Weary Willie shares the spotlight…

With young flyer Lee Kolozsy

by Lee Kolozsy

 

As a young circus performer I worked hard and went through a great deal of hardship, not to mention running the risk of injury and even death, for the mere amusement of others. The job was tough, but the perks were a taste of paradise. I had the good fortune to receive an education of the highest order, in the Art of Showmanship. My teachers were my friends and co-workers.

Among them were some of the greatest Showmen of all time…

I at one time had the singular distinction of being the youngest member of the AGVA[1].  I belonged to a professional association of actors, comics, singers, dancers, acrobats, daredevils, and more. I had a union card signed by Danny Thomas. I had the pleasure of working on shows with legends of the entertainment world. The list is too long to cover in one brief article. I shall have to narrow the subject matter to one memorable occurrence.

The most well known clown in America…

Emmett Kelly is famous to this day, as is his son, for the characterization of  “Weary Willie”. The sad faced tramp clown of the paintings and figurines. What only a very few are aware of is that Emmett Kelly Sr. was a Master Showman. He was, above all, a thoughtful and conscientious craftsman skilled in the art of Showmanship.

I was thrilled at the prospect of sharing a bill with the legendary funnyman…

The Hamid-Morton Circus had a long season and covered many miles. The dates were primarily Shrine and badge deals[2] and mostly indoors. The cast played the whole tour as a company from beginning to end. The lineup included many of the best acts the circus world had to offer.  Big names were brought in for big dates. When we got to Altoona, Wilkes Barre, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh, the show was punched up with additional prestige acts. The first year I did the tour we had the young ladies from TVs “Petticoat Junction”. A few years later the big name guest star was Doug McClure, who played “Trampas” on “The Virginian”. It was by way of backstage gossip that I learned of Emmett joining the show for the big ones.

I intended to pay close attention and take notes…

I wanted to know why Emmett Kelly was such a big name. I mean there was no shortage of tramp clowns. Why was he a star? I was going to make it my business to find out. When the famous Joey[3] joined on in Altoona, I watched every thing he did. There wasn’t much to watch. He had no props. He did no bits. He did not participate in the producing clown’s gags. He simply wandered around eating leaves from a head of cabbage. Mostly, he just sat in the audience, in full costume, looking sad, like Chaplin’s little tramp, eating cabbage. I was mystified, and disappointed. Why would a sharp guy like George A. hire such a lame act to do practically nothing?  I didn’t get it.

What’s so funny about eating raw cabbage? …

The next day I’m in the blues[4] early, sticking Mickey Mouse in the glass house[5], and the lights go out. I hear yelling. Emmett’s in his street clothes and he’s hollering instructions to the girders. From the girders I hear “yes Sir Mr. Kelly”. The balloon work came to a halt. I was watching Emmett and the spotlight guy blocking out the cues for the famous sweeping up the spotlight routine[6]. That next show, it brought the house down. I asked him after the show why he hadn’t put it in from the start. He said quite simply, that he had no idea where it belonged in the line-up until he had watched the show a few times.

A sensational performance is all a matter of timing…

As the days went by, he kept adding business, a bit here, a gag there. I kept asking questions. He gave me direct and sensible answers. He taught me that the success of a gag is largely determined by its placement in the show. The conditions are always different as the performance moves on. The line-up of acts should complement one another. Dramatic tension should always build. Laughter is the release. One must be careful not to undermine the desired effect.

The audience can be played like a musical instrument. This is what makes a great performance…

We were lining up for spec[7] one day and Emmett grabs my dad, they confer, they look at me, and my dad nods in agreement. My dad tells me after spec, “Rehearsal after finale, Emmett wants to work out a bit for the next show”. I didn’t like it one bit. I was seething with resentment. This was my act. We don’t do comedy. My dad was more level headed, plus, he knew a lot more.

