TODAY I HAVE THE PLEASURE OF INTRODUCING YOU TO A GREAT CLOWN JONATHAN “MITCH” FREDDES. JONATHAN LIVES IN HATTIESBURG, MISSISSIPPI. JONATHAN HAPPENS TO BE ONE OF THE CLOWNS THAT HAS GRANTED PERMISSION FOR ME TO PAINT HIS IMAGE. HE IS WATERCOLOR CLOWN #14. I REALLY ENJOYED WORKING WITH HIM AND I AM SURE YOU WILL LIKE JONATHAN TO.
I will have a follow-up post which will show the creation of his watercolor painting. Please take the time to check it out. Prints are available from “me” the artist or from many of the print on demand sites. Jonathan also benefits from any sale of one of his prints.
Jonathan was nice enough to let me call him and we talked and laughed for 2 hours. He has lived a very enviable life in the circus. He has a blog in which I have re-posted lots of his answers and added a few comments of my own, with his blessing.
How long have you been a clown?
Jonathan started clowning in 1974 when he went to clown college. His class had 48 students.
“Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College® was started in 1968 by Feld Entertainment® founder Irvin Feld to preserve the ancient and honorable art of clowning. Since its inception nearly 1,300 people have received diplomas with graduates touring with The Greatest Show On Earth®, performing on stage, in film and in other areas of the performing arts. Ringling Bros. Clown College alumni originate from 9 countries and 44 states domestically.” (From the Ringling.com)
Here is a story from Jonathan about how it all started.
The year was 1974 when I left the mountains of Colorado, boarding a bus that would take me to sunny Florida. I was on my way to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice. I was finally on my way!
Three days later with no sleep and no shower I arrive at my destination. AT TWO IN THE MORNING! The bus stopped and kicked me off, but there was no bus station,only a small building with a bench in front of it. It used to be next to Smittys Steakhouse.
For those who remember, there was a 7-11 nearby. I proceeded to go over there and call Bill Williams,who was the owner of Venice Villas, my home for the next 8 weeks. He told me they were across town and he would leave the key hanging on the door to my room.
I searched in the phone book for a cab company. There was only one. I called and was informed they closed at midnight. What to do.
Just then some rednecks in a pickup pulled up I asked if they could give me a ride. They said yes and off we went.
Finally I’m here and can now rest and take a shower! As I lay in the room it starts to get warm so I go to this thing called an air conditioner. Something I never saw in my life. I pushed the on button and layed back down. The room got hotter and hotter until I could stand it no more. This thing must not be working!
I decided to go outside and lay on a chaise lounge by the pool to cool off. Apparently I fell asleep, the next thing I know I’m being woke up by Bill Williams and the police shaking me! They thought I was a vagrant. Remember I hadn’t had a shower in three days. I explained who I was and why I was outside. His air conditioning didn’t work. He told me to go with him and he would check it. He walked in, looked at it, pushed a button, and said it worked fine. As I looked at the button it said………..COOL!
(Here is another post from Trunk Stories below)
After the air conditioning started I decide to finally get a shower. Bill Williams had a different idea. He wanted me to meet Bill Ballantine the Dean of Clown College! He said he was in the office and would like to meet me. The thought of having to meet Mr. Ballantine in my present state did not appeal to me. I didn’t know what to do so I decided I better go.
As Bill turned to introduce himself he just stared and said, ” You look a lot shorter than in your picture.” (In those days we sent swimsuit shots with our application.)
He then introduced me to my new roommate Mike Perry. Many of you may have known him. He went on to the Blue show that year, along with Rick Davis, Dick Monday, Peggy Ford, I believe there may have been one more. After that Bill turned and left.
Every time Mike would speak to me he would call me “Mitch”. I would tell him that was not my name. At which point he would apologize and explain that I reminded him of his best friend and that he would try to remember. As others arrived and we went around meeting people he would say, “Hello my name is Mike and this is Mitch” I would remind him and once again he would apologize.
As we entered the building the first day they had a bulletin board with Polaroid shots of each student and their names below. I looked at mine and it said Mitch Freddes. After that I decided to give up and the name stuck. I had never met anyone named Mitch in my entire life! So goes the story of Mitch.
Clown School was very intimidating because everyone who was around Jonathan was doing some skill such as juggling and various circus acts. Jonathan didn’t know why he was there cause he couldn’t do any of that stuff. But when school was over and they offered contracts to some of the students, he ended up being one of them. So began his amazing clowning career.
