(thanks to Bruce “Charlie” Johnson and The Clown Hall of Fame)
The art of clowning has existed for thousands of years. A pygmy clown performed as a jester in the court of Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty about 2500 B.C. Court jesters have performed in China since 1818 B.C. Throughout history most cultures have had clowns.
When Cortez conquered the Aztec Nation in 1520 A.D. he discovered Montezuma’s court included jesters similar to those in Europe. Aztec fools, dwarf clowns, and hunchbacked buffoons were among the treasures Cortez took back to Pope Clement VII. Most Native American tribes had some type of clown character. These clowns played an important role in the social and religious life of the tribe, and in some cases were believed to be able to cure certain diseases.
Clowns who performed as court jesters were given great freedom of speech. Often they were the only one to speak out against the ruler’s ideas, and through their humor were able to affect policy. In about 300 BC Chinese emperor Shih Huang-Ti oversaw the building of the Great Wall of China. Thousands of laborers were killed during its construction. He planned to have the wall painted which would have resulted in thousands more dying. His jester, Yu Sze, was the only one who dared criticize his plan. Yu Sze jokingly convinced him to abandon his plan. Yu Sze is remembered today as a Chinese national hero.
One of the most famous of the European court jesters was Nasir Ed Din. One day the king glimpsed himself and a mirror, and saddened at how old he looked, started crying. The other members of the court decided they better cry as well. When the king stopped crying, everyone else stopped crying as well, except Nasir Ed Din. When the king asked Nasir why he was still crying, he replied, “Sire, you looked at yourself in the mirror but for a moment and you cried. I have to look at you all the time.”
Commedia del Arte
The Commedia del Arte began in Italy in the sixteenth century and soon dominated European theater. It was a highly improvised theater based upon stock characters and scenarios. It contained many comic characters divided into masters and servants. There were three types of comic servants: the First Zany, the Second Zany, and the Fantesca. The First Zany was a male servant who was a clever rogue often plotting against the masters. The Second Zany was a stupid male servant that was caught up in the First Zanyâs schemes and often the victim of his pranks. The Fantesca was a female servant, played by an actress, who was a feminine version of one of the Zany characters and would participate in the schemes and provide a romantic story among the servants.
The history of clowning is a history of creativity, evolution, and change. Harlequin started off as a Second Zany, the victim of Brighella. Performers portraying Harlequin gradually made him a smarter character until he eventually usurped Brighella’s position. In English Pantomime, a style of theater based on the Commedia del Arte, John Rich completed the evolution of Harlequin elevating it to starring position. New characters evolved to assume the position of Harlequin’s stupid victims. One of these was the whiteface clown.
William Kemp and Robert Armin – Shakespeare’s Clowns
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, clowning in England was basically a theatrical art form. Shakespeare was the playwright for the Lord Chandler’s Men acting troupe. Of the 26 principal actors in the Lord Chandler’s Men listed in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, two, William Kemp and Richard Armin, were clowns. William Kemp was the first clown to appear with the troupe. He was such an important star that he was a part owner in both the troupe and the Globe Theater. He specialized in playing stupid country bumpkin type characters (a style that would later become known as the Auguste).
Robert Armin (c.1568 – 1615) joined the company when Kemp left. He specialized in playing court jester style fools. He wrote a book on famous court jesters, one of the first histories of clowning to be published.
The style of Shakespeare’s plays changed when Armin replaced Kemp so it is known that he tailored them to the style and abilities of his clowns. Scholars believe that part of the existing scripts were actually ad libs by the clowns that were written down after they proved popular.
According to tradition, Hamlet’s order that clowns speak only what had been written down for them was in reality Shakespeare’s criticism of Kemp’s ad libbing.
The First Circus Clown
Philip Astley created what is considered the first circus in England in 1768. He also created the first circus clown act called Billy Buttons, or the Tailor’s Ride To Brentford. The topical act was based on a popular tale of a tailor, an inept equestrian, trying to ride a horse to Brentford to vote in an election. Astley impersonated the tailor attempting to ride the horse. First he had tremendous difficulty mounting correctly, and then when he finally succeeded the horse started off so fast that he fell off. As the circus grew and Astley hired other clowns, he required them to learn Billy Buttons. It soon became a traditional part of every circus for 100 years. Variations of the routine with somebody coming out of the audience to attempt to ride a horse are still being performed in modern circuses.
