By Ira Seidenstein

February 8, 2023

Do you know these two? Do you know the film?

Clown is a natural phenomenon.

Other such natural phenomenon are for example; gardening, swimming, singing, hunting, gathering, weaving.

Yet, all of the natural phenomena can improve through concentrated intentions.

Clown can also be a Profession and can occur in any situation where people are gathered for any purpose.

Clowning is the action of joking or jesting or teasing or feigning various emotions.

All of those occurrences of clowning are in themselves authentic. They likely naturally occur in every society and every small community.

The appropriation issue is another kettle of fish (old saying in English).

Appropriation is overstepping the boundaries of good taste with regards to respecting or not those who have come before.

The Clown Movement is a phrase I initiated in an essay “Clown vs God … “. That essay is now a chapter in the book Clown Secret.

Although I acknowledge that The Clown Movement has a long history, it is the more recent aspect that I feel needs to be made transparent.

The reason the more recent ‘history’ needs to be, in my view, made transparent is that people come to clown teachers naively and thus vulnerable to any dogma that any clown teacher chooses to preach.

The more contemporary period of The Clown Movement that is concerning began immediately after World War II.

In a moment I will provide several historical occurrences which defined the contemporary Clown Movement.

But first one more comment regarding appropriation in the field of clown teaching. Somehow, many of the teachers of clown and clowning stopped referencing the lineage of actual clowns. These teachers and their students replaced the actual lineage of clowns and put themselves or their teachers at the head of the clown lineage rather than memorialising, respecting, honouring, and learning about the actual lineage of professional clowns. The respect I am implying is the same which Indigenous Peoples all around the world are attempting to inform the modern world to reconsiderthat is; the inherent value and importance of respecting and learning from the lineage of Cultural Elders.

Clown has Cultural Elders who were the actual great clowns whose legacy is public, it is in the public domain.

It would be normal in virtually any Indigenous Culture that there is a double-braid made of their Matriarchal Lineage and their Patriarchal Lineage. The two braids or two lineages are a pair rather than in opposition. A Culture is made up of a Matriarchy and a Patriarchy.

Carmen Miranda with Abbott & Costello 1939 live musical revue The Streets of Paris

Therefore I initiated such a simple idea in Clown that we have inherited a Matriarchal Lineage inclusive for example of Fanny Brice, Vesta Tilley, Josephine Baker, Lucille Ball, Carmen Miranda, Carol Burnett, etc.; and, a Patriarchal Lineage inclusive of for example Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis, etc. All of those people learned from elders in their profession. Some had formal teachers but those were usually in dance. Their ‘cultural’ elders were their teachers as were their professional peers via the sharing of techniques and related knowledge.

Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda in publicity shot for Copacabana film Produced by Miranda 1947

Historically in the contemporary sense that I name The Clown Movement, as said the turning point for various reasons began to accelerate directly after World War II. The few standout points include: The release of the film Les Enfants du Paradis (The Children of Paradise) in 1945 in France and in 1947 internationally. At the same time the great mime and clown Marcel Marceau began to openly perform his new style of clown and took the world by a storm. He had studied technical mime with Etienne Decroux and Decroux’s senior pupil Jean-Louis Barrault. Decroux and Barrault were actors in the film Les Enfants du Paradis. They filmed along with the others involved in the project, during The Occupation. Marceau was in the South of France and was active in The French Resistance. As soon as the Occupiers retreated to Germany, Marceau was seconded by the U.S. Army to serve as a translator as he was fluent in German. It is understood that in some way amongst the U.S. troupes that he also periodically exhibited his new artform of the modern comic mime.

When the War ended Marceau soon returned to Paris and began to perform there publicly in the street and theatres. His reputation as a new clown sensation began immediately. So that by 1947 he was invited for his first tour. That was one year in war torn Italy with the Italian mime actor Carlo Mazzone-Clementi as the assistant mime.

