Wally Boag –
Clown Prince of
By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson
I did a
special Halloween night performance in 1987 while on tour with the Family
Showcase Theater, a one-ring indoor circus. When
I entered for my first clown act, I was wearing a gorilla mask.
Bill Reynolds, the Ringmaster, told me to take off the mask.
I took it off and then performed my act.
When I entered for my juggling act I was wearing the gorilla mask again.
Bill reminded me that I couldn’t wear the mask while performing.
Reluctantly I removed it slowly.
When I entered to perform my second clown act I was wearing the gorilla
mask for the third time. Bill
demanded that I give him the mask.
Quickly I removed the gorilla mask revealing that this time I was wearing an old
man mask underneath it. I performed
my act wearing that mask. That was
the only time I have performed that routine.
I thought it was appropriate for the day.
It was also my tribute to Wally Boag, a performer I had seen perform the
mask gag. While I was growing up in
had seen Wally many times performing in the “Golden Horseshoe Revue” at
It gave me great joy to honor this entertainer who had been an important
influence upon me.
(September 13, 1920 – June 3, 2011) was sometimes referred to as the Clown
which is the title of his autobiography, but most people would probably classify
him as a comedian. However, any
variety arts family entertainer can learn from and be inspired by his career and
have a tremendous influence upon other entertainers.
In their autobiographies, Julie Andrews and Steve Martin each paid
tribute to Wally and his influence upon them.
Andrews was twelve-years-old, she was an audience plant in Wally’s act in a
review called “Starlight Roof.” When
he asked if anybody would like a balloon sculpture he had just completed, Julie
would come up on stage from the audience.
After he gave her a balloon dog, he would ask what she did when she
wasn’t in school. She would reply,
“I can sing – a little.” Then she
surprised the audience by singing “Polonaise” from Mignon with an F above a C.
Steve Martin worked at
Disneyland when he was a teenager.
When he had a chance he would visit the “Golden Horseshoe Review” to
watch Wally at work. In the foreword
Clown Prince of Disneyland, Wally’s autobiography, Steve wrote, “So,
Wally, thank you. Thank you for
being the first comedian I ever saw; thank you for letting me train by watching
you; thank you for teaching me about staying fresh and giving the audience
everything you got. I like to think
as you inspired me, I may inspire some other kid who loves comedy.”
The cover of Wally's Autobiography
first performance was a comedy dance at a family gathering when he was five.
His own career began at the age of seven when he was booked for three
weeks doing a “Dutch” dance routine with Shirley Ann Handlesman.
When he was sixteen he had his own dance school where he taught classes
while his parents managed the business.
By the age of eighteen he began performing in Burlesque theaters, playing
clarinet in the pit band and appearing on stage in sketches.
He began touring vaudeville doing dance routines and serving as the
emcee. These appearances gave him a
firm understanding of comedy.
Wally’s dance training equipped him for physical comedy and gave him a feeling
for rhythm. Steve Martin said,
“Wally had something about him, an infectious happiness and a mysterious
something else I later learned was called comic timing. Everything he did had a
rhythm, and it all came together in a kind of comedic concert as he charmed and
teased the audience.”
young entertainers Wally tried to find a unique identity for himself.
In 1940 he discovered it when he learned balloon sculpture.
Wally was not the first balloon artist.
In his autobiography, Wally credits Tom Gary with teaching him how to
make a dachshund out of four airship balloons.
That is the only balloon sculpture that Tom knew.
Wally invented his own multiple balloon sculptures including a clown, a
jockey riding a horse, various animals, and hats accented with strings of beads.
Wally conceived of the idea of building an entire act around balloon
sculpture. Mark Leddy, one of the
biggest talent agents in vaudeville in the 1940’s, didn’t know of any other
balloon acts when he began booking Wally in 1941.
accomplishments as a balloon artist are impressive.
He performed his balloon act in
nightclubs, including the Follies Bergere, and appeared several times at the
His act received a rave review in Walter Winchell’s newspaper column and
was profiled in a 1942
Life magazine article.
He entertained President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1944 White
House Correspondents Association dinner.
In 1947 he traveled to
where he spent 54 weeks performing in a revue called “Starlight Roof” at the
London Hippodrome. The same year he
entertained King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth, and Princess
Margaret in a Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium.
