Wednesday, February 22, 2017

An Interview With The 1908 Barnum & Bailey Clown Alley

The following interview appeared in several newspapers across the country in early April of 1908.  I think it's interesting that a woman is conducting the interview.  The clowns are socially awkward.  Hardly anything has changed in 108 years.  HA!  108!  

Before we begin, here's a listing of all 36 clowns who were in the alley that season 
(this is a clipping from the 1908 Barnum & Bailey program)

NEW YORK, April 4 - Many of the costumes that the Barnum & Bailey clowns offer for the inspection of the people who come to see them are worthy of special mention.  They are the very last cry in things sartorial, and if broadway does not copy them, well, it's a loss to the world of the Great White Way, that is all.  Here's a chance to get away from the rule of the conventional.
     One of these outfits has a waistcoat of large plaids.  It is worn with a coat of elephant's breath that has short bobby tails wired to give the required nonchalant air.  The trousers are modestly high and only exhibit four inches of snow white hose.  A long, light wig lends distinction.  The shoes are of the flapping kind.  Color, hay.
     A frock coat of the vintage of 1812 is worn with a dark red sweater, champagne-colored stockings and no shoes.  A mule, heavily belled, should accompany the wearer.
     With a swallowtail cut to half the usual length at the back, a bright red necktie with flowing ends is very effective.  This should enclose collar with six inch points, built so as to hold the head very erect.  Large loose shoes that beat time with the walk and visible stockings are worn.
     Thin white batiste with many frills.  Red belt drawn taut over expansive waist girth, black stockings, flap shoes, small linen cap set flirtatiously on the side of riotous yellow curls.
     A policeman's coat is worn over tip-tilted bustle and shoulder pads.  It has three rows of buttons down the front, the middle row very small.  A blue flower on the left breast gives a Paquin-like air.  A clay pipe and whiskers are absolutely indespensible.
    With the radiance of this accumulation of fashions and folly in the eyes, it is hard to realize that the rows of men who sit silently in the press room after the circus is over are the very ones who a few minutes before flaunted their magnificence before thousands of spectators.  All the white zinc and grease paint has been washed off, and the prismatic attire replaced by the common, ordinary Maison Square Garden kind of business suit, a little the worse for wear in a few instances, showing the storm and stress of life on the road.
     There is not the slightest attempt to get away from the current mode.  Everything is rigidly conventional and correct.  Each one of them has a clean shave, a shoe shine, and immaculate linen.
     There are fat men and thin men, old men and young, those experienced in circus ways and those to whom life has still something to offer besides a weekly salary and a problematic engagement for the next season.  But the cheerful ease of the ring is replaced by what in circus talk is called sawdust fright.
     It is caused by the unusual experience of being interviewed.  All the merry quips and cranks which people ordinarily associate the genus Clown are gone.  They sit on the extreme edges of their chairs and wait for each other to speak.  When one ventures, after explanatory cough, the rest admire and envy his eloquence and self-possession.
     "If we'd only known about it two days ago," one of them confesses, "we'd had a chance to think up something to say.  Lord, lady, we've got stories enough.  Some of us's been more'n forty years in the clowning business.  But you can't think of stories right off the bat, begging your pardon, this way."
Then they introduce themselves and each other.
     "Lady, I'm the policeman, the jockey and the ballet girl."
Dick "Foolish" Ford
     "I'm the man with the long rope and the short dog.  My! But I thought he'd bite my ankles today, exposed as they be."
     "I'm the one whose feet flap the most."
     "I'm Foolish Ford.  In my contract it says that I can come and go ad lib."
     "I call myself the most absurd, ridiculous individual in the world, abounding in the melody, mirth and madness.  Then when people say I'm so bad I'm good I don't have to make apologies.  I just point to my explanation that's written in the posters."
     "I'm the man that's got a sort of cousin on Park Row who gets all his funny ideas from me."
     Others content themselves with merely saying names, Austin Walsh, Arthur Borella, Fred Egener, Stanley, Baker, Gerome, Bennack, Ackley, Clemens.
