A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Are clown faces registered by painting them on eggs?

October 31, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

I have a vague recollection from childhood of reading that circus clowns registered the design of their facial makeup. This was accomplished by decorating an egg and submitting it to some sort of central repository. I've tried to find the Straight Dope on the internet and the local library but I haven't succeeded so I turn to the source of all knowledge. Is this true? If it was ever true is it still true today? And how is (was) this administered or enforced?

Yes, it's true. A clown doesn't have egg on his face; he has his face on an egg. The tradition began in the U.K. around 1946 at what was then the International Circus Clowns Club but is now called Clowns International. (Their motto: "Pro funnibono publico.") A member named Stan Bult started recording clown images on chicken eggs with the insides blown out. It started as a hobby, and, like many hobbies, it just grew. According to Clown Bluey, current secretary of Clowns International, the Club did not have a fixed location, so Mr. Bult kept his collection at home, occasionally loaning it out for show, such as at the 1951 Centenary Exhibition of the Crystal Palace.

The collection continued to be lent out after Mr. Bult's death but sadly most of the eggs were destroyed in an accident at one such exhibit around 1965. (The story is that a restaurant allowed some workers in to do some remodelling and failed to secure or save the eggs.)

Clown Bluey became chairman of Clowns International in 1984 and resurrected Mr. Bult's practice of recording clown members' faces on eggs. This time a professional artist was used and the faces were painted on china-pot eggs instead of chicken eggs. Over the years, many of the lost older eggs have been reproduced, and new eggs are added frequently.

The current U.K. egg artist is Kate Stone, from Bournemouth, and the collection is housed in Hackney, London. As of December 1, 2002, it will be relocated to the All Saints Centre, Livermere Road, Haggerston, London.

According to Clowns International, "The eggs are not just a record of the clown's facial makeup, but an actual portraiture in miniature." In addition to paint, Mrs Stone uses samples of the clown's costume material and wig-hair to produce an eggs-act match. A photo of the egg collection may be seen at the Clowns International website, www.clowns-international.co.uk

That's the U.K. collection. About twenty years ago, the clown egg tradition made its way over here.  Leon "Buttons" McBryde was a clown with Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus who had heard about the British practice of registering clown makeup using eggs. He and his wife Linda eventually met the caretaker of the British clown egg registry, and around 1979 started a similar registry for clowns in the U.S. This collection now includes over 600 eggs, covering clowns of all types from around the world. Linda McBryde is the artist and co-creator of the registry.

In the U.S. collection, the faces are eggs-pertly hand-painted on goose eggs (more durable than chicken eggs), and decorated with various materials (such as clay, wire, felt, tiny flowers, glitter, etc.) to obtain as accurate a representation of the clown face and costume as possible.

Though not an official registry, the collection is meant to preserve the uniqueness of each clown's face makeup. Quoting from the Department of Clown Registry information sheet: "It is an unwritten law among clowns that one must never copy the face of another." Linda McBryde told us, "Although this is not a legal institution, the collection is a record of the person's name, the makeup design, and the date it was submitted. In one case that I know of, a person used the registry in a court case in which someone was infringing on his makeup design."

The U.S. egg collection was housed at the International Clown Hall of Fame until 1997 when that organization moved from Delavan, Wisconsin, to its current location in Milwaukee. Sadly, there was no longer room to display the eggs--must have been eggs-asperating. (OK, I'll stop now.) The eggs are currently in storage near the McBryde home in Virginia. Pictures of the collection, however, can be seen at the International Clown Hall of Fame, about which more below.

The only TV show that I've been able to find that involved clown-eggs is an episode of the old Avengers, with Patrick McNee. Thanks to DRumm for locating this website http://theavengers.tv/forever/king-10vr.htm which describes the episode. A very very young John Cleese plays the curator of the clown-egg museum.

THE INTERNATIONAL CLOWN HALL OF FAME

That answers the original question, but I feel obliged to share our wonderful adventures in doing the research. Some research is dull and dry, but this was a joy--I'm still on a high from it. In fact, I'm writing this while humming along with Cole Porter's delightful song, "Be a Clown."

The research took me to the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My wife said, "You want to go WHERE?" but dutifully came along and enjoyed herself immensely.

The International Clown Museum is small but marvelous, advertising itself as the only museum in the world devoted entirely to clowns. There are several rooms full of pictures of famous clowns in history, costumes, posters, memorabilia, props, oversized clown shoes, and similar artifacts of clownery, e.g., the "amazing boneless chicken"--an egg. You can see videos of clown performances (such as Emmett Kelly's famous sweeping-the-spotlight act) and bios of inductees into the International Clown Hall of Fame. And you can buy red clown noses, among other things, at the gift shop. We did. I'll never take mine off.

