The Circus.
Abstracts from Microsoft Encarta

by Willem Van Osnabrugge

In the 20th century, arena for acrobatic exhibitions and animal shows. Usually circular and surrounded by tiers of seats for spectators, a circus may be in the open air but is usually housed in a permanent building or sheltered by a tent. The term circus is also applied to the performance itself and to the troupe of performers. The entertainment offered at a circus generally consists of displays of horsemanship; exhibitions by gymnasts, aerialists, wild-animal trainers, and performing animals; and comic pantomime by clowns.

The first modern circus was staged in London in 1768 by Philip Astley, a former sergeant major in the English cavalry, who performed as a trick rider. Beginning with a visit to Paris in 1772, Astley introduced the circus in cities throughout continental Europe and was responsible for establishing permanent circuses in a number of European countries as well as in England. A circus was first presented in Russia in 1793 at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. By the early 19th century several permanently based circuses were located in many larger European cities. In addition, small traveling shows moved from town to town in caravans of covered wagons in which the performers lived. The traveling shows were usually simple affairs, featuring a fiddler or two, a juggler, a ropedancer, and a few acrobats. In the early circuses such performers gave their shows in open spaces and took up a collection for pay; later, the performers used an enclosed area and began to charge admission. By contrast, the permanently-based circuses of Europe staged elaborate shows. In the earlier part of the 19th century a main feature of the permanent circus program was the presentation of dramas that included displays of horsemanship.

The circus was introduced in the United States by John Bill Ricketts, an English equestrian who opened a show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1792 and staged subsequent circuses in New York City and Boston, Massachusetts. President George Washington reportedly attended a Ricketts circus and sold the company a horse in 1797. The Ricketts circus remained in existence, with several name changes, through the first decade of the 19th century. Some of the outstanding companies in the early history of American circuses were the Mount Pitt circus and the troupes of the American animal tamer Isaac Van Amburgh, the American chemist and inventor Gilbert Spaulding, and the American clown Dan Rice.

Throughout the 19th century the circus evolved in programming and management. Initially, trained horses and equestrian performances dominated circuses, but ropedancing, juggling, acrobatic acts, wild-animal acts, and clowning were all introduced within the first few decades. The flying trapeze, an important part of the modern circus, was not invented until 1859, and the street parade and sideshow did not become standard circus events until later in the 19th century. Tents are believed to have come into use in the 1820s, but it is uncertain whether they appeared first in Europe or in the United States.

The huge multiring circus set up to accommodate thousands of spectators is a peculiarly American development. In 1869 William Cameron Coup organized a show of unprecedented size that gave performances simultaneously in two rings. Coup formed a partnership with the American showman P. T. Barnum, and in 1871 they opened a huge circus in Brooklyn, New York. This circus was advertised as "The Greatest Show on Earth." Ten years later Barnum went into partnership with the American showman James Anthony Bailey, one of the best organizers in the business, and two other impresarios. The new circus, in which Barnum and Bailey eventually became sole partners, was so large that it staged simultaneous shows in three rings.

In 1884 the five Ringling brothers, most notably Charles and John, organized their first circus. In succeeding years the Ringling brothers took over six circus companies, including Barnum and Bailey, which they bought in 1907. In 1929 the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, as it was called, bought another combination of companies, the Circus Corporation of America. At the height of its popularity, when it was the largest touring organization in the world, this circus complex used about 300 tents to stage a show and carried its own diesel plants to generate electricity. After World War II ended in 1945, however, mounting labor costs and freight charges made such large-scale tenting impractical. Thus, in 1956 John Ringling North announced that his Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus would henceforth appear only in permanent buildings. In 1969 the circus began operating as two separate units—the Red and the Blue—each available to play in about 50 arenas during a season lasting about ten and a half months.

At the present time, approximately 40 other circuses tour the United States and Canada. The Canadian company Cirque du Soleil introduced artistic and expressionistic elements into its acrobatic performances. The company toured throughout the world during the late 1980s and early 1990s and gained a large popular following, becoming one of the world's leading contemporary circuses.

Some of the notable British and European circuses in operation in the later part of the 20th century were Billy Smart's Circus of London, the Blackpool Tower Circus of Manchester, England; the Circus Schumann of Copenhagen, Denmark; the Hagenbeck and Althoff circuses of Berlin, Germany; the Krone circus of Munich, Germany; the Swiss Circus Knie; and the Elleboog and Boltini circuses of Amsterdam, Holland. About 100 troupes performed in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); the best known of them, the Moscow Circus, appeared in the United States in the early 1960s.


