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.
Slivers was famous for working solo in the ring. His featured gag was a one-man baseball game in which he played all the positions of both teams. Among his classic walkarounds was a gag in which he rode around the hippodrome track atop two giant lobsters.
He went on to perform in other circuses, in vaudeville and was featured (sometimes partnered with Marceline Orbes) in the massive shows at the New York Hippodrome.
He married vaudeville singer Nellie Dunbar in 1902 and they had one daughter, Ruth.
With the coming of motion pictures and the superstardom of Charlie Chaplin Slivers was supplanted as an American comedy icon. When other offers had dried up he tried to return to Ringling where he was offered only $75.00 a week to perform walkarounds.
He committed suicide, dying by gas asphyxiation, on March 8, 1916, in his room in New York City. Oakley had fallen for Viola Stoll, a young vaudeville actress, and remained infatuated even after she was arrested and incarcerated for stealing his late wife’s jewelry. When he tried to have her paroled from Bedford Reformatory by proposing marriage, she rejected him.