Only One Real Life

Only One Real Life, by Dexter Fellows – an excerpt from This Way to the Big Show, 1936

The laugh-clown-laugh theme is as old as the story of the melancholic jester and his doctor. It has been told of George L. Fox, one of America’s greatest clowns and pantomimists — how he went to a physician to be cured of persistent depression; how the physician, after failing to find a physical cause, recommended amusement of one kind or another, suggesting that his patient “Go and see George Fox”; and how the patient lugubriously answered: “I am Fox.” Fifty years before, the same story was told of the renowned English clown Joseph Grimaldi and Dr. John Abernethy, and doubtless it was told a hundred years before about some other unhappy Pagliacci.

While every harlequin costume in our brigade of buffoons does not cover a breaking heart, I know of several instances when the crowds roared with laughter at clowns who played their parts under the most agonizing conditions. Frank (Slivers) Oakley, who was as well known at the turn of the century as Charlie Chaplin is today [1936], is an example although, in his case, there was no audience to laugh as he made his final exit alone, penniless: suicide by gas.

I shall never forget the story Slivers told of an old clown who used to work with him. In all the time he was in the business he got only one real laugh and that was when the elephant stepped on his foot and smashed it flat. His scream of pain was answered by an explosion of delight from the audience, and when his fellow-clowns carried him out, groaning and biting his fingers, the laughter and applause for what the spectators thought was part of the act were deafening.

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