He has a wonderful blog post from his blog Trunk Stories about the intimidating circumstances he found himself in on the first day of school… here it is:
Unlike most of the people there I was a musician from a music family for generations back. I was on my way to college to pursue my music career when my mother read a story about Peggy Williams ” First Girl Clown To Graduate From Clown College
I came home from work one day and she showed me the article. It was then she suggested it might be something I would like because of my outgoing personality. I applied, and the next thing I knew I was on my way. I think my mother must have seen something I didn’t even realize about myself. She was good at that sort of thing.
As I stood there watching all of this talent I was asking myself,”What am I doing here?” Just then I heard this voice behind me say, “Can you do any of this stuff?” The voice had a real southern accent. I turned to say no when the voice said, “Hi my names Ruth Chaddock from Quero, Texas.” At this point I felt more at ease knowing there was someone else from a small western town, and didn’t feel quite as intimidated. Thank you Ruth! From that day until now we have remained very special friends.
Just think if we would have known the talent that surrounded us. The likes of Bill Irwin, Barry Lubin, Dick Monday, Steve Laporte, Ruthie, Dale Longmire. Just to name a few. There are many more that went on to be very successful in some area of show business. Don’t worry I remember everyone.
The first thing we did, was go in the ring, one at a time and we were told to make everyone laugh. When it was my turn I was scared to death, and had no clue what to do. I entered the ring and sat there scratching my head wondering what would make them laugh. 30 seconds….. 45 seconds….. 1 minute….. nothing! And then it happened. I heard a small snicker, and then a laugh, and then more, and more . Soon everyone was laughing. At that point I knew what I was doing there.”
Who inspired you to become a clown?
Jonathan had amazing opportunities to see and work with some of the great clowns of Ringling history that any clown today would be envious of. During clown college he only had Lou Jacobs teach for one week but was able to work with him in later years and had a great friendship. During college they went on a bus ride to Circus World in which he got to see the Clown Car Routine on the big Imax screen and actually see Lou Jacobs perform his hunting dog routine.
Here is an excerpt from his Trunk Storie Blog
“While we were there we met Lou Jacobs. Watching him do his hunting dog routine was like watching a living cartoon. Each movement so precise and clear. The story was told without words, and there was no doubt what he was telling us. Unlike later Clown Colleges we only had Lou a short time. He was still a big part of the show so they wouldn’t let him go for very long.”
Lou Jacobs was his mentor – One of Jonathan’s friends was Lou Jacobs who helped him with timing and presentation of being a clown. One of the gags that Jonathan does is called the Barrel gag and the barrel itself was passed down to Jonathan from Lou Jacobs, the barrel is over 100 years old and they don’t make them anymore, so it is very special and he still has it to this day.
Lou also showed Jonathan some spot gags (where you walk around and stop and interact with the audience) that are part of Character Clowning which is what he is know for to this day.
Here is a repost from Jonathan’s Blog Trunk Stories about the Barrel and walk around spot gags:
“Roll out the Barrel
It was my first year on the show. I was still doing the walk around with the big fish over me, and the levitation stop gag.
I was trying to find that special thing that would be all mine. We were allowed to experiment back then and try different things every day in the walkarounds, come in, or stop gags. This is how you learned.
Other than the production gags nothing else was set in stone . You also had the freedom to change your makeup until you found that perfect one. Sometimes this could take years.
Of course this was done under the supervision of Frosty and the other veteran clowns. This policy changed over the years. I suppose because of the passing of Lou Jacobs, Bobby Kaye, and Duane Thorpe. Together the three of them had over 100 years of experience. If they didn’t know about clowning who would?
Finally the retirement of Frosty Little who was Boss clown for 20 years. I can only speculate because that was during a time when I had left Ringling.
I was practicing my balancing and hat trick skills trying to come up with some different for a track gag. I would go out and try doing these things and nothing but applause was received from the audience. NO LAUGHS! Where do I get them? I was really getting frustrated about it.
Lou noticing my frustration came up to me one day holding a wooden hoop About 14″ in diameter. He said to me, ” Your doing some good tricks but they’re not funny.” After that he showed me the hoop and told me it was something I could add that would make it funny. Then he doubled up his 6′?” frame and slid through it as if it was nothing!
