Joseph Grimaldi – The Big Clown Daddy

Maybe you love clowns and maybe they give you the creeps. Either way, you can thank this guy:

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Joseph Grimaldi was an English actor, dancer, comedian and was the most popular performer of the Regency era. He is most famous for his portrayal of clowns, so much so that the word “Joey,” the name Grimaldi gave his character, was synonymous with the word clown for many years throughout England.

As is true of many comedic performers, Grimaldi’s early life was challenging to say the least. He was born in one of London’s slums; his mother a theatre dancer and father a popular performer who was such a philanderer that he fathered at least 10 children by three different women and divided his time between two of the households.

Young Grimaldi’s father trained him to perform and, by the age of three, he was performing onstage with his father, sometimes playing a young clown and at others playing strange sidekick roles including that of his father’s pet monkey. When Grimaldi was only nine years old, his father died, making him the main breadwinner for his mother and siblings. The Drury Lane Theatre, where he’d performed regularly with his dad, gave him the substantial salary of £1 per week, which was considerably higher than the three shillings per week he was paid at another theatre.

Around that time, the big clown in London was an acrobatic singer and strongman from France named Jean-Baptiste Dubois. Grimaldi worked as his assistant, though he would later deny that he’d ever been his student. Perhaps influenced by Dubois, Grimaldi’s performances improved and, by the mid-1790s, he was getting rave reviews. He also married the daughter of the owner of the Sadler Wells theater, which proved a wise business choice.

Drury Lane’s pantomime in 1800 featured not one but two clowns, which were to be portrayed by Grimaldi and Dubois. A new kind of clown costume was designed for them to wear: large, colorful diamonds and polka dots adorned with ruffs and golden tassels replaced the usual tatty servant costumes. The design was highly touted by critics and were soon copied throughout London and beyond. More important, Grimaldi received better reviews than Dubois and was favored by the audiences, making him the top clown of the London stage.

Later that year, sadness returned when Grimaldi’s wife and child died in childbirth. To cope with his grief, he threw himself into his work. Within a year he was a regular performer at the Covent Garden Theatre and at his father-in-law’s theatre in Essex. He also appeared in provincial theaters, earning as much as £150 per night, a far cry from the £1 per week of his youth.

By 1802, life was improving. Grimaldi was remarried and his life seemed stable. He returned to Sadler’s Wells to perform in their Easter pantomime and, for the occasion, designed a new look for his clown character “Joey.” He covered his face and neck in white then added thick eyebrows, bright red triangles on his cheeks and big, red lips painted in a permanent, mischievous grin. Scholars have declared the design one of the most important designs of the 1800s.

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Unfortunately, the falls and pranks of being a clown performer took its toll on Grimaldi, who retired from the stage in 1823. He used alcohol to ease his pain and became an alcoholic. When he died in 1837, he was broke.

Though most people no longer know the name Joseph Grimaldi, his influence is seen on the face of every clown performing in circuses, walking in parades or scaring the bejeesus out of children today.



About Doc Davis's Baggy Pants

Doc Davis is a college professor and author of books on Burlesque and Baggy Pants Comedy. He appears regularly as half of the Doc & Stumpy comedy duo. His latest book, "The Delicate Art of Pie Throwing" is nearing completion.
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