Thursday, February 25, 2010

Charlie Cairoli — Rare Footage

[post 079]

Back in 1985 through some contact in Germany I vaguely remember as "clown David" (hello, wherever you are!), I got hold of what I'm pretty sure was the first tape of Grock's full-length show to make its way to the United States. We premiered it on what today would be considered a small television set for an appreciative audience (that included Bill Irwin) at our 2nd NY International Clown-Theatre Festival. Also on that tape was this unidentified clip starring Charlie Cairoli (1910—1980) doing some musical clowning and busting out with some killer dance steps. I guess it's rarer than I realized, because not only don't I see it anywhere on the web, I don't see any of his work.

This is surprising, since Cairoli had a long and prolific career as a clown, including a lot of television work. A few highlights:

• Born in Italy into a Franco-Italian circus family, married Violetta Fratellini, settled in England in 1939, which he made his permanent home and where he reigned as its most celebrated clown for four decades.
• He performed in the Blackpool Tower Circus every summer for 39 or 40 years in a row (depending on which source you believe) as well as in English pantomimes, television shows, and films.
• Television appearances included the Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Palace, and This is Your Life.
• As Pat Cashin points out on his blog, Caroli's 100th birthday was just 11 days ago. (Despite my frequent birthday salutes, in this case I was oblivious, just happening to come across the clip two days ago while digitizing some old tapes.)

The most informative bio of Cairoli is not from his Wikipedia page but from the excellent but hard to find Clowns & Farceurs:

Cairoli (Charlie), born Affori, Italy, 1910. Died Blackpool, U.K., 1980. He was known to the English as "Our Charlie." They had adopted him because, for 39 years, he made them laugh, performing five months each season in the ring of the Tower Circus in Blackpool. Appreciated by the French in 1929 as "Carletto," part of a classical trio with his father Jean-Marie and his brother Filip (or the marvelous Porto). Upon arriving in England in 1939 he changed his approach and took advantage of all the possibilities offered by British clowning, what one might call "foam & water pantomime," a style intentionally violent, even cruel. His first partner (1947) was his father, after which he had as his whiteface clown partner Paul Freeman (1948—1959); Paul King (1960—1967); Paul Connor (1968—1973); and his son, Charles Jr., starting in 1974. Contrary to custom, only the name Charlie Cairoli appeared on the posters and programs, those around him often forming an anonymous troupe, referred to only as "and Company." From this troupe there emerged in 1953 the grimacer Jimmy Buchanan, who played suffering and sadness with a passivity that was irresistibly droll. Charlie Cairoli differed from other augustes because he was the instigator of the gag; it often seemed the only reason his straightman was there was because of tradition and to provide more amplitude to the musical interludes. Charlie Cairoli's talent was all-encompassing, including broad farce that some might consider to be of questionable taste. And connoisseurs who study his mimicry, listen to his musical selections, or delight in his inventions, perceive that what guides them is not so much the choice of a repertoire but rather a concession to certain comic processes.

[My loose translation; not really sure what they're trying to say with that last sentence.]

As you will see, this clip looks to be from a movie, perhaps Happidrome (1943). Although the whiteface clown is likewise not identified, if it is Happidrome then according to the cast list for that movie in IMDB we are watrching the "Cairoli brothers." However, the notation on the box of the original PAL VHS tape I received says it is Charlie Cairoli and father.

It's quite a strange clip, I suspect from a low-budget production. Supposedly they're performing for a live audience, but other than the couple in the box there's not much public in evidence until the curtain call shot. The first part is too verbal for my tastes and not all that interesting, but the last two minutes are dynamite.


Update (2-28-10): In my undying efforts to be consistently senile, I overlooked that I had another clip of Cairoli, this one from the London Hippodrome in 1966. In some bits he's more the straightman than the auguste. I'm thinking that the clown in the suit and crumpled hat with feather who comes close to stealing the show must be the above-mentioned Jimmy Buchanan.

Update (4-22-10): Just received this e-mail:
Hi John, I can assure you that it is Jimmy Buchanan as Charlie's stooge in the clip. Thanks for the opportunity of viewing it. — Kind regards, Brian Nicholson (designer of The Charlie Cairoli Exhibition at Blackpool Tower).

1 comment:

Pat Cashin said...

Yes, the fellow stooging for him in the Hippodrome clip is the brilliantly deadpan (and brilliantly funny) Jimmy Buchanan.