After that he showed me a few more tricks I would be able to do with it. He told me to take it and work with it, add it to what I was doing, and make it funny. He said I could do a whole act just with that hoop.
Immediately I started to take it out on the track and try it during the stop gags. I GOT LAUGHS! I continued to keep working at it the rest of the year. I liked getting those laughs.
When we got to winter quarters Lou showed up with a red barrel. He told me it used to be Kinkos barrel and he had it sitting around in his garage.
Kinko was a clown in the early part of the 20th century who used to do comedy contortion with it. His real name was Glenn Sundbery? Probably spelled wrong. I actually saw a drawing of Kinko using it at the turn of the century. Lou used it sometime in the thirties. He gave it to me in the seventies.
He told me that the tricks he showed me with the hoop could be done with the barrel and showed me how to do it. I created an act with it that eventually became my signature.
In fact, when Lou went to Clown College to teach, the show needed something to fill in for the little car gag. They asked me to do it. What an honor this was. Center ring in “The Greatest Show on Earth” all by myself! I sure made Lou proud.
In the 90’s I took a break from clowning and donated it to a small circus museum in Venice owned by Fred and Laura Landrum, along with all of my costumes. In 2000 I got it back from them because I was going back to Ringling. Shortly after that they both died and I heard everything was sold on Ebay! Someone was watching over me and that barrel, I think I know who it was.
I continue to do that gag today 35 years later. To this day, every time I do it I can still feel the spirit of Lou coaching me with his broken German accent and telling me to make it funny……”
Who do you give credit to in helping you advance your art in clowning?
At the time when Jonathan joined the Ringling show it was during a time that the show was transforming, as a result he was able to work with the old time tent clowns – Mark Anthony, Lou Jacobs, Bobbie Kaye, and Jim Howel. The main thing they taught him was that he learned it takes years and years to bring people into your world. So that the clowning is not a act or transformation your clown persona it is you, the clown you present to the public is the same clown you would be back behind the curtain.
Here is a great story from his blog Trunk Stories:
(Jonathan was brought back to Ringling to show the younger clowns “Character Clowning” cause the circus felt the clowns were lost something from the clowns of years gone by and seeing him might help them.)
“Back in 2000, when I returned to the show after 20 years, I expected some changes. Tim Holst had told me things had changed quite a bit, and to try not to be too surprised. Walking into the arena for the first time, I noticed there were huge numbers made out of tape laid out on the floor. What were these? We never had them in the past. I was soon to find out…
That first day of rehearsals was really full of surprises. After going through all the introductions, the director told us to line up at the Portal. The what? I looked around to see if I could figure out what was going on just by watching, but I had to ask what that was. “The back curtain…” I was told. The what? In my day, it was called the back door.
Then, the director gave us each a number and told us he wanted a clown bust out. A what? Another term I never heard before. So I just asked him what that was…
He began to explain to me that it was when all of the clowns would run out screaming and yelling and go to their number spot. Ohhhh okay. He told us we would do our skill in that spot. Our skill? I really didn’t do too much in the way of “skills”, but I sure knew how to be a clown.
The director asked each clown what was their particular skill. One clown said, “Balancing…” the next guy said “Juggling…” and he just went down the line until he got to me. He asked me and I thought about it for a moment… then said, “I read a newspaper…”
The director looked bewildered and said to me,”Thats no skill!” I had no other reply than, “The way I read one takes a lot of skill.” I knew that the director had no other choice but to give me the benefit of the doubt and let me show him. I figured with all of the chaos of the opening I would be subtle and read a newspaper. Now to me, THAT was clowning.
The first time we came out in rehearsal, I obliged this number system, and marched out to my number and started reading my paper. Yes sir, I was reading my paper and ignoring all that was going on around me. We did it again. This time I brought a chair with me and sat down to read my paper. We did it again, and this time I brought a chair and a table with a coffee cup. Yes, I sat down and drank the coffee and read my newspaper. This continued over and over, and every time I brought something more with me. And I read my newspaper…
I finally ended up coming out with a chair, a table, a coffee cup, coffee pot, an extension cord…and… my newspaper.
I set up the chair and table with the coffee pot and cup. Then I would get all caught up in the extension cord, fight that for a bit, then finally get loose from it. I would then look for a place to plug it in… all of this was going on during the Opening Parade. After I would finally get the cord plugged in, I would pour a cup of coffee offer it to an audience member. When they refused, I would sit down drink the coffee and… read my newspaper. This would continue until the opening was over.