In 1948 his balloon act was featured in the Cirque Medrano, a permanent
one-ring indoor circus in
Paris, and he appeared in a
nightclub. He returned to
to perform in a revue in
a Christmas Pantomime in
and an ice show at the London Hippodrome.
He spent two years performing in
He also performed his balloon at the Copacabana in
Rio de Janeiro.
His television performances included
three appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” four appearances on “The Mickey
Mouse Club”, and an appearance on “The Muppet Show.”
He performed a brief excerpt from his balloon act in “Disneyland’s
Golden Horseshoe Revue” for 27 years.
Wally manage to achieve so much with a balloon sculpture act?
First, he developed an entertaining premise.
He entered holding four uninflated balloons in his hand.
He introduced his balloon sculptures by saying, “I have a new approach to
psychology. Now you may not know
much about psychology, but let me explain.
You can never be happy in life unless you understand what makes you
miserable. – Now you can tell something about a person’s character by the way
they blow up a toy balloon. For
example, this is a straight forward type.”
Then he inflated a balloon so it filled from the nozzle towards the
nipple. “That is how a straight
forward type would fill a balloon.
Now some people are backwards.” He
inflated a balloon so the air filled the nipple first and then continued towards
the nozzle. (He accomplished this by
stretching the nipple end of the balloon before he entered the stage.)
“Then there are those who are scatter brained.”
He inflated a balloon so it started filling at the nipple end, and then
the nozzle end started inflating, and finally the center of the balloon filled.
(He accomplished this by stretching the nipple end before the show, and
then after the balloon started inflating he pinched the center closed so the air
was limited to the nozzle end.)
he inflated a balloon he had a different method and joke.
When he announced his impression of a near sighted person the balloon
curved around while he inflated it so the end hit him in the eye.
He announced the thoughts of some people go around in circles, and then
curved a balloon as he inflated it.
Without tying it he curled it further into a circle.
When he released the balloon it spun around in midair in front of him as
he commented, “Their life doesn’t seem to go anywhere.”
When he inflated a small balloon for the ears of a giraffe he said, “This
is a boring person. As you can see
he doesn’t have very many thoughts.”
twisted balloons together, he told jokes.
Some were related to the animals he sculpted.
For example, while making a dog he said, “I had to sell my dog.
He ran in front of my lawn mower and I accidentally cut off his tail.
I had to sell him wholesale because I couldn’t retail him.”
Some of his jokes were topical.
For example, while performing in
New York during WWII he said, “I went walking in
today and that is the first time I ever saw a bald man with a
was a woman enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves during WWII.)
Some of his jokes were self-deprecatory.
For example, “I’ve made quite a name for myself with this act – and I
don’t like it… My name is Wally Boag.
Remember my name because you’ll be reading about me in the paper – I
smoke in bed…”
convoluted statements. For example,
after his balloon act, Wally would announce, “At this time, I would like to
feature the pedal extremities using the metatarsal portion of the flanges and
the vulnerable part of the Achilles anatomy, and with my soles spasmodically
coming into direct contact with the flooring, I shall endeavor to perambulate to
the tempo of the musical composition.
Or, in other words, I’m gonna do a dance.”
used alliteration. For example, at
the “Golden Horseshoe Review” he introduced himself to the audience as “Wally
Boag, that loud, long, lean, loquacious, sometimes laconic lunatic who loves to
deal, delve, and dabble into delirious dialogues and dynamic dissertations … In
other words, I’m a traveling salesman.”
years Wally added more variety to his acts.
In 1947, while performing in
he purchased a set of bag pipes and took lessons in how to play them.
He never became an accomplished player, but he eventually mastered one
which allowed him to add the instrument to his act.
He made it topical by playing the song to the rhythm of a popular dance
style that year. Wally introduced
his act by explaining a little about the bagpipe and its history.
He explained that the instrument had five pipes.
Three of them, the drones, had a single reed and played a constant note
creating the instrument’s distinctive sound.
You blew into one of the pipes, and the remaining pipe was for playing
the melody. When he demonstrated how
to play the pipes, a balloon on top of the center drone inflated.
He would stop blowing into the instrument, but it continued to make a
moaning sound as the bag deflated.
