Saturday, March 10, 2018

Women Clowns, Pre-1975: Part One —in the Circus

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It all depends on how you define "clown." The traditional incarnation of the clown, which we tend to associate with circuses, was a male thing. For the most part, circus families and circus owners never even dreamed that women could be laughmakers, and with very few exceptions excluded them. If you're reading this article hoping to find tales of unsung heroes, great women clowns who have slipped through the historical cracks, you will probably be disappointed. There are a few exceptions, but it's slim pickings indeed.


But first, a little history about writing HIS-tory.

When I was 25 years old, I was approached by Beth Backman, an acquisitions editor at Hawthorn Books, to write a history of clowns.

Who me?

I had some credentials, but not what you'd need for that. Yes, I had grown up as a child actor on television in NYC, and then in my early 20s had become obsessed with clowns and circus, inspired in no small part by NYU mentors Brooks McNamara, Judy Finelli, and Hovey Burgess. And yes, I had drifted back into performance —clown performance mixed with modest circus skills. And yes, I had been in graduate school studying the history of theatre, with no clear plan. And yes,  I also had a few meager publications (writing, editing, translating) to my credit. But I was 25, and my skill level and experience in all these areas was moderate at best.

So really, me?

I sensibly ignored the offer, but my friends said that I was being stupid ("you effin' idiot!!), and eventually convinced me to write the requested three-page proposal, which the Hawthorn sales force (probably salesmen) would hawk to the bookstores. And when the bookstores said, yes, we think we would stock this book, I was offered a $10,000 advance (about half up front). It's amazing how a big chunk of change can convince you that, sure, I'm no expert, but I can give it the old college try. After all, I had a whole year.

The book got written, with the strong encouragement and help of these three mentors, and I mention it here because it is still considered by many to be the most thorough history of clowns in English. Yet there are basically no women clowns in it. (A fact Beth Backman never commented on.) Indeed, the book's assumption seems to be that clowns are men, period.

Doth mea culpa runneth over? Yes and no.

Imagine if I were writing the book today, with 100% sensitivity to this issue, not to mention avoidance of the male pronoun as a default. If this book were still just about live performance (no film or tv) and just about performers who self-identified as clowns and who we would traditionally consider to be clowns (not broad comic actors), the differences would be minor. In the traditional homes of the clown —the circus and the "pantomime" theatres that derived from commedia— there just aren't that many examples.

What follows is a brief re-examination of clown history, but be warned: it is not going to be as rewarding as gay folks discovering that, OMG OMG OMG, Caligula and Alexander the Great and Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Tchaikovsky and Cole Porter and Rock Hudson and Florence Nightingale and Emily Dickinson and Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Mead were just a few of history's superstars who were more inclined toward their own gender for matters romantic and/or erotic. No, the Fratellini really were brothers, Grock was not a woman in drag, and it was Joseph Grimaldi, not Josephine. And whether at the highest levels of clown celebrity or in the less heralded arenas, it was a closed club. Not a good thing, but generally it was the case.

And a disclaimer: this is a blog post, folks, not a book. It's not definitive because frankly I don't have the time. I leave that to others. (I don't want to mention names, but you know who you are, so get to work!) But this and the posts that follow are a start...

Clownesse —Toulouse Lautrec

Circus —you know, the variety show that takes place in a ring and usually includes acrobats, jugglers, equestrians, clowns, animal acts and more— has a specific 300-year history, Western European in origin, and quite well-documented. That documentation mentions very few female clowns, and some of those that did get noticed look to have been thrust into the job more as a publicity stunt than as a serious effort to encourage female representation.

There are short chapters on women circus clowns in  Les Clowns, Tristan Rémy's authoritative history and for the most part eyewitness account of European clowning up until its publication in 1945, and in Jon Davison's more recent Clown, an analytical and historical study of the concept of clown published in 2013.  Neither study offers a lot of examples, but here are a few names well worth remembering.

Cha-U-Kao (La Clownesse)
The fin-de-siècle ushered in a heyday for the circus in Paris. The Nouveau Cirque building (1886–1926), owned by a co-founder of the Moulin Rouge, became the circus center of the world. It was there that Footit & Chocolat rocketed to fame, it was there that Parisian artists and intelligentsia made clowns positively trendy. Many variety artists (including Footit & Chocolat) performed in both venues, in the circus ring and on the Moulin Rouge stage, and there seems to have been some crossover between the acrobatic skills of the circus and the dance moves of the cabaret.

