Lou Jacobs (January 1, 1903 – September 13, 1992)
Inducted into the 1989 Clown Hall of Fame
Lou Jacobs is a legend among clowns. Nearly a decade after his death, he is still immediately recognizable to millions of people, with his bulbous nose, cone-head topped by a tiny fedora hat with a shock of bright red hair around his ears and the ever-present oversize plaid coat, Lou Jacobs personified clowning for Children of All Ages. He entertained audiences at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey for more than 60 years before retiring from performing at age 84.
Lou Jacobs was born as Jacob Ludwig in Bremerhaven, Germany, the son of a shipbuilder, he got his theatrical start as the rear end of an alligator costume. By age 11, Lou Jacobs saw his first clown act in a German circus. When he was 15, he started practicing acrobatics and comedy. He began his performing career as a tumbler and contortionist. Upon his arrival in the United States in 1923, he became a partner in a vaudeville tumbling act in New York. In 1924 he joined Ringling Bros. and never left the big show. He became the most famous example of the flamboyant American auguste with his favorite small automobile, and acts with his irrepressible dogs Knucklehead and Peewee. Lou Jacobs attained the revered title Master Clown, a distinction that few have achieved. His clown face appeared on a 1966 U.S. postage stamp. Jacobs was also honored at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo for his contributions to the art of clowning. When Jimmy Stewart played a clown in Cecil B. DeMille’s movie production The Greatest Show on Earth , Lou Jacobs was his tutor. Yet, with all of these honors, Jacobs always said that his greatest reward was the laughter of children.
“The next year I got hired by John Ringling,” recalled Jacobs, “and I never left. He told me that I could choose between acts. One down here, and one up there (on the trapeze). I wasn’t ready for ‘up there’ because it was 30 feet up, so I became a clown.”
Distinguished by his trademark “Auguste” makeup, Jacobs was one of the first clowns to use the rubber ball nose. Always an original, Lou Jacobs designed his own props and created his own gags. Jacobs created the world’s tiniest car and folded his six-foot frame into it. Audiences will remember watching Jacobs’ small canine partner, Knucklehead, who served faithfully for 14 years as star, sidekick, and foil for the gags and shenanigans of his clown master.
The Jacobs family is a circus family in every sense of the word. In 1953 Lou married Jean Rockwell, a former model and aerialist with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey. The Jacobs’ daughter, Dolly, is a featured aerialist. Lou Jacobs taught clowning techniques and shared secrets of the clowning profession with aspiring clowns at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Clown College for many years.
Lou Jacobs passed away at his home in Sarasota, Florida, in September of 1992
Quotes about Lou Jacobs:
In 1987, on the 20th Anniversary of Clown College, Lou Jacobs walked out onto a small stage and 500 Clowns leapt to their feet. It was a spontaneous outpouring of love, warmth, friendship and respect for a man who had been their teacher and friend.
I remember the applause and cheers, which grew more urgent, more fervent and more heartfelt. Lou was their mentor and this was their chance to return Lou’s friendship — their opportunity to give of themselves, as Lou had given to them — with the same generosity of spirit that had graced every word and deed of Lou, himself. For so many years, Lou Jacobs had given his time, his talent, and his heart to his fellow performers, to each child in the audience, and to every student who passed through the doors of Clown College.
I cannot separate Lou from the memory of that October night in which we all understood what it meant to be a Clown.
We cannot define magic. We can only sense when we are in its presence. Lou Jacobs was magic. And it is our blessing that a spark of that magic — a spark of Lou’s generous spirit — lives on in every life he ever touched, and every performance of the Greatest Show on Earth!*
In the future, Circus lovers will be able to open a book and look at paintings of Lou Jacobs, Master Clown. They’ll look at photographs of Lou, watch movies of Lou, and see hours of video. They’ll even be able to collect a postage stamp of Lou. But those of us who worked with him, those of us who learned from him and those of us who had loved him … we were the lucky ones. We had Lou.
Lou Jacobs was not only a Master Clown, but he was also a master human being. When I first met Lou, I was a nineteen-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears kid. But he treated me with the same respect and dignity that he gave to all living creatures. He was patient and kind and giving. It is said that “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profundity. Kindness in giving creates love.” Lou created a lot of love and a lot of laughter.
To me, he was a shining beacon who was willing and eager to show us the way. The art of clowning has, like a torch, been passed down through the ages. That torch never burned brighter than when it was held in those beautiful big hands of Lou Jacobs. And that torch is brilliant still, fueled by the love in the hearts of every life his life touched. I truly believe that some people come into our lives and quickly go; while others, like Lou, leave footprints on our hearts and we are never, ever the same.
There will never be another clown like Lou Jacobs. He has embodied the very essence of the word for so long that he has actually molded its meaning. Probably no other entertainer in history has caused more people to laugh in live performances.
–Irvin Feld, 1984
Enjoy this photo gallery of Lou Jacobs.
Be sure to check out the official Lou Jacobs web site.