Travels in Clownland: Part 2
4. The Garden of Unearthly Delights, and ‘jizzing the gag’
The next night I walked down the pathways between old gum trees, garlanded and festooned with coloured lights, towering over the bars and coffee stalls, attractions and amusements. This is the Garden of Unearthly Delights.
In front of me was an old Spiegeltent dated 1908. It was a wooden structure built for travelling, packing down and setting up easily. It was decorated with stained glass and the interior was rich with mirrors and velvet, turned brass poles and chandeliers.
This one is a little plainer than most. It looks as if it has had a harder life. This speigeltent is called le Cascadeur, named for the stunt clown, the slapstick, the clown that falls down, the doer of falls. It’s a difficult art. It not only takes an acrobatic body and mentality, and a tendency to bounce rather than bruise, but also a purity of focused intention. There is nothing less convincing than someone who is not surprised by an accident.
The Cascadeur was originally part of the Bosco Theatre, another Speigeltent that has been in the Garden of Unearthly Delights for many years. In the 1930s the original owners sent the back half of the Bosco away to have a new roof made for it, but then couldn’t pay the roof-maker, who then confiscated that half of the tent for the unpaid bill, made a new front and called it the Cascadeur.
The Bosco and the Cascadeur wandered around Europe like separated Siamese twins for many years. The Bosco made it to Australia and was bought by Scott Maidment, whose company Strut n Fret founded the Garden of Unearthly Delights. A few years later Scott was told by a couple of magicians that there was a tent very like the Bosco that might be for sale, and so the two tents were brought back together as separate venues, co-incidentally on their hundredth year anniversary, here in the Garden of Unearthly Delights.
This year the Garden has eleven venues, one hundred and four different shows, and the doors will open for audiences to enter over twelve hundred times. Thousands of people will come through those front gates. This is one of the places where Clowns work.
But … before we go inside the Cascadeur I have a confession to make.
Come closer. I need to whisper.
I may have caught fear of clown.
I have just been to see a Fringe show, performed by a ‘clown’ and I wriggled and wanted to leave and felt quite claustrophobic. Then I went with friends to another Fringe venue outside the Garden, but didn’t get any further than looking at the program full of falsely shy, yet somehow pompous and contrived, explanations of shows that sounded more like workshop exercises than entertainment, with cute pictures of a whimsical nature of people doing not very much.
I feel a distinct aversion and a lurking claustrophobia at the thought of seeing a clown show. It sounds like Fear of Clown, doesn’t it?
That’s going to be inconvenient, possibly even disastrous, given the quest we are on. I’m sure it’s not contagious, but I don’t even want to say the word. For this trip, this treasure hunt, however, I will have to summon up a bit of courage and give it one more go. Otherwise this is going to be a very short book.
Inside the Cascadeur a good-looking young man, twenty-five years old, acrobatic, charismatic, dressed in the style of the thirties, wants to show us a romantic film, but nothing is going right. The character is quite clumsy and the props seem to want to destroy themselves and prevent him from achieving his aim. It’s an escalation of problems, and his attempts at solutions only complicate things further and the twists and turns of this clown’s mind, the wilfulness of his props, and the further problems thus created, kept me and everyone else in the tent entertained until the finish. The show is called ‘Kaput’. The clown is Tom Flanagan.
I could now say the word ‘clown’ without wanting to throw up or run away. My brain felt like it had been cleaned by an hour spent in simple and surprised delight. This is not ‘circus clown’ or ‘party clown.’ This is clown descended from those old silent movies.
Tom Flanagan was a student of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, which is a school in Albury on the border between New South Wales and Victoria, where selected students undertake a high level program of circus skills, often with Russian and Chinese trainers.
Traditionally, circuses often rested up in Albury to use the skilled wagon makers and have equipment made or fixed. A clown – Micky Ashton – decided to stay, and a circus school developed around him. The school has also contributed in a major way to the development of new circus in Australia by opening its doors once a year to professional adult artists to train with their trainers.
Tom said ‘The Flying Fruit Flies taught me how to be an acrobat, but not really how to be a clown. There are different journeys for everyone. I had to find it. I had to find it by meeting people. Derek Ives, Captain Frodo, Mooky Cornish, Gareth Bjaaland, and those friends who inspired me to be funnier, and clown more. Hanging out putting up the tent and stuff – that’s how you learn things.
‘I learnt a lot from Mooky Cornish (a Canadian Clown who performed with Cirque du Soliel). She taught me to slow down. She’d say “man, I’d hate to have sex with you, you’d jizz all over my face before my pants were off, you just blow your load every time. Chill the fuck out and let the audience see what you’re going to do before you jizz the gag all over them.” ‘
‘Why do you do it?’ I asked – not “jizzing the gag”, but the show itself.
