Inside D.C. entertainment

A brief history of clowns: Friendly

August 19, 2010 - 12:40 PM
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Clowns aren't THAT scary. AP Photo/Keith Johnson, Deseret News

Maybe you had one at your birthday party when you were five. And maybe you ran screaming out of the room. But clowns aren’t supposed to be scary - most of them are really nice! Here’s a history of friendly clowns, to help assuage your fears.

14th-16th centuries: Court jesters were a part of the English royal court, employed to entertain with jokes, juggling and clowning. However, the tradition ended with the court of King Charles I in 1649 and the rise of the Puritans.

16th-17th centuries: Commedia dell’arte. This Italian theatrical tradition placed masked performers in semi-improvisational performances, interspersed with lazzi, or clowning acts. Some of the stock characters - like Pulcinella, the simpleton shopkeeper with a big nose, gave way to modern clown characters, like Punch of Punch and Judy.

1778-1837: Joseph Grimaldi is credited for introducing the modern clown to the world. According to one apocryphal story, A man goes into the doctors, ‘Doctor,’ he says, ‘can you help me? Life doesn’t seem worth living, and I am shrouded in constant gloom.’ ‘My good man,’ says the doctor, taking a good look at the melancholy face before him, ‘there is only one cure for you. You must go and see Grimaldi the clown.’ ‘Sir,’ replies the patient, ‘I am Grimaldi the clown.’

Rodeo clown
RUN FOR YOUR LIFE.(AP Photo/The Decatur Daily, Gary Cosby Jr.)

Early 1900s: Rodeo clowns. Rodeo owners, tired of seeing patrons leave in the lulls between action as workers repaired a fence or attended to injured cowboys, began to hire entertainers. The job of the rodeo clown became much more dangerous when rodeos relied upon them to distract bulls to get cowboys safely out of the arena.

1914: Charlie Chaplin makes his debut as “The Little Tramp,” his character. He was once quoted as saying, “I remain just one thing, and one thing only, and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.”

1940s: The rise of Bozo the Clown, who first appeared on children’s records, before getting a TV show in 1959. At one point, there was a 10-year waiting list to see the show in person, and newlyweds would try to get their unborn children on the waiting list.

1946: The International Circus Clowns Club and its egg registry is established. To copyright a clown’s face makeup, he would paint the pattern onto an egg, which the club, now called Clowns International, would register. Though many of the oldest eggs were destroyed in an accident in 1965, the tradition was resurrected in 1984. You can see some of the eggs here in this excellent Flickr.

Marcel Marceau
Marcel Marceau (Photo: AP/file)
1947: Marcel Marceau creates Bip, his world-famous striped-shirt mime. Marceau performed around the world, and taught L'art du silence at the mime school he established in Paris.

1968 - Ringling Brothers Circus establishes its clown college in Venice, Fla. Tuition was free for the 13-week course that teaches juggling, acrobatics, pantomime, make-up application and stilt walking. One later, infamous alumnus of the school: Steve-O from Jackass.

1969: Wavy Gravy, the peace activist clown, gets his name from B.B. King at the Texas International Pop Festival. He decides he is less likely to be arrested at demonstrations if he is dressed as a clown, because “clowns are safe,” he said. Gravy, also famous for his Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor, is the official clown for the Grateful Dead.

1971 - Patch Adams, the doctor/clown portrayed by Robin Williams in the 1998 film, founds the Gesundheit Institute, a holistic health center in West Virginia. Adams is a local, born in D.C. and currently residing in Arlington.

1980: David Bowie dresses as a traditional pierrot-style clown in his video for “Ashes to Ashes.”

2010: The International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center opens in Baraboo, Wis., a.k.a “Circus City.” Baraboo used to be the headquarters of the Ringling Brothers circus. Archives of clowning, including books, photographs and films, will be preserved and digitized, and the center hopes to be a resource to clowns and other entertainers.

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