Saturday, March 03, 2007

Lou Jacobs (From John Goodall)

Inducted into the 1989 Clown Hall of Fame, Lou Jacobs is a legend among clowns. Nearly a decade after his death, he is still immediately recognizable to millions of people, with his bulbous nose, conehead topped by a tiny fedora hat with a shock of bright red hair around his ears and the ever-present oversize plaid coat, Lou Jacobs personified clowning for Children of All Ages. He entertained audiences at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey for more than 60 years before retiring from performing at age 84.
Lou Jacobs' early years in Germany
Lou Jacobs was born as Johann Ludwig Jacob in Bremerhaven, Germany in 1903. The youngest son of a shipbuilder, he got his theatrical start as the rear end of an alligator costume -- his brother was the front. By age 11, Lou Jacobs saw his first clown act in a German circus, and was smitten -- but his father disapproved. When he was 15, he started practicing acrobatics and comedy. His early training in show business seemed to encompass everything but comedy. "As a boy in Germany, I learned it all. Barrel jumping, acrobatics, making like the human pretzel." It was training which would serve him for the rest of his life. Again following his brother Karl, who paid his way, Lou Jacobs emigrated through Ellis Island to America in 1923. Unable to speak English, and with two dollars in his pocket, it was as a contortionist in vaudeville in New York that he first found work. "I was working with an old man and his son. I was the straight man, but I persuaded them to let me do comedy."
Lou Jacobs joins the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus
"The next year I got hired by John Ringling," recalled Jacobs, "and I never left. He told me that I could choose between acts. One down here, and one up there (on the trapeze). I wasn't ready for 'up there' because it was 30 feet up, so I became a clown." Together with fellow newcomers Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly and Felix Adler, Lou Jacobs would form an elite group of circus clowns. "It was a good life. We had sunshine in the backyard. We washed our own clothes. We would have baseball teams. We lived to clown."
After he joined Ringling Bros. Lou Jacobs never left the big show. He became the most famous example of the flamboyant American auguste. Jacobs created his own, legendary clown gags. He zipped around the hippodrome on water skis; zoomed past amazed spectators in a motorized bathtub; chased down a cigar-smoking clown "baby" who was attempting to make a getaway in a souped-up baby-buggy. But by 1948, after years of work, Lou Jacobs had perfected his most famous prop, a 2-by-3 foot, working minicar. He contorted his 6-foot-1-inch body to fit inside the tiny car.
Lou opened the act by entering the center ring in his loud honking car. The car would start to sputter and backfire as he pulled up to a 'gas station', manned by Frankie Saluto. His emergence from the car -- beginning with the appearance of an oversized clown shoe jutting into the air -- never failed to bring gasps of delight. Once he was out, Frankie Saluto insisted that the car was not parked close enough to the pump. Lou whacked Frankie over the head with a mallet and a balloon welt rose on his head. The car would sputter and backfire as Lou tried to move it closer. He then removed the radiator cap, a snake lunged out and a geyser of water followed. Lou sat on the geyser only to have water squirting from the top of his head. When he stopped the flow with his hand, the water squirted out of his mouth. Finally, the car was pushed closer to the pump. Frankie climbed inside the pump and Lou threw in a bomb. The explosion sent up a dummy dressed like Frankie and it floated down under a parachute. Lou closed the act by making a speedy exit in the midget car in an attempt to evade the pursuing cop played by Jimmy Armstrong.
In another inspired clowning act, Jacobs added a partner to his act: a pint-sized Chihuahua named Knucklehead. And, shades of Bugs Bunny, the canine played the role of a rascally rabbit, complete with bunny ears, eluding Big Game Hunter Lou Jacobs -- only to play dead when finally shot at. After Lou moaned with remorse, Knucklehead would sit back up, the pair happily reunited. Jacobs and Knucklehead remained partners for 14 years; Lou Jacobs adding another dog, PeeWee, in later years.
In 1952, when Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Greatest Show on Earth - a movie in which Lou Jacobs played a cameo role -- Jacobs was chosen to teach the tools of the clowning trade to actor Jimmy Stewart. In 1966, Jacobs' fans were further delighted to spot the likeness of his now-famous clown face on a newly issued United Stated postage stamp.
The Jacobs family is a circus family in every sense of the word. In 1953 Lou married Jean Rockwell, a former model and aerialist with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey. The Jacobs' daughter, Dolly, is a featured aerialist, and their other daughter Lou Ann is an elephant trainer.
Lou Jacobs, aka Papa Lou, trains the next generation of circus clowns
Failing health forced him to leave the road in late 1985. But Lou Jacobs never left the hearts of his fellow performers and former pupils. He was a founding professor at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and taught Master Class in clowning there through 1991. Reverence for Jacobs reached a fever pitch in 1987, at the 20th Anniversary of Clown College. As Jacobs walked haltingly on stage to perform, 500 alumni rose to their feet of one accord, chanting in unison, "Lou! Lou! Lou!" acknowledging the man they had come to revere as the King Of Clowns.
In the last decade of his life, Lou Jacobs was the recipient of the highest accolades the dual worlds of Circus and Clowning have to offer. In 1987, Producer Kenneth Feld presented Jacobs with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1988, Jacobs' star was unveiled in Sarasota's Circus Ring Of Fame. And in 1989, Jacobs was inducted into the Circus Hall Of Fame in Indiana, and the Clown Hall Of Fame in Wisconsin -- one of only six clowns to be honored in that Hall's inaugural year. Several of Jacobs' fellow inductees, sadly deceased by the time of their recognition, were those same clown friends with whom he had once appeared under the Big Top. "It looks like I'm the Last Of The Mohicans," Jacobs commented. Yet, with all of these honors, Jacobs always said that his greatest reward was the laughter of children.
Toward the end, frail and in failing health, Lou Jacob's spirit remained indomitable. "I've had good times and bad times. It may seem like a rough day today, but tomorrow may be a good day, and the sun may be shining in the next town." Lou Jacobs died in his sleep on Sunday, September 13, 1992 at his home in Sarasota, Florida of heart failure. He was 89.
He can be seen in the movies The Greatest Show on Earth and Fellini's classic The Clowns.

