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Clowns and Clowning - by Joseph W. Rogers, Ph.D. 

Submitted by Editor on   4/4/2004
Last Modified

CLOWNS AND CLOWNING - Updated 11/19/05

By Joseph W. Rogers, Ph.D.
Member, Education Committee
Circus Fans Association of America



While recently entertaining a young child, we decided to introduce “Nicki’ -- almost 2 1/2 years old -- to a clown face. The initial event did not get very far. Just as soon as she saw the small red nose on her grandfather’s face, Nicki burst into tears, quite obviously frightened. This reaction was particularly surprising, in that the little girl had been previously exposed to books and videotapes featuring numerous clown figures.

A few days later her mother returned from a trip, so we decided to try once again just starting very slowly, with the tiny red nose -- but on her mother’s face. This time Nicki’s response was more curiosity than fear -- the door was opened to slowly add a few costume pieces, this time by grandfather. Within the hour, Nicki was proudly wearing her first clown outfit -- her own red nose, a colorful oversized bow tie, and large matching cap. Her smiles, as she inspected herself in the hall mirror, revealed the inner joy of a happy child.


Clowns, for all their ability to make us laugh, can in fact be rather scary figures to children even older than Nicki. Experienced performers know this of course; thus, they approach audiences, whether at a circus, fair, birthday party, or store opening with an eye for spotting those youngsters ready to be approached. We think this is important for you, as a student, if you decide to put on a show such as a circus for the younger kids. You want your audience to have a real good time! Tears spoil things.


On the following pages you will learn more about clowns: a bit of their history, descriptions of different types of clowns, and something of the art itself. You must remember though that this is just a small start, intended to encourage your own further research and discoveries.

A Short History of Clowns

Although we may not be able to identify the first clown or an inventor of clowning, we do know this heritage goes back many centuries. Moreover, these ancient entertainers were to have been found in lands both west and east of our own continent —- for example, China and India and in Asia across the Pacific ocean; Egypt, Greece, and Italy in Europe across the Atlantic. In historical terms, these performers lived during “B.C.” -- decades before the birth of Christ.

They were not known then by our term “clowns,” but by such titles as ‘zanies,” “court fools,” “minstrels,” “mimes,” or “jesters.” Some used masks or simple props, such as a stick, while entertaining. The “fools” might act dumb or foolish for their audiences including, perhaps a pharaoh or a king; the mimes might gain admiration for their various poses and imitations, while the jesters might amuse their ruler’s guests through displays of clever wit and jokes. As early as 400 B.C. comic playwrights appeared, giving rise to a long lineage of humorous writings and funny characters.

According to Clown Historian Bruce Johnson, himself an active tramp clown known as “Charlie,” clowning has existed in America for at least 600 years. His research reveals when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztec nation in the 1520s, this explorer discovered natives who acted as fools, buffoons, and jesters. Many Native American tribes contained “clown societies” whose members wore masks and body paint; some wore costumes. Mr. Johnson notes the Plains Indians had “Contrary Societies” who purposely did everything wrong. Picture these antics: riding a horse while facing its tail; walking around camp on one’s hands; taking a dust bath, then jumping into the water to dry off; or shooting arrows backward over their shoulders! Perhaps funny for those odd behaviors, but some contraries were considered among the bravest and most skillful warriors. Some native clowns also had additional functions -- teaching children traditional dances; initiating laughter at the beginning of certain ceremonies to increase friendliness; correcting offensive behavior through public exposure and teasing; using the power of laughter to heal and promote health; or entertaining others during various festivities.

In 1993 we celebrated the 200th birthday of the Circus in America, commemorating European equestrian John Bill Ricketts’ 1793 establishing the first “true circus” in Philadelphia. Mr. Ricketts combined skillful feats of horsemanship in the ring with daring acts of rope walkers and acrobats, joined by a clown named Mr. McDonald (no kin to “Ronald”). He was followed by John Durang, who is credited by Johnson as being the first American born circus clown. Combining his skills as an acrobat, wire walker, and equestrian with those of a costumed clown provided great entertainment for our forefathers. Ever since, our country has been the benefactor of the thousands of mirth makers who followed in those early footsteps.