Clownesses (female clowns) were apparently not rare in the 1890s, but Rémy implies that many were not much more than Moulin Rouge dancers costumed as clowns but performing more as dancers. The most talented of these was Cha-U-Kao, an edgy performer whose naughty persona foreshadowed the frisson Josephine Baker would give Parisians three decades later. Still, she might have been long forgotten had not Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized her in a series of paintings. (Click to enlarge.)

Cha-U-Kao was a dancer but also an acrobat and contortionist who was featured at the Moulin Rouge and at the Nouveau Cirque. "Cha-U-Kao" is not Japanese, but rather a stage name she took from a wild French dance similar to the can-can, and which came from the French word chahut (= bedlam, rumpus). Toulouse-Lautrec was said to have admired her courage for taking on a traditional male role and for being very public about being a lesbian.

All very cool, but the question remains: what did she do on stage and in the ring? Was it comedy? Was it clownesque? Was it solo or did she work with partners? I am assuming there must be some first-hand accounts, but I haven't come across any. Maybe the next time I'm in Paris I'll use my Bibliothèque Nationale membership to plow through some old clippings. (Or maybe I'll be too busy eating baguettes and chèvre and drinking Médoc, so feel free to beat me to it.)

Miss Loulou (born 1882)
Less obscure is the clown known as Miss Loulou. Born Héloïse Palmyre Berlin Permané, she began her circus career as a wirewalker and contortionist. She later became the wife and clown partner of the veteran Italian clown, Atoff (Charles Deconsoli), who had worked with such well-known figures as Piérantoni,  Jean-Marie Cairoli, and Chocolat fils. Atoff was apparently considerably older and further along in his career at the time. They worked first as a duo, but later as a trio with various partners, including successfully with Chocolat fils at the Cirque d'Hiver in 1927. We can assume, therefore, that Miss Loulou was well versed in classical clown entrées and deserves to be considered a full-fledged clown. Again, I'm not sure what they did in the ring, but Rémy does write about their look: "Everything about her was reminiscent of moderation and harmony. Next to her, Atoff contrasted by his skeletal figure, his disjointed thinness."

Yvette Spessardi (died 1964)

Trio Léonard with Yvette Spessardi in the middle

The sister of a wild animal trainer, Yvette married Marcel Léonard in 1922 and performed as an auguste in the Léonard trio with Marcel and her brother-in-law, Eugène Léonard. Marcel was also co-owner and artistic director of the well-known Cirque Pinder, so we can assume their clown trio was given every opportunity to shine. Rémy describes the auguste of Eugène as phlegmatic, while Yvette's spirit was malicious and vindictive —but she did not receive slaps. "Her eyes hidden under enormous spectacles," writes Rémy, "her smile disappearing under her makeup, the thick eyebrow and the false nose, the hair tucked up in her top hat, depersonalized by an elegant frock, Yvette Spessardi invited her partners to comic adventures with a tact and distinction that never bordered on mannerism." Rémy goes on to mention the trio performing classical entrées, but with their own personal style.

Lulu Adams (born 1900)
Born Louise Craston, she was the daughter of the well-known British clown, Joe Craston. Her mother, Martha Cashmore (born 1870), had been an acrobatic equestrian and wirewalker and later did a dog act. Her grandmother was the first tightrope artist to perform at the Brighton Hippodrome. Lulu began performing at the age of 12 in a musical act with her sister, but soon was being incorporated into her father's clown routines. An article in the University of Sheffield's National Fairground & Circus Archive shows just how highly skilled and talented she was:

When she was 17 Lulu appeared with her family in Glasgow in Hengler’s Circus. This is when she took a liking to bagpipes and convinced her father to buy her a set. Although best known for her bagpipes, she often also appeared with a trumpet or sleigh bells. She toured continental music halls as a singer and her favourite number was ‘Laugh Clown Laugh’...

Taking advice from her father in avoiding the grotesque in her make-up, she performed her musical burlesque routine wearing a curled white wig, white face grease and spangles. Lulu was artistically talented as a designer and craft woman and musically talented on the clarinet, saxophone, cornet, drums, piano, violin and bagpipes, as well as an excellent singer, actress and dancer. She also spoke French, German and had a fair knowledge of 5 other languages.

Lulu became one of the earliest female clowns to appear in some of the most renowned British circuses of her time and the first woman clown to appear at Olympia. Lulu’s circus career took her all over the world: she worked with Barnum and Bailey’s in the U.S.A., Tom Arnold’s Christmas Circus at Harringay, Bertram Mills Circus and The Ringling Circus, to name but a few, before retiring in 1962.