Also in 1947 five American magicians started the International Jugglers Association with their founding President the clown-magician-juggler Art Jennings. In England in 1947 the professional clowns organised to found what is now called Clowns International. In 1948 the Clown Milton Berle began to host the first television variety and clown show. It was referred to as The Milton Berle Show but was initially named The Texaco Star Theatre. That was a weekly show of one hour, from 1948 – 1956. In 1949 the Clown Ed Wynn began his TV show. In 1950 began The Buster Keaton Show. From 1950 through 1961 the avant-garde experimental Clown Ernie Kovacs began to appear on TV.

In 1950 the Clown Sid Caesar began his TV show The Show of Shows, a 90-minutes show each week including the female Clown Imogen Coca. That lasted 4 years and the next version was called Ceasar’s Hour from 1954-1957. In 1951 began the I Love Lucy Show, and The Red Skelton Show. In 1946 Martin & Lewis began to perform together and were a hit from the beginning. From 1948 to 1953 they had a radio show and continual live performances in top night clubs. Their 17 movies were made from 1949 to 1956. During this period they also performed live. The Clown Red Skelton had his show on TV for 20 years but he also continued to perform live. Like Martin & Lewis, his lives shows tended to be over 2 hours long of clowning. The names, shows and dates are only some of the most famous names there was much more developing in Clown on tv.

In 1952 the Academy Award wining film was The Greatest Show On Earth and the main character was a Clown played by the actor James Stewart. In 1953 appeared the Bergman movie Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) it features a Clown played by actor Anders Ek. In 1954 was the release of Fellini’s movie La Strada featuring a female Clown ‘Gelsimina’ played by Fellini’s wife the actress Guilietta Masina. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Those three films: The Greatest Show On Earth; Sawdust and Tinsel; La Strada; and the fourth Les Enfants du Paradis were and are enormously influential to The Clown Movement. When that influence is combined with the several USA Clown tv shows; and, combined with the IJA and Clowns International as well as other international Clowns such as Cantinflas the film Clown is a folk hero in the Spanish speaking world. Notably in 1949 the cinema Clown Jacques Tati released his directorial debut feature film Jour de fête. At a parallel time Sweden had an equally gifted Clown in cinema, Nils Poppe. In 1948 was his legendary Soldat Bom (Private Bom) but Poppe had already acted in 20 films and had nearly 20 that followed including two directed by Ingmar Bergman. In one of those Poppe played a Priest and in another he played a Jester.

Another important film was Limelight created by Chaplin. The story of an old Music Hall Clown. The film features a long scene of the only time Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin worked together. Soon after its release, 1952, Chaplin went into political exile from the USA and did not return until 1972 to receive his 2nd Honorary Academy Award. That one was for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”.

In total in these few paragraphs, teachers of clown seem to have no place in this rich lineage. Whereas notably even Chaplin had teachers – however, importantly – that was within the authentic situations of the actual profession. Additionally, Chaplin was able to learn by seeing the master comedians of Music Hall live in the same programs that he performed in as a child actor/singer/dancer. Chaplin toured at age 10-12 years old as one of The Eight Lancashire Lads 1899-1901.

It is believed that Chaplin is the 4th from our left. The Eight Lancashire Lads

About the age of 20 or 21 he began to tour with perhaps the greatest clown troupe at the time, Fred Karno’s Comedians. In that troupe Chaplin was under the tutelage of his older half-brother Sydney, as well as Karno himself, and the other experienced clowns. Though one was ‘merely’ a very experienced youth like Charlie, that was Stanley Jefferson who changed his stage name to Stan Laurel. Charlie and Stan not only toured together but were also roomates. When Chaplin ‘jumped ship’ to start in Hollywood his first teachers were his Boss, Mack Sennett creator of The Keystone Kops, and Sennett’s leading lady Mabel Normand, and comic genius Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who also taught Buster Keaton about film clowning.