‘People laughing is the best, and it’s the best thing for people I think.’
‘What do you think is the essence of Clown?’ I asked him.
‘I think Clowns need an objective and an obstacle. You’ve got your objective, and you get to that objective the most far afield way you can. That’s what every great clown has got. He has got an objective and a problem, or rather a lot of problems, and he just fails along the way, and then fails with a kind of success story to it. Clowns see the obstacles in life and make fun of them, where usually you’d just get angry. They try to laugh at life.’
5. Inside the Odditorium, and the Candy Butchers
Follow me behind these painted banners hung on the high wire fence. We’ll just slip through this gap, and carefully close the gate behind us. Stay on the path behind me.
I stopped outside a striped piece of awning, hung as a curtain into the back of a large rectangular marquee. A tall man with a broad strong shoulders and chest like an archetypal Highlander looked out from the behind the curtain and beckoned me inside. This is Gordo Gamsby, aka The Great Gordo. Back in chapter One he was with ‘Dirty Pat’ in the picture of the men dancing on mousetraps while wearing white buckets around their necks to stop them looking down.
Inside the tent it was quite dark. Tables were lined up in front of mirrors, stacks of cases and boxes lined the walls of the back of the tent, and a curtained entrance off to the right led to Sideshow Wonderland. I followed the Great Gordo to the left, to the Odditorium. In front of me was a glass case in which was displayed a two headed rooster, a duckling named Dido that was born with two bodies and one head, a two headed rabbit and a cycloptic Silky chicken. A very pretty six-legged baby deer sat beside a two-headed lamb with two sets of front legs. The jars at the back of the shelf were full of preserved piglets, one of them born with eight legs. Next to them a half chicken half duck known as Chuck sat next to a Fijian mermaid, half man half fish, discovered off the coast of Mexico in 1882. Beside a shrunken head was a dagger made from a human leg, a skeleton of a Siamese twin, the head of the yeti, an albino kangaroo born in 1951, the skull of a two headed calf and the penis bone of a Walrus.
All this has been collected by Chayne Hultgren, aka ‘The Space Cowboy’, Australia’s most prolific world record holder. One of his records was swallowing twenty-four swords at the one time. This Odditorium is part of his private collection.
Gordo Gamsby, resplendent in a military jacket, was preparing to open the Odditorium and its accompanying tent, the Sideshow Wonderland.
We talked about the Dirty Brother’s show The Dark Party. ‘A lot of the show came out of Dirty Pat’s brain,’ Gordo said, ‘the look of it, the hobo clowns, that all came from Pat Bath, but we have all put ourselves into it and we’ve been doing it for a number of years now, and every time we do a show someone will come up with a new idea, to change or add something.’
There is one trick of Gordo’s in The Dirty Brothers show, where Dirty Pat sits playing a saw, and the tune is Hawaiian, and then Gordo enters in a grass skirt, reluctantly hula-ing and … I had to ask.
Me: ‘When did you first start stapling the flowers of a lei onto your chest?’
Gordo said ‘That is kind of where the whole show came from. Pat’s wife Kyra and Pat would do an act where Pat would play the saw with a candelabra balanced on his head, and Kyra would spin a hula-hoop around her body and the hoop would snuff out the candles. Then Pat and Shep decided to put me in the grass skirt,’ he laughed. ‘They made me wear the outfit.’
Me: ‘What I love about that piece is also your underplayed reluctance about the whole thing.’
Gordo said: ‘Well, that wasn’t acting to start with.’ He laughed. ‘That was the first time I had done a show with my shirt off. I didn’t want to be in the hula skirt to start with but it has developed into a whole new thing.’
I prompted him ‘And then you take the flowers from a lei …’
Gordo: ‘And then I take the flowers from a lei, the basis being that my lei is broken and I have to put it on somehow.’ He shrugged. ‘And I just happen to have a staple-gun in my pocket.’
I asked, ‘Would you describe the Dirty Brothers as Clown?’
Gordo said ‘It’s very much Clown; dark clown, dark sideshow clown. It draws from a lot of different things, but you wouldn’t call it ‘dance’ for example.’
Me: ‘Even though you do dance quite a bit.’
Gordo laughed. ‘Even though we do dance a bit … It’s “sideshow noir”, silent sideshow, clowning sideshow, and clowns do have a history of being hurt with things like slapstick over the years, but not quite like what we are doing. I would call it more extreme. I guess the tricks and stunts are sideshow stunts but the show is focused on the clown-ness of it rather than the stunts. We do the stunts but we put them in a clown context.’
‘Have you studied clown?’
Gordo shook his head, ‘No, my exposure to clown is playing with other clowns, all I’ve ever done is play with other clowns.’
‘When you are in that other world do you identify as yourself?’
