Meetings With Remarkable Clowns

By Ira Seidenstein

July 4, 2013

In 1979 I chose to leave the USA to see the European traditional one-ring circus clowns. I left for 3 weeks, but, have been gone since 1979. Amongst the clowns I met in the first instance in Europa were Alfred Pauwells and Charlie Rivels. By 1979 however I was just beginning to be discovered as a clown myself. I had already apprenticed Danny Chapman (former Boss Clown of one Ringling Circus Units when Lou Jacobs was Boss of the other). I had already started training as an actor, and had trained at Dell’ arte school with its Founder Carlo and his staff. I had already created my own shows at The Eureka Theater of San Francisco (that theatre later commissioned Tony Kushner’s Angels in America). And I had also completed two tours with Kit n Kaboodle an American clown troupe at that time.  So in 1979 within a few weeks three offers were made to me: 1) Ringling Clown College had offered me a full-scholarship that in my case actually included pay; 2) Circus Vargas offered me a contract as a clown and to learn the classic “Frog in the Barrel” act since I was a contortionist; 3) Bill Irwin asked me to be his partner for his first NYC show. Hard to believe but I turned all three down as I felt I wanted to see and study the old masters in Europa and to see where that led me. I had just worked out a little street act, really just bits of partner acro/juggling/clown with Bernadette Sabbath a friend who was also en route to Europa.

That paragraph is condensed version of a long and interesting story of my process 1975-1979.

I had met a few remarkable clowns prior to 1979. My father was one. He was known as a ‘clown’ since he knew a lot about clowning, and was a prankster, and he new a lot of jokes. In the joke department he loved to beat the TV comedians to the punchlines. He also knew many clowns who he somehow met when they came to Pittsburgh. By the time I was five I was adept at pratfalls and some physical clowning. At that age my ‘heroes’ were The Three Stooges and Hoppalong Cassidy. When I came home from school each day from the age of 5 to 8 I watched a half hour of The Three Stooges on TV. At the age of 8 I had to begin Hebrew school after regular primary school. About the age of 10, The Three Stooges were performing live in Pittsburgh at the Holiday House night club and hotel. My father knew them somehow and arranged for us to meet them at the Holiday House reception. We arrived on schedule. My father phoned from the lobby and they came down, all three with Curly Joe as the third member. This was about 1962 or so. They had a quick hello to my father and introduced themselves to me and then ‘it began’. Yes… for about five minutes The Three Stooges improvised right there for me and my father. I was stunned. Speechless. Mesmerized. Then they said goodbye and carried on as they returned to their room.

Like so many other actors and clowns of my generation we saw a huge array of the finest clowns every week on television. Many, like myself, saw every week – Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, The Three Stooges, Jackie Gleason, and Phil Silvers to mention a few. There were a large number of others plus the guests on these TV shows, plus soon in the 1960s there came the huge variety of situation comedies (Gomer Pyle, F-Troop, McHale’s Navy, Dick Van Dyke Show, Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island etc).

In October 1979 I started to help my friend Ole Brekke to establish his Clownskolan in Stockholm, Sweden. Ole ran it the year before for several months and he had inherited Clownskolan from another American mime/clown/juggler Michael “River” Lynch. Michael “River” moved to New Zealand with his Swedish wife and began to teach mime and juggling (his forms of clowning) all over New Zealand and had the hugest effect on the development of clown there. I met “River” in May 1980 at a clown festival after that he invited me to come to NZ since, as he put it, I could take the teaching of clown further than he. With Ole in 1979-1980 he set up a one-year course and I became his co-teacher with each of us teaching our own classes in a Lecoq based curriculum. I taught the curriculum i.e. the subjects but only used my own exercises.

