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Title: The Autobiography of a Clown
Author: Marcosson, Isaac Frederick
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: “IT TAKES A WISE MAN TO BE A FOOL.”]








  Published March, 1910



This story of Jules Turnour interests me more than I can say. I have
known him for more than twenty years; have seen him at very close range
in all the shifting movement of a great circus organization, and I have
yet to find a man with a cleaner, higher aim. Mr. Marcosson, I think,
has admirably brought out the contrast between his whitened and motley
face and his patient, serious purpose to make his life helpful. The
world has been made better by the presence and work of Jules, and I am
glad that at last the real story of his somewhat unusual career is now



When the article on which this little book is based appeared in the
_Saturday Evening Post_ we were amazed at the response it evoked. It
simply proved that all the world loves a clown. In most of the comment
and communication, however, there was a question as to the authenticity
of the subject. I beg to say that Jules is a real personage and still
the nimble producer of many laughs.

It was while writing a series of articles on an entirely different
phase of the circus that I first met Jules. I heard of him the moment
I stepped into the circus world. So thoroughly had he impressed his
personality; so deeply had he become attached to its life, and so
profoundly had he gained the respect of its people, that not to have
heard of him argued that I was deaf and blind to everything about me.
I found him the friend, philosopher, and guide of the nomadic city of
tents that rose with the dawn and slipped away into the night. Despite
its transiency, there was much permanency of character in its varied
inhabitants. No one contributed more to its moral structure than Jules,
the clown.

We who live in this breathless era are wont to look upon the circus as
a temporary amusement makeshift. It is here to-day and gone to-morrow.
Yet behind its spangled, tinseled array and restless movement are
real traditions. Why has the circus endured in an age that craves new
diversion? Simply because it is basic; because it fills a fundamental
need; because it is a staple like wheat. Laughter is one of the
few eternal things; therefore the circus which produces it takes on
something of the same quality. More than this, the circus is as much
an expression of art as the drama. Like art, it is universal. The
clown being a world citizen interprets a world humor in which there is
neither border line, race, nor creed. Most of the great humorists have
been sad men, and thus the clown, clothed in his right mind, is grave
and reflective. Though he wear cap and bells, he has not wanted for
recognition among the great. Garrick, Kemble, and Booth have been glad
to claim him as fellow-artists. But it is in the heart of the child
that he has found his most grateful friend, and in a larger sense all
the world is a child when it goes to the circus.

In my work I have had to be, on many occasions, the biographer of the
great and the chronicler of much timely achievement. In all this swift
march of people and events I have yet to meet a man whose devotion to
the ideals of his art is more sincere than that which has animated
Jules Turnour through the long years of his clowning. I have been with
him in the tumult of tented travel and watched him in the roofed arena
before the multitudes. Always I have found him proud to be a clown. To
know him has indeed been a liberal education in character and loyalty.


  _New York_, January, 1910.






  I BECOME A CLOWN                19






  I LEARN ABOUT LIFE              67




  I GIVE MY CREED                 92


  “It takes a wise man to be a fool”                       _Frontispiece_

                                                              FACING PAGE

  “Every step in the making of a clown is hard work”                   10

  “Laughter loosens the fetters of the brain”                          18

  “The tall peaked hat was a great aid to clowning”                    28

  “To produce laughs you must make a serious effort”                   38

  “Behind the jests of the clown is the sear of sorrow”                46

  “To be a successful clown you had also to be a good pantomimist”     58

  “Every clown act must tell a story”                                  64

  “I become the friend and confidant of all”                           78

  “To be a good clown a man must be a student and in earnest”          84

  “I have made countless children clap their little hands with glee”   96

  “It is good to be a clown”                                          100




I suppose it was destiny that I should be a clown because I was born in
a circus wagon. It happened in this way. My mother had been a première
dancer on the French and English stage and had appeared in many of the
great Covent Garden and Drury Lane Christmas pantomimes, but she grew
stout, which is always fatal to that kind of dancing. She did not want
to leave my father, who was also a dancer and general acrobat, so they
invested their savings in a small circus.

In those days—it was more than fifty years ago—Europe was alive with
small circuses; most of them very modest, but all furnishing a very
popular form of amusement. There were few, if any, theaters scattered
throughout the country. Only city folk could enjoy the benefits and
pleasures of plays. It followed that the great mass of the country
people flocked to the circus, and the coming of one of them was an
event. Often the circus showed in a large inclosure built for meetings
and public entertainments. There was no top to the structure and in
case of rain the people either went home or ran the risk of spoiling
their clothes for the privilege of remaining. The shows traveled
from town to town in wagons, much smaller but not unlike the big red
creaking wagons of the modern American circus.

Up to that time the menagerie was not considered necessary to the
circus, but it was good business to have at least one cage with a
wild beast in it. My mother’s circus had a performing lion who was
a sort of patriarch. He was so amiable that he would eat out of the
hand of a child and he was so gentle that he had to be prodded into
a roar. The circus bill included several acrobatic acts, a juggler,
a sleight-of-hand worker, and the faithful lion who was both useful
and ornamental. My mother, who was as clever in business as she had
been with her toes, managed the show and my father was the principal
performer. It was a happy-go-lucky life, this wandering from town to
town, in the pleasant sunshine by day and under the stars by night.

During the year so fateful to me our little show had traveled through
the south of France and made its way into Spain. On a clear, hot July
Sunday we reached Galicia and camped on the edge of a wood. It was
there that I was born. My mother and father cooked, ate, and slept in
one of the wagons which was for years the traveling home of the family.
My mother always told me that the first thing I saw when my little eyes
gazed out of the wagon was old Albro, the French clown, who sat in the
sun whitening his face for the afternoon performance. More than once
my baby cries mingled with the rude jests he hurled at the audiences.
He was often my nurse and he told me wonderful stories of his travels
in foreign countries. I toddled about the wagons and often slept under
the very hoofs of the horses. When I cried late at night my mother
would take me out near the lion’s cage and tell me that the old fellow
would come out and roar if I did not stop. I never cried during the
performances, but lay in my little bed in the wagon charmed by the
music. I was, in truth, a child of the circus.

As I grew older I became a problem. The circus grew larger and my
mother was so much occupied with the details of its management that she
had little time for me. A nurse with the show was out of the question.
So I was sent to Lisbon, where my father had relatives. I remember very
little of my early childhood there. The circus scenes are much more
vivid. I do recall that my nurse told me many times that I was to be
a circus performer when I grew up. That of course pleased me. In the
winters, when the little show was packed away and the old lion rented
out to a menagerie in Toulon, my father and mother came to see me. On
my fifth birthday I got my first lesson in the alphabet. Instead of
teaching me the word cat, the old nurse taught me how to spell lion.
You see I knew all about lions and very little about cats.

My parents were very thrifty. It is the French habit. It is, or was,
part of the old unwritten French circus law, that as soon as a child
was strong enough to stand on his hands he must be put out to work.
Likewise it is a tradition that the name of a family in a circus must
be carried on by the children and by their children’s children. It
followed that when I was six years old my father came one January day
and took me to London. On the way there he told me that the time had
come when I should begin my career. I was only six, but to this day I
recall my father’s words.

When we got to London it was wet and cold and I was afraid. I hardly
knew my father, we had been separated so long. We went to a small hotel
much frequented by circus and theatrical people. My father was known
to most of them, and more than one big broad-shouldered man clapped me
on the shoulder so hard that it hurt. In those days the circus people
were rude and a hard lot, and they thought I was as tough as they were.

The very night that we reached London a brawny, red-faced man came to
see my father at the hotel. I recall that he was addressed as “Mr.
Conrad.” I had a sort of shiver when he came into the room. It was
curious, too, how he should have affected me, for he was destined to
play a very important part in my life. He and my father talked a long
time. Every once in a while I heard my name mentioned. Finally the man
came over to me, picked me up in one hand (he was a giant in strength),
and flung me up in the air. He caught me easily and then let me slide
to the floor. After he left my father said:

“Jules, henceforth you are to live with that man. He is to be your
father and your teacher. Be a good boy.”

Then he told me that I had been apprenticed to the Conrads, who were a
famous acrobatic family. The following day my father took me to another
hotel where the Conrads were living, for they were performing in the
Hippodrome, and he went back to Spain to join my mother. I had made a
start in the big business of life and I felt very lonesome.