Chaplin possibly his first day of filming. Acting with the Director Henry Lehrman 1914 Making A Living

When Chaplin became his own man in film he hired an interesting actor, Henry Bergman who must have known a lot more than acting. Bergman had been a successful actor including having been in a Broadway musical as one of his contracts. Some believe that Bergman actually was like a “gag master” for Chaplin. Certainly Bergman was regularly the directoral eye when Chaplin himself was being filmed. In Chaplin’s The Circus, Bergman plays the old Clown and when they do the famous William Tell clown gag/routine that is theoretically a duet – most of the time Chaplin is filmed in that gag Bergman is not seen; and, when Bergman is filmed in that gag Chaplin is not seen. Because most of the time when Chaplin is being filmed Bergman is Assistant Director behind the camera likewise when Bergman is filmed Chaplin is Directing from behind the camera. In that ‘William Tell’ scene, the old Clown (Bergman) is teaching the novice (Chaplin) how to do the gag. “In 1916, Bergman started working with Chaplin, beginning with The Floorwalker. For the rest of his career, Bergman remained a character actor for Chaplin and worked as a studio assistant, including Assistant Director”. Bergman worked with Chaplin for 30 years in around 30 films starting with the short films. After that period when Bergman was possibly in his 70s and stopped working in film, Chaplin sponsored the restaurant that Bergman wanted to open which became a special place frequented by the Hollywood industry.

I teach a version of The William Tell Gag occasionally when I have a workshop that is long enough at least 2 weeks. Usually when I see the gag done in the circuses it is not particularly well done. Yet when I teach in a workshop often to inexperienced people it is remarkable when combined with my general method for performance that the routine reveals a treasure that the real clowns knew. I apply the same Universal Principles, as per the book Clown Secret, to any of the Clown scenes in Shakespeare and we witness remarkable discoveries by each set of actors with me simply assisting their processes.

Further on the theme of authenticity in Clown versus the myth that teachers of clown are the most knowledgable, I am convinced that the industry professionals are drastically more knowledgable. As such this week I was in discussion with a dancer doing the I.S.A.A.C. Creative Mentorship. We were discussing the film Singin’ In The Rain which certainly has its own ‘clown’ theme (and very serious adult theme). Not to mention having one of the single greatest Clown scenes in cinema history i.e. that with Donald O’Connor. Well I went to look up that the film again and considered that it was actually co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. I knew ‘of’ Donen but when I looked at details quickly available online…. here is the gist of where this essay was headed. To the Hollywood film makers of comedy, entertaining films, very often highly physical at least having incredible dancing. But, Kelly and Donen made several masterpieces and they usually have incredible examples of masterful Clowning.

So, did Donen know his Clown craft and if so how? And did he have ‘teachers’ if so in what sense? Lo and behold as a youth he saw a comedy entertainment/dance film and ‘fell in love’ with that type of clowning. Donen said that he “must have seen the picture thirty or forty times. I was transported into some sort of fantasy world where everything seemed to be happy, comfortable, easy and supported. A sense of well-being filled me.” He was 10 and enrolled in dance classes. By the time Donen was merely 16 he got hired into a Broadway show as a chorus dancer. After that show the Producer put him in the chorus of another Broadway show, Pal Joey. The lead actor was an unknown Gene Kelly and that show was his career breakthrough. And as the saying goes, “the rest is history”. However, part of that history is Kelly’s various adventures up until that time including his study of Law etc.

If you are actually interested in Clown, I would encourage us all to look up Stanley Donen’s films!!!!!! And the set of films that he co-created with Gene Kelly. My theory is that what far too many so-called ‘physical theatre’ schools preach including the teaching of clown is appropriation; rather, it is the lineages which Donen and Kelly were directly authentic participants in which will more greatly enrich the field of Clownat the same time such acceptance of the authentic lineage will more likely empower those people who a) really want to know about Clown as a professional field; and, b) those who wish to pursue Clown as professional performing art. The pair of books; Clown Secret and Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare explain more.

Below is a very short clip of Stanley Donen at 73 being presented with an Honorary Academy Award for his contribution to film (and I would add his contribution to Clown). Then is a feature film of three stories that was a labor of love when Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen had ended their body of work together.

For the Gene Kelly directed movie INVITATION TO THE DANCE, which has some fantastic clowning, go to and at the top is Search and put in the title INVITATION TO THE DANCE

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Ira Seidenstein