Clowning has ancient precedents in many cultures of the world. On April 3, 1793, Ricketts’ first circus in America, specifically Philadelphia, including a clown named Mr. McDonald. John Durang (1768-1822) was the first American born U.S. professional clown.
There are three major classifications of clowns: Whiteface, August, and Character, including tramp. Whiteface clowns mime. Historically, Whiteface clowns acted as the butt of the Ringmaster’s jokes, performing a lot of physical stunts in a way that made the audience laugh. Well known twentieth century Whiteface circus clowns include Felix Adler, Paul Jung, and Marcel Marceau. The Auguste talks, and acts as “the butt of the joke…slapping and stumbling, throwing pies, using seltzer bottles.. and tend[s] to be more physical in their performances.” Lou Jacobs, Bozo and Ronald McDonald are examples of Auguste clowns. Character clowns portray various characters, the fireman, the policeman, the doctor, the college professor, and the tramp, among others. They wear a wide variety of costumes, wigs, makeup, and false body and facial parts appropriate for their character. The most famous tramp clown is Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie.
19th century Saginaw clowns of note:
George Bickel, Harry Watson, and Fred Jenks. They performed at Saginaw’s Boardwell Opera House. In 1899 the three clowns and the Picard Brothers performed with the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus in Saginaw. Jenks and Wilson were a clown team in Hagenbeck & Wallace and Ringling Brothers-and- Barnum & Bailey circuses, among others. The duo supposedly originated the clown band concept, which later became a component of all circuses. Jenks and his wife, Grace Burk, began an act called Jenks and Jenks, whose big hit was imitating a chicken with its head cut off. When the Jenks retired from the circus world they operated rollerskating rinks in Saginaw.
After the Jenks married, Watson teamed up with George Bickel portraying German comics. One of their gags was to pretend to play the violin while sharing a music stand. The one clown, intently playing, poked the other clown in the eyeball with his violin bow, oblivious to the discomfort he was causing a fellow musician. Watson and Bickel performed in the Ziegfeld Follies and the Palace Theater in New York. Watson also worked solo, earning $2,000 a week in the 1920s. Eventually, Watson retired to Penetanguishene, Ontario, where he died in 1965. Bickel retired to Hollywood, but was later buried in Saginaw.
Michigan TV Clowns:
Irv “Ricky the clown” Romig had his own television show for children on channel WXYZ-TV in Detroit from 1953 to 1964.
Irving Hugh Romig was the son of circus performers Elizabeth Rooney and Carl Romig. Irv (b. Detroit 1920-) became a clown at the age of 5 on the Frank McIntyre Circus. Two clowns, Ed Raymond and Marcus Hunkler, dressed Irv up in “a clown face, [in] a swallowtail coat, and [gave him] a huge frying pan and spoon.” In their act the clowns played a funny version of the song “It’s Three O’Clock In The Morning.” When they began playing the chorus, Irv hit the frying pan with the spoon three times. Once he heard the laughter from the audience, Irv knew that he wanted to be a circus performer.
Irv performed as “Irvie-the circus buffoon” by age 15. In his act he performed “trick riding, a comedy mule act, clown routines, and walk arounds.” Besides learning tricks and how to train animals from his family, Irv learned from other performers and invented many of his own gags.
During WWII, Irv served in the army beginning in 1942. As a corporal with the 81st Infantry Division, Irv played the bugle. He could not read music, so his sergeant would hum the taps or parade calls and Irv would then play. Irv served as “the camp’s bugler, horse and dog trainer, and as a member of the Section 8 Gang,… clowns who entertained servicemen.” Irv trained dogs who searched for mines and the K-9 corps to take out machine gunners.
After the Army, Irv returned to performing as a clown with small circuses. In 1946 he worked with the Jimmy Cole Circus. The circus was televised as a publicity stunt; it was the first time a circus was televised in the U.S.
In 1950 Irv married Rose Dobo in Guardian Angel Church in Clawson.
Irv then signed on for what became a 22-year stint with the Shrine Circus. He converted a small tractor into a train, which stole the show from the other clowns. He also trained animals; including horses, donkeys, llamas, a miniature buffalo, and other animals. Ringling Brothers invited Irv to join their circus. Irv, Rose and Fay (Irv’s sister), as Betty Hutton’s double, all performed in Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, The Greatest Show on Earth (1951).
About his television show Irv noted “you don’t know what I go through for a half-hour (TV) show. You lie awake at night. No one writes your material. Thousands of people watch you.” But he thought having a job in one location was more conducive to raising a family. Irv’s first show, called Tip-Top Fun, aired in October 1953. Irv performed as Ricky the Clown in a yellow and black derby, red plaid suit and big red nose. The show included Laurel and Hardy shorts, Bambino the donkey, and the songs and gags of Ricky the Clown in a circus format. The show’s ratings were often better than those of Roy Rogers at WWJ. The show was required to legally change its name.