Perhaps I had better explain right here just what being apprenticed
to an acrobatic “family” means. The same thing has gone on in Europe
for a hundred years and will go on as long as acrobats keep up their
work. Every great group of performers that you see in the circus or
elsewhere, no matter if they perform on the flying trapeze, tumble,
or ride on bicycles or on horseback, is called a “family.” They may
be known as the Sensational Sellos or the Marvelous Revellis. Now the
interesting thing about it is that they are not real families at all.
They develop into groups simply because they take in young apprentices,
train and develop them, and make them part of their troupes. Six or
seven real families may be represented in one circus “family.”

The head of the “family” is always the biggest man of the lot. In
circus or acrobatic speech he is known as the “under-stander,” because
literally he stands at the bottom of the act, as for example in the
human pyramid, and holds up all the rest. He must be broad, strong, and
powerful in every way. He makes all the contracts, receives all moneys,
and is the general manager of the combination. The Conrads were a
very well-known “family” and much in demand for circuses all over the
Continent and England. Shortly after I became a member of the Conrads
the London engagement ended and we went to the famous Circus Rentz in


I was given to understand at the start that Mr. Conrad was my boss in
all things. He was to provide me with food and clothes and shelter.
He controlled my time and my actions day and night. He was not long
in beginning my training. We practiced in the rooms of the hotels or
boarding houses where we stopped or in the arenas in the morning before
the performance began.

The Conrads were what is known as “carpet gymnasts,” which means that
they worked on the ground and not in the air. It was decided that I
should begin as a contortionist because they needed one in a new
act they were preparing. I began by practicing what is known in the
profession as posturing. This consists of bending back and forth. In
order to be a good contortionist you must be a good “bender,” that
is, bend so close that the two extremes of your body meet. While many
people may be born supple, it does not follow that they can become good
contortionists, save by long and constant training. Every day one of
the Conrads took me by the arms and another took me by the feet and
bent me back and forth. It was very hard and painful and often I cried.
Then one of my teachers would jeer at me and say:

“Only babies cry. Be a man.”

Sometimes I thought I should die from weariness and ache. But as I grew
more supple and could bend more closely I began to take a pride in my
work. The Conrads encouraged this pride and relented far enough to say
a kind word when I showed particular signs of progress.

By the time I was eight years of age I was considered a good
contortionist. Long before that time I had appeared in public. I was
first used as a sort of human baseball in family acts. I was tossed
from shoulder to shoulder. At other times I became a spinning wheel.
One of the Conrads would lie on his back, lift me to the soles of his
feet, and then whirl me around. At first it made me dizzy, but I came
to like it because the people applauded. It is easy to succumb to the
flattery of the crowd and to love the music of clapping hands. You
never get enough of it in the circus business.

In addition to my training as contortionist I was being trained as
gymnast. I was taught the forward somersault first. I wore a belt with
a ring on each side. Stout cords were passed through these rings.
With a Conrad on each side holding the cords which acted as an axis I
was whirled around. Soon I was able to turn without their help. Then
I learned the back somersault in the same way. This constant work
hardened my muscles and I became like steel. All the while we were
traveling over Europe, visiting the circuses of the great capitals. But
I saw little of the cities or their life. It was work or training all
day and half the night and then to bed, for the acrobat must have his
rest and lots of sleep.

My first public appearance alone followed soon after I became a skilled
contortionist. I was heralded as a “Child Wonder” and I did what was
known as “The Demon Act.” I wore red tights, reddened my face, wore a
little tail, and looked like a real little devil. I shall never forget
my initial appearance. It was in a huge London music hall. When I came
out everybody applauded because I must have been a fearful sight. Every
seat seemed to be filled, the band played, and it was a wonderful
feeling. I forgot, for the moment, all the hardship and traveling I had
endured; the cold, the hunger, and the separation from my parents. All
that I realized was that a great, new, animated world was spread before
me and that all eyes were upon me. My act was simple contortion work,
but the effective red costume seemed to make a hit and I was recalled
several times. Henceforth I did this act twice a day for a year. When I
got through each time I had to change my clothes, put on flesh-colored
tights, and do my share of work with the whole Conrad family.

My apprenticeship to the Conrads lasted ten years, the original term
of the indenture. During that time I received no pay. I don’t think
that in all that period I had as much as a pound to spend on myself.
Meanwhile the Conrads had received good money for my appearance,
especially for the “Demon Act.” But I must say I learned a lot from
them despite the fact that they were hard taskmasters.

On the day I was sixteen years of age my slavery ended. The contract
with the Conrads was up and I was free. The Conrads wanted me to stay
with them, but I had too many scars on my back, too vivid a memory of
cold, half-fed nights and long days of relentless practicing. I wanted
to go out in the world for myself, and I went.

At the Circus Francisco in Paris I met a young apprentice, a fine young
German lad. We had sympathized with each other, and, boy-like, had
made a sort of pact that as soon as we got out of bondage we would
form a team. “Who knows,” I had said, “some day we may have a ‘family’
of our own.” His term of apprenticeship ended with mine; I had his
address, so we met in London. He was a good contortionist, having
gone through the same rigorous training that I had, and we had little
trouble in getting an engagement together. At one time we had four
engagements at the same time in London. We had to go from music hall to
music hall in cabs, and often we did not have time to change clothes.
We were making twenty pounds a week apiece, which is pretty good money
for boys barely seventeen. I sent most of my money home to my mother.
The circus had failed and she was living in Paris. My father had died
in the meantime. You may wonder perhaps how a boy of my tender years
was able to take care of himself. But if my years were tender, my back
and muscles were hard. Life, too, was hard. I had been raised in a
stern school, and it made for independence.

After a year of freedom I became ill. One day I collapsed during my
contortion act. I went to a hospital and the doctor told me that I
could not work for years. I could hardly believe it, but he said that
I had worked so hard that I had strained myself. To make this unhappy
chapter of my life short, I was in and out of a hospital for three

When I came out I felt weak, but the first thing I did was to try some
of my old contortion tricks. But there was a great wrench in my back
and a sharp pain shot all through my body. The cold sweat broke out
all over me. I tried again, and with the same result. Then I realized
what had happened. I had become stiff, and my days as contortionist
were over. I was barely twenty years old, and yet I had lived a whole
lifetime of work and denial. What was I to do?




I found that I could still do some acrobatic tricks like simple
flip-flaps. You can never possibly realize the feeling of consolation
that came to me when I landed on my feet after the first experimental
turn, for, with that landing, I realized that I still had a means of
earning a livelihood. It was like a man who suddenly found an arm
useful that had been considered helpless. I had been a good balancer in
my contortion days, and this was also an asset. So I joined a troupe
known as “Jackley’s Wonders,” which started for a tour of Northern
Africa with Brachini’s circus.

But my joy over finding the relic of my gymnastic power was
short-lived. Even the most ordinary acrobatic work began to tell on me.
Every night when the circus day was ended, I suffered the most intense
pains. My back became weak. I was in despair.

One day the ringmaster, to whom I had told my physical troubles, said
to me:

“Jules, you are a good mimic. Why don’t you try clowning?”

It struck me as a very good idea. I had always been interested in
clowns. Their drolleries and fooling had won my child heart, and I
could never forget those early kindnesses of the old clown Albro, my
first nurse, who was with my mother’s circus. Often during the harsh
days of my apprenticeship I would steal away after training and watch
the clowns at work or play. They told me stories, but, to my great
surprise, they were never funny stories, and I now recall my first
sense of surprise over finding the clowns such serious, sober men when
they were away from the circus. I had watched them very carefully, and
I had an instinct that I was going to succeed as one of them.

To be a good clown, even then, a man had to be a pretty good acrobat,
because in his clowning he was called upon to do many arduous physical
things. The clowns in those days were what was known as “talking”
clowns. They talked as they worked. The circuses were much smaller
than now, and it was not difficult to get and hold the interest and
attention of the people. One of the clowns’ favorite occupations was to
guy the ringmaster. He would engage him in conversation something like

“I hear you are a great traveler.”

“Yes,” the ringmaster would reply with great dignity.

“Ever been to Rome?”


“Been to Paris?”


Then the clown would ask if he had been to various other cities, to
which the ringmaster would keep on making the reply “Yes.” Then the
clown would glibly ask:

“Ever been to jail?”

Whereupon the ringmaster would pretend to fall into the trap and say
“Yes,” at which the crowd roared with laughter. This may seem to be
rude humor to you, but the circus crowds in the foreign provinces were
composed of rude people of the middle and lower classes, and they
thought this kind of horse-play was great fun.