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rebecca said...

How old was Shannon here?

Buckles said...

He was four.

Roger Smith said...

Lou Jacobs in fact did leave the Ringling show for a time in the 1950s. He was not only starred, but prominently featured in the advertising, by name and clown face, on Polack Bros. Perhaps someone can name the exact years.

Buckles said...

One of Mr. Jacobs daughters was born while he was on the Polack Show.

Pat Cashin said...

I believe that Lou was away from RBB&B from 1954 until 1957.

He was not there during the AGVA strike; he was not there when the tents folded and the 1956 season ended early. Smart man.

He was over on Polack working with Rudy Dockey, Charlie Cheer, Harold Simmons, Jackie Gerlich and The Sherman Bros. Nice alley.

Other notables who were not members of the 1956 RBB&B Alley due to the AGVA strike that season: Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly and Felix Adler.

Great news for Paul Jung (who must have had to produce the gags in all three rings and everything on the track all by himself) that year but bad news for fans of circus comedy expecting to see the classic Ringling Alley of that era.

I don't know what happened during the 1953 season to make Lou decide that it was time to head out but that was around the same time that John Ringling North replaced Art Concello with Michael Burke who fired McCloskey and his crew so the show couldn't have been running really smoothly.

Anonymous said...

If you mention the name Lou Jacobs in a European circus there's liable to be a fist-fight.
The clownface and large plaid jacket,conehead and little hat were an exact likeness of a very famous European clown before Lou came to America. And many European circus folks take great umbridge to Lou using another clown's persona.

Pat Cashin said...

And where does this bio come from?

I don't remember Lou Jacobs appearing in Fellini's film THE CLOWNS.

Albert Fratellini is IMPERSONATED in the film, that may be where the confusion comes in.

Anonymous said...

The European clown is Albert Fratellini, and Lou did base his make-up on his, but it did evole into his own personal look. As far as the baggy plaid coat aspect, he was one of many clowns from that era who wore oversized wardrobe.

And I know Lou's face is still used to advertise circus in Europe.

Anonymous said...

Prcisely that comments is what pisses off European artists
They say that the face used to advertise European circuse is Fratellini NOT Lou Jacobs !
In all fairness seeing that Lou Jacobs never toured Europe as a clown why would anyone ever say that the european posters are of Lou Jacobs ?

Anonymous said...

We had this same conversation about Lou's Polack years on the History
Group in about 2000 and this is one of the comments that I filed away.
Great Picture!

"Lou Jacobs was on the Polack show for three seasons... 1954, 1955 and 1956. Lou and my dad were very close and I have letters from him to my dad during this period of three seasons, talking about various things on the Polack show. Also have some wonderful, candid shots of him backstage at Chicago's Medinah Temple, in 1954, as well as 16mm color footage of Lou, Rudy Dockey and Charlie Cheer doing their musical routine on an outdoor Shrine date, possibly out West.
—Tim Tegge"

Roger Smith said...

Right. Lou was back on RBBB for their first rubber-tire tour, of 1957. That year, I met him the first time, along with one of my all-time heroes, Fay Alexander, fresh off his immortal work in TRAPEZE.

J Goodall said...

Pat Cashin - the article came from

Anonymous said...

Lou Jacobs...'til the day I die I will so regret never having met THE MAN, never having been able to shake his hand and say Thank You Lou for the boundless joy you shared with so many countless myriads of people. As a child there were two things in particular I anxiously awaited at a Ringling show...Emmett Kelly sweeping up the spotlight AND that big shoe waving out the door of that little car and all joyful wonder that followed. I have been privileged to know and photograph Lou's daughters and grandchildren, but I never met THE MAN.
Webster defines ecstacy as, "an extreme sense of overwhelming joy". I would define it as watching Lou Jacobs work. Thanks Lou, to me you will always be the best of the best.
Paul Gutheil

Pat Cashin said...

