Born in Brescia, Italy, Antonet was the son of a famous family of Italian clowns. He followed in Footit’s tradition as an “authoritarian” whiteface clown. George Speaight credits Antonet with introducing the loose spangled dress, with calf-length trousers that became associated with the European whiteface clown. Antonet first became famous working straight to Little Walter. The duo created clown entrees called The Clarinet, The Bullfight, The Nightingale, and a Hamlet parody that became standard circus clown acts. According to John Towsen, Continue reading
Frank Oakley, aka. Slivers, 1871-1916
Frank Oakley, also known as Slivers (1871 – 1916) was the most popular circus clown of his generation. Born in Sweden, both of Oakley’s parents were concert singers. At the age of 14 he began to practice as a contortionist and at 16 he joined his first circus. His parents convinced him to enroll at the University of Michigan but two years later Oakley was back under the big top.
His first show was Andrew MacDonald’s Circus, but in 1897 he joined the Ringling Bros. Circus. Before the turn of the century, Oakley performed with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, followed by three seasons with the Adam Forepaugh & Sells Bros. Circus (1900â02). Oakley returned to the Barnum & Bailey Circus for four seasons (1903â07), where he reportedly earned up to $1,000 a week. Continue reading
Dimitri was born in Ascona, Switzerland (1935). When he was seven years old he decided he wanted to become a clown. After graduating from school, Dimitri became an apprentice potter while studying music and theater. He went to Paris to study under Etienne Decrox, then Marcel Marceau. In 1959, he was hired as an Auguste by Louise Maisse, a whiteface clown. He then created his own solo mime act which was received with much acclaim during the 1962 International Mime Festival in Berlin. In 1973, he was awarded the Grock prize, and appeared with New York’s Big Apple Circus. Continue reading
Swede Johnson was born Carl Gehlert Johansen in Ribe, Denmark in 1903. Swede was a fourth generation circus performer, and traveled with his family in their own circus throughout the Scandinavian countries while growing up. At the age of 15, he went to work in the Hagenbeck Zoo in Germany; later that year, he came to the USA from Denmark as an assistant to Alfred Court, a wild animal trainer.
After coming to the United States, Swede took the first job that he could find — as a rodeo clown, afterwards becoming a circus clown. He then had a long career in the circus, working at different times and circuses as clown, animal trainer, and other things. Some of the circuses that he performed in include the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, Bradley & Benson Circus & Rodeo, C. R. Montgomery Circus, Elks Circus, Shrine Circus, Biller Brothers, Rogers Brothers, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, Paul A. Miller shopping center circus.
In his personal life, he married his wife Mabel, and they had their daughter, Ann, in 1953. In 1969, he sold his trained animals, and retired. Two days later, he met with a friend at the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus — and ended his retirement. He joined Ringling in 1969 as clowning boss, and worked there until 1976.
Swede Johnson passed away the next year. He was survived by his daughter and 2 grandchildren, all of whom became circus performers in their own right.
In 2014, Swede Johnson was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
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- The Billboard
Swede Johnson’s induction into the Clown Hall of Fame
Duane “Uncle Soapy” Thorpe (1924 – 1995)
Inducted into the 2000 Clown Hall of Fame. Duane “Uncle Soapy” Thorpe is one of the few clowns to have had a successful career while working for only one circus. (Although Duane was in his fair share of soap gags through the years, his moniker was actually based on a family nickname.) A professional dancer, Duane sought a job with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for the fresh air and good food. He was given a job in the wardrobe department. Before long, he was learning to be a web sitter for the aerial ballet. In 1950 he made it to Clown Alley and stayed there until 1986. Duane’s list of accomplishments is quite lengthy. A prolific producing clown, he created ring gags, track gags, and numerous walkarounds. Continue reading