From Emmett Kelly to Pee-Wee Herman to Steve-O: Sarasota’s clown history

In America, clowns have a multiplicity of meanings, evoking many different emotions. They’re associated with laughter, play, tragedy and fear. They’re also associated with Sarasota.

 

Clowns have existed in a plethora of forms across continents and centuries. The American clown image, however, relies upon a British circus tradition originating in 1768. 2018 marks the 250th anniversary of this tradition, shaping what we know as the modern circus.

 

In America, a significant portion of clown history was once situated here in Sarasota. The winter headquarters for the Ringling Circus remained here for 60 years, beginning in 1927. Clown College was also located in Venice, FL, from 1968 to 1996. It hosted two final cohorts of clowns in Sarasota before closing in 1997.

 

The Ringling Circus Museum identifies three classic clown archetypes: the auguste clown, the whiteface clown and character clowns. The auguste clown and the whiteface clown take up the traditional clown relationship seen in old circus shows: the auguste clown wears the silly, oversized (or undersized) clothing with exaggerated facial features, and is usually the one who gets a pie in the face. The one delivering the pie to the auguste clown’s face is the whiteface clown, the merry pranksters of the show who usually relies on pantomime.

 

The most famous clowns are the character clowns. Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willy” character, based on Depression-era homeless migrant workers (also known as hobos), Bozo the Clown (who has been played by many characters) and even Stephen King’s literary Pennywise/“It” fit the bill for this type.

 

(All photos by Magdalene Taylor/Tangent)
The museum has a section devoted to the history of clowns, including Emmett Kelly’s famous ‘Weary Willy’ character, evocative of homeless migrant workers during the Great Depression.

 

All three of these clown types have at times played upon classist and racist stereotypes; the word “clown” is thought to originate from the Latin word for “farmer,” colonus. Other translations relate the term to rustic fools and rural peasantry. It referred to low skill workers, clumsy and ignorant. Many early clown performance utilized blackface, or otherwise exaggerated features to indicate a racist caricature of blackness.

 

With the exception of hobo clowns like Emmett Kelly, who toured with Ringling Bros Circus from 1942 to 1956 and died in Sarasota in 1979, the clowns that Sarasota chooses to highlight in its history are a bit more distant from these problematic performances.

 

The Ringling Bros. Clown College taught primarily auguste-style clowning, utilizing slapstick and more overt physical comedy. These are the clowns we continue to see most today at children’s birthday parties, and are also the clowns most associated with the “scary clown sighting” phenomena of years prior.

 

Beyond the most classic of clowns like Emmett Kelly and those of the Ringling circus, Sarasota has a number of famous “clowns” who don’t immediately fit the popular stereotypes.

 

 

Pee-Wee Herman and Bello Nock are both clowns in some ways and not in others. Pee-Wee, played by Sarasota-native Paul Reubens, was characterized by his childlike behavior that quickly made him into a popular comic for both children and adults. Pee-Wee had his own TV show and even major motion pictures, until his image was tarnished with scandal. In 1991, Reubens was arrested in Sarasota for masturbating in an adult pornography theater. The Pee-Wee persona was largely put on hold until March 2016, when Netflix released Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.

 

Bello Nock maintains a clean image and is best known for his combination of lighter clowning and daredevil acts. Another famous daredevil and graduate of Ringling’s Clown College is Stephen Glover, better known as Steve-O from the TV and film series Jackass. Steve-O graduated from the final Clown College class, and joined the Ringling Circus as a clown afterward. After a few years of clowning and recording stunts, Steve-O was recruited for Jackass where he became famous for snorting wasabi, putting fish hooks through his face and being shot 80 feet in the air inside a Porta-Potty. Magician and outspoken atheist Penn Jilette is also a graduate of Ringling Clown College.

 

Pee-Wee Herman and Steve-O are perhaps the most famous contemporary “clowns” with Sarasota connections, but they aren’t a part of the city’s circus narrative. The circus museum states that “in the 21st century, the circus still touches deep into the human psyche and will continue to do so as long as there are children of all ages who are dazzled by the magic and wonder of human daring and artistry.” Maybe in today’s world, masturbating in an adult theater and being catapulted through the air in a portable bathroom are what truly leave us dazzled.

 

Information for this article was gathered via The Ringling Circus Museum, The Washington Post, Slate, Sarasota Magazine, Rolling Stone, The English clown tradition from Middle Ages to Shakespeare by Robert Hornback and clownbluey.co.uk.

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