Part III

(Reproduced with permission from Clowns: A Panoramic History by John H. Towsen)

From Hanlon to Keaton

In 1881, A Trip to Switzerland was brought to the United States, though without Agoust, who in 1886 became the ringmaster of the Nouveau Cirque. Both Albert and Frederick Hanlon died in 1886, but the tradition was kept alive by the three surviving brothers, George, William, and Edward. Their Fantasma ran from 1884 to 1890, when it was replaced by Superba. George Hanlon's two sons, Will and Fred, who played sprites in the early productions of Fantasma, later assumed full control of the Hanlon-Lees repertoire and continued to perform Superba until 1911. The Hanlon Brothers then adapted various scenes from the pantomimes to form a vaudeville act, Just Phor Phun. They toured their act for the next three decades, and in 1945 could be seen as clowns with Ringling-Barnum.

The knockabout tradition was also perpetuated by the pantomimes of the Byrne Brothers (James, Matthew, Andrew, and John), former circus acrobats who obviously borrowed a good deal of their material from earlier Hanlon-Lees productions. They were above all noted for Eight Bells, which their troupe performed from 1890 to 1914, when it was replaced by a similar concoction, An Aerial Honeymoon.

The plot of Eight Bells was adapted from John Martin's popular farce, To Paris and Back on Five Pounds, but the comic business included a by then standard juggling routine, a chase scene, and - instead of a segmented Pullman car - a ship that gets violently tossed about at sea during a storm. The most popular scene in the whole piece was the elopement, in which the Byrne Brothers formed a human pyramid rather than using a ladder. This same scene reappears in Buster Keaton's short, Neighbors (1920), while the balancing ladder on the fence, depicted in the same poster, reappears in Keaton's Cops (1922).

In the early twentieth century, many of the comic scenes developed by the Hanlon-Lees and other pantomime troupes were presented in vaudeville theaters, at first in their full-length versions and later in condensed form. Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and many other early film comics grew up in the world of vaudeville and music hall. Thus the fertile tradition of knockabout comedy was transmitted intact from the era of Grimaldi to that of Keaton, by way of the Hanlon Lees. The film medium enabled these new acrobatic clowns to go even further in some areas, but they certainly were fortunate to have such a rich heritage to draw upon.

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