My first appearance as clown is a very vivid recollection. It was in
the circus at Oran, in North Africa. I had, in my day, done many
hazardous acrobatic feats and it was a daily matter for me to risk my
neck in some kind of performance. I could do it, too, without turning a
hair. But when I came out in my white face before a great crowd I was
nervous. I had a good make-up, however, and the people laughed as soon
as they saw me. Laughter has a peculiar effect. If it ripples out as
soon as you appear, you may be sure that you are succeeding, because if
the people do not think you even look funny, they will not laugh. My
nervousness in clowning soon wore off.

As I came to study clowning I found that it was a serious and difficult
business. Every step in the making of a clown or the manufacture
of his “business” is hard work. To produce laughs you must make a
serious effort. You may have noticed that nearly every clown makes a
practice of falling down in various absurd and ridiculous ways. Even
this business of making a fall requires the most elaborate kind of
preparation. It may look very easy to take a tumble in the sawdust, but
I assure you it is only done after long practice. Every step of it must
be rehearsed. Unless the funny fall is natural, it fails utterly.

The tall, peaked hat was a great aid to the clown in my early days
of clowning. I do not know the origin of it, save that it probably
descended from the original fool’s cap. I used to come out with seven
of these peaked hats piled up on my head. Then I would take them off,
throw them up in the air, one by one, and catch them on my head. This
always made a great hit. In those days the circus, being small, only
had one clown, and he had to do a good deal of work.

To be a successful clown you had also to be a good pantomimist, because
all clowning is really based on the pantomime. This enabled the clown
to get an engagement on the variety stage during the winter and closed
circus season.

Meanwhile I had been traveling all over Europe, first with one circus
and then another. My work as clown developed. Of course, in passing
from one country to the other I picked up the different Continental
languages. This was highly important, because I had often to carry on a
sort of running conversation with the spectators.

Like every other circus performer I had many escapes from death. My
body and arms were soon covered with scars, each one a souvenir of
some accident. At the Circus Cliniselli in Berlin I was knocked down
by a horse, which walked on my face. One hoof laid my cheek open. The
crowd thought it was part of the show, and laughed, while I suffered
tortures, not knowing what the animal would do next.

At St. Petersburg I was doing a clown leaping act over a row of horses,
when the springboard slipped and I landed on my head. I was taken out
for dead, but in a few days I was all right again and back at my work.

It was while I was performing at the Cirque d’Eté in Paris that I
witnessed a sight that made a profound impression on me. In the
circus was a dashing rider named M. Prince. He was a great favorite
and his appearance was always greeted by tremendous applause. He did
a somersault on horseback. One day he slipped, fell on his head, and
lay still. An attendant ran forward, covered him with a blanket, and
carried him off. At that moment the ringmaster took off his hat and

“It is nothing, ladies and gentlemen; a very slight accident. M. Prince
begs the public will excuse him.”

Then we clowns leaped into the arena and made merry, and the circus
went on. The truth of the matter was that M. Prince’s neck had been
broken by the fall and that he had died instantly. So swift and sure is
the circus man’s desire not to divert the interest of the crowd that
there was absolutely no hint of the tragedy that had happened before
the very eyes of everybody.

About this time I joined what was called the Schumann Combination, a
half circus and half variety show. We had acrobats, jugglers, singers,
dancers, a clown, and a marvelous sword swallower named Maldini. He
was the greatest artist of his kind I ever saw. He could run a bayonet
and part of a gun-barrel down his throat. He was very keen and
resourceful, too, as you shall see.

We went on an elaborate tour, and reached Mexico. There we played many
small towns. It was hard traveling, for Mexico was a rude country with
few cities. We had to journey by donkey and by stage; the roads were
bad and the land infested with brigands. All the men in our troupe were
heavily armed.

One night we stopped at a small inn and took a much-needed rest. Before
we departed the next morning the innkeeper warned us about the danger
of crossing a certain narrow mountain road. The innkeeper said that we
were very liable to be held up by brigands.

“But,” he added, “if a man appears at the top of the cañon and waves
his hat at you, you are safe.”


Being a sword swallower, Maldini was the nearest thing to a real
soldier or fighting man that we had, so, by unanimous vote, he was
placed in command of the expedition. As we approached the narrow pass
we saw men concealed in the bushes. Maldini halted us, gave orders to
prepare our weapons in a loud voice, and then added:

“Fire fast and die bravely.”

Then he stepped forward and pulled from a sheath one of the huge swords
that he used in his sword-swallowing act. After testing its keenness by
running the blade over his finger, he struck a fine dramatic pose, and
rammed the sword down his throat again and again. It was a curious and
unforgettable picture; the sword swallower out on that rocky ledge in
the early morning light, with the great mountains all around. He was
literally swallowing for dear life.

It was a wild country, and the people were very superstitious. They
had never seen a sword swallower before. Therefore, as Maldini did
his act out in the open we could hear the brigands fairly gasping in
wonderment and awe. In a few moments one of them arose, waved his hat
with trembling hand, and we passed through the danger zone safely. The
sword-swallowing act had probably saved our lives, and we showered
praise and congratulation upon Maldini. This incident determined my
future course. I had found my work hard enough, but I did not want
physical hardship increased by outside menace. I had all the perils I
wanted in my work, so I decided to leave at the very first opportunity.
In those days we had no written contracts, and the performers could
leave whenever they got ready.

We traveled through Mexico and some of the Central American countries.
Finally we reached the Pacific coast. The Combination was headed for
South America and wanted me to go along, but I declined. I was in the
New World, and I wanted to see something of it. Besides, my mother had
come to New York to live. She had married for the second time, her new
husband being a manufacturer of fireworks.

I took the first boat for San Francisco. It gave me a sort of thrill to
step ashore there, for the United States had always beckoned to me. I
felt that there could be no hardship here. The land was smiling and the
sky was as blue as Italy’s.

I crossed the continent to New York and went straight to my mother’s.
She lived in a little flat on Third Avenue. You must remember that I
had not seen her for nineteen years. Almost tremblingly I mounted the
steps and rang the bell at her door. It seemed an age before the knob
turned and the door opened. In the doorway I saw a stout woman, who
stared at me curiously. I saw that she did not recognize me.

“Who are you and what do you want?” she asked.

“Don’t you know me?” I asked.

The woman looked steadily at me, and said slowly:


It gave me a deep wrench.

“I am your boy Jules,” I said. She gave a cry and fell on my neck. Then
she almost carried me into the room and made me sit on her lap. She
caressed my face, and said:

“You have changed a great deal. Where is your soft, silky hair that
you had as a boy, and what has become of your beautiful complexion?”

Sadly enough my circus life had played havoc with whatever tenderness
and softness I once had in my face. The Red Rattle, as the paint
I had used in the Demon Act is called, had left marks on my face.
Besides, pain and hardship had put their indelible impress in lines and
wrinkles. The close-fitting caps that I had to wear as clown had made
my hair thin and coarse.

But I was glad to be back even in the pretense of a home. I inquired
eagerly of my sisters. One of them, Millie, had become a great
balancing trapeze artist, and was with the Forepaugh circus. Another
sister, Jennie, was a noted bareback rider with the Sells show; my
brother Tom had developed into a famous acrobat and pantomimist, and
was with the Hanlons. I felt proud of all of them. They had done
honor and dignity to the family’s circus name, and maintained its best
traditions. I alone felt that it was up to me to do something great in
my line.

I wanted to remain near my mother for a little while, so I went on as
juggler at a variety show on the Bowery, which was then the most famous
amusement highway in New York. But the call of the circus was always in
my ears. When once you have tasted of its sensations they never die.
I played the part of a Spanish clown in a circus at Havana, and then
returned to the United States, this time to stay.



During all these years that I had spent clowning in various lands, that
peculiarly American institution, the tented circus, had been rapidly
developing. The first circus to show under a “canvas top” had unfolded
its wonders in New England as far back as 1826. Previous to that time
the circuses had showed in frame buildings, theaters, or in hotel yards
behind canvas walls under the sky. The first shows had no menageries.
When the showmen did begin to acquire animals from the sea captains who
brought them to America in a spirit of speculation, the menagerie was
a separate and distinct institution. The animals had a strong drawing
power, and were only exhibited in the daytime. This enabled the showmen
to attract people on Sunday. It was not until 1851 that the circus
and the menagerie were exhibited at the same time for one price of

Strange as it may seem to you who are accustomed to seeing elephants,
the first one brought to this country produced a profound sensation. I
have heard the old showmen talk of it very often. It was not attached
to a circus, but was exhibited in barns during the day. At night it was
taken from town to town, swathed in blankets, so curious country people
could not get a free glimpse of it. Sadly enough, this elephant was
shot by some miscreant, who wanted to see if a bullet would pierce his
thick hide.