Lulu's parents, Joe Craston (drawing by Dame Laura Knight) and Martha Cashmore

Lulu made the transition from variety to full-time clowning in 1927, when she met Albert Victor Adams. They married and formed a clown duo, Albertino & Lulu, touring mostly in the UK and the USA until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1948. "I was born into the circus, mother was a rider and high wire performer. Dad was an acrobat and all sorts of things…I shall go on clowning till I die," she said to a reporter in 1950, "That’s the power of the circus, you can never leave it."

Lulu & Albert
Daily News photo of her NYC debut with Ringling Brothers. April 4, 1939


I've seen more evidence of American women circus clowns than European, but that must be taken with a grain of salt. When a circus parades a dozen or more clowns around a long hippodrome track in a large tent or arena, there is less pressure on that individual clown to hold her own than if she were part of a European duo performing a ten-minute entrée in a single ring. And more the temptation to have a female clown just for the publicity.

That being said, there were quite a few that made their mark. We've already seen the remarkable example of Lulu Adams, whose long career included a few years with Ringling Brothers, but almost a century earlier there was Amelia Butler, who in 1858 appeared in the James M. Nixon’s Great American Circus. That citation is from Women of the American Circus, 1880–1940 by Katherine Adams, who has done the most research in this area, at least that I know of. I will quote her at length here because she offers the best catalog of names for further research.

Other women clowns included Irene Jewell Newton with Conroy’s Great American Circus in 1893; Maude Burtoli with Burtsch’s New All Featured 25c Shows in 1896; Miss del Fuego, a singing and dancing clown, with the Robinson & Franklin Circus in 1896 and then with Barnum & Bailey in 1898 and the Great Van Ambrugh Circus of 1908. In 1895, the New York Times labeled a Miss Williams, actually Evetta Mathews, twenty-five years old, as “the only lady clown on earth” (“Why Miss Williams”). Several women clowns appeared in 1896 along with Mathews, doing tumbling and silly singing while wearing a combination of the sexy and ridiculous—a “décolletée bodice, mammoth knickerbockers, and infinitesimal hat” (“Peep behind the Scenes”). Again in 1897, Barnum & Bailey featured three women clowns, entering with the parade, tumbling together and doing tricks (“Great Fun”). Emma Barlow worked with Barlow Bros. Circus in 1899 and went from there to vaudeville, doing song and dance. In 1901, Agnes Adams sang and jested with the ringmaster in Frank Adams’ Southern Railroad Show. Eva Williams clowned in Murphy and Nickey’s Wagon Show in 1908. Fanny Rice, a vaudeville comedian, signed a contract with Ringling Bros. as a clown in 1908. “Dinky” Darrow clowned with Sells-Floto in 1909. Laura Silver, with the Silver Family Show, sang and clowned from 1900 to 1907. In 1917, the Barnum & Bailey show had two women clowns and one young girl, the funniest of all the clowns according to the Times (“15,000 New Yorkers”). The Two Rosells appeared with the Al G. Barnes Circus in 1917. In an article in Popular Mechanics in 1927, continuing the publicity focus on the “first” and the “only,” Earl Chapin May referred to Loretta LaPearl, “a fair young woman with luminous eyes” as “the only woman circus clown” (“With the ‘Merry Joeys’” 596). She worked along with her husband Harry La Pearl. With humorous gestures and movements, Loretta played the clarinet both in the circus street-parade band and under the big top, interacting humorously with the regular musicians as she satirized a high-society orchestra in a mock dramatic costume featuring a “green coat with golden epaulets and broad hat with a high cockade” (596). Grace Fairburn worked for the Clyde Beatty Circus in the 1930s and 1940s; Mary Koster sang clown songs with Robbins Bros. in 1938. Irene Eastman, singing clown, traveled with the Cole Brothers World-Tour Shows.

Evetta Mathews
Evetta Mathews, new woman
The biggest name in American female clowning was the aforementioned Evetta Mathews, a British-born acrobat who hailed from a circus family and whose birth name was Josephine. In 1895, around the same time Cha-U-Kao was dazzling Paris, she made her debut in the United States with Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was in general a heady time for women, in Europe and the United States. Indeed, Mathews thought of herself in political terms and rode a wave of women's rights directly into clowning, a wave that the Barnum & Bailey Circus was marketing with its New Woman segment. Again, the best source on all this is Adams, who quotes one article explaining “There were plenty of women trapeze performers, bar performers and tightrope performers, and even strong women who could hold half a dozen people on their shoulders. These fields seemed to be pretty well occupied, so Miss Mathews got advanced notions of emancipation and determined to invade a new field and become a clown. There never had been women clowns.”

