Tuesday, December 22, 2009

THE SERIOUS BUSINESS OF CLOWNING--IS IT OK TO BE FUNNY DURING THE RECESSION?

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.

KENNETH SUSKIN
12/22/09

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2 Comments:

Blogger Darryl said...

I was voted class scientist in clown college.

-d

December 23, 2009 at 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

January 3, 2010 at 10:00 AM  

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