     The tall man who is looking for some pictures of himself in the press album continues the apologies for being unprepared.  "We ought to have written the story ourselves," he adds, "and given it to you to fix it up if you think it needed it.  We're great on monologues.  We could have done you some corkin' ones if we'd only known.  Next year if we're with the show and you want us to--"
     The rows nod approval.
     "Is it to be a long story," another ventures, "or a short one?"  They all lean forward for the reply.
     "Oh, a long one with pictures."
     They are visibly more interested.  One or two prod the others to speak.  "Go 'long, Ford; you oughter have a heap o' things to say."
Arthur Borella
     "What's the matter with you, Arthur Borella?  Tight as a wad."
     "Look at Freddie Egener over there, dumb 's a clam.  He's got enough to gab about in the Clown's alley when we want him to shut up."
     "Oh, Austin's going to chirp.  Don't be afraid, Walsh.  It's all right.  Lady won't hurt yer.  Walsh's got the floor.  What, he's backed out, too?"
     "Well, I don't know, lady.  It's tough for you, and with pictures coming our way too.  Lord!  Seems as if we'd ought to think of something.  The trouble's right here, now.  We'll tell you.  There ain't nothing new in the business.  Clowning's the same story, year after year."
     "Oh, yes, of course we go to different places all over the world, in fact."  It is Foolish Ford who is speaking, a middle-aged man, with a deeply furrowed face and kind gray eyes.  "But it's all the same to us.  We don't care whether a town's up or down.  I'm thinking of San Francisco when I say that.  I was there before the earthquake and I was there after it.  Didn't see any difference to talk about.  Up above the ground or down below it, what's the odds?  It's just a town, that's what it is.  Now, I've been in London a heap o' times.  Lived right near Westminster abbey; and all last season I was so English that I had my trunk marked 'Sir Richard Conneford, Liverpool, England, but I never went near the abbey to go inside.  I don't know why clowning makes you feel that way, but it does.  You get so gol-darn tired of places where George Washington was shot and Abe Lincoln was born that you just leave 'em for the rubber-necks."
     "And, then, besides, we're thinking,"  This is from one of the other thirty-five clowns, "You see, when you're a clown it's up to you to think up something original, for no matter how good a stunt you may have you can't go on doing it forever.  You've got to have something every bit as good as you had before and a heap sight better.  It keeps you guessing in your spare minutes."
  One or two wipe off the perspiration from their brows at the memory thus evoked.
  "Some of the salaries of the clowns run as high as $100 a week, some don't get more'n $35.  The cleverest clown is the one that fools the manager the best.  He is the best if he can do that, for it ain't an easy trick.  He's stopped fooling and is the real thing.  Have you got that down?"
  "The way a clown does is to think up something smart and then submit it.  You needn't think it'll go because you write a letter sayin' it will or because you laugh at yourself."  It is the inventor of the rubberneck coach trick who now has the floor. "We tried that trick first in Brooklyn and they laughed at it and then we were up a tree because we thought it wouldn't take in New York, but it has.  New York's the ticklish place.  Take a trick all over the country and get a laugh wherever you strike the tent poles, and then tote it over here to this burg and you get the frozen mitts.  Then, again, some fool thing that the country jays would be ashamed to smile at will bring down the whole Garden.  People'll go home and talk about the button bursting clown comically for a week and bring over their mothers-in-law to see it."
     "Have you been to Paris, Lady?"  interrupts one whose name is unknown, "and did you ever get knocked down by a cab and get arrested for blocking traffic and fined for it?  Well,  that would remind you of one of the many joys of the merry clown's life.  If he gets kicked by a horse that is showing off in the acme of expert equitation and acrobatic equestrianism, or if he is knocked over by one of those graceful little Roamin' chariots, or perhaps if a trapezist in his marvelous aerial act forgets and falls on him instead of the net, why everybody wants to know what the clown's doing in the way there.  What business has he got to be under feet and interfering with the legitimate business?  It's up to the clown to look out for himself and when you've got everybody in your neighborhood interested in your stunt and you can only hold 'em there for a minute or two by the power of your marvelous personality, it's mighty hard work to have to be eternally and forever trying to crawl out from under the weight of half a dozen animals of one kind and another.  Lots of times I've taken my new costume, before anybody else had a chance to see it, and walked up and down in front of the horses so that when I did appear the wouldn't be too surprised and mistake me for the sawdust in their admiration or fright, whichever it might happen to be."
