Friday, January 20, 2017

All the world loves a clown?

I have to say I was sorry to hear that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is (are?) hanging it up. Seems like a sad ending to a great chapter of Americana. The warning signs were there. Locally, the Big Apple Circus went bankrupt last fall and is selling off its assets.

When I was a kid we went to see Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey Pierce Fenner & Ziggy at Madison Square Garden and the place was jammed. I think it was a weeknight, too. I guess crowds like that just don't come anymore. I guess people just don't like circuses anymore.

We know that people are down on animal acts. The campaigns against circus animal acts were never going to stop. If Ringling Brothers et al had nothing but a flea circus, PETA would be mounting a "Save the Fleas" campaign.

The trapeze artists and other death-defying acrobats can always find work, I guess. Cirque du Soleil and stuff. Those acts are amazing to see in person. However, I don't know that you get the same effect looking at them on a stage as you do under the big top or in stadium, where the vast three-dimensional space in which they play makes them look so small and yet mighty, fragile, fast, and graceful. They'll all land on their feet.

Another part of the circus experience that's very hard hit, though, is the midway. I think that's been dying off, though. Who needs a freak show when you have YouTube?

The saddest story in the whole thing to me was that of Kristen Michelle Wilson, the first female ringmaster in the 146-year history of Ringling Brothers. The circus said she would be "inspiring and empowering children everywhere to follow their dreams." Days later they might have added, "Straight to the unemployment office."

So that's very sad. But won't someone think of the clowns?

Worse for the circus than the animal acts, I think, is that we have become an anticlown nation. They used to be beloved makers of fun. Now we think the very worst of them.



I admit that I too have done my bit to wound the Clown-American community. I'd like to say that some of my best friends are clowns, but even there, my friends would not take that as a compliment.

There was a time when clowns were seen as happy, fun, or at least nice, like Emmett Kelly and Bozo -- and children were expected to like them and did. But starting decades ago, concerns about what those chuckleworthy chaps were thinking under that makeup made us start worrying about what they were really up to.

Maybe it all began with Pagliacci, Toscanini's tragic and murderous clown story, famous since its 1892 premiere. What was going on behind that greasepaint, eh? Irony! Then there was the scheming Scaramouche of the 1921 Rafael Sabatini novel, plotting his revenge behind his powdered visage.

Next thing you know, clowns were turning bad. Really bad.

There was the Joker, based on the jester playing card; homicidal maniac, archfoe of Batman. Pennywise, the evil clown figure of Stephen King's It. There was the horrid Krusty the Clown of The Simpsons. There was Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story. There were even Killer Klowns from Outer Space, thought to be one of the worst movies ever made by no less an authority than my father, who usually didn't review movies. And there was Stucco the clown.


Well, no, Stucco from Rob Harrell's late strip "Big Top" is a nice clown, but even he seems less human than the animals around him. Like clowns were some weird alien species.

I'm just saying it's been really hard for all the nice clowns out there, with evil clown sightings and grown men and women suffering from coulrophobia. Look at Party City -- the majority of men's clown costumes are evil clowns, not sweet, fun clowns.

People blame the animal acts for killing the circus, but I'm telling you, it was clown terror that did the circus in, and it was creative folks who loved to have funny, friendly characters be evil that made everyone scared of clowns.

What are the nice clowns supposed to do now, huh?

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P.S.: I mentioned to Mr. Philbin that this would be today's topic of disquisition, and he remarked that it seemed like a suspicious coincidence that it would run on Inauguration Day. I deny this accusation, because when you deal with politics, every day is evil clown day.
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