As to the which face is on all of those European posters...

Albert Fratellini had a conehead, it was used for one gag. It was not a part of his usual makeup and is not usually identified with his clown persona.

Lou developed the conehead and made it his own. His is very different from Mr. Fratellini's and it was an everyday part of Lou's makeup for everything except the car gag. Lou's conehead is a intrical part of his clown persona.

Lou ADAPTED Albert Fratellini's makeup and made it his own. He changed it, "Disney-fied" it, made it much more appealing. Looking at the two of them side by side there is absolutely no mistaking who is who.

Now LOU'S makeup was further adapted by Walter Galetti. NONE of those European posters look anything like Albert Fratellini to me but they do look like Lou Jacobs makeup with Waleter Galetti's hat, costume and wig.

That is except for the one's that are clearly Lou.

Lou Jacobs, Walter Galetti, Charlie Rivel, Coco, The Rastellis and many other augustes through the years owe a debt to Albert Fratellini, no doubt about it, but each of these clowns took the torch that Albert lit and ran with it in very different directions.

As for Lou taking his baggy plaid suit from Albert Fratellini? Just look at Grock or any one of his numerous imitators. Oversisized plaid suits were worn by others before Albert Fratellini established his character and again, Lou's version is unique and different.

There was a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit before Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. You can see some similarities between the two, but there is no mistaking one for the other. One may be influenced by the other, but they are each their own creation.

And I am MORE than willing to roll up my sleeves and invite any European circus folk outside should they care to impune Mr. Jacobs' character or legacy.

Mr. Gutheil, would you hold my coat?


Anonymous said...

Well Mr. Cashin it sounds like you know more about European Circus history than the people who were there ! I was told this is Fratellini's likeness by an 80 year old whiteface clown from France in 1991.
And how would you account for l
Lou's image being so popular on a continent where he never worked as a clown ?
And it is because of just your comments that I regretably sign annonomously.
I certainly do not impune the fact that Lou Jacobs was a much loved and talented performer, but history speaks louder and longer than any fisticuffs you could engage in. It is very safe to make these bold statements as long as you stay on your side of the big waters.

Buckles said...

I knew this was bound to happen.
Clowns are heat merchants!

Dutchess said...

NO one could spice up a back yard faster then 'Shorty or Peggy Silvester' on Kelly Miller.

Anonymous said...

When you start to look at these images of Lou Jacobs that are used by European circus shows, you can usually tell they have been ripped off from advertising or poster images for US shows. Many European posters and paper are full of images copied from Ringling programs and artwork.

Like Pat Cashin said, Lou was influenced by Fratellini, but his look is his own and is certainly an iconic image for circus's worldwide.

-A Heat Merchant

Buckles said...

Just kidding, just kidding.

rebecca said...

Buckles, You are supposed to say: LOL I myself LMAO at the comments. Isn't that what clowns are supposed to cause?

Pat Cashin said...

My offer to engage in any fisticuffs on behalf of Mr. Jacobs honor was based solely on someone's earlier comment that the very mention of Lou Jacobs' name would result in a fist-fight with some European showfolks.

I was merely responding to that.

"Anonymous" seems put off because he was personally told that Lou Jacobs' makeup is identical to that of Albert Fratellini by some 80 year old European whiteface? WHICH 80 year old European whiteface? Is he a truly reliable source? Simply being 80 doesn't mean that he might not be mistaken or possibly biased.

My own father is 73 and isn't a terribly reliable source of accurate information on what he had for breakfast this morning much less what happened in the 30s.

Lou Jacobs worked alongside Fred Bradna for decades and yet Lou's makeup is described in Bradna's autobiography as having enormous blue eyebrows. BLUE EYEBROWS?!?

So much for first-hand eyewitness accounts!

But that aside, the two makeups are NOT identical. Crack a book. Do a web search. Find pictures. Look at the two makeups and costumes side by side. You would have to have cataracs as thick as a down comforter to say that you can't tell the two apart. One is inspired by the other but they are far from identical.

Lou took the new Auguste character designed by Albert Fratellini and adapted it for American audiences and in the process influenced scores and scores of circus Augustes, myself included, around the world right up to today.

As for why it is Lou's makeup is still used on circus posters all over the world, even in Europe? I think it's because it is so perfect. In virtually every conceivable way, I find it is possibly the most perfect design yet devised for an Auguste makeup, far more appealing, friendly and inviting than Albert's ever was.

Now I'm not saying that Lou was a superior performer to Albert, or that Lou was taller, faster, stronger, quicker with a witty bon mot or a better interpretive dancer. I'm simply stating that Lou's makeup had a more appealing design.

Albert was a brilliant clown who worked one-ring circuses all across Europe with his family to much acclaim for many decades.

Lou was a brilliant clown who worked three-ring circuses across America with a group of dedicated co-workers to much acclaim for many decades.

Both have made long lasting impressions on circus audiences and have made enormous contributions to the art of clowning and for that I would hope that showfolks on both sides of the Atlantic would be eternally grateful.

I know that I am.