Charlie The Juggling Clown
Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime
Ice Skating Clowns
By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson, WCA Historian
The International Figure Skating competition is under way leading up to
the Winter Olympics which will be held in
When I was growing up I saw a few live performances of circuses, but I saw many live performances of ice shows. My standard for outstanding clowning was strongly influenced by watching ice skating clowns. I have learned many things from ice skating clowns that I incorporated into my own performances.
Shipstad and Johnson
In 1926, Edie Shipstad and Oscar Johnson began performing
clown routines on ice at skating carnivals and between periods of ice hockey
games. (Edie’s brother, Roy, was a
solo skater who performed straight acts contrasting with their comedy.)
They were among the first to believe that in entertaining an audience
showmanship came first and skating technique came second. The trio was given an
eight-week contract to appear at
Frick and Frack
Werner Groebli (April 21, 1915 – April 14, 2008) appeared in over 15,000 performances of the Ice Follies as Mr. Frick. For many years he performed with his childhood friend, Hans Mauch (May 4, 1919 – June 4, 1979), who played Mr. Frack. They two became one of the most famous entertainment or sports duos. The names of their clown characters became part of the American slang meaning “two of a kind” or “very close friends.” The term was used in scripts for Cheers, The Odd Couple, and Golden Girls. In stage appearances with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra would say, "we're just like Frick and Frack."
Groebli, the reigning Swiss Junior Figure Skating Champion, was considered a favorite to win the men’s gold medal in figure skating at the 1936 Winter Olympics. However he dropped out because he did not have the time or money to continue pursuing amateur competition. Instead he enrolled in college to study architecture. Mauch was studying to be a banker. When they had a chance to perform a comedy act in a Swiss Ice Extravaganza they dressed in Swiss hillbilly Sunday outfits with Frock coats. They adopted Frick and Frack as stage names to prevent their families from learning they were not in school.
In 1937, they were a big hit in an ice show in
They came to the
Frick and Frack, both virtuoso skaters, did not use smooth,
graceful, flowing movements like other skaters.
Instead they performed more difficult angular moves with sharp turns.
This was particularly evident in Frick’s toy soldier routine.
They would skate backwards towards each other at high speed, and then
avoid a collision by suddenly veering away at the last moment.
The two would skate by each other, missing a handshake, hook their legs,
recoil and turn back face to face.
(When I began clowning in 1974 as an amateur with the Klassic Klowns of
Frack would toss Frick an invisible rope and then pull Frick towards him. Seemingly without moving a muscle, Frick would slowly glide forward towards his partner. The propulsion came from alternately pushing the edge of the skate blades out and in. The move required outstanding physical skill and strength.
Groebli’s trademark move was the Frick Spread-eagle Cantilever in which he turned his skates sideways and bent over backwards until his back was horizontal just a few inches above the ice. In this position he would glide sideways in a straight line or a long graceful curve. He would rise by attaching his bamboo cane to an invisible hook in the air to hoist himself up, hand over hand. Skating clowns Mike Course and Al Surrette copied the move in their acts. A few other skaters have attempted the move in competition. None were able to do it as well as Groebli.
Groebli described himself as an "athlete of the theater." His recovery process following a performance included cold showers on his leg muscles, and a half hour laying on his back. He was able to perform his demanding act daily, sometimes for three shows a day.
When health problems forced Mauch to retire in 1955,
Groebli continued performing another 4,000 shows as Mr. Frick working with
unbilled assistants. David Thomas
assisted him from 1973-1978. In a
newspaper obituary, Thomas said Groebli “brought a quirky spontaneity to his
performances, especially when something went awry.
If the spotlight was off the mark, he would do a silly little dance to
find it. If he fell, he would jump
up and look around to see who tripped him.
Or, if the orchestra was off beat — it was on a platform by the ice — he
would go over, lift the drape, march into the orchestra and start using his
bamboo cane like a baton.”
His television appearances included Snoopy On Ice (1973), Snoopy's Musical on Ice (1978), Sportsworld, NBC-TV (1978), Donnie and Marie Osmond Show (1978), Mike Douglas Show (1978), and the Dinah Shore Show (1978). He appeared in the films Silver Skates (1942), Lady Let's Dance (1943), and Jinxed (1981).