I INTRODUCTION  Clown, performer, usually in a circus, who plays the fool, performs practical jokes, and does tricks to make people laugh. Other names for clowns include buffoon, jester, fool, conjurer, mirthmaker, tumbler, gleeman, mime, actor, harlequin, merry counselor, comic, and puppeteer. Although there are many types of clowns, each clown develops a face, meaning a performance personality. A clown’s face, once established, becomes the clown’s unique personal property.

Faces and styles of circus clowns originally developed from specific performers and their routines. Most clowns fall into four basic categories: whiteface, auguste, character, and new vaudeville.

A Whiteface  
The oldest type of clown is the whiteface, which dates back to the 18th century. The white color of the face was originally achieved with flour. White lead later replaced flour, but after the 1880s, when lead was discovered to be toxic (poisonous), safer greasepaints were introduced.

The whiteface clown evolved from earlier whiteface theatrical entertainers. One of the most popular whiteface characters in history is Harlequin, a comic personality in the Italian theater form commedia dell’arte. English actor John Rich, who performed in the early and mid-18th century, was the most famous Harlequin of his time. After the mid-18th century, however, the clown gradually replaced the Harlequin character. English entertainer Joseph Grimaldi (whose name led to the designation of every clown as "Joey") played an instrumental role in this shift. He introduced his character as Clown (a word long used to denote a buffoon, jester, or rustic fool) to London theater audiences in the early 19th century. Clown quickly gained popularity over Harlequin. Grimaldi appeared as Clown in dozens of performances, including Harlequin and Mother Goose (1806). His makeup consisted of exaggerated eyebrows, geometrical patterns on his cheeks applied over a white base, and a blue topknot on his bald head. Grimaldi is considered the most famous clown.

In the early 19th century, while Grimaldi was entertaining audiences in London, French performer Jean Gaspard Deburau was capturing the imagination of audiences at the Th tre des Funambules (Theater of the Ropewalkers) in Paris. Wearing white makeup, a skullcap, and a white suit, Deburau was a juggler, acrobat, and mime. He played Pierrot, a naive yet prankish character created in the late 17th century. Deburau brought a new air of calculated mischievousness to Pierrot that bordered on the sinister.

From Deburau’s time until recently, the whiteface clown largely performed in ways similar to Deburau’s techniques. Like Deburau’s interpretation of Pierrot, the whiteface was a mischievous clown who tended to be bossy and liked to play tricks. Modern whitefaces, however, are often characterized more by sadness than by mischief-making.

If a whiteface’s painted features are naturally proportioned, the clown is a neat whiteface. Neat whitefaces were popular for many decades but became rarer in the 20th century. If a whiteface’s features are oversized or otherwise exaggerated, the clown is called a grotesque whiteface. Grotesque whitefaces are common in American circus history. Two famous grotesque whitefaces, active in the first half of the 20th century, are Joe Lewis, one of the first clowns to pretend to be a police officer, and Paul Jerome, whose makeup suggested widely separated front teeth. The most famous grotesque whiteface clown is Felix Adler, who performed in the early and mid-20th century. Adler carried a tiny umbrella and wore a padded rear-end extension, long yellow shoes, and a tiny hat. He based his clowning on simplicity and surprise.

B Auguste  
Another type of clown is the auguste, which developed in the mid-19th century. One of the more popular legends about the origin of the auguste clown involved an American performer named Tom Belling. One night in 1864 during a European performance, Belling, an accomplished acrobat and horseback rider, rummaged through a costume trunk, looking for a new comic identity. Dressed in a ragged coat, a tattered wig placed backwards on his head, and a grease-painted red nose, he was mistakenly pushed into the ring by the circus owner. Unfamiliar with his new costume, Belling tripped over his own coattails and fell flat on his face in the ring. The audience shouted "August!," German slang for a stupid, bumbling fool.

The auguste clown usually wears oversize shoes, a bulbous red nose, wigs of bright colors, and mismatched, oversized clothing. He may leave most of his natural skin color showing or use a pink or red makeup base instead of white. Facial features are painted on in black and red. The lower lip and eyes may be outlined in white to exaggerate facial expressions. The auguste clown stumbles, performs pratfalls, slaps and is slapped, and often is the butt of jokes. Auguste routines have grown more aggressive, physical, and slapstick in nature since their first development.

Lou Jacobs, the most famous American auguste clown, painted large white patches around his eyes. His bald head was shaped like a cone, fringed with red hair around the ears, and topped with a tiny fedora. Jacobs also wore a red rubber-ball nose. He retired in 1988 at the age of 84. Two of America’s most famous clown characters also fit into the auguste category: Ronald McDonald, created by the fast-food restaurant chain McDonald’s, and Bozo. More than 200 actors have played Bozo, including such notable public figures as television weatherman Willard Scott and television executive Fred Silverman. Bozo’s image, one many people associate with clowns in general, is based on the auguste face of early 20th-century Italian clown Albert Fratellini.