The featured part of my performance was being taken over by this clown…

At the close of our teeterboard[8] routine, the acrobatic acts in the end rings would scram, the house would go dark, and our troupe would line up in the spotlighted center ring. The ringmaster would announce, “Directing your attention to the center ring… where we present the difficult and dangerous, backwards somersault, flying from the teeterboard, to the shoulders of the catcher, atop a four man high, human pyramid, using no nets or safety devices of any kind whatsoever, with the world’s youngest teeterboard flyer performing this incredible stunt, completely blindfolded…”

The usual obligatory drumroll creates a moment of great tension…

The pyramid would form up, the pusher would leap atop the pedestal, and my number one spotter (Mom) would lead me blindfolded to the teeterboard.

By now you could cut the tension with a knife…

Enter Weary Willie. The spotlight picked him up madly dashing along the hippodrome track making a beeline for the center ring frantically pantomiming “STOP THE SHOW-STOP THE SHOW”… he was running with a straw broom, holding it by the broomstick with the straw part at the top. As he entered the ring, the pyramid disbanded, I removed the blindfold, and we all acted put out. Weary Willie pantomimed that he would like to sweep off the pad at the flyer’s end of the teeterboard. With some annoyance we indicated proceed. He began to sweep vigorously.

A dust cloud along the order of an atomic blast formed in the center ring…

Emmett had talced the broom. This was why he carried it upside down. It was loaded with about a pound of talcum powder. The spotlights picked up the cloud of powder created by his energetic sweeping and the absurdity of it all broke the tension. Huge belly laughs could be heard from clear up in the nosebleeds.

He stole the show, and then handed me the audience on a silver platter…

There we all stood frozen in the spotlights, with waves of laughter washing down from thousands of delighted fans. Then Emmett cued us with a signal, and we all hammed it up with fake coughing and sneezing, waving our hands to clear the dust from our faces. When the laughter died away, Emmett made a grand gesture indicating “carry on” and exited with the broom under his arm with the self-satisfied air of a job well done. This was the work of a Master Showman.

The bit was a showstopper…

When we completed the stunt and the pyramid turned a full 360 degrees in the center ring…the applause was deafening. As we left the arena, with the cheers and whistles ringing in my ears,  I had to rethink what I had believed earlier. At one point Emmett had told me “sell the sizzle, not the steak”

By the time we got to Pittsburgh, it may as well have been called the Emmett Kelly Circus…

In a few short weeks, the master clown had pulled all the right bits out of his old trunk and fitted them neatly into all the right places in the show. I only wish that I knew by now as much as he had forgotten by then.


[1] AGVA. American Guild of Variety Artists. A union for freakish acts and entertainers who fit no category.

[2] “Badge Deal” Police association sponsored fundraisers.

[3] “Joey” Circus show lingo for lead clown.

[4] “Blues”  short for blue seats. Circus show lingo for general admission seating, traditionally painted blue.

[5] “Mickey Mouse in the glass house” was a great novelty item, twin helium balloons, one inside the other.  The outer balloon was transparent, with Mickey’s head inside. Assembly was a tedious process. One would put a deflated Mickey on a stick, then poke it into a transparent latex balloon. Then do it again. This went on forever. The pay was always good , because no one wanted to do it.

[6] A wonderfully comical skit where Weary Willie goes through a variety of frustrating misadventures with a broom in hand trying to sweep the spotlight  under a rug.

[7] “Spec”   Grand Spectacle, The first production number in the show, where the cast welcomes the audience.

[8] “teeterboard” a fiendish device invented by sadists to catapult a flyer into thin air where he is expected to perform a variety of complex gymnastic maneuvers and land (ideally) on the shoulders of a catcher.

 

Back to Show Talk With Lee Kolozsy        Back to Main

 

All photos are the property of their respective owners whether titled or marked anonymous.

"Sideshow WorldTM" is the sole property of John Robinson © All rights reserved.

 sideshowworld.com   sideshowworld.org   sideshowworld.net  sideshowworld.biz   sideshowworld.info

is the sole property of John Robinson © All rights reserved.

E-Mail Sideshow World     E-Mail The Webmaster