Actress Lally Deene performed with Irv on the renamed show: The Robin and Ricky Show. She played Robin, a waitress, and Irv played Ricky the clown in a busboy’s uniform. The show included the same donkey, “jokes, skits, music, magic tricks, stories, birthday wishes and Little Rascal shorts.” The tight set consisted of a lunch counter, three stools, and Bambino’s pen. Advertisements were then filmed live. Ricky advertised “Mr. Big” enriched bread. Sometimes when the bread was eaten by the crew, Ricky would run in full makeup and costume to the local corner grocery store to buy some more bread while the Little Rascals shorts ran overtime.
After Deene left the show in May of 1958, the show returned to its original format until 1965. Irv built most of the props and gags with his own money. Games, prizes, and a llama named Fonda, were added to the show. Irv was always very proud that he had the only show for children sponsored by an automobile dealership; Hanley Dawson Chevrolet.
Irv’s career at WXYZ as Ricky the Clown ended in 1965. He continued his Shrine Circus and numerous other appearances. Ricky was waiting to go on as a Shire Circus clown when members of the Great Wallendas fell in Detroit on January 30, 1962. In 2001 Irv was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame. His wife, Rosie, died on September 7, 2002. Irv Romig died on May 24, 2010, at age 90.
Milky the Twin Pines Magic Clown was a Detroit television clown from 1950 to 1964. In his white outfit and point cap with big smile and makeup highlighting his eyes and chin, Milky advertised Twin Pines Milk during the Twin Pines Movie Party. Twin Pines was Detroit’s only employee-owned, cooperative dairy in 1955. Milky proclaimed “There’s Magic in Twin Pines Milk!”
Clarence R. “Milky the Clown “ Cummings, Jr. was born in Chicago in 1912. When Clarence was 5, his family moved to Birmingham, Michigan. When he was 12, he received a magic set for Christmas and was soon performing and mastering tricks. Clarence read many books on the topic and saw great magicians perform; including Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston. Clarence debuted at Birmingham’s Baldwin Library in 1929 and performed locally at small events. In 1933 he worked on Chuck Stanley’s “Happy Hour Club,” a radio show, with Danny Thomas. To pay his bills, in 1941 Clare began selling automotive paint for E. I. DuPont during the week. This left his weekends free for magic performances.
During WWII, Sergeant Clarence served in the U.S. Army’s Finance Division and entertained troops as part of the Army’s Special Services Division in Florida. He married Peg Haldane, with whom he had a daughter, Peggy. After the war, Clarence returned to his DuPont job and performed magic in the increasingly elite venues. He was billed as “Clare Cummings, Delineator of Deceptive Dexterity.”
Clare had wonderful magic skills, a friendly gap-tooth smile, and a gentle manner; all perfect for working with children. His first show was named Peter, Clare and Oscar at WJBK. It resembled Kukla, Fran, and Ollie show and lasted 13 weeks in 1950. His second show, sponsored by Twin Pines Dairy, Milky’s Movie Party, debuted on December 16, 1950 with Milky, the first Twin Pines Milkman, Ed Hayes, and a weekly winner of the “Sunshine Smile” photograph contest. Cummings created his own makeup and his wife the costume, patterned after that of a Pierrot, for the new show. There was no live audience. In 1952 a marionette show called Willy Dooit was added to the show voiced by Detroit’s famous Sonny Eliot. Milky’s Movie Party moved to WXYZ in 1955, home of Soupy Sales, Ricky the Clown and Wixie’s Wonderland, and added Little Rascals shorts. In 1958 the show moved to WWJ with a new format, live audience, and new name of Milky’s Party Time. It featured the serial The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, Bozo and Felix the Cat cartoons, as well as magic, games, prizes, and Stars of the Future contest, hosted by MaryLou. Pierre the Frenchman helped with games, usually boys versus girls. There was a two-year wait for tickets for the immensely popular Milky’s Party Time. The show tripled Twin Pines routes and milk orders.
Clare also performed at school assemblies, as many as 130 a year. December 16, 1960 was declared “Milky the Clown Day.” In 1964 Clare retired from the show to return to his paint job. His friend and magician, Karrell Fox, continued as Milky until the show ended in 1967. Clare retired from DuPont in 1971. His last performance as Milky was at the Oakland Mall in Troy in 1992. He died in 1994. One of his costumes and many of his magic tricks are in the American Museum of Magic in Marshall.
Bozo was not one clown, but a series of people portraying a licensed character. Bozo began as the voice of Alan W. Livingston on a read-along record called Bozo at the Circus in 1946, created by Capitol Records. In 1949 Capitol Records developed royalty arrangements with television stations. The first to air the Bozo show, called Bozo’s Circus, with Pinto Colvig as Bozo, was KTTV-TV. In 1956 Capitol Records hired several actors to portray Bozo, one of which was Larry Harmon. Larry developed Bozo’s orange-tufted sidewise pointing wig, the big red nose, the wild red, white, and blue costume, the character and voice, and changed the name to “Bozo, the World’s Most Famous Clown.” Larry bought the rights to Bozo and licensed the character to television stations. Those stations then recruited to get their own Bozos for local shows, particularly children’s shows.