‘Sometimes. I draw from my own experiences and my own personality.’
‘So you feel like it is you when you’re on stage?’ I asked.
‘Sometimes, but when we are The Dirty Brothers, those characters … well, they’re not very nice guys, they’re not really guys you would want to hang out with or invite to your parties or anything, so we do change a bit. When we put the make up on we start being in character. Shep and Pat do pick on me a little bit when we are in make up.’ He pulled a wry face. ‘They gang up on me and Shep definitely drops and gets a bit sadder when he puts his make up on. We will be a bit nasty towards each other, do things to each other when we are in makeup and in costume that we would never do to each other outside of it. We are much more lovely to each other in real life. They are like my big brothers, but onstage it is more like nasty big brothers. I get picked on quite a bit, but that makes me more loveable.’
‘Which is funny because you are definitely the biggest of the three. In fact you’re bigger than both of them put together. You’d just have to give them a bit of a flick and they’d be on the floor.’
Gordo laughed and said. ‘Well, yes, but its never come to blows.’
Outside the Odditorium the sound of spruiking had got louder. Brian Bielemeier, aka Magic Brian, appeared briefly, nodded at Gordo, and it was time for the first audience of the day. This may look like a simple experience to the punter, just a walk through a door, but I know that a hundred different ambience-creating elements have been carefully brought together to transport the audience into another world, the space warp mind bend that this sort of experience offers. Suddenly shy, I quickly gathered my bag and coat, and stepped out of the way and wondered where to go next.
It was cold. I had another layer of clothing in my bag and decided to change in the toilets. I stepped inside one of ten cubicles. Then, while still wondering what should be the next step, I had trouble getting toilet paper out of the dispenser. The toilet paper roll was stuck and I reached into the holder to free it and pulled out a flyer for the Candy Butchers show.
‘Candy Butchers’ is carnival slang for the sellers of fairy floss.
Inside the Big Top were two men and two women wearing hygienic white dust-coats, hectoring the crowd into buying fairy floss and squabbling amongst themselves. The bickering escalated, with superb timing, into a full-on knockabout battle that finished when the last man standing threw himself into a back-sault to land flat on the floor.
I laughed so much at the pleasure of watching it that I cried. The opening scene had completely removed me from anything I had been feeling and thinking before I sat down, and in quick succession the Candy Butchers had made me laugh, shocked me, scared me, made me laugh, made me gasp, and then made me laugh again. At that point I’d been there for less than ten minutes. That was the pre-show.
Nothing was predictable. The tall awkward ‘boss’ tells us his story of lost love, with a length of rope via a series of “she loves me, she loves me knots” and then tries to end it all by creating a noose in the rope, complete with a soliloquy on love and death. This is Derek Ives. Here he takes us into his own personal world, a strange place where he loves, and then accidentally kills, a shovel. But the highest status is not necessarily the one in control. It is a thick and complex mess of manipulations and misunderstandings.
One of the women – Azaria Universe – performed the sexiest burlesque fan dance I’ve ever seen, with three sticks of fairy floss. Most of the show involved some status transaction or another; in fact all of the characters in the show exhibited some sort of delusion or madness.
DJ Garner, the acrobat, explained to me later that it is all about detail; there are elements in the show that are just for them, such as the fact that he is the only one who handles forks. When the bucket is handled by anyone else it has spoons in it, and the bucket that Azaria rides up to the trapeze contains knives. We, the audience, don’t ever see those details, but they are there.
I leave the tent feeling that I have just, in an hour, experienced life fully. This feeling reminded me of how I felt leaving the oxygen bar at the airport in Singapore. Alert, yet relaxed. I felt quite fresh, as if my thoughts and ideas had been jolted out of their rut. Oxygenated.
What has really happened is that my neurons have been stimulated to take new pathways, grow new connectors, and meet each other in different places.
A neuron is a nerve cell, the basic building block of the nervous system. Neurons transmit information throughout the body. They are your thoughts, ideas, emotions and reactions. When people say alcohol kills your brain cells, what they really mean is that the over-consumption of alcohol is killing your neurons. While neurons supposedly do not reproduce, new connections between neurons form throughout life. These are the pathways. New pathways are created by learning and experiencing new things. Depression and some cognitive dysfunction are neurons that have just travelled in fewer and fewer pathways, meeting fewer other neurons.
6. Wacko and Blotto
Below is excerpt from an obituary written by J.B Priestley, about W.C. Fields, after his death in 1947. It may help you understand where we go next.
“I saw him long before he found his way to Hollywood, before 1914, when he was touring the halls in England with his juggling and trick billiard table act.