In Europe we had heard various kinds of reports about the American
circus from performers who had gone over. Some seemed incredible. It
was said that the shows in this country had hundreds of horses and as
many attendants. This seemed so huge alongside our smaller Continental
circuses that I refused to believe it. But when I did come over and
saw an American circus in all its glory I realized that half of the
truth about it had not been told. When I came back from Havana the
old circus kings were coming into their own. W. C. Coup, probably the
father of the modern traveling circus, had the “United Monster Shows”
out. He lured P. T. Barnum from the museum business to the circus
game, and they formed what was undoubtedly the first great combination
of showmen. “Yankee” Robinson, who had been a circus autocrat as far
back as the sixties, the Sells Brothers, Adam Forepaugh, the Mabies,
Dan Costello, and John Robinson, all had shows on the road, and were
getting bigger and stronger all the time. It was about that time that
the Ringling Brothers were having their first circus thrills, and were
laying the foundation of a knowledge and experience that have made them
leaders of their world to-day.


All the circuses then were wagon shows. They traveled from town to
town in wagons. The performers went ahead to the hotel in ’buses or
snatched what sleep they could in specially built vans. The start for
the next town was usually made about three o’clock in the morning. No
“run” from town to town was more than twenty miles, and more often it
was considerably less. At the head of the cavalcade rode the leader, on
horseback, with a lantern. Torches flickered from most of the wagons,
and cast big shadows. The procession of creaking vehicles, neighing
horses, and sometimes roaring beasts was an odd picture as it wound
through the night. Many of the drivers slept on their seats. The
elephant always walked majestically, with a sleepy groom alongside.
The route was indicated by flaming torches left at points where the
roads turned. Sometimes these torches went out, and the show got lost.
More than once a farmer was rudely aroused from his slumbers, and
nearly lost his wits when he poked his head out of his window and saw
the black bulk of an elephant in his front yard. It was, indeed, the
picturesque day of the circus.

My first engagement was with the Burr Bobbins circus, which was a big
wagon show. The night traveling in the wagons was new to me, and at
first strange. But I got to like it very much. It was a great relief to
lie in the wagons, out under the stars, and feel the sweet breath of
the country. Often the nights were so still that the only sounds were
the creaking of the wagons, and occasionally the words, “Mile up,” that
the elephant driver always used to urge on his patient, plodding beast.

The circus arrangement then was much different from now. Then the whole
outfit halted outside the town, which was never reached until after
daylight. The canvas men would hurry to the “lot” to put up the tents
while we remained behind to spruce up for the parade. Gay flags were
hoisted over the dusty wagons; the tired and sleepy performers turned
out of tousled beds to put on the finery of the Orient. A gorgeous
howdah was placed on the elephant’s back, and a dark-eyed beauty,
usually from some eastern city, was hoisted aloft to ride in state,
and to be the envy and admiration of every village maiden. No matter
how long, wet, or dusty had been our journey from the last town,
everybody, man and beast, always braced up for the parade. Of course,
by this time, we were surrounded by a crowd of gaping countrymen.
Often the triumphant parade of the town was made on empty stomachs,
for there was to be no letup until the people of the community had had
every bit of “free doing” that the circus could supply. The clowns
always drove mules in the parade. When the parade reached the grounds,
the performers changed clothes, hastened back to the village hotel,
and ate heartily. If there was time, we snatched a few hours of sleep.
But sleep and the circus man are strangers during the season. Ask any
circus man when he sleeps, and he will say, “In the winter time.”

Then, as now and always, the clown was a very important part of the
circus. You could hear the people all up and down the village streets
asking: “Where are the clowns?” and when we hove into sight there would
be a clapping of hands and the exchange of jests and words. During that
first engagement with the Burr Robbins show I was what was called a
“talking and knockabout clown.” I have had many odd experiences, but
none more memorable than my first appearance under canvas in America.
I felt as if I had been transported to a different show world and was
moving and breathing under a sea of canvas. The arena was much bigger
than those of the European circuses, and I found that you had to strain
every effort to be seen and heard and appreciated.

I found, among other things, that the average American circus-goer was
not so responsive to the clown as the European frequenter of the arena.
One reason for this is that the average American, even in the smaller
towns, has more diversions than his foreign cousin. Besides, Europe had
seen many generations of clowns, and had witnessed the whole evolution
of his art. The American had to be educated up to him.

I stayed with the Robbins show for a number of years. I found the wagon
life very alluring. There was an odd sort of democracy among the circus
people. I found various countrymen of mine, for the average circus
performer is a great nomad. In those days there was fierce and costly
rivalry between circuses. It often led to open combat. I have heard
that on one occasion one showman burned up a bridge in order to keep a
competitor from reaching the next town. Often there was hostility on
the part of the natives. The circus man then had to be a fighter in
selfdefense. The phrase “Hey, Rube!” had been born. This has been, for
many years, the battle-cry of the showmen. It is the call to arms and
for help, and I have heard it ring out on dark nights, and the next
moment found myself in the center of a struggling, fighting mob.

When I joined out with the Robbins show, however, some of the costly
competition of the fighting kind had subsided, although the circus
business was fraught with much hardship. Fires, cyclones, and wrecks
were the chief dangers. The menagerie then was exhibited in the tent
where the big show was given. In case of fire, the animals often got
loose. Once, when I was out on the track, I was horrified to see a
leopard that had escaped from his cage. He crouched in the sawdust. A
troupe of bronchos was in the ring. The wild beast hesitated a moment,
then sprang through the air, and alighted on the back of one of the
horses. The animal was stiff with fear. Suddenly I heard a commotion in
the seats, and a tipsy countryman made his way to the ring. Before any
of the people could move, he had seized a whip and begun lashing the
leopard. He was big and strong, and he rained blows on the animal. Soon
it began to whimper and before long was groveling in the sawdust, where
it was taken in charge by the trainer, who had arrived by this time.

It did not take me long to find out that to be a successful clown in
America you had to make local hits, just the way comedians did on the
stage. The tents were not nearly so large as they are now and you could
talk to your audience and be readily understood. Accordingly, I made
haste, as soon as I reached a town, to get a local newspaper, find out
what was going on, and then I made a reference to it in my clowning.
It never failed to please the spectators.

I was very much impressed with the United States, for we were traveling
all the time. Down South I was much interested in the negroes who
flocked to the circus. They would spend their last cent to get in. They
were very superstitious, and when we did sleight-of-hand tricks or
fancy falls, they stared with big eyes. Some even got scared and left
the tent.


The negro lived in deadly fear of the escape of the wild animals. One
of the favorite jokes of the advance brigade of the circus, and by
this is meant the men who go ahead and do the billing, was to tell the
negroes that a den of lions and tigers had escaped, and were prowling
through the country. However, this gave the negro a good excuse to
avoid going in the woods to cut timber, and the negro has always
delighted in a pretense that postpones manual labor for him as long as

Our work was not without its diversion. The desire of the average
boy to join the circus is, of course, universal, but in the young
countryman this desire seems greater. Many of them wanted to become
“actors,” as they called the acrobats. This caused us to fix up a
scheme by which we sold the ambitious youngsters a liniment to make
them limber. It was made from cheap grease, and was sold more for a
joke than anything else. There were always many young men who wanted
to be clowns. They, too, bought the grease, which was supposed to have
every known physical power.

It was a clean, free life in which the hardships were soon forgotten.



That was the great clown era in America. Clowning reached a golden age
which passed away, never to return again. You may not think so, but
we clowns have as much pride in our profession as the most finished
Shakespearian actor has in his. It thrills me now to think of the
giants of those days, at whose feet I worshiped, and from whose art I
drew inspiration. They were all white-faced clowns, but the drollest
fun-makers the world ever saw.

