The Greatest Show loses the greatest clown on earth

September 16, 1992|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

Close your eyes and try to imagine a circus clown.

More than likely, the image that comes to mind has a pointy egg-shaped head, with protruding red hair at the sides and a tiny hat atop its bald peak, a giant grease-painted smile and huge black-striped eyebrows plunging into a bulbous red nose.

The baggy-pants clown in that image is Lou Jacobs, who made a world of circus fans laugh for six decades before his death Sunday, at age 89, in Sarasota, Fla.

While a circus spokesman reported the cause of death was heart failure, it's hard to imagine that a clown's heart can fail just like any other.

He may have been the world's most famous clown, immortalized not only by his unique image on countless thousands of Ringling Bros. circus posters, but also on a 1966 U.S. Postal Service stamp. Presidents have to be dead before that happens.

Sure, other clowns are near and dear to our memories. For me, they include the likes of the late Emmett Kelly sweeping a broom at his shadow, and Otto Griebling, in his tramp costume, sitting ++ down in a well-chosen female lap or rousing a crowd by banging on pie tins.

But Lou Jacobs -- who delighted Baltimore audiences every two years as a star of the Ringling Bros. "Red Unit" show -- outlasted them all.

"Few people have ever lived who brought so much pleasure to so many people," said circus president Kenneth Feld.

Born Jacob Ludwig in Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1903, one of eight children born to song-and-dance-team parents, his first stage appearance came as a child, contorted into the tail end of an alligator costume.

He arrived in the United States in 1923, with hardly a word of English in his vocabulary, and moved in with an uncle who ran a New York delicatessen.

A Billboard magazine ad for a tumbling act was Mr. Jacobs' entry point in American show business. After a year on tour, he joined the Michael Morris comedy contortion act -- performing stunts atop a "broomstick" trapeze bar, he recalled in Baltimore in a 1981 interview.

Morris was under contract to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, so Mr. Jacobs found himself playing New York's original Madison Square Garden with the show in 1925. He was hired as a clown that year by John Ringling and, with the exception of a few years in the 1950s playing with other circuses, began a lifelong association with the "Greatest Show on Earth."

In Cecil B. DeMille's Oscar-winning movie of the same name, Mr. Jacobs makes a cameo appearance to teach the tools of his trade to actor Jimmy Stewart as "Buttons the Clown."

Notable among Mr. Jacobs' famous gags is the miniature motorized car, from which his contorted, 6-foot, 1-inch frame would emerge -- giant foot first. He tooled around the hippodrome track in a motorized bathtub, and played the frantic mother in a burning house who throws the baby into the flames before jumping into a safety net.

Mr. Jacobs shared the spotlight for many years with some remarkable performing dogs -- the most notable a female Chihuahua named Knucklehead trained to portray a rabbit in a hilarious hunting skit.

In a hunter's hat and vest, Mr. Jacobs would aim a blunderbuss as the rabbit sat up on hind legs. At the gun's thundering shot, Knucklehead would fall over dead -- but as quickly as Mr. Jacobs could lift the "rabbit" by its costume ears and stuff it in his basket, Knucklehead would slip through a hole and steal the scene.

Mr. Jacobs retired from his performing life in 1985 but, until 1991, continued teaching at the Ringling Bros. Clown College in Florida, where he was a founding professor.

He is survived by a circus family that includes his wife, Jean Rockwell, whose brief career as an aerialist ended in a 1948 fall from the trapeze; two daughters, Lou Ann Barreda and Dolly Jacobs of Sarasota, both of whom have been star circus aerialists, and a granddaughter.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the First United Methodist Church in Sarasota.

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