Types of Clowns

Known as “Joeys’ (after Englishman Joseph Grimaldi, 1778-1837), clowns appear today in an wide variety of costumes and make-ups. An

unwritten honor code holds that each clown must strive to create his or her own very special face, unlike that of any other person —- hardly an easy task. Some clowns, such as Dan Rice (1823-1900) chose not to wear makeup. Among our most famous clowns, and named after the tasty rice pudding, he simply wore a patriotic costume and a top hat, becoming one of President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite entertainers. Mr. Rice in this outfit is said to have inspired the familiar image of our “Uncle Sam” through the pen of an early cartoonist, Thomas Nast, a notion not accepted by some scholars.

Originally, the term “clown” meant “clod, “ and was often used to denote a ‘country bumpkin,” “yokel,” “lout,” or “boor.” Although it is still used that way in coarse or crude conversation, “clown” has also taken on a much higher meaning. Today we appreciate the art and skill required by these performers. Remember their training requires such ingredients as talent, motivation, sense-of-timing, coordination, quick physical reaction, and dedication to hard work. Not all who want to become professional clowns succeed, but later on we shall identify a few of the stars who have. Old-timer Karl “Whitey” Hirsch used to say “Clowning is easy, UNTIL YOU TRY IT.”

Author John H. Towsen in his excellent book, Clowns, says that most of the words in his ten-page glossary “refer to types of clowns, and dozens more could easily be included.” Here, we must limit ourselves to just three of the most commonly cited types: (1) whiteface, (2)auquste, and (3)character. But do keep in mind that the vast variety of clown faces and costumes today defy easy typing.


Usually the whiteface clown adds touches of red &/or black to individual features -- mouth, nose, eyebrows, and perhaps cheeks, on an otherwise all-white face. A clown is called a “Neat Whiteface” when his or her features are of ordinary size; a “Grotesque White-face, “if the features are oversized or exaggerated, thus presenting some of the scarier images.


The auguste (rhymes with roost) clown does not whiten the entire face, which is generally covered with a pink or red base color. The makeup tends to be colorful and gaudy, commonly including a prominent red nose. While the facial features may be enlarged and, painted in red or black, the mouth and eyes are usually outlined in white.


Character clowns may appear in many guises —— as a fireman, policeman, dentist, doctor, college professor, and numerous other roles. The character’s face and makeup are variations on the human face through a blend of funny appearing wigs, mustaches, whiskers, false noses, freckles, pigtails, or what ever fits the occasion. Costuming may be equally outrageous as they appear in ill-fitting suits, dresses, hats, and other odd pieces.

Tramp Clowns deserve special mention, having become so famous in this country through the extraordinary talents of a host of performers. Recognizable usually through their hobo—like torn and patched clothing, many also possess an unshaven face and a reddened nose. Among all clowns, the tramp is best known for his or her ability to create feelings of tenderness and sympathy.

The Art of Clowning

Clowning has long been considered an honorable craft, and as with other professions has experienced changes and challenges over the centuries to the present. Writing in a period (1921), which WE think “old,” George Conklin observed,

There is nothing which more strikingly emphasizes the difference between the old-time circus and that of today than the changed relation which the clown holds to the show. In the old days he was the principal attraction, and oftentimes the success or failure of a show depended on the ability and reputation of its clown. He told stories, cracked jokes, sang songs, and very often composed them as well, commented to the audience on the different acts, and drew the largest salary of anyone on the payroll.

