Friday, January 24, 2014

Object of the Day: A Scrap of Joey the Clown

A young man goes to see his doctor to report that he is overcome by a terrible sadness and doesn't think anything will assist him. 
The doctor says, "Why not do something happy, like going to see Grimaldi the clown?". 
The young man answers, with a knowing look, "Ah, but Doctor", he says, "I am Grimaldi." 
                                    --Popular English Joke, circa 1820 

Joseph Grimaldi
John Cawse, pre-1862

Here’s Joey. Readers of this site are familiar with Joey the Clown as a puppet figure who acts as Mr. Punch’s friend, and sometimes, the master of ceremonies of the show. Joey even serves occasionally as Punch’s conscience, but, mostly, he revels in tormenting and egging on Old Red Nose.

But, why is the famed puppet clown so named? Joey, in the Punch and Judy tradition, is an homage to the original Joey the Clown—the pantomime creation of performer Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) who is credited as the creator of the “white face” clown which is the archetype for all modern clowning.

Grimaldi entered the theatrical world at the age of three—the son of a performer and his mistress. Within a few years, he was wowing audience with his acrobatic performances and comic antics. Truly, Joseph Grimaldi was the father of clowning as we know it, and, certainly, one of the most important figures in the development of Pantomime.

Joseph Grimaldi was also the first “sad clown.” His life was, in large part tragic. After his father’s passing, he dealt with terrible poverty. Later, the loss of his first wife in childbirth clouded Grimaldi’s life and led him to alcoholism. A popular joke of the 1820s—see above—makes the depression of the man behind Joey quite clear.

And, so, because of this, Red Skelton made a second career scaring generations of people with paintings of sobbing clowns.

Nevertheless, Grimaldi’s later years were marked by more sorrow as he lost the ability to walk due to the torture he’d inflicted upon himself with his often-dangerous physical comedy. He was forced to retire, and, upon doing so, quickly became impoverished. Benefits were held in his honor, but it didn’t help. As his own son died from alcoholism, Joseph Grimaldi died as well. His last wish was to be decapitated before burial because of a lifelong fear of being buried alive. Well, that would have done the trick.

But, clowns are fun! Yes? 

Click image to enlarge.

This scrap from the 1860s-1890s is teeny tiny. It was stuck in with a bunch of ephemera which I recently bought and, at first, I almost didn’t notice it. If he’s not Joey the Clown, he’s certainly one of the many who were inspired by Grimaldi—complete with Joey’s trademark wig and makeup. I like to think he’s Joey, at least. And, so, we devote today’s Punch-Friday to Mr. Punch’s friend and sometimes tormentor, Joey the Clown, and his creator, Joseph Grimaldi.

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