Friday, August 22, 2014

Dan Rice: America's Clown

Dan Rice was, quite possibly, the most famous personality of his day next to Abraham Lincoln himself. Born in Manhattan in 1823, Rice got his start as a Jockey at the age of 10. After becoming too heavy to ride professionally he turned instead to equestrian performance, joining the Nichols Circus where he performed as a singer and dancer as well as a rider. Rice also went on to perform what became a staple of many clown acts, the "educated pig" when he joined a traveling puppet show in 1843 with his pig Lord Byron.

Rice's first big act, however, came when he joined Dr. Gilbert R. Spalding's North American Circus (Spalding having bought out the former Nichols Circus). Combining his educated pig act with his musical and dance performances and strong man act, Rice became for the first time an integral part of the show. His relationship with Spalding was, however, a tumultuous one, Rice being notoriously hard to get along with when it came to business and something of a egotist.

Leaving Spalding's show, Rice went on to perform with several other circuses before opening his own show in 1845, the Dan Rice Circus, which many historians suspect was financed in part by Spalding and which traveled periodically on Spalding's Allegheny Mail steam boat. Rice played the part of clown in his show, becoming well known for his Shakespearian comedy performances and interacting heavily with the ringmaster as his straight man which would, in time, become something of a circus tradition in itself.

By this point, Rice had also taken on what is probably his most recognizable modern legacy by costuming himself in a stars and stripes outfit and top hat. Along with his long grey chin beard, Rice was the perfect model for Thomas Nast's "Uncle Sam" character (though he may have been adapting an already existing clown style, Rice certainly gets credit for popularizing it and making it his own trademark look).

Like John Bill Ricketts before him, Rice often courted the famous political figures of the day. Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Roberty E. Lee were all fans and at one point while playing in Washington D.C. Congress had to adjourn for the day as so few members were going to show. These political ties, as well as Rice's tour routes which took him both to the South and the North would later cause him some amount of public grief during the civil war as many Northerers suspected him of Southern sympathies and vice versa. Even after the war, Rice's loyalties were hard to pin down as he helped to rebuild schools and churches in the South while at the same time charitably supporting the windows and children of Union troops who had died in the war and even having a Union monument errected in his second wife's home town of Girard, Pennsylvania (which, by the way, now hosts a yearly "Dan Rice Days" festival).

By 1852, Dan Rice had reached the financial peak of his success, becoming possibly the most highly paid person in the country making $1000 a week (a little over $13,000 by today's standards). As the civil war went on, however, his fortunes dwindled and by 1862 Rice was bankrupt. Enter Gilbert R. Spalding, Rice's former manager who offered Rice the opportunity to join his show as a partner at the same $1000 a week rate. Rice, perhaps remembering his previous time with Spalding, refused, opting instead to rebuild his fortunes on his own which he did successfully before entering into partnership with Adam Forepaugh and going more or less bankrupt once again.

Four years later, Rice made a short lived bid for congress and the presidency running at the behest of a Pennsylvania soldiers delegation. He would by no means be the last great circus star to enter the political arena as we'll see in later entries. Rice continued touring both with his own show, he could afford it and as a performer in other circuses. By now, however, age and alcoholism had left Rice a shadow of his former self and audiences failed to appear.

Eventually, Rice was able to overcome his addiction to alcohol and in his later years toured as a temperance speaker while continuing to perform in the ring in one form or another until his retirement in 1887. Just three years later, Dan Rice died. His name, however lived on, various circuses touring, though unauthorized, under the Rice name well into the mid 1950's. Additionally, his "Pete Jenkins from Mud Corners" comedic equestrian act was likely the basis for the circus act depicted in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, especially given that Twain and Rice traveled the same waters along the Mississippi at roughly the same time.

Since we touched a bit on steamship travel and the circus, we'll continue on that topic next time!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

J. Purdy Brown

The so called "tented circus" officially began with proprietor J. Purdy Brown in the early 1800's. A cousin of Hachaliah Bailey, Brown is credited both with being the first to tour under a big top and with being among the first to combine the circus and menagerie. Though the exact date of the first feat is unknown (likely some time in the mid-1820's when Brown was touring along the Mississippi River or just before when he became the first to tour Virginia), the combination show that gave us what is commonly considered the modern circus format started when his cousin, Benjamin Brown, a menagerie owner in his own right leased J. Purdy his show which was then added to J. Purdy's own and toured under "Brown's Circus and Menagerie." This practice of leasing animals, equipment and personnel to other shows also became commonplace, especially during the circus's golden age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with many proprietors even leasing their own names to smaller up and coming shows in order to help legitimize a new show with a familiar name.