What this early circus owner disliked was a reduction of many clown acts to little more than “rough-and-tumble and cheap ‘slapstick’pantomime.” With the advent of the larger-than-ever audiences, crowded under a huge canvas containing three rings surrounded by a hippodrome track, change was inevitable. Distance, inability to hear, and lack of compensating technology made many of the cherished routines obsolete. These changes required such adjustments as creating larger props; generating more visible body language and noisy routines; putting on more ensemble acts; plus utilizing clowns for “come—ins,” “clown stops,” and “walkarounds.” (Please check glossary for meanings.)

Even so, the past half-century witnessed the appearance of many exceptional clowns and routines. During your research, check, for example, such whitefaces as Felix Adler, Paul Jung, Bobby Kay, Frosty Little, and Pat Valdo. For augustes, check the names of Tom Belling (possibly the first, about 1869) and Lou Jacobs, our premier auguste whose likeness is on a 1966 five-cents U.S. postage stamp. For tramps, check for Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly, Mark Anthony, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and Red Skelton among others.

Many classic acts are associated with these figures, such as Weary Willie’s” (Emmett Kelly) powerful attempt to sweep away a spot (light) on the ring floor; or Greibling’s hilarious effort to deliver a cake of melting ice to a supposed member of the audience; or Lou Jacobs (over 6 feet tall) arriving inside a car so small, most sixth graders couldn’t get in it -- moreover, Lou’s car seemed to have a mind of its own. Entertaining team routines included such acts as Griebling’s amazing car gag, packing more than 20 clowns inside a single vehicle; a riotous clown rescue of a mother & infant from a blazing building; a sausage making routine; and an atom smasher -- the latter pair usually including midget or dwarf clowns to pull off effective endings.

Clowning variations are endless, and today many of the traditional types have become blurred through mixtures. Some clowns enjoy working with animals. For instance, Lou Jacobs disguised his dog “Knucklehead” as a rabbit for a classic hunting farce; Felix Adler became well known for his piglet friends; and Edwin “Poodles” Hanneford combined his equestrian and comic skills in a beloved clown/horse routine. In some cases the animal becomes the clown as with Ben Williams’ sidesplitting “drunken-elephant” number.


If anyone thinks circus clowning is a dying art, let them see the truly gifted David Larible, Barry Lubin, and Bello Nock whose extraordinary styles defy easy description. Mr. Larible accomplishes the near ‘impossible” as the longtime featured attraction with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Like many younger performers, he wears light makeup. He also wears a newsboy gingham cap with a matching jacket and baggy trousers. His likeness has been duplicated in a doll sold by the show. This extraordinary clown can spellbind the huge audiences of this three-ring circus through a merger of mime, timing, and audience participation, including children. At this writing, Mr. Larible was planning to leave Ringling and “go out on his own.”

Mr. Lubin is the current featured performer with the single-ring Big Apple Circus. In the guise of “Grandma,” “she” repeatedly works the closer, more intimate audience to perfection through highly stylized interaction with other members of the company, including (during one tour) the Mummenschanz’s wonderful large puppet “Slinky Worm.” Although it sounds simple and unimpressive, one of his standard routines has become a hilarious popcorn sequence, catching popcorn on his tongue and involving audience members along the way.

Possibly the most celebrated clown today is the phenomenal Bello Nock whose trademark is his 9 inch vertical stalk of blond hair that must be seen to be fully appreciated. In 2000 he was enticed from the Big Apple by Ringling, becoming the centerpiece for their red unit. Known for daredevil acts, he has performed such stunts as being suspended from a flexible, 3-inch wide tube 90 feet tall and swinging back and forth between buildings. He describes himself as fearless, as illustrated by hanging by just his toes from a trapeze dangling from a helicopter above the Statue of Liberty! He has performed high above the tent floor without a safety net; he has done bungee jumps, high wire acts on a bicycle, and even somersaulted over five elephants.