It was obvious that the Director wasn’t used to this type of clowning. My how things had changed! After a lot of coaxing, he gave in and let me do it. Old fashioned Clowning prevailed…
Someone got a picture of my routine, and put it in the program. Ringling liked it so much they used it on their website for a number of years under Special Offers.
A few years later, that picture was used for some e-cards you could get for Valentine’s Day, and I was told that picture was the best selling one!
Again, old fashioned clowning prevailed. I was so pleased….”
Where did you receive training & where did you get your first big break?
Ringling Bros Clown College 8 weeks in 1974 Started with them right after college.
Ringling 1974- 1980 Kelly Miller Circus, and Barnum and Bailey Disney Ice Show and Jonathan had a show in Canada for a while.
Here is a great story from his blog Trunk Stories
” I guess you’ll find out tomorrow“
After 8 weeks of intensive training the day had finally arrived. The day we would present everything we had learned to Mr. Irvin Feld. We had learned all of the skills we needed and we were ready. Some had learned these things easier than others.I didn’t do too good in that area. I tried to juggle and got hit in the eye with a club so no more of that. Hovey decided it best I juggle scarves. Unicycle riding wasn’t so good either. I fell and scraped my ankles numerous times and figured it was not for me. I left that up to my room mate. He was outstanding on a unicycle and could do about anything on it.Instead Hovey found I was good at balancing objects. He called it vertical equilibristics Its the art of balancing various objects on your nose, chin, etc. This ended up being my main skill.There were some who really stood out. We had Dick Monday who had been a championship diver who did well in acrobatics and the trampoline. Steve LaPorte was a great stilt walker, along with Ruthie Chaddock. Ruthie was the first girl from Clown College to walk 6 foot stilts.
One day she had a nasty spill. While walking stilts backstage she fell. She went through the back curtain and cracked her head on the edge of the bandstand. She ended up with a big bruise right in the middle of her forehead the size of an orange. Despite having this happen she continued to work putting her makeup on around it. Way to go Ruthie! I never got past 4 footers myself.
Everyone had something to offer. Some just shined a little better than others. Despite my lack of skills I did have something else. Heart and desire. With these two things and a little perseverance I knew I could achieve my goal to become a clown.I was not too bad at sliding tables so I teamed up with Rick Davis and together this became our main gag. Besides all of the classic routines we had a lot of new ones too. Enough to fill a 2 hour show. Including Bill Irwin and Barry Lubin doing the ventriloquist, some great illusions with Dale Longmire and Bruce Guttilla, and Bill Irwins Spaghetti gag. Too many to list them all. Countdown. Makeup? check Costume? check Props? check. Everything seemed to be in order. Showtime! All the hard work had come down to this . Time to show our stuff.The local community was invited, along with some of the students parents . Enough to fill the house. Although we all wanted contracts with Ringling there were plenty of other opportunities. That diploma was like gold. You also had producers from other circuses there passing out cards. If you didnt get a contract for Ringling they would tell you to call the next day and you could go to work for them. Usually for more pay. There were a lot of other shows, and they all had Clown Alleys. There was also Circus World. We just wanted to be clowns!
After the gags came the big finale. A dance number set to the tune of Sanford and Son. Its still a hard song to listen to. I didnt do everything perfect but, I knew I had given it my best.
This is how it worked for contracts. Mr Irvin Feld would meet with the staff and decide who he would give contracts to. If you got called to the arena the next morning you knew you had a contract. After the show we had a reception in the pie car in the back of the arena. I was in the corner eating and thinking about going home when I looked down and saw a pair of shoes. Nice ones too! As I looked up, standing in front of me was Mr. Irvin Feld! He asked me, ” Do you like the circus?” My reply was, “Absolutley.” He then asked, ” Would you like to work for The Greatest Show on Earth?” I said, “Of course.” The last thing he said was,” I guess you’ll find out tomorrow.” and walked away.