One of the most popular Bozos was Bob Bell of Chicago’s WGN-TV. The Bozo Show aired nationally from 1978 to 2001. Bozo the clown was a television star in 18 states, the District of Columbia, Brazil, Canada, Greece, Thailand, and Mexico. In Michigan there were several Bozos in three cities. Three men in Detroit portrayed Bozo: Jerry Booth in 1959 at WWJ-TV, Bob McNea, 1959-1967 at the same station, and Art Certvi, 1975-1980 at WJBK-TV. Frank Cady portrayed Bozo at WJRT-TV, 1967-1979. Lastly, Dick Richards portrayed Bozo, 1968-1999 at WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids.
Rudy “Dynamite the Clown” Grahek (b. Cadillac, 1932-).
Rudy always wanted to be a clown. He created his clown makeup style and costume from a combination of his two favorite clowns; Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie, and Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader. Rudy used the name of “Rudy the Clown” until some children said it looked as though his costume had “been blown up by dynamite.” Rudy then became “Dynamite the Clown.”
Rudy’s career began with a few gigs as a “spot performer” or “come in clown” or “crowd pleaser” for the Clyde Beatty Circus in the early 1950s. As a come in clown he entertained the audience as they entered the tent and waited for the show to begin. Rudy also entertained audiences during the intermissions.
From 1952 until 1954 Rudy served in the Army Infantry, 7th Division, 17th Regiment during the Korean War. After the war, Rudy attended what is now Ferris State University in Big Rapids courtesy of the GI Bill. He studied business topics, graduating in 1957. He credits his education with helping him greatly to promote himself via advertising and public relations. Rudy loves Ferris. He regularly performs at Ferris, working the crowd.
For about 9 years after college Rudy performed with a number of circuses when they visited MI. He settled in Reed City in 1960 where he raised his family, which included three children, and sold cars. He also worked with carnivals; including Happyland Carnival was when he was still in high school in 1949, and Skerbecks.
From 1990 to 1993 Rudy hosted the “Fox Kids’ Club Show” at Cadillac-based TV 33 Fox network. The show was broadcast into the U.P. and across Lake Michigan into eastern WI. The show had a peanut gallery where the children sat. Rudy had various guests, such as a local sheriff who talked about bike safety; and games, some of them very similar to those Bozo used on television, including Crazy Old Bucket Ball, the Intertubable Breakables, and Blockonodo among others. The show was filmed (cut) on Saturdays. Rudy borrowed the format and many games from Dick Richards (Bozo) with Dick’s permission – as long as Rudy changed the name of the games. Periodically Rudy was a guest on the Bozo show. Besides hosting the show, Rudy also worked in commission sales at the Fox station during the week.
Today, Rudy spends a lot of his time working in parades and entertaining children at various events. For the last 50 years his parade acts have included suitcases. He has 28 painted suitcases, each with a different routine. Rudy does all the bookings, driving, makeup and walking himself. He is proud that there is a monument in the park in Manton in his honor and his portrait on the bandshell as well. In 2007 Dynamite the Clown served as the Grand Marshall of the 58th annual Lilac Festival parade on Mackinac Island, a parade he walked in for 25 years. In 2007 he also served as the Grand Marshall of the Trout Festival Parade in Kalkaska.
Scottville Clown Band
The band formed in 1903 as Scottville Merchant’s Band, composed of local male merchants. Initially there were no auditions; it was a family oriented group, which dressed as hillbillies and performed at local carnivals. From 1930 to 1932 the band was called the Ladies Band because the men dressed in women’s clothes. The band ceased during WWII. It was reestablished in 1947 as the “class of ’47.” After 1947 the band decided on the “Scottville Clown Band” as its official name.
Spouses began marching with the band in the 1990s. The first female director was Margaret “Maggie” Erickson. Today the band consists of members from MI and out-of-state, with different backgrounds and occupations; but a love of music is common to them all. The band has a bus, the latest in a long series, to help transport them to their various engagements. Not every member attends every event. The band has been invited to attend numerous events both in- and out-of-state. One event they chose not to attend was the Rose Bowl in 1968. Student unrest, having to swear that they were not communists, and the request to change their costumes made the band decided to stay home. The band traditionally marches in the Ludington Fourth of July parade but they perform at many MI events. They also performed on the U.S.S. Silversides in Muskegon.
The band has a number of traditions. Since 1903 volunteering has been strongly encouraged among the band’s members. Strippers within the band began with Clyde Nelson. The band’s repertoire historically includes Glenn Miller’s arrangement of the St. Louis Blues, Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, Basin Street Blues, When the Saints Come Marching In, Mississippi Mud and Everything’s Coming up Roses. Newcomers are warmly welcomed and encouraged to memorize the music as quickly as possible.
Money earned by the band supports its scholarship program, established in 1964, to help young musicians study at Blue Lake Fine Arts Academy in Twin Lake. The band’s board of directors represents its members and makes operational and policy making decisions. The Museum of Music at historic White Pine Village preserves the history of the band. The museum and the Scottville band shell, were built, funded and are maintained by the Scottville Clown Band. In 2003 the Scottville Clown Band celebrated its 100th birthday.