Kelly Crow, in an outstanding Wall Street Journal article (8-12-05: W1, W3) describes Lubin, Larible, and Noch as “Power Clowns” or “Celebrity Clowns.” She writes,

Under pressure from animal-rights groups and higher costs of maintaining large beasts, and facing competition from live-action shows based on cartoon characters, the $1.8 billion industry is trying to transform these once-nameless sideline acts into major brands. Multimillion-dollar ad campaigns are focused on clowns like Mr. Nock and “Grandma,” of New York’s Big Apple Circus.

In five years Mr. Nock’s pay package has doubled to $600,000, while his staff has grown to include a personal assistant and a driver for his 78-foot custom RV. (Other clowns are assigned 4-by-6-foot bunks in a mile-long circus train.


Clowns are cheaper than exotic animals, even accounting for the star clowns’ high salaries and perks. For example, a newborn elephant can cost about $100,000 to buy, plus annual costs of $11,000 to feed, $7,500 to care for, $7,000 to insure and $20,000 to transport. (Ringling has 22 performing elephants among its three troupes.) By contrast, annual salaries for clown-alley clowns generally run from $15,000 to $40,000.

Glancing backward, in 1968 owner Irvin Feld instituted the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, which has since graduated over one thousand students. Two years later seven female students enrolled. Among their graduates were Peggy Williams who became the first new female clown on the RBB&B show in twenty years and Bernice Collins who became their first black female clown. During the past decade, with Ringling reducing by a third its company of clown-alley clowns, the organization saw fit to close its Clown College in 1997.

Each generation of children and parents has enjoyed their own clown favorites, just a few of whom are mentioned above. As you and your friends attend future circuses, fairs, or celebrations; watch videos or television; and read books or magazines you will discover a new host of clowns whose main purpose is to entertain you —-bring a smile to your face; make you laugh; or perhaps stir some emotion with a tear or two. Some may still be learning their craft, so your attention, applause, and support will be appreciated.

A Short Glossary of Clown Jargon

Carpet Clown At one time this term referred to the solo auguste who performed on the circus carpet between acts. Today it generally refers to a “fill-in” clown -- one who works the arena floor or up in the stands among the audience.

Clown Alley Originally a walkway behind the big top, where clowns awaited their entrance cues. In crises, including emergencies or performer accidents, the clowns were available to divert audience attention, reduce tension, or avert panic. As their makeup tent was near the performers’ entrance, the term also came to refer to the clowns’ tent itself.

Clown College A training program instituted by Irvin Feld, owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Established in 1968 at the show’s winter quarters in south Florida, Clown College was moved in August 1993 to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It closed in 1997.

Clown Stop Circus lingo for a brief appearance of the clowns instead of a longer gag. Stops are common while props (e.g., the animal cage) are being changed; or during a clown walkaround on a larger show.

Clown Walkaround Here the clowns parade around the big top, each pausing to do a brief sketch for a section of the audience before moving along to repeat a sight gag in front of a different section. Each clown creates and performs his or her own bit lasting about 30 seconds.

Come-in The time between the circus gate opening and the start of the show itself. Clowns usually warm up the waiting customers with a gag, such as enticing different portions of the audience to outdo the others with applause and yelling.

Gag A basic term to refer to all clown routines -- tricks, stunts, scenes, etc. Loosely speaking, to “gag it up” is another way of saying to “ham it up.” Clown stops during a walkaround are usually shorter than those of a carpet clown, which are shorter than a production gag such as the 5-10 minute firehouse number.

Producing Clown In American circuses, this is the clown who designs and stars in a major gag, and who develops the accompanying props. Felix Adler, Otto Griebling, Lou Jacobs, and Paul Jung were considered among the best.

Selected References

Although the few following entries should prove helpful to students, most have been written for adults, including parents and teachers. Also many may be difficult to locate; thus, readers are encouraged to begin any study project with the assistance of a school, college, or city librarian. If time permits, ask the librarian or a clerk in your local bookstore to check the ‘circus” and “clown” sections of a reference volume entitled “Books in Print” for additional possibilities. Most will be glad to help you.

Books (Adult)

Apps, Jerry. Ringlingville USA: the Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success, Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005.