The greatest clown America ever saw was Dan Rice. His very name brings
back memories of notable sawdust triumphs. He began by running a
puppet show in Reading, Pa. Then he had a trained pig. With this he
took up clowning. He was a wonderful rider and was equaled in daring
by one man only, and that man was James Robinson, perhaps the most
marvelous equestrian that the United States has yet produced. Dan was
a real character in and out of the ring. At one time he had what was
known in those days as a “river show.” He was a good negro minstrel,
and took part in the performance. It was given in a “Palace Boat,”
fitted up as an opera house. It was towed by a big tug, in which the
performers ate and slept. Many of the circuses traveled in this way,
making fast at the levees each day to give their performances. They
were very popular up and down the Mississippi. Rice could do everything
that went to amuse the circus crowd. At one time he earned $1,000 a
week, and for one season Adam Forepaugh paid him a salary of $27,000.
He rose to great affluence, for at one time he owned the Walnut Street
Theater in Philadelphia. He had a big tent circus on the road, too. He
was of a generous and noble nature; his courage was Spartan, and he
was greatly beloved. He would face an angry crowd without flinching,
and his name was a household word for young and old. Yet he died in
poverty, in a little house on Twenty-third Street in New York. With him
perished part of our art.

A close rival to Dan Rice was George L. Fox, who was called the
“Grimaldi of America.” Grimaldi was the great English clown. With Fox
the art of pantomime reached its greatest perfection in this country.
He was the original “Humpty Dumpty,” and played this part nearly two
thousand times in New York alone. His drollery was irresistible, and
he counted among his admirers the Booths and all the other great
tragedians of the day.

Then there was “Daddy” Rice, who was no kin to Dan, and such great
clowns as Joe Pentland, Johnny Patterson, Billy Wallett, Dan Gardner,
John Gossin, Charles Seeley, John Lalow, Billy Burke, father of Billie
Burke the actress, “Whimsical” Walker, and last, but not least, Al
Miaco, who is still traveling with us. He was a real king’s jester,
and wore cap and bells. He knows more lines of Shakespeare than most
students, and to-day he reads Ben Jonson and Byron under the tent
flaps, while waiting for his turn. He is one of the few survivals
of the good old days, for he was, and still is, a real artist. In
pantomime he is to-day unexcelled. Miaco is nearly seventy, yet he
can twist his foot around his neck with the ease and agility of a
youngster. With all his wealth of learning and his remarkable knowledge
of books, he is a white-faced clown; he makes grimaces at the people
every day, and he is glad he is doing it.

The great clowns of that day were also great comedians. If you had
put them on the stage of regular theaters—“hall shows,” as we call
them—they would have succeeded, simply because they knew how to make
fun in a simple, natural way. Transplant a stage comedian to the
circus, and the chances are that he will fail. He creates a fun that is

It makes me laugh now to think of the successful clown tricks of those
old days. One of the best known was called the “Peter Jenkins Act,” so
named because a clown named Peter Jenkins first did it. The ringmaster
and the clown came into the ring and faced the crowd. The former then
made this announcement:

“Ladies and gentlemen: I have the great pleasure to announce the
appearance of Mademoiselle La Blanche, the world’s most daring and
renowned equestrienne, in her marvelous and sensational bareback act as
performed before all the crowned heads of Europe.”

A magnificent horse was led in by a groom. He was always a superb
animal, a real leader of the “resin back” herd. The horses used for
bareback riding are called “resin backs,” because you spread resin on
their backs in order to hold the rider’s feet firmly. After the horse
had pranced around the ring several times a commotion was heard in the
“pad room,” the tent where the trappings are put on the horses. It
is just outside the main tent. An attendant rushed in and whispered
something in the ringmaster’s ear. He seemed much shocked, and then,
with some hesitation, proceeded to make the following statement:

“I am very sorry, ladies and gentlemen, to be obliged to announce that
Mademoiselle La Blanche has been kicked by a horse on her way to the
arena, and is so badly hurt that she is unable to appear.”

Of course a murmur of disappointment always ran around through the
crowd. A moment later a seedily dressed man arose from a seat among the
spectators. He seemed to be partially under the influence of liquor. He

“This show is a fake. I came here to see that lady ride, and I won’t be

With this, he started for the ring, reeling as he made his precarious
way down the blue seats. At the same time he carried on a running
conversation with the ringmaster. Everybody in the big tent became
interested in the little drama that developed, for they thought it was
the real thing.

As the drunken man crossed the hippodrome track, and neared the
ringmaster, he again upbraided him. Then the ringmaster said:

“You seem to be so smart, I suppose you think _you_ can ride.” The
horse had remained in the ring all the while.

“You bet I can,” replied the stranger, and started for the horse.

The ringmaster tried to restrain him, saying:

“That horse is dangerous. I warn you that you will be hurt.”

But the man ignored the warning. He took off his coat, still giving
every appearance of intoxication. Then he laboriously climbed on the
back of the horse. The crowd watched the performance with growing
intensity. Many stood on their seats; all thought some accident would
ensue. Nearly every person who goes to a circus expects something to
happen that is not down on the bills. They want the lion tamer to be
bitten by a fierce beast, or to see an acrobat fall to the ground. I
suppose it is human nature.

At any rate, the drunken man finally got on the horse, pulled a bottle
from his pocket, took a farewell swig, and then lurched forward as if
he only maintained his position with the greatest effort. Meanwhile the
horse had started. As he trotted the man’s clothes began to fall away
from him. In a moment he stood revealed, clad in tights and spangles,
and a noble and commanding figure. The ringmaster’s whip cracked, the
horse began to gallop and lo, the erstwhile drunkard proved himself to
be a graceful and accomplished rider. Then the crowd saw that it had
been tricked, but it was so well done that it invariably burst into
applause, and the act became a great success. It took a good clown to
do this, because he had to be, first of all, a fine bareback rider. I
was the second clown in this many times. It was my job to play with the
horse while the ringmaster and the rider were having their conversation.

There was still another very successful clown trick then. It was called
the “January Act.” From the beginning of the American circus, the mule
driven by the clown has been called “January.” I never knew just why
or how he got this peculiar name, save that the animal looked like the
dead of winter, and always got his tail tied up in the reins. The trick
was this:

The clown drove into the ring in a red cart drawn by the mule. He drew
up with a clatter, saying:

“Whoa, January!”

The magic in this very exclamation was amazing. No matter where
spoken, in town or in country, before great and small, it always drew
tumultuous applause. After his noisy entrance the clown got into an
argument with the ringmaster, who had a fine horse at his side. The
clown wanted to make a trade, which was agreed upon, but no sooner did
the ringmaster try to move the mule than the animal became balky, and
would not budge. Meanwhile the clown drove off in triumph with his
horse. The ringmaster, failing to move the mule, called to the clown
to come back, but the funny man treated his plea with contempt, while
the crowd roared with laughter. The ringmaster, in a last entreaty,
yelled that the clown could have a cash bonus if he would only take
his mule away. This, of course, brought the clown back. In a moment old
January was hitched up to the clown wagon, and the clown drove off,
waving his money and saying:

“It’s easy when you know how.” This always caught the crowd, for
everybody is interested in a horse trade, and especially a trade in
which one of the parties gets much the worst of the deal.


In 1889 I went with the Ringling circus, and I have been with it ever
since. It was their last year as a wagon show, for the next year it
became a railroad show, and went from town to town on trains. Somehow
I did not like the change at first. I had become so accustomed to the
wagon traveling at night, to the wild, free, clean abandon of the life,
that I did not fancy the idea of sleeping on a stuffy train, with
smoke and cinders to bother me. Many of the other circus people felt
the same way about it. The wagon life may have been hard traveling, but
it was in the open. God’s air and sunshine were about you always, and
although it rained and blew sometimes, the discomfort was not for long.
It kept everybody sound and healthy. Many a millionaire would envy the
appetites and health we enjoyed. And yet, in a way, our life was one of
more or less constant hazard.

There was one big satisfaction about the change to the railroad
shows. The circus remained under canvas. Strange as it may seem to an
outsider, we can work better under canvas than any other place. This is
true all up and down the circus line, from the highest priced “kinker,”
as the performers are called, down to the cheapest “rough neck,” as the
canvas men are known. They would rather get soaked to the skin under
the “big canvas top” out on a North Dakota prairie than be dry under
the roof of Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Of course the circus had been getting bigger all the time. Originally
it was a one-ring affair. But the competition in the show business
stimulated the various showmen to get new and greater attractions.
The one-ring show became a two-ring show, and this in turn became the
“monster three-ring aggregation of mastodonic amusement creations,”
such as is now billed throughout the length and breadth of the land.

As the circus grew bigger, the talking clown ceased to exist. It was
only natural that this end of his work should be eliminated. The
tents became so large, the arena area so extended, that it was with
difficulty that anyone could be heard in the seats. Besides, so many
things were going on at the same time that the clown had to perform
with his hands and legs in order to attract any attention at all.

