Paul T. Gilbert

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the stories: Snake CharmerArthur Borella, ClownThe Flying WardsReporter in TightsElephant TrainerTight WireDress Rehearsal

Amateur Clown Gets a Thrill at the Circus

—Paul T. Gilbert, from the Chicago Evening Post, April 11, 1921

If you had attended the performance of the Sells-Floto circus at the Coliseum yesterday you might have noticed the presence of a new and exceptionally funny clown.

This newest addition to the ranks of mirthdom was no other than me. I had gone only with the intention of interviewing Arthur Borella, the famous "Here's me" clown, but found him too busy and excited to talk.

"We're all up in the air over the opening," he said. "None of us knows quite where we're at just yet. In a week or two we'll be adjusted, but today I haven't had time to eat—only a sandwich. But come on with the act. I've got an extra suit, and I'll have Earl Shipley make you up."

With that he dragged me inside the canvas partition which fenced off the men's dressing room.

"Wait here a minute," he said. "Gotta go on now. See you later."

I found myself talking to a clown with huge false feet. He had to keep shifting them all the time to keep people from stepping on them.

"Ah hope that mule behaves all right," he said in a soft southern voice. "She's a new mule and isn't broken in yet. Gee, Ah'd give 30 cents fo' a cigaret."

Acrobats were returning from the ring flushed and panting after their exertions. The girls who appeared in the posing act were going out, dabbing the white powder on their noses. There was one new girl who didn't know where she belonged. Around me was a motley group of clowns, one gowned in the "latest Paris styles."

"Haven't you any call boy?" I asked one of them.

"Call boy?" he grinned. "Never heard of one. You see, everything's confusion now. But after we get used to it, the music is our cue. We can sit around and play cards or smoke, and know by what the band is playing whether the equestrian act is on and when we have to get ready."

I didn't recognize Borella when I saw him next. He was dressed in an exaggerated Scotch highland uniform and was tooting a cornet.

"Be ready right after the clown band act," he said. "I'll have five minutes then between changes."

On his return he escorted me back thru the long rows of trunks and hat trees. A lady clown, stripped to the waist, was trying to get into his corset. A human frog removed his head and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. Dress suits, ball gowns, tights, riding habits hung from the hat trees. Other costumes of all the colors of the rainbow were piled in confusion on chairs. The clowns, peering into tiny looking-glasses, were smearing their faces with makeup.

Borella burrowed into his trunk—it seemed to contain a little of everything—and fished out a ridiculous checked suit.

"Hang your coat on that chair," he said, "and put these on." Then he pulled off his wig, shed his Scotch highland uniform, and stepped into a pair of baggy pantaloons.

"Fine!" he continued, as I fastened my own costume with a safety pin. "Now you'll have to excuse me for a minute. Earl Shipley here will make you up."

Shipley proved to be a pleasant, chalk-faced fellow dressed like a rube sheriff. He handed me a tin of salve, the label on which read "Majolica clown white, 75 cents."

"Just smear it all over your face," he directed. "Be careful you don't get it in your hair. Now take this lipstick and paint a red strip right across your nose, and make a mouth—just like mine."

I did so.

"That's a fine mouth," he said, "though you've made a bad daub on your cheek."

Then he handed me some shoe blacking, with the instruction to stick my fingers in it and make two dots over my eyes.

"Now take this stick," he went on, "and draw two straight lines of black from the corners of your eyes—like tear drops."

Borella returned just then and pronounced the effect satisfactory. "All right," he said briskly. "Now bend over."

I gazed at him distrustfully. Bending over was just the thing I had been warned against. But he seemed so serious and innocent that I took a chance. "You are now what they call a greasy old clown," he told me, as he made another dive into that all-containing trunk. "This is puff. It's just talcum powder. Bend over and dab it all over your face."

As I straightened up, he grasped me by the hand. "Now you're one of us," he said. "Welcome to the fraternity of the puff club."

I glanced into the tiny mirror and felt like Alice in Wonderland. It was the first time a looking-glass had deceived me. From the glazed surface a ridiculous white and black face peered out. I had completely lost my identity. A man passing around meal tickets handed me one. The performers all seemed to take me for granted. Even Mr. Floto shook hands with me.

We were to go on in the bolshevik act. "You follow this bomb thrower," instructed my coach. "Just jump around and yell and act like a 'red.'"

I made my way out among a jumble of trained ponies, performing seals and a boxing kangaroo.

Suddenly there was a flash of sparks. The clown I had been assigned to follow was lighting up a wicked looking bomb.

I didn't pause. I ran after another clown who bore a label on his back: "Girls, follow me. I'm single."

A moment later I was capering around the arena. From somewhere came a loud explosion. I dodged only in time to escape a shower of tin cans from the roof.

I turned and capered in the opposite direction. I had lost the bunch by this time, and was all alone down at the far end of the Coliseum. A riding act was coming on. Panic-stricken, I rushed back breathless to the dressing room.

"Well, you did fine," exclaimed Borella. "A lot better than some fellows who get paid for it. What! Taking off your wig already? Why, I thought you'd go on with us in our walk-around."