He was inducted into the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame in 1967 and the U.S. Figure Skating Association World Hall of Fame in 1984.
Impressed by the ticket sales for the
Ice Follies and Sonja Henie’s
Hollywood Ice Review, members of the Arena Manager’s Association met in
Following a heart attack in 1984, Leiter retired from performances.
Although I think they are most famous for their
circus performances, the Rastellis also performed their musical clown act on
ice. An internet article by Dario
Duranti and Kenneth Severinsen describes them alternating between appearing in
circuses and appearing in ice reviews.
It is possible that they worked in ice shows between circus seasons.
(Charlie Cairoli, the famous Blackpool Tower Circus resident clown,
sometimes performed in ice shows between circus seasons.)
According to Duranti and Severinsen, the Rastellis appeared in many ice
reviews during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
They toured with Aladdin on Ice,
and in 1960 they toured with
The members making up the act have changed over the
years. It was founded by Oreste
Rastelli Senior in the 1930’s. The
other members of the act included his wife,
The Rastellis are virtuoso musicians. Alfredo Rastelli plays two trumpets at the same time. They were also known for their exploding instruments. One Auguste tosses a stick of dynamite into a brass instrument similar to a tuba being played by their twin. The Auguste retreats across the ring. The dynamite explodes. The bell of the horn pops off, flies through the air, and lands upside down like a coolie hat covering the head of the protagonist.
In another gag, one of the Augustes is seated at a piano playing the instrument. His twin enters with a cannon, aims at the piano, and fires. The piano explodes. The pianist jumps up and jerks off his jacket revealing a projectile passing through his midsection. He tries to pull the projectile several times. Then he removes his cummerbund revealing that he really was not injured. The projectile is cut in half with one part attached to the front of his costume and the other part attached to the back, ala the Arrow through the Head gimmick.
Biddy and Baddy
George “Gigi” Percelly and Steve Pedley performed for twenty years as Biddy and Baddy. They toured with Holiday on Ice, the Ice Follies, and the Ice Capades. They performed two separate and distinct acts in each ice show.
Except for those who performed as Tramp clowns, ice skating clowns tended to use the naturalistic make up style that we currently call Auguste Lite. (While many people consider this a “new” make up style it is actually the older of the two versions of Auguste make up and has been used for over 100 years.) Percelly and Pedley wore Auguste Lite for one of their acts. In this act there was a distinction between their individual characters. For example, while touring with Holiday on Ice in 1979 they performed a duck hunting routine. I saw this act in person, and it is currently available on YouTube. One of the clowns was inept and had trouble standing on the ice. He kept slipping and fell repeatedly until his partner picked him up and placed a square of carpet beneath his skates.
In their second act they appeared as identical twins with the heavy grease style of Auguste make up associated with Alfred Fratellini and Lou Jacobs. They wore matching plaid suits in the Rastelli tradition. Some of their humor was based on their skating skill, in particular eccentric dance moves performed in unison. They performed some of the skating moves that had been used by Frick and Frack.
However, they also performed circus style routines on the ice rink instead of in a ring. They perpetuated some of the acts originated by other clowns. For example, with the 1979 edition of Holiday on Ice they performed the Rastelli piano routine. In another production Biddy and Baddy performed their version of Sweeping Up the Spotlight. At its conclusion the light was reduced to a small pool of light. One of the clowns dropped his hat on top of the light and the spotlight went out. However, light could be seen leaking out between the ice and hat brim. He slipped his hand under the hat and carefully picked it up. He turned it over and started to skate off. Then he stopped, peeked inside his hat so the light was shinning up onto his face. Then he sighed and blissfully completed his exit. I incorporated the hat idea in my own version of the spotlight routine.
In 1991 I saw a second generation of the Biddy and Baddy act performed on the Ice Capades by Dave Pedley and Joey Porcelly.
I enjoyed watching Mike Course many times over the years. His physical appearance reminds me of Don Knotts. I don’t remember which show I saw him with when I was a youngster. I saw him perform several times with the Ice Capades in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and I saw him one summer during the mid 1980s’s skating in the Snoopy On Ice show at Knott’s Berry Farm. In many ways he has been an important influence upon me.
