Obituary: Lou Jacobs
Friday 18 September 1992
LOU JACOBS was the United States' most beloved clown. He became synonymous with the circus not only in the US but around the world. If he had held a copyright on his face he would have been a rich man as circuses worldwide had used his face on posters and other publicity material since 1966 when he was featured on a US postage stamp, one of the few Americans to be honoured in his lifetime in this way. Jacobs was the lead clown for over 60 years at Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, retiring in 1989. Ringlings posted more of just one bill featuring Jacobs than were posted of the renowned Uncle Sam recruiting poster, designed in 1917.
'There will never be another clown like Lou Jacobs,' Irvin Feld, producer of the Ringling circus, announced in their programme in 1983. 'He has embodied the very essence of the word for so long he has actually moulded its meaning.' Probably no other entertainer in history has caused more people to laugh in live performances. His ball nose, cone-shaped bald head, fringed with red hair, blackened mouth and distinctive big patches of white around his eyes took 30 minutes to apply and 20 minutes to take off.
Jacobs, the son of a German song and dance pair, gave his first performance at the age of seven as the nether quarters of an alligator in a Bremen variety theatre. He went on to develop contortionist skills and travelled to the US to play fairs and vaudeville before being encouraged to join the Ringling circus by his fellow German Fred Bradna, the show's ringmaster. Like that of his famous contemporary Emmett Kelly, much of Jacobs's comedy was performed on the Hippodrome track surrounding Ringlings three rings and two stages. His contortionist skills were used in his best remembered number when he extracted his 6ft 1in frame (made to look bigger by his heavy coat and outsize boots) from his miniature car. Jacobs popularised 'Fireman Save my Child', the traditional American clown's entree, as well as the clown wedding which he performed as the bride to Felix Adler's bridegroom. It was thanks in part to Jacobs's tuition that James Stewart was so convincing as an outsize Auguste in Cecil B. de Mille's film The Greatest Show on Earth (1951).
Jacobs said that the secret of any gag is that it should be greatly exaggerated to appeal to large audiences and that the element of surprise is the clown's most important tool. If the audience doesn't expect it it will probably be a good laugh, he said.
Jacobs leaves two daughters, both in the circus: Lou Anne, a trapeze artist, married to Jorg Barreda, a wild-animal trainer, and Dolly who is compared to Lillian Leitzel, the 1920s aerial star, with her sensational act on the Roman rings. Dolly made her debut at only six days when her father substituted her for the midget who usually rode in the clown pram in one of his skits.
Jacobs never appeared in England although he was advertised to star at the Harringay Circus in 1953-54. His face will live on in the form of publicity as long as there are circuses.
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