Within the first or second week, I went to see an astonishing clown Clownen Manne at the Comedie Teatern at Djurgarden’s Grona Lund in Stockholm. The way he dealt with the kids would still be considered remarkable by any standard. He was totally interactive although the children did not come on stage he talked with them and listened to them and clowned/timed off and with whatever they said to him. I met him afterwards simply to thank him but he was very welcoming and I soon became friends with he and his wife. In the meantime I was helping to establish a new generation(s) of Swedish clowns who had all seen Clownen Manne as children. So he certainly directly effected the clown movement in Sweden and Scandinavia for generations. Manne had trained first as a lawyer and very completely fluent in several languages. He then got involved deeply and passionately with theatre based on Grotowski and it was that work that led directly to him becoming a clown and a quite physical one at that. For many years he has performed also with his now grown children. Hopefully soon, if he hasn’t already, he will also perform with his grandchildren.

In the summer of 1980 I began to perform with friends Barbara Doherty and Jodi Gilbert. Certainly, at that time, Barbara and Jodi were two of the top women clowns. Skilled dancers – Barbara was a remarkable and unique mime and Jodi was/is and extraordinarily gifted singer. We performed totally, 100%, improvised theatre as a trio and often worked with musicians who also were free to play (or not play) as they wished. We were only restricted by time i.e. the lights came onstage at the advertised time and the lights would begin to dim 5 minutes before we were to end so that we could bring the show to a conclusion. Barbara had studied dance at Salt Lake University in Utah. Coincidently she came into being  a full member of the legendary The Great Salt Lake Mime Troupe. She was the last member with Jodi and they changed the name to Heroes & Regulars. When I joined we became Heroes, Regulars, & Jerks.

In the summer of 1981 Barbara and I performed in The Festival of Fools in Copenhagen. I had performed in the Festival of Fools in Cornwall in 1979. In 1981 Ole informed us that Charlie Rivels was performing in Stockholm. Our work was done so we headed there directly. I saw him perform four days in a row on the outdoor stage near the Comedie Teatern at Grona Lund. Charlie was 86 and was assisted in parts by his son who was about 62 and his daughter who was about 60. Or maybe vice versus on the ages of the son and daughter. In Sweden in that period if you mentioned you were a clown people would ask with stars in their eyes “Have you seen Clownen Manne or Charlie Rivels.” In essence, for the Swedish people Manne was a real folk figure and Charlie Rivels was equivalent to Santa Claus. Well, when I saw him… he was extraordinary. There was a point in the show when Charlie had to act like a bird. Four days in a row, just at that moment, a flock of birds went by the stage. I told Manne and he said “Oh, that’s been happening for ten years” i.e. each summer when Charlie performed there.

One of the world’s greatest clowns who also was one of the greatest women clowns, was Lotte Goslar (1907-1997). I saw her company perform, and her solo show as well, and met her about June 1975. One of my most important teachers was from Germany. He was Peter Dittrich and he taught me sociology mainly as well as political science. He was the first person I told that I wanted to become a clown. This was immediately after I attended the Experimental Theater Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan in May 1975.  Peter led me to Lotte Goslar. Coincidently she was being interviewed by a friend of Peter’s who worked for the national radio in Washington D.C. So Peter arranged for he and I to stay a weekend at his friend’s and the friend arranged for me to meet Lotte after the performance of her company – Lotte Goslar’s Pantomime Circus. The show was quite remarkable in many ways. We would look at it today as naive art. Yet, Lotte’s team were extraordinary clowns. My understanding at the time was that Lotte trained six dancers each year to learn the show, the choreography, and to learn her method of mime and clown. She was a true master.
I now know that some dancers loved the work and were able to stay for a number of years touring mainly in the USA and Europe. Lotte asked me some questions about myself and my hopes. She knew that I had applied recently to the Ringling Brothers Clown College and was awaiting notification from RBCC. Lotte said there were a lot of ways to train in clowning. She said she didn’t know that RBCC was the right way for me. However, she added, none the less, Bill Ballentine – the director of RBCC was a good friend of hers and that for whatever it was worth be sure to say that we had spoken. Lotte then explained her most important advice to me “Remember, that a clown has to create their own world”. With that after a few friendly remarks she wished me luck and we parted. The following week, she was performing her solo concert show in Washington D.C. It was an old classic theater, maybe the Ford Theatre? So the next weekend Peter, myself and another good friend went to Washington DC to see Lotte’s solo show….. more anon

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