What did he mean by that? It really got me thinking. I went back to the Villas and found my partner Rick Davis. Together we climbed on top of a semi trailer. It was there because of some construction that was going on at the Villas. We sat all night long talking about who we thought would get contracts and what we were going to do when we got home. I had already packed and was ready to go. As the sun came up we saw the van pull up. The driver got out I heard him calling my name and looking for me. I jumped down from that trailer and with four other people we were wisked off to the arena. I sat in the seats for what seemed like an eternity. And then I got called into the office. I was told I would be going on the new Bicentennial Show. I couldn’t believe my ears! Eleven of us went to the Red Show, and I believe five went on the Blue Show. I knew from that day on I truly was a clown.”
Back to Ringling in 2000 – was there for 7 years and over time saw more Character Clowns
Brought back to bring more character into the clowns.
2004 Ringling opened 1 ring shows The Gold show now. To go into smaller towns.
In Jonathans day Ringling had over 30 clowns for each Circus show, now they do 15 clowns per unit and maybe 30 clowns for the 3 main shows.
Are you still Clowning?
Every now and then Jonathan still clowns but really has settled into a stationary life with his wife. After so many years on the road it is nice to have a place to call home that does not end up in a new town each morning. He still keeps up with many of his clown pals through facebook and other media.
Not retired but taking it easy – Still does Special Engagements – local stuff – Still helps those who ask because of the travel he doesn’t go on the road anymore.
What kind of clown are you?
Auguste Clown with Tramp style movements – moves very slow – very methodical – every movement means something.
Below are the kinds of clowns and what their roles usually where in the various gags.
Auguste – Fall guy in most routines baggy clothes – usually
White face clown – straight man – doll clowns – very clean and bright colorful clown usually played the straight man – never took a slap, role of authority always wore gloves and any skin that was exposed was covered in white face. Ruffles and tight fitting outfits. The smart guy in the routines
Character Clown filled the void. Policeman or whatever is needed
Tramp clown considered a Character Clown.
Tell us about your particular clown image and how you decided on that look?
Here is a great story from his blog Trunk Stories
“What a face!
Makeup!!!!!! This was like hearing reveille in the military. Every morning we would get the call. You see they wanted us in makeup every day so that we would get used to it. Not only did we have to learn makeup, we learned to make noses out of latex rubber. What better people to teach makeup than Bobby Kaye and Keith Crary. Both of them were meticulous when it came to makeup and costume.
Bobby was a gentle man who was very receptive of the Clown College, and and what it meant for the future of clowning. He a true Master of his craft. He would take you under his wing and slowly nurture you along. Keith was a fun loving guy who never seemed to have a worry in the world. The precise way he put his makeup on was unbelievable. When he finished, it was if he measured each little mark on his face to exact size and shape, with the precision of an architect. He’s in Hollywood now has won many Emmys and other awards for his make up designs.
The first thing I needed to know was whiteface or auguste. The whiteface was a more magical sort of clown. The auguste was more of the fall guy. When I speak of the two types I’m speaking from a traditional sense, not todays standards. There was also a third type called the character. He wore very little makeup. This was one Irvin Feld didn’t particularly care for, so it wasn’t really pushed too much.
These days those lines aren’t as strict. In fact the whiteface is almost gone, and the character is more popular than ever. Funny how things change. The auguste seems to be hanging in there. We spent hours mugging in front of mirrors trying to find the shapes and wrinkles with different expressions, searching for that one unique look that was only yours. I had a hard time deciding which one was best for me. Whiteface? Auguste? Which one?
Noticing my frustration Bobby would calm me and assure me patience would win out. One morning he came in and told me he had dreamed of a makeup design that would work for me. It was white on the bottom blending to flesh on top. He painted the eyebrows on me with their familiar forlorn look. He also told me one should be short and one long. This is one thing which has never changed in 35 years. Thanks Bobby.
When it came to noses I always wanted a small ball nose about the size of a ping pong ball. As everyone was molding all of these fancy noses I tried to make a mold of a perfect round nose. As much as I tried I couldn’t get it too look right. Again frustration set in. Keith came to me and said, “Why don’t you just use a ping pong ball.” So I did.
The ball was thin and had an edge that would cut my nose. I decided to make a mold of my real nose. I could then just glue the ball over the latex piece. If you look closely you can see it in the picture. I still use the same look of a small round nose the size of a ping pong ball. Thanks Keith. Some things never change.”
Have you ever worked in a Circus and if so which ones? Do you have any great stories which you can share.
Yes, As I have mentioned I worked for Ringling twice.
