Clowning through History: the ABCs
No 'clowning around', the history of clowning is rich, vibrant and to present day,
providing much more to world culture than just 'fun with a red nose'. Move through the
alphabet, A to Z, to read more about clowns through time.
A.The Auguste clown was created to serve as an intermediary between the so-called
classic white face clown and the tramp caricature. The makeup and costuming
are over-the-top, exemplifying the status of the clown.
B.Bert Williams was a black man who entertained on stage and in movies as a tramp
clown character. No movie or recording had starred an African-American before
Bert Williams. He was highly acclaimed for his ability to humanize the tramp
clown caricature created by the white entertainment industry.
C.The Court Jester may be the most well-known historical exemplification of the
clown. They were white-face clowns adorned with three-point head pieces and
matching pointed collars. They were the entertainers of the King's court and
enjoyed great freedom - even to the point of influencing court decisions.
The most famous female jester, Mathurine, presided at the French Court during
the reign of three Kings.
D.The Dorian Mimes troupes remind us that women have played central roles in clown
history. These troupes included women who portrayed the female clown roles,
as musicians, dancers and acrobats, from the 7th century BC through another 1000
years, influencing Greek and Roman classical theatre.
E.Egypt's first-known fool was a pygmy who presided over the court of the Fifth
Dynasty. Although a physical curiosity, he was not an 'idiot'. Part of the fool's
value as an entertainer might be derived from a grotesque appearance.
F.The Frattellini Brothers, Francoise, Paul and Albert, raised clowning to the
level of an art - at least according to the French.
They were entrenched in the circus by the age of five and by adulthood, were more
than accepted by French intellectuals. They were known as fantastic comics, acrobats
and musicians, and were often copied by other Auguste clowns.
G.'Grotesque' clown - not to be mistaken for 'ugly' were first made popular in the
mid-nineteenth century. the clowns were tumblers, jugglers, comic actors and master
equestrians. This was the first showing of the horse in the circus.
H.Harlequin clowns were 'commedia' clowns, but should be better known as chameleons.
They could be comic or sad, masculine or feminine, sweet or vulgar. The Harlequin
is truly the finesse description of the Historical clown.
I.In the beginning, there were balloons - then, came balloon animal artists.
Twisting and sculpturing balloons began in the 1920's but didn't become popular
'till skinny balloons were produced after WW2.
Actually, the art of balloon animals may be a misnomer since much more than animals
are created. Hats, flowers, swords, and balloon sculptures for special occasions and
J.The Jester is traditionally known for outrageous pranks that normally would result in
severe punishment. they saved themselves, again and again, with parody and insolence.
Unfortunately, some court jesters got too close - went too far - and were banished from
their courts and their countries.
K.Buster Keaton grew up in vaudeville as part of his family's physical comedy act. In his
silent films of the 1920's, his formula for comedy is based on wild chase scenes and
trick scenery. Buster Keaton's deadpan expression will continue to be as familiar to us
as any clown face.
L.Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame, was one of the many early film comics who grew up in
the world of vaudeville. in his films, comic opposition was the key - one, the schemer,
the other, the 'stooge'. They, he, wasn't the first - in the mime plays of ancient Rome,
the same division occurred.
M.The mountebank (from mount-a-bank) derived his name from the practice of climbing onto a
bench in order to gather and address a crowd - with a temporary platform stage.
The mountebank was regarded by most as a charlatan but also as a clown. He was a fraud
and a clown - complete with pranks and jests.
N.The National School for Circus and Variety Art - AKA known as the Moscow Circus School.
It is actually two schools - a four-year high school and a four-year college. the curriculum
requires the student to become proficient in all the basic areas of circus technique before
specializing in any one area or developing a performable act.
O.Oh, boy!!! For the circus season of 1862, the American clown, Dan Rice, earned $1000 a week,
twice as much as Abraham Lincoln was receiving as President of the United States. This was
all the more remarkable, seeing as the civil war was tearing the country apart.
The theatre and the circus were considered great luxuries during war-time, but they served as
a diversion and made the circus the most popular form of American entertainment.
P. Pantomime, usually equated with mime, is the art of silent acting, but originally, the world
meant 'to imitate' and referred to the performers' caricatures. Ancient mimes were in fact,
The actors used realistic props and performed on temporary stages. The style was exaggerated
but their acting was considered to be more realistic than that of the Greek tragedies - they
cast men or boys in the female roles but the mime troupes used women to portray women.
Q.Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1844 - catapulted the career of a clown/jester named
William Wallet. Throughout his life, he was titled the 'Queen's Jester".
R.Red nose and the clown - how could we have one without the other!!!
When the character of a clown was that of a 'drunk', the Auguste reddened his nose - a practice
led to the large red noses seen on the Augustes of today.
S.The Singing clown could offer both comic and sentimental ballads, as well as patriotic songs,
which were used at appropriate times.
It was common for these singing clowns to get the audience to join in the with the chorus.
one of the most famous singing clowns was William Burke. He became a headliner with Barnum
and Baily in the 1880's
T.Twisters - a.k.a. balloon sculptors have been honing their craft since the 1930's,
but it wasn't until the end of WW11, with the availability of the 'skinny' balloon,
were greatly improved. They were much lighter and brighter in colour and enabled the sculptor to
make many twists in one balloon. Balloon sculptors are busy throughout the world,
twisting for party decorations magic shows and delighting children with their hats and toys.The Clown's exhaustive list of balloon creations include animals, flowers and a myriad of hats.
U.Under the makeup and colourful costuming of thousands of clowns around the world,
beats a Christian heart. Christian clown performers are dedicated to spreading the gospel and
reaching people of all ages through their performance and presentation of scripture.
V.a Viennese Auguste clown inadvertently created a word equated with 'silly' that is used
frequently, albeit, inappropriately to this day. His first name was Auguste and during
performances, would be referred to as "Der Dumme Auguste"
Originally, 'dumme' can be traced back to the mid - 16th century to refer to a peasant.
Eventually, 'dumme' was dropped and 'Auguste' remained.
W.The Whiteface clown became a modern-day tradition long before the Auguste clown, although
the large amount of white on both faces likens the one to the other.
The whiteface circus clown covered his face entirely with white and then added a touch of
The Auguste became an integral part of circus clowning as the whiteface clown developed need
for a partner. As the whiteface became a clever trickster, the Auguste was available to be
X.EXTRA! EXTRA! "HUMOUR HEALS!!" Comedy has been used to increase productivity, treat brain
injury and mental illness and relieve stress. It wasn't until Dr. Norman Cousins wrote
about the health benefits of humour, that scientists began to take the power of humour
seriously and started to study it in a controlled environment.
Y.Yes, clowns in church!!! Clown ministry has a rich tradition in the church.
In Medieval times, as services were in Latin, clowns were used to assist parishioners
in the understanding of the service. In a 'divine interruption', clowns used humour to
explain what was going on in the service or to explain a point of theology. Yes, clowns in
Z.'Zanni" or zany refers to the name given to the lesser clown character in 'commedia dell'arte',
a popular form of Italian Street theatre. Originally, 'zanni' was a 16th century generic name
for servants from Bragamo, Italy.