     The clowns are beginning to loose their fear.  Another would-be speaker can scarcely wait for his turn.  "You see, the old-time clown, which we nearly all of us used to be, was a one ring clown.  His stunt was to come out and talk with the ringmaster, and between them they managed to fire the changes on all the local gags and the jokes.  He would interpolate a comic song now and then and answer back if anyone asked him a question.  It was hard work, but it didn't begin with the work of the clown today.  Now it's action, something doin' and doin' quick and hard.  You've got to get a laugh as soon as people look at you.  You can't give 'em a chance to go home and talk it over and come to some family decision.  No sir-e-e.  So our surest way is the makeup, for the modern circus is too big to have talk in.  You wouldn't be heard.  A clown has to get up his own rig, buy it or have it made; then it belongs to him, and the value of a clown is oftentimes measured by the amount of funny costumes he has in his repertory.  Here at the Garden I suppose every clown has four or five changes which he puts on in the course of one show, never appearing in the ring in the same gown.  We don't spend much time browsing about libraries of Fifth averner auction rooms, but some-times we do get an idea from a cartoon, and junk shops are our favorite hunting ground.  Anything funny that we see we get and hang on us.  Many of the costumes are very expensive, $35 or $40 maybe, and as they don't last long the accumulation of this property represents quite an item of expenditure.  We do economize oftentimes by using one year's costume for the next season's rainy day suits.  That's our only way of getting anywhere near ahead of the game.  And if you get a funny idea be sure that it will be copied right away.  The flap feet when they first came into the business made a great hit, but the season wasn't over before every clown in the country was flapping his feet, as if he'd invented 'em."
     The policeman breaks in, " I suppose I'm considered the funniest clown in the the business."  There is a little choking sound heard from the rows, but it does not break out into articulate speech.  "This makeup of mine's a direct inspiration.  I was calling on a lady friend and telling her that I was looking for a long coat.  She was a good sized woman, somewhere near 200 pounds, and she opened the door of the wardrobe and showed me her last year's garment hanging there.  It was all right but the color, and she suggested that I have it died, which I did.  Then I sewed three rows of buttons
Harry LaPearl with his wife Loretta
down the front.  The small row in the middle, and borrowed from another lady friend her bustle and shoulder pads-the first one didn't have 'em in stock for obvious reasons.  You see what a success it is.  The children simply love me.  It's a queer thing about them kids.  Just as soon as they get old enough to throw a stone they're on the lookout for a cop to throw it at, but let there be a policeman clown, they can't see him too often.  They just go crazy over him."
     It is while the subject of children is being discussed that a letter is brought in by one of the officials, who reads it aloud.  It is from a Harlem parent who has lost two boys and thinks they must be with the circus.
     After its contents have been thoroughly digested by the assemblage there is a deep silence.  Walsh looks quite fussed up about it and Egener crosses his legs and uncrosses them nervously.
     Finally there was a chorus of protesting voices:  "oh, of course they've run away with the circus.  Led to their ruin by the clowns' talk.  Whenever there's a circus in town and the boy's mislead of course he must have joined.  And why do they always think they're going to be clowns?  It requires some training to ride bareback or swing on the bars but non, of course, to be a clown;  oh, none at all.  Think of it!  As if we don't have troubles enough without stealing children to train."
     "Well, but," begins a mild-voiced clown in the second row, "we couldn't get along without the kids.  That's true enough.  They come pleased in the beginning and all you've gotter do is to take a little notice of 'em, wave a day day and they're with you from start to finish.  No weary work trying to smooth out the glassy stares.  I remember one orphans' day.  Well, lady, I've been clowning now for some thirty odd years, and when I think of it I get a queer sort of feeling somewhere.  It was a benefit performance and a whole foundling establishment was there-- courtesy of the management.  How they did enjoy it!  Didn't seem to have too much fun in their lives, and they laughed as if it had been bottled up for a long time.  After the show was over the manager asked me as a great favor if I'd stand at the door and shake hands with the children as they went out.  Would I?  You bet I would!  I never enjoyed handshakes like those.  One by one the kids sidled up, some scared as could be, some brazen; those were the ones who were going to be clowns when they growed up.  Some of the littlest ones hesitated, not through fear--oh no--but they wanted to--what do you think?  Sure, kiss me!  Did I let 'em?  I lifted them one by one in my arms and they kissed me so hard that when they got through all the white zinc was kissed off in a smooth circle all around my mouth.  But what did I care?  White zinc's cheap, but it ain't often that a clown gets kissed that way; not often, lady."