He was funny even then, and I seem to remember him balancing a number of cigar boxes and staring with horror at a peculiar box, in the middle of the pile, that wobbled strangely, as if some evil influence were at work. All his confidence, which you guessed from the first to be a desperate bluff, vanished at the sight of this one diabolical box that began to threaten him with the nightmare of hostile and rebellious things …
And this, I fancy, was the secret of his huge and enchanting drollery … That he moved warily in spite of a hastily assumed air of nonchalant confidence, through a world in which even inanimate objects were hostile, rebellious, menacing, never to be trusted.
He had to be able to juggle with things, to be infinitely more dexterous than you and I need be, to find it possible to handle them at all.
They were not, you see, his things, these commonplace objects of ours. He did not belong to this world, but had arrived from some other and easier planet.
All the truly great clowns – and Fields was undoubtedly one of them – have the same transient look. They are not men of this world being funny … They are serious personages who have, through some blunder on the part of a celestial Thomas Cook, landed from the other side of Arcturus, on the wrong planet.
They make the best of a bad business, but what is easy for us – merely picking up a bag of golf clubs or moving a chair – is horribly difficult for them. Things that give us no trouble offer them obstacles and traps, for nothing here is on their side.”
(Provided by Bob Burton from a biography of W.C. Fields called Man On The Flying Trapeze by Simon Louvish.)
You see a little white caravan outlined in a festoon of lights and surrounded by a white picket fence, sitting in the middle of the Garden of Unearthly Delights. The windows are closed and curtained and the gate is shut.
The door opens, a man looks out and invites you in.
There is no-one else around. It is not show-time yet.
Inside the caravan two men in t-shirts and jeans sit surrounded by a sea of toys, as if a packing crate full of them had been exploded in the air in every direction, and it is only the walls of the caravan that has held them all in.
The men offer you a seat, a coffee, a drink, a cigarette. You clear some toys from the bench seat and squish in between two enormous costumes hanging from the cupboard doors; exaggerated even for clown costumes, made of metres and metres of fabric held wide with hoops.
The two men joke with each other as they set out containers of greasepaint on the counter. One of them reaches past you for a ‘wig’, if that is what you would call a head piece made out of painted ‘gap-filler’ resembling the hair of a clown times ten.
The two men raise their glasses to each other and say, “see you after the show”. They are definitely saying goodbye, at least for the moment. They smear white over their faces, drawing in heavy black lines. Suddenly the very air is different. The two men are gone and two other slightly crazed beings are there in their place. One reaches for the costume beside you, and it is time you left. Go have a drink, something to eat, and come back.
It is dark. The festoon of lights that outline the caravan are lit, and the back end of the caravan has been opened to reveal the counter. Smoke billows out. Suddenly you are in the middle of a post-apocalyptic version of Waiting for Godot, if that play were set inside a clown caravan to a soundtrack of distorted carnival music played at the wrong speed as a background to a lot of swearing and arguing. The parts are played by a washed up alcoholic circus clown and a delusional acrophobic cannon clown who was born with a conjoined chicken twin sister. It was strangely fascinating and slightly discomforting; an odd experience. This is Wacko and Blotto.
Your neurons have definitely been jumped into some different places.
Their press says: “Wacko and Blotto defy description, they are the laziest, rudest, most childish, silly, mental clowns in show business and just may have a show better than the greatest show on earth.”
Their website explains the show thus: “Wacko and Blotto meet some deeply rooted needs in humanity: violation of taboos, the mockery of sacred and profane authorities and symbols, reversal of language and action, and a ubiquitous obscenity.”
Andy Forbes, aka Wacko, said this: ‘We used to joke that anything we would plan would always go very differently once Wacko and Blotto got involved. For example, Derek Ives (Candy Butchers) came into the van and offered some great ideas about the show, and we developed this plan – you do this fire thing and put on the smoke machine, and then this happens, and that happens, etc. He gave us this great advice and both me and Andy Mac (aka Blotto) were going ‘yes, this will be great’. And then of course Wacko and Blotto come into the scene and they are just completely different characters. They don’t listen to me and Andy, and they did a completely different version of the whole fucking thing. Whether or not it was funny I have no idea. I think it’s an interesting example of how detached we are from those characters, even though we agreed to it and gave respect to the Ives and planned it out. But Wacko and Blotto are loose cannons, and in any given moment they will do whatever the fuck they want.’
‘And you have no control over that? I asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we do. And it is when we stopped making pre-conceived plans and let go, that the magic would really happen with the audience. If you are willing to take a risk then you are in the game.’
NEXT ISSUE: Popup Clowntown and Circus Royalty
Judith Lanigan is the daughter of a journalist and a detective. She studied her circus specialty – hula hoops – at the Moscow State Circus School and documented her experiences in A True History of the Hula Hoop, published by Picador in 2009. This series is extracted from her latest book, Clownland, released by Aerofish Media in August 2016 – judithlanigan.com.au