Clowning Around with Water for Elephants

13 Apr

Our ongoing article series on Water for Elephants

By Ozzie20

With Water for Elephants premier drawing closer, we thought it would be interesting to look at the rival clown competition that would have existed for a real circus during the 1930’s. But first, a brief history on clowns might be useful!

Even though he never set foot inside a circus ring, in the late 1700’s, Joseph Grimaldi was the first credited person to create the modern clown persona and look we are familiar with today. He was a pantomime clown and he spent his life developing his character. He experimented with face paint and became known for his white face with red triangles painted on his cheeks and honed his comedic timing and facial expressions so well, he was considered a master. Joseph became so famous that Charles Dickens wrote his biography. Over the next fifty years other clowns copied his look and clowns nicknamed themselves “Joeys” in his honour.[1]

The first known clown to be used in a circus appeared in 1770’s, when Philip Astley (the man credited with creating the first modern circus) hired Mr. Merryman to help entertain the crowd in between acts.[2] John Bill Rickets (The man who is credited with bringing the first modern circus to America) hired the first American born clown, John Durang, in 1795.[3] John, who was a very talented man, would eventually go on to run his own circus, joining the ranks of the first early circus owners of America.[4]

So let’s go back to the 1930’s. In the Sara Gruen novel Water for Elephants, where the fierce competition between circuses is often referred too. Money was tight, as the Great Depression had set in. Once a circus closed, others would swarm in to see what they could ravish, like birds of prey to a carcass. The Benzini Brother’s (the circus where the story takes place) greatest rival was the Ringling Bro & Barnum and Bailey Circus. So I took four well known clowns who were active in the 1930’s and worked for Ringling’s at one point in their lives and were Clown Hall of Fame inductees, to see what the Benzini Bros. clowns had to compete with.[5]

    Felix Adler 

  • Our first clown is Felix Adler. Born in 1895, Felix only ever worked for one circus and that was Ringling’s from roughly 1910 onwards. When he first joined, John Ringling did not allow him to work as a clown until he had learned the basics in every circus talent. When the First World War broke out he joined the army, serving as a mess sergeant and often entertained the troops with his act. After the war he re-joined Ringling’s where he worked from 1919 -1946. Felix was a white face clown meaning he painted his face, the base being white. He also wore a jewel in his nose and wore padded clown suits. His act consisted of a piglet, trained by himself and his wife Amelia, to do tricks. Felix had two nicknames, The King of Clowns and The White House Clown, which were given to him because he performed for three presidents of the United States in his career.[6] Image source
    Otto Griebling 

  • Otto Griebling was born in Germany in 1896 and immigrated to America in 1911. He began his career as a bareback rider but   after a serious fall in 1930 he became a clown. Griebling was among the first tramp clowns, dressing in tattered clothes and a beard. This type of clown became popular in the 1930’s due to the depression. His act was silent (which is just as well because he had his larynx removed in 1970!) and included juggling and trying to deliver things to the audience, like a block of ice, which would slowly change throughout the show (for example the ice melting). In1932 he joined the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus (the second largest circus after Ringling’s) and later moved to the Cole Brother’s and Clyde Beatty Circus in 1935.[7] In 1951 he eventually joined Ringling’s where he stayed till he died in 1972.[8] Image source
    Emmett Kelly 

  • Emmett Kelly Sr.  was born in Sedan, Kansas in 1898. His career nearly mirrors Otto’s. Emmett began his circus career as a trapeze artist at the Howe’s Great London Circus. Occasionally, he performed as a white face clown and in 1923 met and married his wife Eva Moore while working at the John Robinson Circus. A year later, Eva was pregnant and in an attempt to make more money for his growing family, he developed a tramp clown called “Weary Willy”. At this time, his act was thought to be “too scruffy and dirty looking” and was not allowed to perform so he was forced back into trapeze work. However in 1930 the Great Depression hit and the tramp clown became popular. Emmett reprised “Weary Willy”, who’s act was to interrupt other acts and perform comedic pieces, and went to work at Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and in 1935 Cole Brother’s and Clyde Beatty Circus. In the late 1930’s he went back to England and joined Mill’s Circus, were he performed for royalty and political leaders. Ringling’s finally signed Emmett in 1942 where he stayed until 1957 when he went to work for Shrine Circus. Kelly became the most famous tramp clown.[9]
  • Image source

    Please watch a video of Emmett Kelly!


    Lou Jacobs 

  • Our final clown is Lou Jacobs. Lou was born in 1903 in Germany and immigrated to America in 1923. He first started out as an acrobat and contortionist. In 1924, he became part of a comedy contortionist act and was signed to Ringling’s. Lou became a clown in 1926; he was a white face clown and wore an oversized clown suit. He was well known for two acts, one was comedic hunting scene performed with his dog and the second (and probably most famous) was contorting his six foot one body into a tiny car. Lou stayed with Ringling’s all his working life, retiring from performing in 1985 and finally retiring from teaching at Ringling’s Clown College in 1991.[10]
  • Image source

After the fall of The Benzini Brother’s circus in the Water for Elephants novel, some workers were lucky to get jobs on other circuses Jacob and Marlena (the two main characters in the novel) get jobs at Ringling. Times were changing, circuses became less popular. Clowns were forced to find other ways to survive, such as film roles as movies became cheaper and therefore more popular. Our four clowns went on to appear in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952),[11] featuring James Stewart, Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton, as well as appearing in other films, TV programs and stage shows. Many, however, were not as lucky. Sara Gruen captures the uncertainty of this time period perfectly in her novel, now we must wait and see if the movie can do the same!

Please join us for a fun discussion on: Thursday, 4/14/2011@7pE/12UTC
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8 Responses to “Clowning Around with Water for Elephants”

  1. Littlebells April 13, 2011 at 10:28 AM #

    Yay! We’re finally talking about clowns!!! 🙂

    Hey Ozzie! I’m on my way out at the moment but can’t WAIT to read your article. I was wondering if we were going to ever talk about those guys that freak me out. haha!

  2. Littlebells April 13, 2011 at 12:26 PM #

    Wow, Ozzie! I am completely blown away by your article! That was so informative and actually made me like clowns a little bit more. You did a fantastic job and I can’t wait to ask questions tomorrow! 🙂

  3. Parisienne April 13, 2011 at 12:36 PM #


    Awesome Article! Love the photos and can’t wait to discuss the topic.

  4. Lurker April 14, 2011 at 6:52 PM #

    Hi Everyone!
    We are going to try out some new software tonight for the discussion.

    Follow the link at the bottom of the post or in the right hand widget to join us @ 7p.

    See you there!

  5. Open Book April 14, 2011 at 7:00 PM #


    i’m here!

  6. ozzie20 April 14, 2011 at 7:03 PM #

    Hello all!

  7. Parisienne April 14, 2011 at 7:05 PM #


  8. Open Book April 14, 2011 at 11:19 PM #

    If you would like to view the commentary for this article.

    Click on the link under : Please join us for a fun discussion on: Thursday, 4/14/2011@7pE/12UTC on this article up above.

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