Tuesday, December 22, 2009


A week or two ago, Michael Polakovs, a/k/a Coco the Clown, passed away at the age of 86 in Lexington, Kentucky. I normally read the obituaries to make sure I'm not in them. Reading the article reminded me of the sad day in 1979 when the newscaster announced the death of the world's most famous clown. Instantly I mourned for Ronald McDonald, but was relieved when I learned of the demise of Emmitt Kelly which I'm sure was a sad day for his family and circus fans worldwide.

Coco the Clown was actually Coco Jr.; his father was the original Coco. The father, Nikolai Poliakoff (the son changed the spelling) was a native of Latvia who had a long and distinguished career as a clown himself, mostly in England. He died in 1974. Michael and his brother joined their father in the circus act when they were still teenagers, performing as "augustes", the supporting clowns who are the butt of the jokes--getting buckets of water poured on them and pies in their faces. Eventually Polikovs and his brother and sister joined a competing circus where he was billed as Coco Jr.. By 1958, he decided that his future was in the U.S. where he joined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and became a star and a goodwill ambassador for the circus.

His shtick was stilt walking and slapstick comedy, unlike European clowning which is more stylized and elegant, but not as funny to American children. Hey, my mother found Charlie Chaplin funny, but I didn't.

Mr. Polikovs advanced the art of clowning in many ways. In 1966, he was hired by the McDonald's Corporation to create or re-design a clown character to sell burgers. He designed the outfit and makeup still worn by Ronald McDonald today. He appeared in the first 8 commercials featuring Ronald in the national ad campaign.

However, according to the McDonald's Corp. website, TV weatherman Willard Scott, who also played Bozo the Clown, is generally credited with being the first Ronald, doing local TV commercials for a McDonald's franchise in Washington, D.C. in 1963. Scott was the proto-Ronald, with a paper cup for a nose and a cardboard carry out tray on his head, balancing a burger, fries and a milkshake--a far cry from the modern Ronald. The McDonald's Corporation, concerned about its image, supposedly replaced the rotund Scott after 3 commercials with a thinner clown.

Around the same time, Mr. Polikovs helped to set up Clown College for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey (RBB&B). One might ask what they actually learn at Clown College. As you can imagine, the football team probably didn't win many games, although they scared a lot of people (clown phobias are very common). Seriously, though, Clown College is extremely selective--it's easier to get into Harvard, but the qualifications are different. For example, in the 1976 session, Clown College had over 5000 applicants and selected only 48. Being selected "Class Clown" would probably guarantee you a good job--a one year contract with the circus.

On a personal note, my first golf partner was an alumnus of Clown College, and he helped teach me the game (when I was 40). Needless to say, I'm not in Tiger Woods' league; in either golf or women. Wearing a clown suit will get you tossed out of most country clubs.

Clown College was created Io provide a supply of new clowns for RBB&B Circus to replace the old ones, most of whom were in their 50's and 60's. They were tired of their old people and it was time to get some new people. Prospective students are required to audition. Obviously, a candidate has to be funny. If accepted, students work together 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, cooking up new material for the circus and learning the basics of clowning. Students attend classes to learn stuff like make-up application, costume design, acrobatics, juggling, stilt walking and pantomime. Every clown face is unique and copyrighted. The students watch films of Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and even cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote. The students are schooled in the "Ringling Style" to perform gags that can be readily seen and understood by fans seated far back in the cheap seats in large venues.

Clown College no longer has a fixed campus, but rather the 8-10 week courses are offered at various locations and times throughout the U.S.

You can laugh all you want, but the art of clowning is serious business. Candidates are screened and evaluated for their ability to display exaggerated facial expressions, athleticism or other unique physical skills and, of course, a comedy routine. Like any comedian, a clown must have a sense of timing and improvisational ability.

Clown fans can visit the International Clown Hall of Fame located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is dedicated to the preservation and advancement of the "Art of Clowning". Some of the inductee's include the aforementioned Nicolai "Coco" Poliakoff, Michael Polakovs, Emmitt Kelly and Charlie Chaplin. Other famous inductees you may remember from TV include Richard "Red" Skelton, Bob "Clarabell" Keeshan, Bob "Bozo" Bell and his sidekick Roy "Cookie" Brown, all of whom are deceased.