He repeatedly told the instrument to relax.
The balloon stayed inflated as long as air was exiting the pipes and then
it suddenly fell limp. Wally
realized that most people can’t hear the difference between two and three drones
playing so he took the reed out of the center drone to use for the gag.
Wally would place a plug in that drone before concluding by actually
playing his song while doing a few dance steps.
Wally developed a ventriloquist act while performing in
When he was booked for an ice show in
in 1953 he performed his balloon and dance act on a wooden floor during the
first half of the show. During the
second half, he performed his vent act on the ice.
He put snowshoes on George, his vent figure, and added a series of puns
based around the shoes looking like tennis rackets.
In 1955, a
friend suggested that Wally audition for a new amusement park opening in
That park was
Disneyland. Wally performed
his acts for Walt Disney who offered him a two-week contract for a family show
called the “Diamond Horseshoe Revue” that would be part of Frontierland.
Wally stayed at
for 27 years and appeared in over forty thousand performances of the revue.
performed three acts in
Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Revue.
In the first was the Traveling Salesman.
Slue Foot Sue, played by Betty Taylor, would ask him what he had in his
carpet bag. Then he would pull out
gag items. For example, during the
Davy Crockett craze he would pull out a coonskin cap, predict that it would
never sell, and toss it over his shoulder.
a pack of cards from his carpet bag, announced his impression of
and let the cards cascade from one hand to the other.
Then he turned the cards around so the faces were towards the audience
and say, “From the Canadian side.”
Next he started to let the cards slide a third time but stopped so they dangled
from his hand, and say, “Frozen.”
The deck was an Electric Deck which means the cards are all connected together
with short pieces of thread. I don’t
know if Wally originated this joke with the deck, but there were certainly many
entertainers who copied it from him.
included a short portion of his balloon act in the Traveling Salesman routine.
After making a dachshund from four balloons he would bring a child up
from the audience. He interviewed
them before presenting them with the sculpture.
He would start to extend the dog to them with his left hand.
When they began to reach for it with their right hand he would shoot out
his right hand to shake with them.
He would repeat this several times before letting them succeed in getting their
ended his routine by asking the pianist if he knew a little ditty titled “When
They Operated on Father, They Opened Mother’s Male.”
While the pianist played a few bars, Wally did some dance steps.
Then he removed his toupee commenting on how hot it was getting.
When people laughed he would say, “What did you expect … feathers?”
Sometimes he would respond to an audience comment he pretended to hear by
saying, “I heard you madam. She
said, ‘He looked so young.’”
second act, Wally would join Slue Foot Sue in singing “Pecos Bill,” a song from
a Disney cartoon. Wally would
announce that he was the fastest draw in the world.
Then he stood motionless as a pistol was fired in the wings.
He would ask the audience, “Want to see it again?”
That is a gag I have used when I produced clown sharpshooter routines.
and Sue got to the line “ he gathered up those crooked villains and knocked out
their fillings,” Slue Foot Sue hit him in the jaw and he began spitting out
teeth which were actually Navy Beans.
He discovered that he got better audience reaction the more beans he used
because people were curious about how many he was able to hold in his cheeks.
In one performance I counted over 50 beans.
He started doing dance steps while he continued spouting beans.
The piano and trumpet player would grab ping pong paddles to hit the
beans back up onto the stage.
Disney World opened in
Wally Boag moved there to establish the “Diamond Horseshoe Revue.”
He taught Bev “Rebo” Bergeron to perform the Pecos Bill act.
Bev took Wally’s place in
and Wally returned to
When Bev was one of the featured performers and lectured at the 2001 WCA
he recreated Wally’s teeth routine with Richard Snowberg accidentally hitting
Bev in the mouth while testing a rope for a magic trick.
“Golden Horseshoe Revue,” Wally joined the rest of the cast in the finale which
included a rousing rendition of the Can Can.
He would sometimes join the dance hall girls and show off some of his
left the Golden Horseshoe Saloon they could purchase Wally Boag’s Boag-aloon
kit. It contained some air ship
balloons and balloon sculpture instructions.
During his night club days Wally had sold balloon kits in envelopes.
he sold his kits in boxes that looked like his revue character.