C Characters  

In the early 20th century a third category of characterization developed from the so-called carpet clown, who performed short, solo routines between circus acts. These character clowns, as they are known today, include any clown who has a unique routine and who usually works alone or without a partner in a large group. The character clown is the most realistic of the clown types. Character clowns make fun of different features of the human face through exaggeration, including beards, whiskers, warts, large noses, bald heads, and strange haircuts. The most popular character is the hobo or tramp clown, which is probably the only clown type originally developed in the United States.

The development of the tramp clown, however, owes much of its inspiration to English actor Charlie Chaplin. During his career, Chaplin played the part of the "Little Tramp" in many motion pictures. Two other famous tramp clowns are Otto Griebling and Emmett Kelly, close friends who performed in the early and mid-20th century. Griebling developed the routine of banging tin pie plates together and pitting the audience on one side of a circus tent against the audience on the other in a contest of screams and applause. Many circus clowns still use this routine today as a way of warming up an audience before a show. Kelly is probably the best known of the tramp clowns. While working as a young sketch artist, he created his famous Weary Willie as a cartoon character. Willie was a little hobo, who dressed in dirty rags and a tattered hat and was down on his luck. Kelly began his circus career as a trapeze artist in 1921. He began performing as Weary Willie in the 1930s. Another famous tramp clown is Red Skelton, who performed on television in the 1950s and 1960s. Skelton developed the characters Clem Kadiddlehopper, Deadeye, Willy Lump Lump, and Freddie the Freeloader.

D New Vaudeville  
Modern, or new vaudeville, clowns are performers who have turned away from traditional clown acts. Usually, the new vaudevillian clown works alone, typically without makeup. The new vaudeville clown seeks to relate with audience members rather than perform for them.

Some of the new vaudeville clowns perform with circuses, while others make their mark in the theater. Their routines, however, are firmly based on circus clowning. Examples of new vaudeville performers include the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a group of four musical jugglers, and Avner the Eccentric, who combines juggling, mime, and magic tricks with traditional clowning techniques. One of the best-known and most successful of all the new vaudeville clowns is Bill Irwin. Early in his career Irwin was a whiteface clown named Willy. He no longer wears clown makeup. Instead, Irwin uses his expressive face to portray the chaos of a mechanized and unfair world. In his act, Irwin’s clashes with modernity never end in defeat. Irwin wrote, produced, and performed in The Regard of Flight (1982), Largely/New York (1989), and Fool Moon (1993).

III CLOWN COLLEGE  Clowning techniques are primarily taught in specialized clown schools. Perhaps the most famous clown school is the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Theatrical promoter Irvin Feld founded the college in 1968 to provide formal training for clowns. Located in Sarasota, Florida, the school is open from July to September of each year and has graduated more than 1200 students. Many graduates receive contracts to perform with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, one of the best-known circuses in the world. Students not receiving contracts often use their skills and knowledge to inform others about clowning and the circus.

Kelly, Emmett Lee (1898-1979), American circus performer, born in Sedan, Kansas. Before joining the circus in 1921, Kelly was a cartoonist. His cartoon character, called Weary Willie, later was the model on which Kelly created his famous clown Willie, the woebegone, sorrowful tramp. Kelly appeared on television and in such films as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), in which he appeared as Willie, and Wind Across the Everglades (1952). His autobiography, Clown: My Life in Tatters and Smiles, was published in 1954.

Ringling, John (1866-1936), American circus owner, born near Baraboo, Wisconsin, one of seven brothers. The Ringling brothers were attracted to carnival life, and when Ringling was at an early age, he and four of his brothers organized the Classical Concert Company. This would later come to be known as the Ringling Brothers Comedy Concert Company, and finally the Ringling Brothers Circus. Ringling was a featured clown in the circus; he also worked as an agent and was in charge of transportation. His abilities contributed greatly to the rapid success of the circus, and in 1894 the brothers ventured east to Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1907 the brothers purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus and two years later they combined the two companies into one: the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The first performance of this new circus was in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In 1930, as sole survivor of the five brothers, Ringling became head of the American Circus Corporation, which by then included the Sells-Floto Circus, the Hagenbach Animal Show, and the shows of John Robinson and the Sparks. It was the largest organization of its kind in the world. Ringling later established his home in Sarasota, Florida, where he built the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to house his fine art collection.