Ballantine, Bill. Clown Alley, Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1982.

Culhane, John. The American Circus: An Illustrated History, New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company 1990.

Hoh, LaVahn G. and William H. Rough. Step Right Up! The Adventures of Circus in America, White Hall, VA: Betterway Publications, Inc.,1990.

Hugill, Beryl. Bring on the Clowns, Seacaucascus, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1980.

Johnson, Bruce A. Jest in Time: A Clown Chronology, 1602 Locust Way, Lynnwood, WA: Charlie’s Creative Comedy, 1992.

Johnson, Bruce A. The Tramp Tradition, Same Address, 1993.

Kelly, Emmett (with Francis Beverly Kelley). Clown, New York, NY:

Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1954.

Ogden, Tom. Two Hundred Years of the American Circus: From Aba-Daba to the Zoppe-Zavata Troupe, New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1993.

Speaight, George. The Book of Clowns, New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980.

Towsen, John H. Clowns, New York, NY: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1976.

Wright, Barton (Photographs by Jerry Jacka). Clowns of the Hopi:

Tradition Keepers and Delight Makers, Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing Company, 1994.

Books (Youth)

Boring, Mel. Clowns: The Fun Makers, New York, NY: Julian Messner! Simon & Schuster, 1980. Non-fiction —- Elem./Mid. School.

Chapman, Danny. Circus Buffoon, P.O. Box 3684, Sarasota, FL, 1982.

Fiction -- High School.

De Paola, Tomie. The Clown of God, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Fiction -- Elementary/Middle School.

DePaola, Tomie. Jingle, the Christmas Clown, New York, NY: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1992. Fiction -- Elementary/Middle School.

Duncan, Lois (Photographs by Joseph Janney Steinmetz). The Circus Comes Home, New York, NY: Doubleday, 1993. Non-fiction -- Middle


Gaskin, Carol. A Day in the Life of a Circus Clown, Mahwah, NJ:

Troll Associates, 1988. Non-fiction -- Elementary School.

Hurwitz, Johanna. Class Clown, New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc., 1987. Fiction -- Elementary! Middle School.

Sutton, Felix and James Schucker. The Book of Clowns, NY: New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1975 printing. Fiction -- Elementary.

Tegge, Gigi. The Magical Trunk: A Book of Colors, Bridgeport, CT, Greene Bark Press, 2001. Fiction – Elementary.

Thaler, Mike, The Clown’s Smile, NY: New York, Harper & Row, 1986. Elementary.

“How—to” Books: Learning Skills

Feder, Happy Jack. Clown Skits for Everyone, New York, NY: Arco Publishing, Inc., 1984.

Fife, Bruce + eight other co-authors. Creative Clowning, Colorado Springs, CO: Java Publishing Company, 1988.

Klutz Press Editors. Face Painting, Palo Alto, CA: Klutz Press, 1990. -- contains tray of five non—toxic, washable face paints.

Smith, Billy J. Carving Clowns & Circus Wagons, New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, 1993.

Wiley, Jack. Basic Circus Skills, Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1974.

Snazaroo ,(Editor Jaqui Bailey, plus staff) . Five-Minute Faces: Fantastic Face-Painting Ideas, New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1992.

Stolzenberg, Mark. Clown for Circus and Stage, New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, 1981.


For a large listing of circus-related videotapes, see my annotated listing, which is available from the CFA Education Committee Chairman, Mr. Robert Kitchen, 29 Damon Street, Fall River, MA 02720-0388. The following entries are un-annotated selections, which feature clown themes. Although I have made a sincere effort to provide accurate information here, some items may be subject to changes over time. A helpful store clerk is essential when searching for videos, but perhaps direct mailing is better. Take this list with you. Each tape possesses an individual catalogue number on its container box.

Be A Clown. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Home Video/Family Home Entertainment/MCA Distributing Corp., 1987: color, 80 minutes. Catalogue #24351, ISBN 1-55658-055-X.