With all the innovations that have come to the aid of the modern
circus, such monstrosities as “the dip of death” in a somersaulting
automobile, and various other freakish inventions calculated to divert
the mind and thrill the young, the clown remains, and always will
remain, the really picturesque and permanent feature of the circus
business. Like the brook in the poem that the English poet wrote about,
he shall go on forever.

But the clown has had to keep pace with the development of the circus.
The average person who watches a group of clowns disporting themselves
in the ring, and is amused at their grotesque antics, may think it is
silly and easy work. Let him try it, and he will soon find out what
hard work it is, and what careful thought is necessary for each act.
Every act that is done must be carefully rehearsed. I have practiced on
a trick fall for a whole month.

You may have noticed that clowns travel in pairs and trios. This is
due to the fact that every clown act, no matter how ludicrous, or how
simple, must tell a story. It is really a small comedy or a slight
drama. We must not only have action, but something to suggest an
incident or a series of incidents. If the clowns, for example, wear
soldier uniforms, their act must give a hint of a camp, a battlefield,
or some other definite martial picture. It may be hugely grotesque, but
it must be a concrete picture just the same.

Like everything else in this busy world, clowning must be timely. We
play on vogues. It may be Salome, or The Merry Widow, or Roosevelt’s
trip to Africa, or the airship. The good clown must make his act a
perfect piece of mimicry. This is the first and foremost requirement.
This is why so many good clowns are such fine pantomimists. We must, in
short, first see ourselves as others see us.

Many people wonder why we keep the white make-up. This is the
traditional clown face, and has been so for many generations of clowns.
Both the costume and the face have undergone little change within
my lifetime. It is perhaps the only amusement that has maintained
its physical integrity through many years. Take the slap-stick, the
bladder, and the funny fall, and you have the clown’s sole stock in
trade for decades. Unless I am much mistaken, they will remain so for
another hundred years.


Some very successful clown tricks are mere accidents. You start out to
do an act, stump your toe or slip up. Then everybody laughs, for they
think it is part of the show. Thereafter, every time you go out to do
this act you stump your toe or slip up. With all these aids, some men
work for years at clowning, and never become clowns. Good clowns are
born, not made.

The clown’s costume requires much thought and study. Although most
clowns look alike to you, if you will watch their attire carefully you
will see that each one is slightly different from the other. I have
little patience with the many contrivances that some modern clowns
use, such as guns, electrical appliances, and all that sort of thing.
To be a real clown you only need your wits and a few simple things.
The dullard clown seeks to make up for his mental deficiencies with
mechanical contrivances. Perhaps I am prejudiced in favor of the old
ways, just as I cling to the memory of the old days. But they are the



I have rambled along, talking about my profession and the things that
have happened in it, until now I realize that I have not touched upon
some events which meant a good deal to me personally. A clown, despite
the general impression, is a real human being. He has emotions like any
other mortal, and sometimes they are deeper and truer than in those who
pretend to piety and keep a straight face.

Although we are nomads, we people of the circus have hearts. It was
shortly after I came to America that I first saw the woman who was to
play, for a time, such an important part in my life. I had just joined
the Burr Robbins show, and I was a struggling young clown in a strange
land. I did not even know all the people in the show. My life had been
so hard and fast that I had had no time to think of romance.

One day as I walked from the pad room to the entrance to the main
tent, waiting for my time to go on, I saw a young woman in tights and
ruffled skirts, standing with a whip in her hand. She, too, was waiting
her turn. She was lithe, slender, and graceful, and she had the most
wonderful eyes I had ever seen. Something rose in my throat and a keen,
swift feeling ran through me. I had never anywhere beheld anyone who
had impressed me in just that way. As she stood there, full of life and
animation, the very embodiment of grace and beauty, I realized that she
wielded a fascination for me that was irresistible. I watched her as
she made her entry. When she walked she was the very poetry of motion;
her bow to the crowd was airy, and when she leaped to the back of a
noble white horse, she seemed like a bird. I stood at the entrance
transfixed. She seemed the most exquisite rider I had ever seen. I
forgot my cue, and one of my fellow-clowns had to shake me by the
shoulder and say:

“Wake up, Jules.”

That afternoon I stumbled through my work. I was so slow that the
ringmaster touched me up with his whip. I could not keep my eyes off
that rider. When she was in the ring the whole tent seemed to be
flooded with sunshine, and when she left it, amid a tumult of applause,
it seemed bare and desolate.

Day after day I watched her in silent admiration. Once I picked up
courage to speak to her. The informality of circus life requires
no introductions among its people. She seemed to be very proud and
haughty, and treated my advance with disdain. Yet I always made it a
point to be at the entrance when she went on, and I watched for her
when she came out. While she was in the ring I could scarcely work.

I never realized how deeply I cared for her until I saw her talking to
the head of our principal trapeze family. He was a splendid-looking
Frenchman, with brown hair and curled mustache, and he had a dashing
air. He got a big salary, was featured in all the bills, and quite
naturally my lady smiled upon him. But I loved on in silence, and in
pain, covering it all with the clown’s fool garb.

Can you imagine how I felt as I stood apart each day, watching this
glorious creature laughing and making merry with a handsome rival? It
was just like a scene in a French book that I had read when I was a boy
at the Circus Francisco in Paris. I little dreamed then that it would
happen to me.

One day I gave her some flowers that I had bought on a hot, dusty trip
downtown. She accepted them with a sort of condescension, and then
turned quickly away, for the French acrobat happened along, and she
beamed on him.

This ordeal was not pleasant. It got on my nerves, and interfered with
my work. I had always been sunny and smiling, and my unfailing good
cheer had often helped to drive care away from my colleagues. I grew
sad and irritable.

“What’s the matter, Jules?” they all said.

“He must be in love,” said the contortionist, banteringly.

Full many a jest is spoken in earnest, and I realized it that day. All
the while we were traveling in the South. The weather was very hot and
there had been a good deal of rain. Often the lot on which we showed
was damp. I caught cold, fever developed, and I had to go to bed. But
I stayed with the show. As I lay in my berth I dreamed, as all young
lovers dream, that some day this beautiful bareback rider, hearing of
my illness, would come to see me on our car; that she would lean over
me with a wondrous smile on her face and say:

“Jules, forgive me. I have cared for you always, and now I shall never
leave you again.”

One night, when I dreamed this very vividly, I woke with a start to
find the moon shining in my face, and the car rattling over a long
bridge. I was alone.

I got well, and took up my clowning again. The first day I was back in
harness I went to my accustomed place, where so often I had seen the
bareback lady. My heart was in my eyes, and they looked for one thing.
But I did not see her. I went on for my first turn, with my mind all in
a whirl. When I got back to the dressing-room I asked the boss clown
about her.

“Humph,” he said, and shrugged his shoulders. “That woman?”

“Yes?” I replied, growing indignant.

“The less you ask about her the better,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Simply this,” he replied, “at Shreveport, last week, she skipped the
show, and eloped with the hotel manager. She has a husband and two kids
in Canada.” After a pause he added:

“Good riddance, I guess.”

It was a great shock to me. It seemed as if the ground had been cut
away from my feet. I felt a pain in my heart, and stumbled over to my
trunk and sat down. My temple of romance had come toppling down. I had
been terribly disillusioned. But I said to myself:

“Brace up, Jules. There are plenty of other women in the world.” And I
braced up.

I must say right here, in defense of the women of the circus, that the
type I have just described is a very rare one. The women who work under
the canvas are brave, loyal, and moral. Inured to physical hardship,
and accustomed to meet all kinds of emergencies, they well know how to
combat life’s cares. They are the gentlest of wives, the tenderest of
mothers, and the best of comrades.

That early sentimental experience made a slight impress on me, I am
glad to say. I was young and full of life. Some years later, when I
was playing in a winter show in the West, I met a strong and noble
woman. We became great friends. She was not of the circus, but had many
friends in the profession. The next year I went back and married her.
She has been my mate ever since, and each winter I go back to her to
find a tender welcome and a heart filled with affection. Were it not
for her I might to-day be a wanderer on the face of the earth.

