The Face that Launched a Thousand Quips...

Joseph Grimaldi as Clown
Joseph Grimaldi as Clown

by Ray Setterfield

December 18, 1778 — The greatest and most famous clown of them all, and by whose name, Joey, all circus clowns became known, was born on this day. In real life he was Joseph Grimaldi, a man of Italian-sounding origin who, in fact, was born in London. This first "Clown Joey", founding-father of modern-day clowns, later joked about his surname: "I am grim all day, but I make you laugh at night!"

He did, too. First venturing onto the stage when he was only three years old, he delighted the audience at London's famous Sadler's Wells Theatre and from such remarkably early beginnings went on to become the most popular clown in pantomime, appearing regularly at such renowned theatres as Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

It was there, in 1806, that he was given a three-year contract, starting at £1 a week, rising in the second year to £2 a week and finally to £3. He had audiences in the palm of his hand as he joked, sang songs, played out sketches and tumbled acrobatically across the stage. One critic wrote that "he shone with unimpeded brilliance".

But all the tumbling and frenetic clowning took its toll and in 1823 the 45-year-old Grimaldi was forced to retire, exhausted and hardly able to walk. By 1828 he was penniless and at a benefit performance told his audience: "Like a vaulting audition, I have overleaped myself and pay the penalty in advanced old age."

He never recovered and died, much lamented, in 1837. To this day he is commemorated annually at the clowns' church of Holy Trinity in East London. After his passing, Charles Dickens said: 'The clown left the stage with Grimaldi, and though often heard of, has never since been seen."

And that's no joke.

Published: April 24, 2016

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