The Clown and the Kids. GoodTimes Home Video Corp., 16 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016, 1992: color, 75 minutes. Catalogue # 6181, ISBN 1-55511-347-8.

Clowning Around 1. Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment, Broadcast House, 55 North 300 West, Suite 315, Salt Lake City, Utah 84110-1160, 1998: color, two reels, 183 minutes. Catalogue # BWE 0075, ISBN 1-57742-075-6.

Clowning Around 2. Same address as 1. 1998: color, two reels, 176 minutes. Catalogue # BWE 0076, ISBN 1-57742-076-4.

The Clown of God. The Library Video Company, P. O. Box, Dept. M-72, Wynnewood, PA 19096, 2001: color, 10 minutes, animated, expensive, I do not own.

Clown White. Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment, Broadcast House, 55 North 300 West, Suite 315, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84110-1160, 1998: color, 60 minutes. Catalogue # BWE 0276, ISBN 1-57742-333-X.

The Greatest Clowns of All Time. Family Home Entertainment/Irvin Feld and Kenneth Feld Productions, Inc./MCA Distributing Corp., 1988: color, 30 minutes. Catalogue # 24335, ISBN 1-55658-265-X.

Additional Resources:

Circus World Museum
Attn. Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center
426 Water Street, Baraboo, Wisconsin 53913

Once our country’s foremost center for circus research, this great facility has fallen prey to escalating costs and diminishing incomes. With severe reductions in staff and limited hours of service, we cannot assure you of receiving either materials that were previously on loan or further assistance with school projects. Contact well in advance of any deadlines.

The Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, Inc.
114 North Third Street

Delevan, Wisconsin 53115

Clowns of America International, Inc. P.O. Box 570, Lake Jackson, Texas 77566-0570’ -- NOTE: According to their brochure, this organization’s membership is open to all persons, 16 years and older. “The purpose of C.O.A.I. is to teach and educate and act as a gathering place for the serious minded amateur, semi-professional and professional Clown.” They hold annual conventions, which include clowning competitions limited to members only. Their official publication is entitled, The New Calliope.

If you reside in or visit one of the following cities, plan to visit the fine museum or library listed. Their courteous, trained staff will make you feel welcome, and will be glad to answer questions concerning their exhibits, books, and programs.

The Barnum Museum
820 Main Street
Bridgeport, Connecticut 06604

The Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum
210 West Market Street
San Antonio, Texas 78205

This fine institution is another recent causality of financial woes. Much of the enormous holdings have been transferred to the Witte Museum, which plans to inventory, catalogue, and eventually display some of the collection.

The International Circus Hall of Fame
P. O. Box 700
Peru, Indiana 46970

This small town remains an outstanding custodian of circus, history, traditions, collections, and displays that demand an overnight stay if you are in the area. Each summer Peru presents an extraordinary youth circus and parade, usually featuring over 200 youngsters. Since every performance is commonly sold out, advance reservations are essential.

The Ringling Museums
P.O. Box 1838
Sarasota, Florida 33578

(Located on Sarasota Bay, this huge complex is easily found.)

This is presently the premier circus collection today due, in part, to the imaginative leadership and financial support of Mr. Howard Tibbals. His gigantic miniature circus is considered the finest in America, and it provides a significant centerpiece for the museum. However, for research purposes try: This is an excellent site with thoroughly developed lesson plans and projects at different education levels, plus background information about circuses. One tip: If you visit, plan to take along some extra funds for purchasing some of the many enticing circus-related items in their gift shop.

Additional information may be available from such web sites as the following (An asterisk marks sources which in the past have offered teaching & lesson plans):



For continuation of newer resources or corrections as they become available, check the initial website above and/or Mr. Robert Kitchen, CFA Education Committee Chairman, 29 Damon Street, Fall River, MA 02720-0388.

Yours for the CFA and the Circus

--- Joe Rogers


January 1, 1996
Updated November 19, 2005

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