Here is a great story about the first show and the preparation for it from the Trunk Stories blog:
Getting To Know You
After the graduation we had 10 days off until the rehearsals started. Most of the students went home. I had planned to go home also when I received a call from home informing me my mother had contacted glaucoma and was losing her eyesight. Worried that she might go blind by the time the show got to Denver the following October, they decided to come to Venice to watch the opening of the show. Fearing it might be last chance she would have to see me perform. It would be an expensive trip for them, so they couldn’t afford for me to come home.
I was lucky the train had just arrived in Venice and I was able to move right on to it. I was taken to the train by Charlie Smith the train master to show me my room. There was a door with a piece of masking tape that said ” Mitch Freddes, clown” Something about seeing my name there made me a feel really special. Charlie told me to go to a hardware store and get a padlock. Unlike today we each had our own lock and no one else could have access to your room . That first year my salary was 125.00 a week. We paid 7.00 a week for the train. This was to cover clean sheets and porter service. Funny, I don’t remember anyone who used the sheets.
We were also part of AGVA. Which stood for American Guild of Variety Artists. This was a union for many different kinds of artists. With the train fee and union dues I cleared 85.00 a week and was very happy. The Clown Car was empty as most people had gone home on the break. It was quiet and kind of had a ghostly feel to it. Although the room only measured 4 foot by 6 foot it was all you needed. At least it wasn’t a bunk, which is what I expected from seeing the movie “The Greatest Show On Earth”. No matter how small it was it was still my home.
About three days before rehearsals the other clowns started to arrive. The car started to fill and take on a new life. There was one room that was longer than the others. It was built for Richard Mann who was 6’7′ tall. To compensate for this the room next to it was a little bit shorter. This room belonged to Mike Padilla, one of our little people. There were ten rooms on both sides with a center hallway. On the end there was a kitchen with a stove and ten small refrigerators. Two of us would share each one of these. Right in the middle were three toilets and three sinks which we would all share. Very cozy! Richard Mann had gotten a bigger room on a different car so the tall room went to Dale Longmire who was also very tall.
The first day of rehearsals was one I will never forget. We all sat in the ring as Mr. Feld greeted everyone and welcomed us to the Winter Quarters. He then introduced the director Richard Barstow. He was a brilliant man who had been directing the show for 30 some years. He also was one of the most flamboyant characters I had ever met. As he grabbed the microphone he pointed at the band and they began to play. He started to sing and dance to the song “Getting To Know You.” As he went around the ring he would take us one at a time in front of every one and ask your name. Once you told him he would sing the song and walk with you all the way around the ring and have you shake hands with everyone. After this the rehearsals began. He always said I had calves eyes and loved to point it out to everyone. I still don’t know what he meant by that. For some reason he seemed to like me and always would always call me ” favorite.” He would say it in a kind of whiny voice which made me wonder what he really meant by it. I must say it was kind of irritating but, I loved the man.
Every time we would take a break he would come back with a whole new wardrobe. I always wondered where he kept all of those clothes! He never wore anything twice! As we started to put the clown routines together we had three types of gags we would use. Production gags involved all of the clowns in the ring we usually had two including the clown car. That first year in the car we had 18 clowns plus one driver and a two man giraffe inside a Datsun B-210. I was the back end of the giraffe. You have to start somewhere. The second type was a walkaround in which you would continuously walk around the track with some kind of sight gag. This was used as they set up the flying act. My first one was a giant foam rubber fish that fit over me leaving only my legs exposed. It was a man eating fish. I thought it was funny. The third was a stop gag which was a short gag usually about 2 or 3 minutes long. My first one was the levitation gag with Ruth Chaddock and Bruce Gutilla. I was the guy with the fake legs.
The clowns were always the first ones there and the last ones to leave. Always building props and rehearsing until sometimes midnight. About two weeks into it we would show Mr. Feld the gags that we had. We would show about 50 gags and maybe end up with 30. The show ran three hours plus the clowns worked 30 minutes before the show. We had a lot of spots to fill. That first year I made 13 different appearances every show. Three costume changes in the spec alone. This was the big production that would close the first half.
After one month of rehearsing we were finally ready to open. That first show would be especially important for me. This may be the only time my mother would ever get to see me perform. After all, it was her idea to begin with.
Has your clown image changed over the years?
Here is a great story about how the bulging cheeks got added to his character from his blog.
All this for $5.00 !