Joseph Grimaldi – The Father of Modern Clowning
Joseph Grimaldi (1778 – 1837) was exclusively a theatrical clown. He is considered the Father of Modern Clowning because he is the entertainer who elevated the Whiteface clown to a starring role replacing Harlequin.
Grimaldi grew up in the theater, and excelled at designing elaborate trick special effects. The type of production he starred in resembled a live action Roadrunner Cartoon with chase scenes and comic violence with extreme but temporary results.
Grimaldi was known for his comic songs, in particular an audience participation song called Hot Codlins. Besides appearing as a whiteface clown, Grimaldi also performed in blackface portraying “noble savages” such as Friday in a comic production of Robinson Crusoe.
First female circus clown
The first female American circus clown that we have records of was Amelia Butler who portrayed a recognizably feminine clown in 1858 while touring with a show called Nixonâs Great American Circus and Kemp’s Mammoth English Circus.
Dan Rice (1823-1901) was a clown of the Civil War era. Like Will Rogers and Bob Hope he commented humorously on current events. A composer, he created many popular topical songs. He campaigned for Zachary Taylor for President. One of the things he would do was invite Taylor to ride on the circus bandwagon in the circus parades. Local politicians would clamor to ride as well hoping his popularity would benefit them. People would comment, “Look who’s on Taylor’s bandwagon,” inspiring the phrase “jump on the bandwagon.”
Rice had a goatee and wore a patriotic costume he referred to as his flag suit. Political cartoonist Ogden Nash based his drawings of Uncle Sam on Rice and his costume.
Dan Rice was an accomplished animal trainer. He specialized in pigs and mules, which he trained and sold to other clowns. He also presented an act with a trained rhinoceros and is the only person in circus history to present a tightrope walking elephant.
Rice was the highest paid person in America some years, earning more than his close personal friend Abraham Lincoln. A philanthropist he gave generously to many charities and erected the first monument to soldiers killed during the Civil War.
During the mid-nineteenth century, before the invention of the phonograph and radio, popular songs were spread across the country by singing clowns who would then sell Songsters with the lyrics and music following the show. They played an important role in the musical culture of the nation.
Origins of the Auguste character
There is a widely told legend about the origins of the Auguste clown. According to the legend, an American acrobat named Tom Belling was performing with a circus in Germany in 1869. Confined to his dressing room as discipline for missing his tricks, he entertained his friends by putting on misfitting clothes to perform his impression of the show’s manager. The manager suddenly entered the room. Belling took off running, ending up in the circus arena where he fell over the ring curb. In his embarrassment and haste to escape, he fell over the ring curb again on his way out. The audience yelled, “auguste!” which is German for fool. The manager commanded that Belling continue appearing as the Auguste.
Most serious historians doubt that the legend is true. For one thing, the word Auguste did not exist in the German language until after the character became popular. One of the theories of the actual origin is that Belling copied the character from the R’izhii (Red Haired) clowns he saw when he toured Russia with a circus.
Characters like the auguste certainly existed previously. Whether or not he was the first, Belling was not very successful as an Auguste and soon left clowning to perform as a magician.
Footit and Chocolat
One of the first truly successful Augustes was Chocolat (Raphael Padilla) ( – 1917), a Cuban born Black orphan. He was sold as a servant to a European, and eventually worked as family servant for Tony Grice, a whiteface clown. Part of his duties was appearing as an Auguste in Grice’s clown acts. It was after he teamed with English Whiteface clown George Footit (1864-1921) that he became extremely popular. The duo demonstrated the dramatic comedy inherent in a whiteface- auguste duo. Footit was the haughty, authoritarian, demanding, physically abusive Clown. Chocolat was a lazy fool unsuccessfully attempting to appear dignified, a naive hapless scapegoat who obeys without complaining and doesn’t react to the abuse he suffers. They recreated Grice’s train station sketch, and performed some traditional routines, but they were most noted for their original parodies rich in dialogue. Their success inspired many imitators establishing the auguste character.
Chocolat did not wear makeup. His dark skin contrasted nicely with Footit’s white make up.
