Tag Archives: Circus

Clowns!

Clowns inspire laughter and happiness in some people, and fear or aversion in many others. They have been around for more than 4,000 years and in nearly as many places and cultures, entertaining or frightening Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese imperial courts, ancient Greek and Roman audiences, and Aztec rulers, to name just a few. In this blog post, we take a look at clowns of the circus and stage as represented in the City Museum’s collections.

James T. Powers began performing in 1880 at the age of 18. His stage career lasted over 55 years, owing to his versatility as an actor, comedian and light-opera singer. He played the character Biggs in the musical comedy The Circus Girl, and donned a variety of roles for the part: barber, wrestler and clown. The New York Times complained that the production was unoriginal in a review published on April 27, 1897: “Even its lively circus scene, that is so happily treated that one really feels he is at the circus while it is in progress, has been done over and over again, in one way or another.”

Sarony. James T. Powers. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. 46.246.238

Sarony. James T. Powers. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. 46.246.238

Powers returned to the role of Biggs in the revival staged the following year, which received more favorable reviews from the press.

Rotograph Co. (New York, N.Y.). Jas. T. Powers "Clown". 1904-1911. Museum of the City of New York. 57.46.24

Rotograph Co. (New York, N.Y.). Jas. T. Powers “Clown”. 1904-1911. Museum of the City of New York. 57.46.24

While Powers performed regularly as Biggs the clown on the New York stage, other clowns traveled on railroads across the United States with circus companies like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, in an effort to bring the show to as many Americans as possible.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Circuses proved to be lucrative, and businessmen seeking a higher return on investment began to expand the shows. Circus venues grew in size, rendering individual dialog inaudible. Clowns adapted by modifying their roles in the ring. The 1926 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review noted: “The one, the only, the inimitable clown that used to be, a character of such importance that his name was heralded in lithographic splendor, is gone, but a horde of just as clever and more vigilant cut-ups has replaced him… The reason is quite obvious. The arena is so large that no one clown can be the cynosure of all eyes…”

Talking clown has gone - replaced by comic horde. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Talking clown has gone – replaced by comical horde. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

In spite of the magazine’s claim that the circus “has forced personal appeal to yield to organization and ensemble,” it chose a single, standout clown each year for a feature story. On of these, Paul Jerome, shown below in the 1936 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus magazine and program, performed with the circus company for more than 25 years.

Paul Jerome returns to Clown Alley. 1936. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Paul Jerome. 1936. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Felix Adler took up clowning as a teenager and worked for Ringling Bros. He served in World War I and often entertained fellow military personnel. After the war he returned to Ringling Bros. and never missed a performance, from 1919 to 1946.

Felix Adler. 1937. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Felix Adler. 1937. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

The actor Dennis King played the role of Funny in the 1946 revival of Leonid Andreyev’s play, He Who Gets Slapped. (The character’s name was He in the original 1922 production.) Funny begins as a nameless man, betrayed by his wife and his best friend, who runs away to join a circus and become a clown. His role in the circus is to have his face slapped for the amusement of the audience, hence the title of the play.

United Press International. Dennis King as Funny in "He Who Gets Slapped". 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.2396

United Press International. [Dennis King as Funny in "He Who Gets Slapped".] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.2396

The entertainer Bobby Barry performed with King in He Who Gets Slapped. The same year he also played the part of Bozo in Burlesque, and was described by The Billboard as the “diminutive comic husband” of “beefy gal” Gail Garber.

Photo Ideas Inc. Bobby Barry as Bozo and Gail Garber as Gussie in "Burlesque". 1946-1948. Museum of the City of New York. 49.98.10

Photo Ideas Inc. [Bobby Barry as Bozo and Gail Garber as Gussie in "Burlesque".] 1946-1948. Museum of the City of New York. 49.98.10

Lou Jacobs was born Johann Ludwig Jacob in 1903 in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1923 and initially found work as a contortionist. He joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1925 and worked as a clown until declining health forced him to retire in 1985. During the 60 years he performed, Jacobs was arguably the most famous, instantly recognizable clown in the world and even appeared on a United States Postal Service stamp in 1966. He died in 1992 at the age of 89 but is still remembered today for his contributions to clowning.

Stanley Kubrick for Look magazine. Circus Story: Clown. 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11376.1

Stanley Kubrick for Look magazine. Circus Story: Clown. 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11376.1

Emmett Kelly, Jr. was the son of famous clown Emmett Kelly, who created the endearing character “Weary Willie.” When Emmett Kelly, Jr. adopted his father’s character and debuted at the Kodak Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he was dogged by comments like “He’ll never be as good as his father.” But he took those criticisms in stride and continued to perform until his death in 2006.

Draw me. Emmett Kelly Jr. Star Spangled Circus program. 1974. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Draw me. Emmett Kelly Jr. Star Spangled Circus program. 1974. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Avner Eisenberg opened his one-man show Avner the Eccentric at the Lamb’s Theatre in 1984. The show received a glowing review from the New York Times: “He never says a word – he makes some sounds, mostly on a kazoo – but we read his face as if it were a cartoon balloon. Balancing a chair on his chin, he hears the applause and says, ‘If you think this is hard, let me do something bigger,’ and replaces the chair with a teetering 10- foot ladder.”

Photographer unknown. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.157

Photographer unknown. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.157

Avner the Eccentric still writes, directs, and performs his own material, in addition to teaching master classes in clowning and developing workshops for students and professionals in healthcare, education, and counseling.