  "Is it a clown's ambition to play Hamlet?  Not on your life!  We ain't any of us hankering after them melancholy parts."  This is from the stout clown with the polka dot tie.  "A clown's ambition is to play with the Barnum & Bailey show.  All through the country you'll see them with their eyes fastened on the point of the compass where the great show's billed.  When the offer comes to join that aggregation of wonders, a clown feels the same way that an actor that's been doing one night stands for fifteen or twenty years does when he's invited to play on the Great White Way and is guaranteed by the management that he won't have things thrown at him."

"How do we begin?  Well, we're willing to tell that if you'll promise not to ask how we end."  This is from one Egener in the rear, who looks as if his clowning had never interfered with sleep and appetite.  "It--well, it was a good many years ago and I didn't know anything about being a clown except that I wanted to be.  There was a little show in town-- in the middle west--and I put some glycerine and oxide of zinc on my face--I knew that much--and applied for a place, hearing that there was at that time a deficit of clowns.  I told the manager that I was great on the gab and could sing like a wren.  He hired me on my nerve and offered me $12 a week, which I took, after some hesitation.  I wasn't getting anything at the time and it seemed bigger than any salary I ever got since.  I made a great hit with my song, which was in the days before it got too common.  It ran:  'Willie had a little gun--now he's gone, gone, gone.'  The manager told me he considered me the greatest clown in the circus world, but he said it with one eye closed.  I drew my salary for six weeks regularly, then there was a lapse for sixteen, and I could only touch the manager for about two bits a day.  At the end of that time I went home in a box car and put my trunk in pawn before I started.  Same with you fellers?  Beginning's nearly always identical.  Next year I got $35.  Same with you fellers?  Thought so."
     The dark man who speaks next was with Walter Mains show in the beginning.  "I was in the concert that took place after the show, and one day it occurred to me if I could make $12  week for that, why couldn't I make $35 being a clown?  I put it up to the manager and he gave me a try.  I succeeded and am now at the top of my profession."
     There is a decided movement of disapproval.  One says:  "We ain't sayin' you ain't, but the profession of clowning is different from a turnip in that it has more'n one top."
     "Got that down in your notes?"  says the tall man, "for if you ain't, think I may use it myself.  We're always looking about for chunks of wit, for when the circus season is over nearly all of us go into vaudeville, and some of us have even tried the legit.  I played two seasons in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in a temperance drama called 'Dot, the Miner's Daughter.'  The neighbors said I was good but the general public agreed with my family.  I never went back."
     "Some people think that the clowns live together, herded like freaks, and I met someone around asking for the clowns' boarding house.  The truth is that most of us have been born and brought up in the business.  We married in it and our children are taught the circus stunts as soon as they begin to walk and talk  but we'd all of us like them to go into the legitimate and make a name for themselves, get away from them long footprints of the one-night stands and the seasons on the road."
     "We don't any of us retire rich.  Barney Baruato, the South African millionaire, was the only one and the disappointment of riches or the contrast between his life as was and is made him commit suicide in midocean.  There's many of us have left clowning for good.  Richard Golden and Billy Clifford, for instance, but perhaps you'd better not mention their names and give 'em free advertising."
     "The only real excitement of the clown's life begins when he starts in betting.  Every Saturday night in Clowns' alley, as we call the clowns' dressing room, we bet on the number of weeks and the town where the circus'll end.  It's in the Clowns' alley that all special announcements are made and anyone has the privilege of stepping on the table and making a little speech.
     "The isolation that has been thrust upon us by herding us together in a dressing room, where the proclivities for covering everything with white won't interfere with the rights of others, has resulted in the making of many fine orators and monologuists, whose talents are unknown to the general public."