This week, we look at the father of modern whiteface clowns, Joseph Grimaldi (1778 - 1837). Born in London, Joseph was the son of a pantomime actor and entered into the theater at only three years of age, soon joining his father on stage. At the time, pantomime performances usually featured a commedia dell'arte inspired Harlequinade staring the traditional commedia characters of the comic hero, Harlequin, his love interest, Columbine, her father, Pantaloon, servant Pierrot, and the roguish buffoon, Clown.
The young Grimaldi's talents were soon under high demand and he quickly became known as a star attraction, making up for sparse sets, low production values, and hastily assembled shows with his standout performances that elevated clown from the status of comic underling to main character in the harlequinade. During a return to the Sadler's Wells Theater in 1802 where Grimaldi first got his start before leaving for Drury Lane, he created his most lasting legacy, the clown "Joey," which used a makeup design featuring white base paint, red lips and cheek markings, exaggerated eyebrows, and a mohawk-like wig, the first traditional whiteface clown design. As Joey, Grimaldi was well known for his audience interaction, singing songs that that audience would finish the last, often risque lyrics to, prompting the audience to encourage his pranks and the like. Joey became a recurring character in many of Grimaldi's performances, entering the theatrical lexicon thereafter. Even today, clowns, both whiteface and not are often referred to as "Joeys" in his honor, just as their makeup designs pay homage to the father of modern clowns.
Grimaldi retired from the stage in 1823, largely due to the toll that years of physical comedy had taken on his body. Over the next ten years, several benefit performances were staged, among them, his farewell performance in 1828 at Drury Lane during which he was too weak to stand and performed as Joey while seated. He finally passed away, poverty stricken, having outlived two wives and his estranged son in 1837. Shortly after his death, Grimaldi's two volume autobiography Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi was finally published after first being rejected, then edited and largely rewritten by Thomas Egerton Wilks and later, after Grimaldi's death, by Charles Dickens. Due to the fact that Dickens apparently never read the original manuscript written by Grimaldi himself, the accuracy of the final and (at least to Dickens) surprisingly successful published version is questionable at best.
Today, Grimaldi's life and contribution to the arts is celebrated each year at the Holy Trinity Church in East London where, on the first Sunday in February, clowns from around the world attend a mass in his honor, staging a public performance after the service which is often filled to capacity. There, they also light candles for clowns who have passed away in the previous year. Though he never performed in an actual circus, his legacy lives on with every clown who has adopted the image he created and called himself a Joey.