Lou Jacobs was truly a Master Clown who performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®
for 60 years from 1925 to 1985. In the latter decades of his long life
and career, Jacobs achieved well-deserved renown as the world's most
famous clown. His instantly recognizable clown face -- cone head, tiny
hat, tuft of hair, arching eyebrows and oversized mouth -- was featured
prominently on posters, billboards, and magazine covers, in television
commercials, and even on a United States postage stamp. But the
whimsical costume and makeup were but the trappings of a brilliantly
Jacobs was born Johann Ludwig Jacob in 1903 in Bremerhaven,
Germany. His early training in show business seemed to encompass
everything but comedy. "As a boy in Germany, I learned it all. Barrel
jumping, acrobatics, making like the human pretzel." It was training
which would stand him in good stead. Upon emigrating through Ellis
Island to America in 1923, it was as a contortionist that he first found
work. "I was working with an old man and his son. I was the straight
man, but I persuaded them to let me do comedy."
That first foray into comedy would eventually lead to his signing with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Circus in 1925. Together with fellow newcomers Otto Griebling, Emmett
Kelly and Felix Adler, Jacobs would form an elite group of circus
clowns. While readily acknowledging the grueling nature of those early
years under the Big Top, Jacobs recalled those early years of clowning:
"It was a good life. We had sunshine in the backyard. We washed our own
clothes. We would have baseball teams. We lived to clown."
Jacobs created his own clown gags, and his repertoire is
legendary to circus scholars and circus fans alike. He zipped around the
hippodrome on water skis; zoomed past amazed spectators in a motorized
bathtub; chased down a cigar-smoking clown "infant" who was attempting
to make a getaway in a baby-buggy turned hot rod. But in 1950, Jacobs
created what could arguably be called his most famous prop, when he
constructed a 2-by-3 foot, fully operative minicar. Using skills honed
over a lifetime, he contorted his 6-foot-1-inch body to fit inside the
contours of the tiny car. His labored emergence from the automobile --
heralded by the appearance of an oversized clown shoe jutting into the
air -- never failed to bring gasps of delight.
In yet another inspired clowning act, Jacobs added a
partner to his act: a pint-sized chihuahua named Knucklehead. And, in
what became a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
classic, the cunning canine played the role of a rascally rabbit,
forever eluding the sights of Big Game Hunter Lou Jacobs. Jacobs and
Knucklehead would prove to be an enduring partnership.
Jacobs achieved celebrity status in a profession not known for producing stars. In 1952, when Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Greatest Show On Earth®
- a movie in which Lou Jacobs played a cameo role -- Jacobs was chosen
to teach the tools of the clowning trade to actor Jimmy Stewart. In
1966, Jacobs' fans were further delighted to spot the likeness of his
now-famous clown face on a newly issued United Stated postage stamp.
Failing health forced him to leave the road in late 1985.
But Jacobs never left the hearts of his fellow performers and former
pupils. He was a founding professor at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & BaileyClown College®,
and taught Master Class in clowning there through 1991. Reverence for
Jacobs reached a fever pitch in 1987, at the 20th Anniversary of Clown College.
As Jacobs walked haltingly on stage to perform, 500 alumni rose to
their feet of one accord, chanting in unison, "Lou! Lou! Lou!"
acknowledging the man they had come to revere as the King Of Clowns.
In the last decade of his life, Jacobs was the recipient of
the highest accolades the dual worlds of Circus and Clowning have to
offer. In 1987, Producer Kenneth Feld presented Jacobs with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Circus Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1988, Jacobs' star was unveiled
in Sarasota's Circus Ring Of Fame. And in 1989, Jacobs was inducted into
the Circus Hall Of Fame in Peru, Indiana, and the Clown Hall Of Fame in
Delavan, Wisconsin -- one of only six clowns to be honored in that
Hall's inaugural year. Several of Jacobs' fellow inductees, sadly
deceased by the time of their recognition, were those same clown friends
with whom he had once appeared under the Big Top. "It looks like I'm
the Last Of The Mohicans," Jacobs commented.
Jacobs was a tangible link with the rich clowning tradition
of the past, which is the very soul of Circus comedy. Toward the end,
frail and in failing health, Jacob's spirit remained indomitable. "I've
had good times and bad times. It may seem like a rough day today, but
tomorrow may be a good day, and the sun may be shining in the next
Jacobs died on Sunday, September 13, 1992 in Sarasota, Florida of heart failure. He was 89.