Life may be a three ring circus, but studies have shown that laughter lowers one's blood pressure and helps you to live longer. So there! Clowns do a public service.



Tuesday, December 15, 2009


If you think you're having a bad day, consider the plight of Dionisio Polido, a poor farmer in the Mexican state of Michoacan, 200 miles west of Mexico City. One Saturday afternoon, February 20, 1943, Senor Polido was plowing his cornfield with a team of oxen pulling a wooden plow. His wife Paula and their young son were nearby burning some shrubbery, preparing for the Spring planting. Suddenly they heard hissing sounds and saw the earth in front of them crack and open up a fissure almost 7 feet across. Smoke began pouring from that hole, spreading ashes on the ground. A sulphuric smell like rotten eggs emanated from the ground.

Polido went to look into the hole and saw that it was only a couple of feet deep. He vainly tried to fill it with dirt, but then he felt the ground beneath him rumbling like thunder. He turned to his wife and son who had already fled the scene. Then he turned back to the hole where the ground had swelled up and risen 7-8 feet high. The smoke began pouring out with greater intensity.

Needless to say, Senor Polido was very upset. His thoughts were for the safety of his family and his animals. He ran to the spring and found that the water was gone. By then the terrified farmer was frantically reciting every prayer he knew, as he jumped on his horse and galloped into the town of Paricutin. There he found his family waiting for him, relieved that he was safe.

But it gets worse. What Senor Polido didn't know was that he was witnessing an extraordinary event--the birth of a volcano. Couldn't it happen on somebody else's land? Polido excitedly told his story to the local authorities, and the mayor sent out an investigating committee. They arrived at the scene a couple of hours later and found a large hole with dense black smoke pouring out.

That night the explosions and fireworks began. Within a week, the explosions occurred every few seconds, spewing ash and cinders high into the air. By that time, the eruptions had built up a cinder cone 500 feet high. Polido's farm had vanished, buried under a mountain of ash. Red hot lava began pouring out in waves headed for town at the rate of 100 feet per hour. Within 10 weeks the volcano grew to be more than 1000 feet high.

It was no longer just Sr. Polido's problem. The village of Paricutin had to be evacuated along with another nearby village, San Juan Parangaricutiro. Both villages were overwhelmed by the lava flows. By July, only the roof and towers of the Paricutin church remained visible as the cooling lava was still advancing at 600 feet per day.

Mercifully, nobody was killed during the eruption although 3 people were killed by lightning associated with the eruption. According to the Paricutin website, "lightning bolts, as many as 30 an hour, flashed and cracked 500 to 1500 feet in length through the ash cloud." However it was devastating to plant and animal life. As many as 4000 farm animals and 500 horses died from breathing the volcanic ash.

This event proved to be a bonanza for geologists and vulcanologist who arrived in droves to witness this extraordinary event. Today, Polido and the experts would be making the rounds of Oprah and the Today Show. Time Magazine did cover the eruption. Even then-Vice President Harry Truman visited the site.

This type of eruption was called a Strombolian eruption (named after the famous Sicilian volcano), meaning that it exploded from a single vent and it gushed basaltic lava. According to the Paricutin website, the lava flow ultimately covered 10 square miles while its volcanic sand covered about 20 square miles. The powerful explosions caused ashes to fall as far away as Mexico City.

The volcano continued erupting off and on for 9 years. In a major eruption in 1949, almost 1000 people were killed. The volcano has been dormant since 1952 and is now considered extinct. While Sr. Polido and his neighbors didn't have insurance for this cataclysmic event, eventually the Mexican government took note and resettled them a safe distance from El Monstruo.

In closing, this event was the first time in history that scientists could observe the entire life cycle of a volcano. That was no consolation for the unfortunate Senor Polido. Perhaps they could have named the mountain after him.



