and lots of practice in order to become successful.

The circus working area is an in-the-round situation on a grand scale. There can be as many as six separate entrances or exits and the traveling distances are great. The combination of bright lights on bold colors and spangles, band music and the ringmaster’s whistle create an ambiance which works to the circus clown’s advantage. The louder it gets the more excited circus goers become.

What a Clown Must Learn

(1) To hold attention the clown must do something of enough interest to cause people to continue watching as he or she slides into the action of the gag.

(2) The best way of getting this attention is by making a sharp noise: a shout, slap, hand clapping, whistling, bell ringing, bugle blast or drum roll etc.

(3) The aspiring clown must learn how to walk in a comic manner, how to fall without getting hurt, how to handle props and how to do a stiff backwards free-fall- and-catch.

(4) Clowns must “work big”, in other words must exaggerate every action.

(5) Clowns are never to turn their backs on their nearest audience, nor ever grow careless with their audience by slumping into an everyday person.

(6) Clowns need to learn how to turn nimbly, how to back up with confidence and turn their faces up periodically to the balcony.

(7) Comedy bits need to be defined with enough time between happenings for the audience to absorb the action and laugh.

(8) The most successful clowning always has a surprise finish, the “Blowoff”.

Clown College

In 1968 the number of clown professionals seemed to be dwindling. Irvin Feld, the CEO of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus, felt it was important to make sure that there would be trained clowns well into the future and so he organized and started Clown College. For the next thirty years Clown College taught the basics - everything from how to apply perfect clown make-up to how to take a pie thrown smack into your big clown face. In addition the students learned juggling, stilt-walking, gymnastics and pantomime.

Clown education has now moved on to more advanced lessons. Clowning has had to face the challenge of creating clown acts that are more refined and more skilled in order to relate to comedy of today. It has been estimated that it takes three to eight months to create special clown acts using existing professional talent.


Primary jokes appear to be divisible into six kinds.

Falls Blows Surprise Knavery Mimicry & Stupidity

Clown gags and routines have generally varied little from one generation to another. The following are some of the classics.

The Car Loaded with a Gang of Clowns

This is perhaps the most famous of the clown props - an unbelievable little car that speeds around the circus ring and finally unloads, one by one, an entire army of clowns.

The Burning House or Firehouse Fun

Clowns battled a burning building accompanied by clown hooting, and yelling as well as blasts, whistles, slides and percussion from brass bands.

Others include:

The Cop Chases The Inept House Painters

The Exploding Car The Self Driving Car


The Paradox of Clowning - With the clowns we learn to laugh as much at pain and suffering as we do at comic situations. The greater the violence, the more pronounced the laughter.

During the Depression years of the 1930’s clowns had to “double in brass” for more money and to make themselves more valuable to the circus.. Many did carpentry, painting etc.

Dwarf Clowns - Dwarfs have normal heads and bodies with short arms and legs. They are extremely strong and usually had a good life in the circus. They were not looked down upon but were accepted as “normal” people.

Clown props - Clowns made their props with piano wire so they could be folded and fitted into a small trunk.

Clowns did not eat or drink or smoke in their clown costumes as they wanted to keep them as clean as possible.