Note that in one poster she is billed as the only female clown; in the other she and her "sister" are, performing alongside a female ringmaster. Be that as it may, she was by all indications the real deal, both funny and skilled and at home in the circus. And unlike the other clowns I mentioned, we do have some actual performance description: what she did and what she wasn't allowed to do. Again the source is Adams:

Within the circus program, Mathews’ acts reflected her presentation as the surprisingly aggressive New Woman. One involved the surprise of a clown in the audience, wearing a cloak and bonnet, sitting by a young man there to see the show. She called out to the ringmaster through a megaphone, pretending that she wanted a job with the circus and that the young man had offered her money not to go, not to make that foolish choice, causing confusion of course in the chosen stranger. Finally she tossed the coverings aside and entered the ring as a clown: as a woman who had already made the shocking choice, beyond the appeals of any one young man, a routine that certainly would not work with a male clown. Later she re-entered the ring, dressed in white face and outlandish clothes, and, after making sure that the audience recognized her, began a comic tumbling act as though fully engaged in the inappropriate job of clowning.

Although James Bailey sought the shock of Mathews as New Woman and although she continued as a clown in his circus, he placed severe gendered restrictions on what she could do. Even as women appeared on trapeze wires and in cages with lions and tigers, they did not get access to full physical clowning: “Evetta says that she is handicapped in that she is not allowed to tumble and somersault like ordinary men clowns. She can tumble and twist like a rubber doll, and she is an expert contortionist. But Mr. Bailey doesn’t approve of this.” Though she could not tumble and somersault because of Bailey, even though women were doing similar moves in the air and on horseback, she delighted “the children with her grimaces, her dances, her frolics, her mimicry and her merry laughter."

Ph.D. dissertation, anybody?

Amelia Adler (1919–1999)

Hailed as the "King of Clowns," Felix Adler (1895–1960) was one of the better-known and visually distinctive clowns of the mid-century Ringling Brothers Circus, touring with them for a couple of decades. In 1948 he met Amelia Irwin, a credit manager at a department store, and they were soon married. In 1954 she took up clowning with him and they were billed as the "King & Queen of Clowning." She gave up clowning after Felix's death in 1960 and eventually remarried. Amelia may or may not have been a good clown, but she was good publicity for the circus, even appearing on the tv show What's My Line? Maybe being a "lady clown" wasn't so odd, since the panel had no problem guessing her profession...

Clown College
Peggy Williams
With the establishment of Ringling Brothers Clown College in 1968, female clowns became less rare in the big show. Its first female graduate was Peggy Williams in 1970, who went on to tour with the show for nine years. When I was there in 1973, I believe there were four female clown students, at least one of whom went on to tour with the show.


Annie Fratellini (1932–1997)

The grand-daughter of Paul Fratellini of the legendary Fratellini Brothers clown trio, she was an acclainmed film actress before venturing into clowning. It was Pierre Etaix, director of Yoyo and other modern-day, almost-silent films, who encouraged her in that direction. They became man and wife and in 1971 clown partners. As the auguste, she was fully his equal and soon achieved fame as a wonderful clown, inspiring many women to follow in her footsteps. Equally significant, she started her own circus and in 1974 a circus school, then a novelty in France. It grew into l'École Nationale du Cirque and spawned much of the cultural movement that created "nouveau cirque" and the network of subsidized circus schools throughout France.

But it wasn't easy in the beginning. ''Circus people didn't believe that a woman could take pratfalls, get slapped and kicked and be ridiculous,'' she said in 1977. ''But women have more sensitivity, the essential quality. It's not a question of gaiety or humor. A clown isn't a comedian. To be a good clown you must have lived... To be a clown means more than just putting on a costume and making funny faces at the audience... The clown must take the audience on a unique adventure in a strange dimension.''

Here's a nice piece by Etaix and Fratellini from 1970.

Nina Krasavina & Gregory Fedin

Nina Krasavina (c.1939-1996)
Nina Krasavina was an acrobatic star of the Moscow Circus who was drawn into clowning by her first husband, Mark Gorodinsky.  From everyone I've talked to and everything I've read it seems accurate to say that she was the first woman clown to be featured in the Moscow Circus ring. We will never know all the history, because when she and her second husband, Gregory Fedin, chose to emigrate to the United States in 1975, they were ostracized and all records of their career were stricken from the books. In the U.S., they settled in NYC, establishing their own circus school across the river in Hoboken, where I was a student in the late 70s. Nina died of leukemia at the age of 57.