Wednesday, December 9, 2009


As we Chicagoans endure our first major snowstorm of the winter with plunging temperatures, we are thankful we don't live in Yakutsk, located in Siberia, Russia, 6 time zones East of Moscow, and 4 degrees South of the Arctic Circle. Yakutsk is generally considered to be the coldest city in the world. This city of 200,000 is populated mainly by Yakuts, an Asiatic tribe who may be related to the Native Americans. The Yakuts scoff at the notion of global warming.

It is certainly cold there, but Yakutsk is a hotbed of natural resources. It is the capital city of the Sakha Republic, the world's second largest producer and exporter of diamonds. This sparsely populated republic is four times the size of Texas. In addition to gems, the region produces 30 tons of gold each year, as well as oil and gas. With that kind of prosperity, the city attracts businessmen of all stripes to its 11 hotels, some of which offer "armored" rooms, a tribute to its "Wild West"--or is it "East" (?) attitudes. Mafia guys, legitimate businessmen and tourists mingle in the fine restaurants. To display the wealth of Siberia, Yakutsk is home to 15 museums, ranging from spectacular jewelry at the "Treasures of Yakutia" to the "Permafrost Institute" which operates tours into its underground research chamber. The city also has a university, an opera house and a zoo.

This area is considered the "Pole of Cold" where the temperature dips routinely to -80F (the record is -90F). Because of that distinction, they actually run tours (for masochists, presumably) to experience the Siberian winter. I'm not sure who would pay to go on such a tour, but my best guess is German tourists--based on my experience in Death Valley, the world's hot spot. Examples of the tours offered include "New Year Expedition in the Pole of Cold", December 28-January 4. Route: Yakutsk, Khandyga, Oimyakon, Yuchugey, Khandyga, Yakutsk. Another is the "Pole of Cold Motor Rally" in March, in which cars travel 250-920 km. daily for 15 days. We would call it the Iditarod for motor vehicles. Don't leave home without jumper cables.

If you take your Winter Break in Yakutsk, rather than, say, Cancun, you can expect the average high temperature to be about -40C, which just happens to be -40F also. Most locals wear fur coats and fur hats, locally produced. Their fur lined boots are made from reindeer hide. PETA people are not welcomed in Yakutsk. The locals know not to expose bare skin because frostbite occurs quickly which can cause one to lose fingers or toes, or even worse. There's no wimp factor in Yakutsk. You won't see guys wearing Bermudas on the street in winter.

Construction workers stop working when it drops below -58F, not because the cold gets to them, but because metal becomes too brittle to work with. Children are kept home from school if it dips below -67F, although kindergartners get the day off at -58F.

One would think that people would catch pneumonia or other diseases because of the cold, but that's not the case. Studies in Britain and the U.S. found that people get sick in the winter because they stay indoors. The people in Yakutsk go outdoors in all weather, dressed properly. Yakutsk doesn't have much wind, so the extreme weather is actually bearable.

The Yakutsk dinner table usually features horse steaks. In Yakutsk, horses and reindeer are raised for their meat. The locals also eat raw fish, caught in the nearby Lena River. The meals are downed with shots of vodka. If those choices don't work, one CAN have a pizza delivered.

The locals drive mostly Japanese cars which seem to function better in the cold than Russian cars. Their gas mileage isn't great because drivers rarely shut off the engines in the winter--to keep the car warm and because of the difficulty in restarting them in extreme cold. Workers keep the engines running all day, while at work. The exhaust fumes from all the vehicles contribute to a pall of air pollution cast over the city.

The city is not served by any railroad. To get there, you can take a 6 hour flight from Moscow on a rickety Tupolev plane, or you can drive 1200 miles on the "Road of Bones" from Magadan on the Pacific Ocean. The road is fully open only in winter when the rivers freeze over. The road got its name from the unfortunate Gulag inmates who built it and often died in the process. It is mostly used by truckers who deliver supplies to remote villages. They don't dare shut off their engines during the 2 week drive.

I suppose if we want to consider building a colony on the moon, we can learn some lessons from the hardy folks in Yakutsk. But I'm not booking my Christmas vacation in Yakutsk anytime soon.