I don’t know how many people learned balloon sculpture from the kits.
However, Wally’s inspiration led Steve Martin to include balloon
sculpture in his stand up comedy act.
was open five days a week. The
entire Golden Horseshoe Revue cast performed five shows a day every day the park
was open. When the park began
staying open seven days a week Wally needed some time off.
So he trained some understudies to take his place.
That allowed him to make other contributions to the Disney organization.
the “Enchanted Tiki Room” show and provided the voice of Jose, one of the four
host birds. In 1980, Wally re-wrote the show for Tokyo Disneyland.
Verbal jokes don’t translate well so he worked with a Japanese comic in
developing the script. He asked for
a line that would cause the children to laugh when the thunder and lightning
began. The comic suggested “cover
your belly button.” According to
Wally while that line isn’t funny in
it works in
learned that culture plays a part in a joke’s acceptance internationally.
When he performed in
he had his act translated into French and learned it phonetically.
His act included a mother-in-law joke which was a common practice in
The Parisian Nightclub manager asked him to edit out that joke because
French men treat their mother-in-law respectfully.
“10,000th Golden Horseshoe Revue Performance” was expanded into an
hour long show by using guest stars and filmed for the 1961 Season opener of”
Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” television show.
It was then turned into a theatrical featurette film distributed
internationally. The special
performance concluded with a bar room fight that showcased some of Wally’s
the bar room scene was included in a stage show titled “Disney’s America” that
opened at the Hollywood Bowl and then went to Radio City Music Hall.
Wally performed his Pecos Bill routine as part of the show.
promotional tours for Disney movies.
In 1961, he toured the country doing live performances promoting the film “One
Hundred and One Dalmations.” The
tour included an appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” where he did his balloon
act concluding with presenting Ed with a dog made out of white balloons covered
in black spots. He also went on
personal appearance tours to promote “The Jungle Book” (1967), “Alice
in Wonderland” (1974), “Pete’s Dragon” (1977), and “The Aristocrats” (1980).
appeared in some of the Disney movies.
In “The Absent Minded Professor” he played a reporter, and he also
doubled for Fred MacMurray in one scene by wearing a special customized mask to
portray Professor Brainard bouncing around in the gymnasium.
Wally appeared as the father in a Flubberoleum television commercial that
was part of the “Son of Flubber.” He
also made a cameo appearance in “The Love Bug.”
retired from the Golden Horseshoe Revue on January 28, 1982,
and was honored with a window on
His window above the Carnation Company says, “Theatrical Agency.
Golden Vaudeville Routines.
Wally Boag, Prop.” In recognition of his
contributions to the Disney company, he was named a Disney Legend in 1995.
Wally’s performances have been preserved for our study.
He performed an acrobatic dance routine in
“It’s Always Fair Weather.” An audio
recording was made of the “Golden Horseshoe Review “that was released as an LP
Album in 1956 and re-issued as a CD in 2004.
A CD of one of the practice sessions prior to
Disneyland’s opening is also available.
The “10,000th Golden Horseshoe Performance” exists on
but it is rare limited edition and difficult to locate.
Wally’s entire balloon act and his bag pipe act are included in “Disney
Treasures: The Mickey Mouse Club”
DVD set. (He was a guest star
appearing in the second episode of the series.)
His appearance on “The Muppet Show” during its fifth season is also
DVD. That performance includes
part of his balloon act, his bagpipe routine, and the Pecos Bill act.
the most important thing that I learned from Wally Boag was possible only from
being fortunate enough to see him in many live performances over a period of
years. Each performance was a little
bit different. While he had his
standard bits that he always performed he constantly added new little bits and
jokes. In his autobiography Wally
said, “Most of all, I’d learned how to work with my audience.
People often said they liked my act from the first minute because I
appeared to be friendly – and I was.
I really loved interacting with the audience, and I had learned how to handle
those once-in-a-lifetime moments that happen when your audience is really in
tune with you. I learned how to
ad-lib and deal with those unanticipated situations.”
audience interaction style of performing is based on what I absorbed from
watching Wally entertain his audiences.
As he inspired me, I hope to inspire other entertainers.
article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Clowning
Around, published by the World Clown Association.
Copyright 2013 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson. All rights reserved.
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