George L. Fox (1825 – 1877)
Known as the American Grimaldi, George L. Fox introduced Grimaldi’s style of violent slapstick and topical satire to the American stage. He transformed it into a distinctly American style of humor reflecting the events of his day.
In 1867, he created his masterpiece, Humpty Dumpty, giving over 1,000 performances on Broadway. His character in this production was a distinctive American anti-hero described as half Boss Tweed and half Krazy Kat. This became the most popular of all of the Pantomime productions. The slapstick form known as Pantomime had been a Broadway staple since before the Civil War, but it reached a peak of popularity during the 1860’s and 70’s. These shows placed figures from Mother Goose stories in wildly varied settings, always finding an excuse to transform them into the clown characters of traditional Commedia del Arte (Harlequin, Columbine, etc.). Popular songs were loosely inserted whenever the audience needed a breather. Lavish sets and athletic clowning were expected, along with elaborate ballets. The most popular pantomime was Humpty Dumpty.
The plot had young Humpty and his playmates turn into harlequinade characters and romp through a candy store, an enchanted garden and Manhattan’s costly new City Hall. Fox’s mute passivity set him apart from the raucous clamor surrounding him, and audiences took the little man to their hearts. Humpty Dumpty was revived several times. Fox eventually gave 1,128 performances in the title role, becoming the most highly paid actor of his time. He initiated the tradition of Wednesday matinees to take advantage of the show’s appeal to children.
He is considered by many to be the funniest man of his time. His white face character became an important part of popular American imagery, being used in advertisements and children’s books long after his death. He is considered an influence on early film comedians including Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers.
Sadly, he was removed from the stage during his last performance. He was taken to an insane asylum where he died three years later of poisoning from his lead-based white makeup.
George Fox was inducted into the 2000 Clown Hall of Fame.