Prior to Brown's combined show, circuses (then still the Astley style equestrian show with a few additions) and mengageries were, according to The Circus in America, "known to be mistrustful and jealous and even stole each other's livestock on more than one occasion." In his wake, the practice would come not only to be commonplace, but would be the standard for most successful shows in the U.S. and abroad, the size of a circus's menagerie and of it's big top both being gauges for the quality of the show itself. 

Sadly, Brown's contributions have been largely forgotten or mis-attributed to other, better known figures like Aaron Turner and Nathan Howe. In addition to his other firsts, he was also the first to advertise the circus ahead of it's arrival and, due to the tented nature of his show, to travel with a retinue of circus wagons though larger menageries were already doing this) which, in time, would become more and more elaborate and eventually morph into the well known circus parade signaling a show's arrival in town. 

Next week, we'll explore the life and times of "America's clown" Dan Rice!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

John Durang

Previously we talked about the first Astley style show in America, John Bill Ricketts. Among Ricketts' biggest acts was John Durang, a multi-talented performer who had already made a name for himself as a dancer, actor, director, puppeteer, and musician. Erroneously, or at least poorly cited in many texts as the first "Native American" clown (including by yours truly in a previously post, hence the delay on this one as I wanted to make sure I got it right), Durang was, in fact the first native born American clown.

The son of French immigrants, Durang was born in Lancaster Pennsylvania, growing up in smaller town of York where his family moved shortly after his birth. The family quickly made a name for themselves in the small town, largely due to John's father, Jacob's abilities as a barber-surgeon and businessman as well as his fluency in both French and German, the common language of the town. The Durangs would eventually resettle in Philadelphia after Jacob completed service in the continental army, some time in the late 1770's.

It was in Philadelphia that Durang first took to the stage after seeing a hornpipe playing dancer at a theatrical performance. Durang decided that he could "dance as well as anybody" and sought out professional instruction, eventually convincing the dancer who he'd first seen, one Mr. Russel, to board at his father's house with the intent of convincing Russel to become his teacher. Durang had his first professional performance after running away with a magic lantern show whose disappointing performance he'd previously seen in Philadelphia. Offering to improve the show with his music and dance routines, Durang signed on to join the troupe's tour as they traveled through New Jersey and on to Boston, eventually playing for a successful two months of engagements. 

Once the two month tour was up, Durang finally returned to Philadelphia where he reunited with his relieved family, having left without notice, but could not leave the desire to perform behind. Durang signed on with the Old American Company (this time with his fathers consent), and went on to tour with the group in Pennsylvania and New York, continuing to take instruction from a variety of teachers. It was in New York that Durang studied with a Mr. Hoffmaster, a dwarf who instructed him in the violin and eventually composed the tune "John Durang's Hornpipe." 

Returning to Philadelphia again in 1787, Durang next turned his theatrical talents towards opening his own show, this time with a self built puppet theater which he operated with his siblings and several friends. Durang also performed in and managed several summer theaters, particularly after the legalization of the theatrical performances in 1789, as well as working in several English "pleasure gardens", outdoor theater and dining venues designed to look like "fantasy lands of natural and exotic design." It was here that Durang added acrobatics and rope walking to his repertoire.   

The skills learned for the pleasure garden performances would eventually go on to serve Durang well when he signed on with John Bill Ricketts' circus in 1796. By then, he had added horsemanship to his skills and he quickly became a featured performer in Rickett's pantomime performances. Durang traveled with Ricketts' troupe throughout the Eastern seaboard and up into Canada leaving behind a thorough written account of what travel was like during the late 1700's as well as numerous paintings of the local landscape and performances. During this tour, Durang not only worked as a performer, but kept track of Ricketts' finances and worked as a theater technician and engineer for mechanical effects. In his travels through Canada, he also added an "Indian characteristic dance" to his more formal European style dances, dressed in an outfit he claimed to have "purchased from an Indian for rum." 

Durang continued managing much of Ricketts' finances for the circus well after their return to Philadelphia and the show's eventual move to Baltimore. It was Durang who arranged for a small tour after the fire in the Philadelphia amphitheater and Ricketts' urged him to stay on with the show when he left for his ill fated tour of the West Indies. Durang, who had since married and had several children turned down the offer and remained in America, opening his own, short lived circus. 

Durang would go on to have a long career in the traditional theater as well as joining touring shows during the summer. His sons, Charles and Richard (who performed under the name Ferdinand) also became prominent figures in the theater both as performers and behind the scenes. After decades of shaping the early American theater, Durang died in Philadelphia at the age of 54. Today, several monuments stand throughout Lancaster, Pennsylvania including one at the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theater which has a series of puppets based on Durang's life built by artist Robert Brock.

For a much more in depth history of John Durang, his life, and legacy, as well as images of Brock's Durang puppets and recordings of "John Durang's Hornpipe," please visit the York County Heritage Trust website.