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.
Saturday, March 03, 2007
Posted by Buckles at 3/03/2007 06:24:00 PM