Since 1987, the ICHOF has inducted over 50 professional clowns, including such famous names as Red Skelton, Emmett Kelly, Lou Jacobs, Bob "Clarabell" Keeshan, Roy "Cooky" Brown, Bob "Bozo" Bell, and many others, both living and historical. Leon "Buttons" McBryde, who founded the U.S. clown egg registry, is an inductee. Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp, was inducted into the ICHOF in 2001.The ICHOF also bestows an annual "Lifetime of Laughter Achievement Award" on notables such as Willard Scott (who played both Bozo and Ronald McDonald for a time) and Meadowlark Lemon (the "Clown Prince of Basketball" with the Harlem Globetrotters). The ICHOF has files on inductees and other famous professional clowns.

Kathryn O'Dell, executive director of the ICHOF and an expert on clowning, gave us a guided tour and shared some of her insights. Her bottom line: "People need to laugh." Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it sure helps.

Clowning is the world's oldest entertainment profession, dating back to ancient Greece. Clowning transcends race, religion, and gender. Kathryn told us there have been female clowns in the U.S. since the 1930s, and the museum displays a rare photo of Bert Williams (1874-1922), an African-American inductee in the ICHOF.

The ICHOF, a nonprofit organization, is involved in many projects outside the museum. It sponsors regular visits by professional clowns to the Children's Hospital as well as programs for troubled teens, teaching them how to make balloon animals and dress up as clowns to entertain the elderly. 

The museum is trying to find larger space and a permanent home. If you can't get to their location in the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee, there's a ton of information at their website at www.clownmuseum.org including a history of clowning and a description of the different types of clowns.

The high point of our visit was meeting Joe Vani, who stopped in at the Clown Museum that afternoon. Joe was a professional clown from 1937 until his retirement in 1978. Let me rephrase that--Joe IS a professional clown, and has been in the business since 1937, although he retired in 1978.

At the peak of his career, he was teamed with the late Chester Sherman as the "Sherman Brothers" (both Joe and Chester were inducted into the ICHOF in 1995). Their costumes are prominently displayed at the museum, in all their bright red plaid glory.

Joe said becoming a clown wasn't easy. He spent almost 20 years learning the art as an apprentice. The Sherman Brothers worked mostly at the Medina Circus, but spent lots of time entertaining at hospitals throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

He recalled one of their most popular acts: a clown steals hot dogs from a clown vendor and gobbles them down, then gets sick and has his stomach pumped by clown doctors and out comes a little dog! The audience cheers, the clowns bow and walk offstage, followed by the dog walking on its hind legs.

Joe is now 89 years young and still clowning around. He regularly takes underprivileged children to the circus. He can't do pratfalls anymore although he would if he could. He may need a walker, but his stories soar. His vision may be weak, but there's a twinkle in his eye. He wanted to make us laugh, and he did.  The conversation was a delight.

We briefly discussed the fact that some people dislike and even fear clowns. Damn Stephen King. Perhaps the make-up and costumes and frenetic motion are a turn-off to some children, who carry their dislike into adulthood. Heck, there are kids who are scared of Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse. But most people love clowns and the laughter they bring.

Yes, it's silly. No, it's not the sophisticated wit of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, or for that matter the crass humor of Something About Mary or George Carlin. Don't get me wrong--those things are funny too. But clown humor is more basic, more vital, more direct. Perhaps more surreal, more child-like. And usually visual rather than verbal, so that clown acts transcend languages and cultural barriers.  Clowns run in circles and fall on their faces. A dozen of them emerge from a tiny clown car. Pablo Picasso once said, "The painful simplicity, the childlike-ness of the clown strikes a chord in the adult. It takes a long while to become young."

I asked Joe if there were anything special he would like me to say about clowning. He grinned from ear to ear and said, "Write whatever you want, even if it's a total lie, as long as it gets a laugh."

Then he hit me with a fish.

No, I made up the fish part.

We cherish our meeting with Joe.  It was one of those heartwarming, entertaining moments that remind us of the importance of laughter--at all ages. My mother is several years older than Joe, and our meeting with him reminded me that one of the greatest gifts I can give her is laughter.  Our thanks to Joe and to Kathryn O'Dell and the staff at the ICHOF for their kindness and enthusiasm. 

As our visit drew to a close, we asked Kathryn what distinguished a clown from a comedian. Her reply: "Perhaps Red Skelton put it best. He said, 'A comedian makes fun of the audience. A clown makes fun of himself. [Pause for dramatic effect.] I'm a clown.'"

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