Simo Neri. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.158

Simo Neri. [Avner the Eccentric.] 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.158

So many people are frightened of clowns, there is a word to describe it: coulrophobia. Even though the term is thought to have been coined in the 1980s, fear of clowns has probably existed as long as clowns themselves. But clowns also captivate and fascinate people, a fact not lost on showman Irvin Feld, who created the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College in 1968 to foster new talent. To date nearly 1,300 people have graduated to become clowns.

Such a Foolish Wish by Dudley T. Fisher, Jr. 1937. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Such a Foolish Wish by Dudley T. Fisher, Jr. 1937. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

 

The Evolution of Madison Square: From Potter’s Field to Eataly

In the early-1800’s, Madison Square was a swampy area far outside of the city. The park did not have an auspicious beginning, as its first uses were a potter’s  field and then as an orphanage, the rather optimistically named House of Refuge.

Mesier's Lith. House of Refuge. ca. 1830. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.519.

By the 1840’s a popular road-house, “Madison Cottage” was on the area of land that eventually  would be bordered by Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street. This converted yellow farmhouse was for many the first stop leaving the city or the last stop before entering the city proper. It served as a post-tavern, stage coach stop, a cattle exhibition hall, and the de facto congregating point for horse-racing enthusiasts among young men of the upper class.

Madison Cottage. ca. 1850. Museum of the City of New York. 57.300.509.

Madison Cottage remained popular until 1853 when it was razed to make way for a replica of a Roman arena, called Franconi’s Hippodrome, which featured chariot races.  Chariot races! In the Flatiron District!  The wonders didn’t stop there, according to an 1854 guidebook; beyond the horse and chariot races, one could see “surprising gymnastic exercises, ostrich races and performing monkeys, deer, camels and elephants.” With seating for up to 10,000 in a  two-story amphitheater with a 700 foot circumference, the spectacle must have been amazing.

Franconi's Hippodrome. 1853. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1463

Unfortunately, the novelty could not last forever and after a mere two years Franconi’s Hippodrome went bankrupt and the building was razed for the  creation of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Exterior of the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square New York. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.266.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel also did not have an auspicious beginning. Owned by Amos Eno, it was nicknamed “Eno’s Folly” because the idea of a year-round hotel so far uptown was considered ludicrous.  Yet Eno proved his detractors wrong and created one of the most incredible  hotels New York had ever seen.

The building, designed by Griffith Thomas and William Washburn, had all sorts of modern amenities that were so new that people didn’t quite know how to handle them, namely the elevator. Called the “vertical railway” by many guidebooks  they were the first passenger elevators ever. (For a fun side note read  this lovely New York Times about the practicability of elevators.)  Add luxurious decorations and the right clientele, and as it opened on August 23, 1859, the Fifth Avenue Hotel had arrived.

Fifth Avenue Hotel interior. ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 33.278.31.

For the next four decades, the rich, powerful, and those who follow them made the Fifth Avenue Hotel their home away from home.

Byron Company. Street Scenes, Broadway & 23rd Street.1898. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.15225.

Politics was also a constant theme in the hotel. Beyond merely having foreign heads of states, presidents, and military leaders stay in their sumptuous rooms and give lectures in the public spaces, a more localized political group had its beginning inside the hotel lobby.

The “Amen Corner” consisted of two sofas at the end of a wide hallway in the lobby where, as legend has it, every Sunday,  senator and “political boss” Thomas C. Platt and his associates would have their weekly chats with reporters, which Platt began calling his “Sunday school class.” Apparently Platt’s talks were so well-received that people would say “Amen” whenever he touched on a point they agreed with and with that a tradition was born. The Amen Corner lasted long after Platt’s quite luminous political career and eventually became a popular apolitical dining club.

Brown Brothers. Group of men at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.4321.

For almost fifty years The Fifth Avenue hotel had been the epicenter of the gilded age of New York, yet at midnight April 4, 1908,the hotel closed its doors. The furniture, artwork and even the building were auctioned soon after.

Fifth Avenue Hotel with sign announcing auction sale. 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 33.278.17

The building was razed for a skyscraper called the Toy Center which still stands today and is an epicenter of a different kind of New Yorker with the opening of Mario Batali’s Eataly on its lower levels.

Circus

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327

1948 was a good year for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  The “Big Show” traveled from coast to coast with a coterie of performers and animals, encountering raving fans and sold out shows.

On May 25th of that year, LOOK Magazine ran a story about the circus with accompanying photographs by Stanley Kubrick.  He captured the many aspects of the troupe’s life on the road: rehearsing, playing cards, training animals, and their children at play.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.73

The images retain the mysticism of the circus; focusing on portraits of the performers, aero stars (possibly the famous Ming Sing group), and the workers who cherished the livelihood of ‘Big Bertha’.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.136

These images reflect my fascination with circuses from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.  When I was an undergrad, I noticed that there was an underground revival of the Vaudeville tradition.  There were a few occasions when troupes traveled through our little college town.  These days, it is a romantic notion that people can exist within smaller, untouched pockets of society.  Even so, I like to subscribe to the ideas of those quiet rebellions.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.23

America’s intrigue with the circus has lasted over 200 years.  Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money.  Everything else is supposed to be bad for you.  But the circus is good for you.  It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.36

Today, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still tours extensively.  Although the circus now plays to sold out arenas, and is a large corporation, there are still smaller operations that retain the aesthetic and values of the early 20th century circus.  One of the most noted is the Big Apple Circus, which was recently featured in the series Circus on PBS.  It’s a fantastic series, and quite honestly made me want to hop on the road with them!  Maybe next year….

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.39