They say a clown is a jester and has no soul. I will tell you of an
incident in my own life. One of the joys that my home had given me was
a little boy. I was away with the circus when he came into the world,
and I recall how impatient I was for the end of the season to come,
so I could go to him. We became great pals, this little chap and I.
I called him Jules, and I wanted him to be a great circus performer.
I had to be away from him all summer, but in November, when the show
went into winter quarters at Baraboo, I hurried back to him. The family
lived in New York then. I watched his little muscles develop. I would
dress up in my clown clothes for him, go through all my stunts, and he
had enchanted hours. He was the delight of my life.

One year the show opened very early. We were playing in a small
Wisconsin town. It was a one-night stand, and the big tent was full. I
had a brand-new act, and it was very funny. In it I carried a rag baby
around in my arms. I was supposed to be taking it away from the nurse.
After I had been out on the track for a little while, a clown came
up and told me I was wanted in the pad room. When I got there I was
handed a telegram from my wife. It read:

“Jules is dying.”

He was in New York; I was hundreds of miles away, and I could not go
to him. The dearest thing in all the world to me was slipping away.
Outside in the big tent the band was playing; whips were cracking;
people were laughing; the whole circus fun was on. There I stood in
fool’s garb, with the hot tears streaming down my make-up. I heard a
voice say merrily:

“Come, Jules, we’re waiting for you.”

So I had to go out into that crowded arena with a breaking heart, and
disport myself that the mob might laugh—playing with a dummy child
while my own lay dying.

Can you wonder, then, that behind the jest of the clown there is often
the pang of pain, the sear of sorrow? I have many chances to look
into the heart of the circus, because I am the postman. I go down
to the post-office in every town, and I bring out the mail. I know
every performer by name, and I am the agent that brings joy or ache.
Many eager hopes hang on those post-office trips of mine. The dashing
bareback ladies and the daring trapeze performers look for letters that
never come. Human nature is the same the world over, whether it is in
the gilded palace or under the canvas of the big tent.


I send away the money orders for all the performers, and in this way
I find out some of their secrets. The gruff strong man, whose giant
muscles are the admiration of the crowd, sends part of his wages each
week to his old mother in Germany; the bewildering little rider, who
moves in a gay world of motion and color, has a sick husband, whom she
supports. I become the friend and confidant of all of them, and it
makes life richer and deeper and more worth while for me.

I have seen many things in my circus day to wring the heart. I told you
of my own great sorrow. It reminds me of a sort of kindred grief that
came to my old friend Garrett. He was one of the best fellows that ever
lived, an Irishman of the real sort, and a good clown. Many a time we
worked together in the sawdust. He married a very pretty slack-wire
performer, named Dottie. She was a very lovable little thing, and
everybody in the circus liked her. One night Garrett and I were working
on the track, and Dottie had gone up for her act. We made merry as we
went, and kept the crowd in a roar of laughter.

All of a sudden I heard a scream, but kept right on with my work. It
is part of the unwritten rule of circus business to ignore fear and
panic. So we kept on. But a curious hush fell on the crowd. I turned,
and there on the middle stage I saw a group standing about a huddled
figure. A man came rushing from the pad room, and I saw it was our
doctor. By that time Garrett had turned, too. I saw his face turn
ghastly, even under the white make-up. He gave a moan, and dashed over
to the platform. There he found his wife dead. She had fallen from the
wire and there was no net beneath.

Gently he picked her up, and carried her away, sobbing out his heart
over her tinseled dress. But in a moment the music struck up, the whips
cracked, and the circus was going again.



Many people think that because the clown wears a grotesque garb and
indulges in silly antics, that he is a buffoon all the time. They
are very much mistaken. Like humorists, we take our profession very
seriously, for it has traditions of real greatness.

I never quite understood this so much until I had an experience in
Boston. We usually stay there a week, and this gives us a chance to
get around and see the city. One hot June afternoon I was taking a
street-car ride out towards the suburbs. It was so sultry that few
people were stirring. For a time I had the car all to myself. Then
a very dignified old gentleman came aboard and sat down next to me.
We rode on in silence for a time until I made some remark about the
weather. I am inclined to be friendly. We got to talking. Finally he
asked me what my business was.

“I am a circus clown,” I replied.

He looked amazed. Then wiped his glasses, gazed at me, and remarked:

“It’s extraordinary. I thought you were a minister.”

Perhaps the white string necktie that I always wear fooled him, as it
has fooled many other people. They seem to think that a clown should be
grinning all the time or ready to turn a somersault.

I found the old gentleman very entertaining. He said a little later on:

“My friend, your profession is a thousand years old, and you may well
be proud of it.”

This interested me immensely, and I asked him to tell me where I could
find out some facts about its origin.

“If you will read your Roman history you will find much to enlighten
you about the beginning of your work.” Then he told me that he was a
professor at Harvard, and soon after he left the car.

The next day I went down to the Boston Public Library and got some
Roman histories. Although I found nothing about clowns, there was a
great deal about pantomime, which I have always held was the real
forerunner of clowning. Pantomime dates back to the Jews and early
Egyptians. The early Greek drama partook of it, and it was introduced
into Rome during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Mæcenas, Virgil,
Horace, and Ovid, and other great literary men of the period, enjoyed
the work of the pantomimists. The early pantomimes, so I discovered,
expressed love or the exploits of the gods and goddesses. At one time
the Romans went mad on the subject of pantomimes. Nero was one of the
most ardent patrons. When he asked Demetrius what gift he most wanted,
that worthy answered:

“A pantomime, because it needs no interpreter.”


The pantomimist spoke a universal language, because he talked with his
hands. The Roman pantomimist worked in the great open-air theaters,
and also in the homes of the rich. In the latter places he was called
upon to carve the meats, which he did with many flourishes. Thus he
made himself both useful and ornamental. In later years, however, I
might add that the clown has lost his ornamental features. The Roman
pantomime died with the decay of Roman glory, and it was not until
the fifteenth century that it was revived in Italy.

Then it was that the original predecessor of the clown of to-day made
his appearance in rude plays in the character known as Arlecchino,
who was a blundering servant. Originally he combined loutishness with
great cunning. Out of this name developed the word Harlequin, which
became very popular in France. The Harlequin wore a black mask, had a
cocked hat, and wielded a bat. This bat was the original of the modern
slap-stick so much used by clowns and low comedians.

As the pantomime developed, Harlequin surrounded himself with
characters. Of course there had to be a woman, so she was introduced
in the shape of a pretty servant, who wore tights. She was Colombine.
The girl had to have a father, so he became Pantaloon, who wore baggy
trousers. A fourth figure was also needed. Here is where the first
real clown came in. He was the servant to Harlequin. He, too, wore
baggy trousers, had a peaked hat, and was supposed to be always getting
into trouble. You can now see the connection between Harlequin’s clown
and the circus clown of to-day.

Pantomime found its greatest vogue in England, where it was introduced
early in the eighteenth century at the Covent Garden Theater. A manager
named Rich first brought it out. He devised a pantomime play in which
Harlequin appeared as the lover of Colombine. Her father (Pantaloon)
opposed the match; thereupon Harlequin abducted her, with the aid of
the clown. The clown introduced many ludicrous effects.

The pantomime plays grew into tremendous popularity in England. They
were given at the holiday season before immense crowds. The greatest
managers found them necessary to good business. Even Garrick became
sponsor for it. It was he who introduced Signor Giuseppe Grimaldi,
father of the “Immortal Joe,” the greatest clown the world has ever
known. I am proud to belong to the profession that Grimaldi adorned.
The father played Harlequin for a long time in the London pantomimes.
Joe early appeared with his parent. His first part was as monkey, when
he was three years old. He was attached to a chain, and his father used
to whirl him around by this chain. Once the chain broke, and little Joe
landed on the stomach of a stout gentleman who sat in the front row.

When Joe grew up he abandoned the Harlequin part, and became the clown.
He took off the spangles and fancy colored diamonds that were always
a part of the Harlequin costume, and dressed in white with pantaloon
trousers. He whitened his face, and then put on patches of red. He
looked more like a lubberly boy, who had been caught eating jam.

With the ascendency of Joe Grimaldi the clown took precedence over
Harlequin, and has had it ever since. But it was due to Joe’s great
genius. He was called “The Garrick of Clowns.” His first triumphs
were in “Mother Goose.” He did not depend upon acrobatic feats for
his success, but on genuine humor. His antics were side-splitting.
He became a national figure. Lord Byron was his friend, and Charles
Dickens used to come to see him each week. Later, Dickens edited his
Memoirs, which I regard as a remarkable tribute to a clown’s thoughts.
When Grimaldi was out of the cast all London sulked. He was as
necessary to Covent Garden as was the great John Kemble himself. Yet he
was only a clown.