It was 1977 and it was time to present the new season’s gags to Mr. Feld. I was set to go; I had everything except a walkaround. I had no idea what I was going to do!
So on the day we had to present, I just happened to be out and about in Venice and I couldn’t resist stopping in to the local music store. I walked inside, and there hanging on the wall on display was a huge harmonica! My mind started working, the wheels started turning… I figured it was a great clown prop! I had to ask the guy if it was for sale, and he told me I could have it for $5.00! Of course I bought it. What clown wouldn’t buy a prop like that?
So after my day out shopping and scoring a massive harmonica, it was time to head to the arena to prepare for the evening events. I hadn’t even stopped to think about the walkaround I was expected to have that evening! I decided to head upstairs to the Attic, which is a sacred place above Clown Alley where old clown props are stored. I was looking for something… anything that I could use to get through the presentation! Nothing seemed to catch my eye.
Then it hit me! I’m thinking “HUGE HARMONICA!” But what could I do with it besides walk around with it? Think…think…think…
Then it started to come to me. I started to think about some every day clothes I wore almost daily: an old pair of overalls, and my oversize mountain climbing boots… Suddenly, an entire character was born! Adding a pillow in my belly was almost an afterthought, but it had to be…
At this point in time, Barry Lubin was doing Grandma, and he had a lot of whoopee cushions. Ideas, Ideas!! I asked him for one, split it open and put it on my head for a hat. At the very least, this character would look funny and hopefully I could get by with that.
Standing at my trunk, I glanced at the bag of ping pong balls I would use for noses. Hmmmm, could I put them in my mouth… play that giant harmonica… and when I pulled it away, my cheeks would remain puffed out? YES! I had my walkaround!
The presentation began and I was nervous about whether or not this would be enough. So often what seems funny to us, just doesn’t go over well. To me, it seemed pretty funny! I had great fun putting this character together! Now it was my turn to show it. I walked out with the harmonica in front of my mouth sat on the ring curb and started to rock out to the music. I really went at it stomping my feet and dancing around. I waited for a break in the music and just at the right moment I pulled the harmonica away and wiped my brow. I looked up to see Mr. Feld, and he was laughing hysterically! It actually worked! I knew I had succeeded…
This character became very popular and in the following years I would do it more and more in the show. It really worked well for the seats in Come In. With this character, I could do almost anything and get away with it! At the time, I didn’t know what I had started but I knew it worked and I was having a blast doing it!
Fast forward to 2000: Tim Holst called me to the office in Palmetto to settle the contract for that coming season. He specifically asked me if I still did the character with the ping pong balls. I told him I did every once in a while but not all of the time. “Well, we want you to do it all the time.” Holst said. I wasn’t sure I could, but told him I would sure give it a try.
He handed me the contract to sign. When I read through it, it said, “Jonathan Freddes, clown with ping pong ball in mouth character.”
Wow! All the time? I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. It felt great that a character I had made up on a whim had been so successful and they wanted him all the time, but there’s a lot of pressure in doing that kind of thing. It didn’t take long to figure out that doing it all the time was quite painful with regular sized ping pong balls. I had to do a lot of experimenting until I found something I could use that was less painful. I won’t even tell you what I finally found that worked. That’s my secret!
For the next seven years it was written exactly like that in my contract. All of this, for $5.00!
Having experienced life in Clown Alley – what was it like?
Here is a excerpt from Jonathan’s blog about the 1st year and the amazing clowns he worked with.
For me Clown Alley was not just the place where the clowns dressed. It was also the people. Each one with his own special character. We had our own community within the area hidden behind those curtained walls.
As a “first of may” I couldn’t have a more receptive group of people. We still had a lot of the people around from the Big Top days that welcomed us and try to steer us in the right direction.
First of all we had Lou Jacobs. He was a quiet man who would sit at his trunk with his three dogs. Knucklehead, Buffy, and PeeWee.
You didn’t hear him too much except for when he would see you having a hard time doing a gag. He was always there for advice and always would have solution to your problem. After all he had been on the show 50 years and seen everything.
When asked if he thought something was funny he would reply, ” Did the people laugh?” If you said,”Yes.” he would come back with,” Well, than it’s funny!”
If a gag had a lot of useless jumping around he referred to it as “Spaghetti.” He was a master at simplifying movement so everything was clear and simple to the audience. In clowning every gag tells a story. If there’s too much movement its like reading a story in a different language. You won’t understand it.
