Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit. The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.
In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue our journey to the 20th century into the human skills acts that also took place in the 19th century as well. The death defying acts of the flying trapeze originally invented in 1859 growing into the biggest attractions in the circus leading to huge performances today such as cirque du soleil. Continuing to awe us with their talent and bravery at killer heights as we all watch in anticipation waiting for the performer to safety come down.
Previous Profiles and Stories
General Tom Thumb and Admiral Dot
Ohio Bigfoot Lady
Grady Stiles (Lobster Boy)
The Pinheads Pip/Flip and Schlitizie-
Myrtle Corbin (The Four Legged Girl)
Koo-Koo the Bird Girl
Camel Girl –
The Siamese Twins –
Naturally we think of so many different other types of performers some traditional some not, but today let’s explore a little comedy and those performers we love to hate clowns. For many clowns are not their favorite part of the show for some reason, I find that strikingly enjoyable but many find them frightful. Frankly I don’t blame others for being afraid of clowns society and media has not done a great job of putting clowns in favorable light especially when many are killer clowns, but they still do have an important significance in the Circus.
Here Comes the Clowns!
Developed in the 19th century, clowns often entertained audience with songs and long monologues, in which they sometimes offered words of wisdom on politics, current events and even quote Shakespeare; one such clown was name Dan Rice, who was known for an act that incorporated singing, dancing, jokes and trick riding.
Once the 20th century rolled around, clowns attempted to strike out in a new direction, abandoning traditional costumes and makeup and developing more-natural characters. Some of the most prominent clowns of the 1930’s and 40’s in the United States was Emmett Kelly and Otto Griebling, both at their peaks who popularized woebegone down-and-out “Tramp” character who provided poignant and comic insight into the small tragedies of life. In the second half of the century included the great Russian clown Oleg Popov known throughout Europe and United States when touring with the Moscow Circus. Wearing a minimum of makeup in the tradition of European Auguste clowns, he appeared in the ring with little to set him part from the others except a slightly unconventional wardrobe.
The Evolution Of The Clown
Clowns have not fundamentally changed over the years as far as their purpose in entertaining but interesting to see that clowns today in the United States were very different then early 20th century. Most notably in the United States Bozo the Clown was an influential Auguste character since the late 1950’s. The Bozo show appeared in 1960’s and appeared nationally on cable television in 1978. Mcdonald’s derived its mascot clown, Ronald Mcdonald from the Bozo character in the 1960’s. Willard Scott who played Bozo during 1959 – 1962 performed as the mascot in 1963 television spots.
Based on the Bozo template, the US custom of birthday clown, private contractors who offer to perform as clowns at children’s parties, developed in the 1960’s and 70’s. I would say the rest is history as by the 1980’s also gave rise to the evil clown character, the attraction of clowns for small children being based on their fundamentally threatening or frightening nature, the fear of clowns, particularly circus clowns.
We should not forget the importance and history of clowns as they remain an important part of the circus experience. I personally find clowns joyful to look at with their funny painted faces, big shoes, red noses and individual personalities.
Along with clowns it wouldn’t be the circus without the so called freaks, again a term I personally don’t agree with using because these are human beings but a term used since the 19th century. Based on my research it’s hard to say if the circus performers were offended by the term freaks but accepted the term due to the times and not to cause waves. The next performer I found quite interesting although they don’t seem to have a lot of our next profile Stephan Bibrowski better known as Lionel the Lion-faced man.
Stephan Bibrowski (Lionel the Lion-faced Man)
A famous sideshow performer as his whole body was covered in long hair giving him the appearance of a lion, a rare condition most likely attributed to hypertrichosis. Born in Congress Poland with one-inch hair covering his body. His mother (Benedict) blamed the condition on the mauling of his father (Michael) by a lion, which she witnessed while pregnant with Stephan. She considered Stephan an abomination and gave him up to a German impresario named Sedlmayer when she was four years old. Sedlmayer gave him his stage name and started exhibiting him around Europe.
By the time he was put on exhibit, his hair was eight inches on his face and hung about four inches everywhere else. His body entirely covered with hair, the only exception being his palms of his hands and the soles of his feet.
In 1901, Lionel traveled to the United States and started appearing in Barnum and Bailey circus. Performing gymnastic tricks, and also spoke to people to show his gentle side. Settling in the U.S. in 1920, becoming a popular attraction, and moved to New York City, where he was a fixture at Coney Island.
By the late 1920’s, Lionel retired from his sideshow career and moved back to Germany. He was reported to have died in Berlin from a heart attack in 1932 at forty-one years old.
Thank you for continuing to go through this journey with me, missing a few weeks due to some life changes but felt this subject matter was to important to me to just give up and hope you enjoy my take in the world of the circus, it’s performers and the strange which we can all appreciate. Until next time!