It is said of Grimaldi that he felt his work so keenly that as soon as
his performance was over, he retired to a corner and wept profusely. He
was a man of tender heart and generous impulses. There is a story about
him which has been handed down by many generations of clowns. It goes
on to say that once Grimaldi became very ill and despondent. He went to
consult a great London specialist. The great man looked him over, and
then remarked:

“Go to see Grimaldi, and laugh yourself well.”

The clown looked at him sadly, and replied:

“I am Grimaldi.”

The art of exquisite clown fooling died in England when Grimaldi passed
away. The London managers had to create a substitute, which they did
after a fashion, with elaborate scenic spectacles. The clowns that
followed were acrobats. Agility took the place of humor. There are
traces of this in the clowning of to-day.

Of course, in any consideration of the origin of the modern clown you
must reckon with the king’s jester. You have only to turn to the pages
of Shakespeare to find how highly he was regarded. Every court had its
fool, and he was often the wise man. In King Lear are the words:

  “_Jesters do oft prove prophets._”

Jacques was a philosopher, and Touchstone a great personage.

I have known king’s jesters in the American circus, but their art was
too fine to be appreciated by the multitudes, and they had to give
way to the more popular form of clowning. It took years of thought and
study to be a Shakespearian jester.

Although the historical facts about the origin of the clown are fine
and imposing, I somehow prefer to remember the legend about it that I
heard as a boy in France. It was told me by an old clown in Normandy.
As he related it to me, it went on to show that the little daughter
of a wandering mountebank once dreamed that she saw her father with
whitened face, peaked hat, and baggy white pantaloons, performing
before a great crowd, and that everybody was laughing and applauding.
It was such a vivid dream that she told her father about it. He was
deeply impressed, and adopted the costume, thus appearing as the first
white-faced clown.



For thousands of years man has searched for the Fountain of Youth, and
it has always eluded him. Yet I am foolish enough to think that I have
discovered it. The secret lies in being a clown. We are not only the
oldest people of the circus in tradition, but also in years. There is
that about our work which keeps us eternally young in spirit. Sometimes
when the journey has been long and the day hot and the dust thick, I
get a little weary, for I am moving on towards sixty. But as soon as I
hear the music of the band, the snorts of the horses, the shrill voices
of the “barkers,” and the indescribable movement of the crowd toward
the big tent, it all acts like wine upon my blood. I am stirred to
action, the weariness falls away like magic, and I am young again. I
have not missed a performance in five years.

Many performers in the circus have this same experience, but the clown
has a deeper and truer inspiration behind his. It lies in laughter.
We make people laugh and we get, in a curious way, the effect of that
laughter on ourselves. Laughter looses the fetters of the brain, and it
radiates a spirit that makes for the joyousness of life. Combined with
it is our constant action in the open air. No man who keeps his body
and mind active, and who lives temperately in the fresh air, will grow
“old” as the world sees age. This is why I say that I have found the
Fountain of Youth.

Perhaps by this time you may wonder what a clown’s state of mind is. If
I have succeeded in giving any hint of the real mood of my profession,
you will know that it is seriousness. Hence the clown’s outlook on life
is grave. It takes a wise man to be a fool. Therefore anybody cannot
play the clown. It is only in external things that we are “comical
fellows.” There are good and bad clowns, clowns with high ideals,
and those who regard clowning merely as a means towards earning a
livelihood. Of course, clowns, like poets, must be fed, but there is a
right way to approach one’s calling and a wrong way. To be a good clown
a man must be a student and be in earnest.

I read books every chance I get. It will not surprise you perhaps when
I say that one of my favorites is “Don Quixote.” Somewhere in this
great work Sancho Panza says:

“In comedy the most difficult character is that of the fool, and he
that plays the part must be no simpleton.”

Wise old Sancho was right. It fits into my theory of clowning perfectly.

I have read every one of Charles Dickens’ books. This is not because
the Immortal Boz was the friend and editor of Grimaldi, the king of
clowns, but because it always seems to me that he knew how to analyze
the human heart. He knew the lowly. I like history, too, and once in a
while, when I want to be stirred deeply, I read about Napoleon. I think
he was a very wicked man, but I have French blood in me, and I suppose
it is pride in him, after all, that makes me admire him. I have left
for the last the book that has influenced me more than all others, and
this is the Bible. The world never associates a white-faced clown with
piety. I don’t profess to be pious, but I love to read the Bible.
Sometimes on the long, hot Sunday afternoons I lie under a tent flap
and read it to the men. The roughest canvas man will respect a man who
is sincerely good, but he has a profound contempt for the pretender.


Since I have gotten into a reflective mood I should like to say
something about the work of a clown that I don’t think the average
person who goes to the circus comprehends, and it is this: the clown’s
art has endured through all the years because it is clean. This is a
very simple but a very powerful reason. Amusement vogues come and go,
for the taste of the man who wants to be diverted is fickle. He is
always craving something new. He may be interested for a brief time in
the sickly atmosphere of a problem or an erotic play, but he soon tires
of it. So with many other forms of entertainment. The vaudeville which
is now having its hour of glory will pass away. But clowning is
done out in the open air, where the winds of heaven blow about you! It
is clean, morally and physically. It has no ambition to appeal to the
senses; it has no elevating purpose; its sole idea is to amuse. In this
it has achieved permanency.

Perhaps nothing in all my long antic before the public has given me
a keener pleasure than the realization that I have given delight to
children. The sight of their little faces, beaming with happiness and
stretching up, row behind row, to the very top of the seats, has always
filled me with renewed zeal for my work.

Nothing so attracts the small boy as the circus. I have strained my
conscience many a time by letting a ragged urchin slip under the canvas
and get a seat in the cherished paradise. This reminds me of an
incident that always gives me satisfaction to rehearse.

Eighteen years ago the Ringling show was at Binghamton, N. Y. It was
a very hot day, and I stood outside the dressing tent to get a breath
of air. As I stood there a little boy came up and eyed me eagerly. I
was dressed for the afternoon performance, and thought he was merely
staring at me out of boyish curiosity. Then I saw tears and a very
wistful look in his eyes. I have always loved children, and this little
chap made me think of my own dead boy. I walked up to him, and putting
my hand on his head, said:

“What’s the matter, sonny?”

“I want to see the circus,” he replied.

“Have you no money?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, and fell to weeping.

Something in the lad’s manner touched me deeply. I saw that he really
wanted to see the show, so I took him by the hand and led him to where
he could find his way to a good seat. He was radiant with pleasure as I
left him.

The years passed, and I forgot all about the incident. A few seasons
ago we again showed at Binghamton, N. Y. Once more it was a scorching
hot afternoon, and curiously enough I stood outside the dressing tent
before the time came for me to go on. A fine-looking young man came up
to where I was standing, and said:

“I beg your pardon, but I am looking for a clown who befriended me
fifteen years ago. I heard someone then call him ‘Jules.’ Can you tell
me if he is still with the show?”

I said to him:

“You don’t have to look far, for I am Jules.”

With that he reached forward, seized my hand and shook it warmly. Then
he said:

“I have waited a long time to thank you for that kindness of long ago.
It may have seemed a small thing to you, but it meant a lot to me. I
want you to take dinner with me to-night.”

I went downtown with him after the performance, and we had a fine talk.
He had become an electrical engineer and was doing well. He had always
missed our circus when it showed at Binghamton. He made me promise to
send him a picture of myself.

[Illustration: “IT IS GOOD TO BE A CLOWN.”]

My life is dotted with experiences of this kind. Can you wonder, then,
that I am proud and glad to be a clown? In one of his plays Shakespeare

“_It is meat and drink to see a clown._”

I should change it so as to read:

“_It is meat and drink_ TO BE _a clown._”

I have saved my money, and I own a house out in a Missouri town, where
I go every winter after the circus season closes. I also have a farm in
North Dakota, where I can see green things grow. I know that whatever
may befall me I have a roof of my own which will shelter my last years.
But I never expect to stop clowning as long as I am able to work.

Since I have spoken of the origin of the clown it might be well for me
to speak of his end. Few ever leave the circus. Once a clown, always a
clown. It is best to die in harness.

I have enjoyed my clowning, and to be content with one’s work is a
great satisfaction. It does not come to all. I know at least that
I have caused many people to forget their troubles, and I have made
countless children clap their little hands with glee.

It is good to be a clown.


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