He was doing his little car routine that year on the show. I got chosen to help take care of it. This was a real honor for me as a young clown.
In the movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” he worked along side Jimmy Stewart who played the clown “Buttons.” One year we played Hollywood and Mr. Stewart came into the alley. He walked over to Lous trunk and said,” Hello Lou.” Lou looked up from his trunk and said, “Hello Buttons.”
There was also Duane Thorpe. He was known as “Uncle Soapy.” I’ve heard many different stories for the name and, since I don’t know the real story, I cant tell you why. He was always coming up with funny sayings such as” Who hit Nellie in the belly with a flounder!” Or, ” Who hired her.” These would always make us laugh and keep things happy. Towards the end of the season he would always say,”Save your money its a short season.” How right he was.
He had been a dancer on Broadway before joining the show. When we played New York he would always invite Bobby Short to the show. They knew each other from working on Broadway together .
Afterwards we would all go out and listen to Bobby play at a club. This would be the only time I saw him take his makeup off at the building. The rest of the time he took it off at the train. I noticed he always carried a bunch of newspaper in his trunk and often wondered why. I found out my first time in New York. To take the makeup off he used baby oil. So to keep it off the floor he would spread the newspapers all around his trunk!
Mike Padilla was Lous partner. He was a little person from Argentina that spoke very little English. Even though he didn’t speak well you could tell what he meant just by his movements.
Every night he would rush back to the train and cook a huge steak, take it to his room, close the door and watch tv. You would always hear him laughing inside his room. One time he forgot to close the door completely. I walked by and peeked in to see what was so funny. There was no picture, only sound. He had taken a sharpie pen and drawn stick figures on the screen and was laughing at them hysterically!
Frosty Little was our boss. He had come from the first Clown College in 1968. He ran a really tight ship. He would set up the alley so that everyone was next to someone they got along with.
Frosty had a fascination with the Vikings who referred to heaven as “Valhalla” So where all of the veterans sat in the alley was always called ” Valhalla”
The elephants were trained in German and the word for move was “Hatre” Frosty liked this word and had his own version. He would always say “Hotterini” He would say this when he really needed us to move. It was also used as a greeting or whatever else he wanted it to mean. Just an all around word used within the alley.
He was our go between management and the alley. There were numerous times he would go to bat for us. They trusted his judgement and he would usually win out.
Dougie Ashton was another veteran. He was from a very famous Australian circus family. Very funny man both inside and outside the ring. He wore Charlie Chaplain style makeup and was famous for a striptease routine that would have you rolling on the floor!
He started off the season with a brand new mirror. One day he dropped it and it shattered. He just picked up the biggest piece and continued to makeup. A few towns later he dropped that piece and broke it. Again he picked up the biggest piece. This continued to happen over and over until there were no more big pieces left. at this point he went to wardrobe and got a small round mirror off of one of the costumes. It couldn’t have been more than 1/2″ in diameter. This is what he used for the rest of the season to put his makeup on.
These are a few of the characters I was fortunate to work with that first year. All masters and all very unique people.”
Do you have bits that are standard in the clown world or do you create your own acts?
I do several acts…Barrel Act, Table Rock with a partner, in 80’s he did the Table rock act on his own, Fishing act,
Elephant leaps – jumping over Elephants using a spring board, Trampling Act with his son.
Do you use props? If so do you make them yourself?
Jonathan makes all his props and and his costumes. That was taught by the old time clowns – all learned how to sew.
Is there video we can watch of you on the web acting as a clown for us to enjoy?
Lots on YouTube
Do you have any clown wisdom to pass on to fellow younger clowns who are starting out in the business?
Be Patient it will all come together. That is something that Lou use to always stressed to all of the younger clowns… It doesn’t come all at once. Patients and time – don’t rush it. Clowning is about Life.
Took 10 years until Jonathan was finally settled into what his character came into be.
When you’re designing your outfit and character you have to create a total package – compete picture.
If you can say one word that summed up all your years of clowning – what would it be? *************Glorious*****************
I hope you have enjoyed this post about another wonderful clown.
Until next time. Happy Clowning!
Thanks to Jonathan for all his help in creating this blog. I hope this was an accurate portrayal of this amazing clown.
Patty Sue O’Hair –Vicknair Clown Artist
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