A funny thing to be scared of ---- CLOWNS! And yet, several regular readers commented on my recent blog about ventriloquists, puppets and toys and how they seem to want to come alive!, that they found clowns scary…
This I completely understand!
The first clown face I saw was when I was about four years old: it was a cut-out mask from the back of a cereal box and it was worn by the boy living in the house behind ours who kept looking out of an upstairs’ window at me until I was scared to the point of tears. The white face with its criss-crossed-out eyes, red nose and watermelon mouth was made all the more terrifying by having the fixed expression of a mask.
The only solution to my abject terror was for my mum to go and buy a packet of the said cereal and make up another mask for me from the same series ("Collect all six and scare the s*** out your friends!"); this done I was then able to stand in the garden and leer back at my tormentor!
I was taken to Olympia, maybe a year later, to see Bertram Mills' Circus and was again scared to death, this time by genuine clowns who leapt out of the ring and came clambering about amongst the audience in their oversized shoes and voluminous checked suits with water-pistol button-holes in their jackets.
They lurched along carrying what looked like heavy buckets of water and everyone - except me! - screamed with laughter when it was discovered that they only contained confetti. I just screamed - and had to be taken out...
I remember seeing Walt Disney's Dumbo for the first time and hating the sadistic clowns with their slasher smiles who were so cruelly vicious to that sweet little elephant!
(An interesting side note here: Dumbo was completed during the final days of the animators' strike that almost crippled the Disney Studio in 1941 and the silhouettes of the clowns, seen through the circus tent, are said to be caricatures of the strike leaders! Confirmation of our belief that all clowns are dubious subversives...)
The first time I felt comfortable in a clown's presence was when Coco the Clown - who, strictly speaking, was not a ‘clown’ but an ‘Auguste’ - visited my school one day to talk to us about road safety. Coco (Nicolai Poliakoff, 1900-1974) completely charmed me with his size 58 boots, his funny stand-up hair and his belisha beacon walking stick.
Of course, it is not necessary to like or enjoy clowns to appreciate their fascinating role in the history of theatre and entertainment being, in fact, part of a tradition that predates even Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), whose his name became, for years, the generic term for a clown - ‘Joey’ - and who was the subject of a biography by no less a scribe than Charles Dickens…
Later, another famous clown legend would emerge: the great Grock (Charles Adrien Wettach, 1880-1959; below left), who made audiences laugh when the strings on his fiddle disappeared - because he was holding the instrument upside down! - but who was a consummate musician and highly educated man, being able to play no less than 24 instruments as well as speaking many languages. America, meanwhile had its own classic clown, Emmett Kelly (1898-1979) who created the sorrowful-looking Weary Willie (below right), inspired by the hobos of the American depression.
Kelly, Grock, Coco and Grimaldi were - like many clowns, I'm sure - genial, kindly fools but the painted face that hides the real face has led to any number of less salubrious characters donning the white pallor and the greasepaint grin from James Stewart as a wanted criminal masquerading as Buttons the Clown in the 1952 film, The Greatest Show on Earth (in which Emmett Kelly made a cameo appearance), via Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, to the demonic Pennywise the Dancing Clown in Stephen King’s It.
Aside from meeting the avuncular Coco, the only clown by whom I have felt utterly unthreatened - and whose brilliant comedy moved me to both laughter and tears - is the Russian genius, Slava (Vyacheslav Ivanovich Polunin), creator of the unforgettable Slava’s Snowshow: a tour de force of theatrical magic that is filled with wonder and delight, beauty, sadness and a resigned appreciation of the absurdity of life…
Grock used to be called “The King of Clowns”; today, Slava is known simply as “The Best Clown in the World”. He is, apart from anything else, a much needed antidote to all those sinister, scary, menacing clowns about whom some us still have nightmares - and what more nightmarish creature could one conceive than this unlikely act from a vintage performance of Bertram Mills' Circus...?