I doubt Annie & Nina ever met, but as the world got smaller, their influence crossed with the founding of the Big Apple Circus. BAC co-founders Paul Binder and Michael Christiansen had worked with Annie in Paris and used her work as a model for Big Apple's circus style and its training program. And when Paul & Michael were in New York actually putting it all together, they called upon the expertise of Nina and Gregory for hands-on training and performing. Nina and Gregory were the show's first clowns, and in a subsequent season Nina partnered with Paul in a clown duo, again with Nina as the #2. Small world indeed...


So why this lack of women circus clowns? The three most obvious answers are:

• In a pre-feminist, strongly patriarchal society, women were secondary citizens, not afforded the same opportunities as men.

• Men think women aren't funny, or are afraid of them being funny. In a comment attributed to Margaret Atwood, we are told that women are afraid that men will kill them but men are afraid that women will laugh at them.

• The clown's "grotesque" appearance is seen by many (men and women) to be incompatible with a woman's "natural femininity." Slapstick antics are not ladylike. Women are too nice to play the bossy clown but too dainty to receive slaps and other blows.

Clearly these were factors, but on the other hand...

• Clowning is usually self-deprecating humor, with the clown —male or female— making more fun of themselves than of others = less reason for men to feel threatened.

• The circus has traditionally been a family business in which everyone worked and women performing highly skilled acts were quite common —yet women clowns were rare.

• During the same decades that women were being pretty much excluded from circus clowning, there were many famous women comediennes on the stage and on screen... not to mention actors, singers, and dancers —especially in the 20th century. See Part Two, coming soon:  (Pre-1975) Clown(esque) Women (outside the circus).

So maybe it's not so simple. Here's some more conjecture and as always I'm generalizing...

I think the telling factor here is the nature of the training required and who receives it. Nowadays anyone at any age might wander into a clown class, often with positive results. Most people really do have an "inner clown." But the circus clown traditionally had a specific function and had to know the workings of the circus inside-out, drawing upon a strong palette of skills, predominantly acrobatic technique and a rough sort of knockabout comedy. The apprenticeship was long and hard, not something one picked up in a few workshop sessions. And where does all that training and development come from? Usually from within the circus family. So why aren't the daughters of circus families groomed to be clowns?

I think I got some of my answer watching the documentary Circo about a small Mexican family circus that is struggling to survive. Everybody is trained to perform; after all, the aging parents need the kids to take over the acts. But the more flexible girls are groomed to become aerialists and equestriennes and contortionists. The boys, with their broader shoulders and more powerful musculature, are steered toward power acrobatics and daredevil acts. Needless to say, the boys' skills make for a more natural transition to slapstick comedy than do the girls'. Combine this with traditional cultural attitudes and you get this stark division of roles. It all starts very early; it's not a job you audition for as an adult. At least before 1975...

In my next post, (Pre-1975) Clown(esque) Women (outside the circus), we'll see that the situation has been less rigid away from the circus ring. And after that, there'll be better news with the following post,  In their own words: A Gallery of Contemporary Women Clowns.

• Sotheby auction video about a Clownesse painting for sale.
• Click here to buy a Kindle copy of Women of the American Circus, 1880–1940 by Katherine Adams for $10 (and read it on the device of your choice without having to buy a Kindle). Or you can buy the actual book for a lot more.
• There's a lot more on Felix & Amelia Adler here.
• Ladies of the Ring by Dr. Janet Davis
• Annie Fratellini obituary in the NY Times.
• My blog post about Nina & Gregory.
• In the U.S., you can see Circo and a lot more, including the whole Criterion film collection,  using Kanopy, a wonderful free service. All you need is a library card. Check it out!


Ira Seidenstein said...

Hi John, Just sent you msg via FB. I only came across Antoschka a few years ago. She is an exceptional clown and actress. I saw her Chaplin circus show about 2015? Regards, Ira

jt said...

Yes, we are in touch. She's post 1975 but will be in my Gallery of Contemporary Clowns.

Jon Davison said...

The What's My Line? with Amelia Adler is facsinating for the assumptions of the panel revealed in their questions. I wonder, if repeated 50 years on today, a panel would be any less narrow in their expectations of women being clowns?