Early auguste clowns had a naturalistic appearance as if they had just wandered off the street into the circus ring. The exaggerated make up associated with the auguste clown today was introduced by Albert Fratellini, of the Fratellini Brothers.
Origins of the Tramp Character
James McIntyre ( -Aug. 18, 1937) and Tom Heath ( -Aug. 19, 1938) created the tramp clown characterization in 1874. They portrayed African Americans made homeless by the Civil War. They based their characters on blackface minstrel clowns which is the origin of the white mouth used by tramp clowns. They studied African American culture attempting to accurately portray it. McIntyre is credited with introducing an African American dance called the Buck and Wing to the American stage. The dance later became known as tap dancing. It should be noted that there are alternate “origins” for the tramp character – one of which was the traveling “hoe boys,” or itinerant farm workers, who rode the rails from one town to another, wiping the soot away from their eyes & mouth. These hoe boys (or hobos) are another possible inspiration for the tramp clown.
Early vaudeville was segregated. Bert Williams (Egbert Austin Williams) (Nov. 12, 1874-March 4, 1922), a black man performing a tramp clown character in the tradition of McIntyre and Heath, broke through many racial barriers. He was the first black performer to star in a motion picture, and his recordings with George Walker are the earliest documented appearance by blacks on phonograph records. He broke down barriers for blacks in vaudeville and on Broadway. The dignity he gave his tramp clown character humanized the caricature created by white minstrels and perpetuated by black minstrels.
In 1893 he teamed with George Walker considered one of the best straight men in vaudeville. Walker and Willams formed a black production company in 1898. They produced A Lucky Coon, Senegambian Carnival, The Policy Players, In Dahomey, Abyssinia, and Bandana Land. According to Mel Watkins, “the success of the Williams and Walker productions significantly influenced black performersâ acceptance on Broadway and the vaudeville stage.”
When Walker passed away in 1908, Williams continued with a solo act which interspersed monologues, songs, and pantomimes. His most famous pantomime was a poker game where he silently portrayed all the players as they dealt, bet, and cheated by glancing at each other’s cards. He joined the cast of the Ziegfield Follies two years later. He was in every Follies edition for the rest of his career. Williams was considered Americaâs greatest entertainer by his contemporaries.
His accomplishments were such that famous Negro scientist Brooker T. Washington said, “Williams has done more for the race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts.” He revealed the humanity beneath the stereotype. No matter what his accomplishments were on stage, Williams still faced the racism of his era. He was caught in the 1900 New York race riots. Although a vaudeville headliner, he had to stay in inferior black-only hotels while on the road. W.C .Fields described him as “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Most cultures have had their own clown character. Clowns have gone by many names around the world throughout history including: Auguste, Badin (Medieval France), Bobo (Spain c. 1500’s), buffoon, Cabotin (Italy c. 1500’s), Cascaduer (France), Charlie (European Tramp Clown), Chou (China), Claune (France 1800’s), Contrary (Native America Plains Tribes), Excentrique (Solo French Clown), Fool, Gleeman (England, medieval), Gracioso (Spain, C. late 1500’s), Grotesque (France, acrobatic clown, 1820-1850), Hano (Native American), Hanswurst (Germany “&” Austria c. 1700), Harlequin (Commedia Del Arte “&” English Pantomime), Jack Pudding (England, 1600’s), Jester, Joey, Jongleur (ninth century Europe), Kartala (Bali), Koyemsi (Native American Hope Tribe), Merry Andrew (England, 1600 “&” 1700’s), Minnesinger (Germany, 1100-1400), Minstrel (Europe, medieval, “&” America, 1800’s “&” 1900’s), Narr (Germany c. 1600), Newekwe (Native America Zuni Tribe), Nibhatkin (Burma), Pagliacci (Italy), Pantalone (Commedia Del Arte “&” English Pantomime), Pedrolino (Commedia Del Arte), Penasar (Bali), Pickle Herring (Holland “&” Germany, 1600 “&” 1700’s), Pierrot (France), Rizhii (Russia, 1800’s), Semar (Java), Skomorokhi (Russia c. 1000), Tramp (America), Trickster (mythology of many cultures), Troubadour (Medieval France), Vidusaka (India), Vita (India), Wayang Orang (Indonesia), Whiteface, and Zany (Italy).