Mike is from
In the 1977 edition of the Ice Capades he performed in the Flintstone Frolics production number. All of the Ice Capettes (chorus girls) skated onto the ice dressed as Little Bo Peep wearing hoop skirts. They each carried garlands attached to pipes arched over their heads. Suddenly one of them let go of the right end of her garland. The garland straightened out slightly. She could have easily grasped it again by lowering her left hand. Instead she left her left arm extended kept swiping her right hand at the end that was overhead just out of her reach. She jumped up trying to catch it, but since she still had her left hand extended over head she couldn’t reach the end. She climbed up onto a chair trying to reach it, and then climbed onto a pedestal table trying to reach higher. The table collapsed spilling her onto the ice. Her hoop skirt kept getting in the way as she tried to stand, so Bob Young skated over to help her up. She ended up knocking him down, and collapsing on top so they were both covered by the hoops. She was actually Mike Course performing in drag. (This was the inspiration for my routine where I flip my spinning plate up to my extended left hand and can’t reach it with my right.)
I have seen Mike work with a variety of partners including Bob Young, Titch Stock, and David Sadler.
Mike is a clarinetist. In one of his routines his partner becomes annoyed by his clarinet playing and shoots him in the calf. Mike plays whimpering noises on his clarinet as he limps off the ice. He returns wearing a full length cast on that leg and carrying a golf club and ball. He prepares to tee off, but he can’t bend his leg so on his back swing he loses his balance and falls backwards onto the ice. He quickly removes the cast prop and gets to his knees. Suddenly the Jaws music theme begins playing. Mike acts like he is swimming and becoming increasingly panicked. When the music stops playing, he yells, “Jaws,” and bites his partner on the calf.
This stream of consciousness is part of many of his comedy routines. When he hears the sound of birds singing, he begins to flap his arms and prances around the ice. He looks up and a descending note on a slide whistle is heard. He reacts as if something has just hit him in the eye. He looks out at the audience and starts to wipe his eye. Then he hears a cow moo. He looks up, screams, ducks, and pulls the collar of his coat up over his head. He folds his hands in front and begins to imitate a monk.
Mike interacts with sound effects throughout his act. In one routine a honk from an old fashioned auto bulb horn is heard when this partner pushes him on the shoulder. His partner pushes his shoulder again, and the sound is repeated. Mike moves his shoulder without being pushed, and the horn sounds a third time. Now Mike experiments with touching different parts of his body which creates a different sounding honk. His partner tries touching his own body and nothing happens. He tries again and nothing happens. Mike reaches over and pinches his partner’s rear end creating a high pitched honk from a bicycle horn.
Mike uses the rule of three to set up many of his gags. For example, Mike will move in front of his partner, open his arms wide in a position known as the circus as a “style for applause”, and shout, “Ta-Dah!” His partner gives him the bums rush by grabbing him by the back of the collar, lifting until Mike is on his toes, and swinging Mike around behind him. Mike returns, styles in front of his partner again, and yells “Ta-Dah!” His partner grabs him by the back of the collar and gives him the bums rush a second time. Mike returns one more time to style and shout. Then before his partner can react, Mike reaches over his head, grabs the back of his own collar, lifts until he is on tip toe, and then makes an exit. (Carole and I use this gag both in and out of clown character.)
Kirk Wyse is another accomplished ice clown. He was a quadruple medalist in U.S. Figure Skating Championships, placing in pairs, dance, singles, and free style. He is known for a Charlie Chaplin routine with a dog named Scrapette. I saw him perform his charming routine in the Ice Capades in 1990 and 1992. He has performed it in other ice shows around the world. In 1990 he also performed a burlesque wrestling act with Mark Lang.
Estaban “Little Lito’ Haliana
Little Lito is another well known ice skating clown. I saw him just once with one of the Disney on Ice ™ productions. Unfortunately I don’t remember much of his routine at this point but my recollection is that he was a Chaplin style character.
Additional Clown acts
This is in no way an exhaustive list of clowns who appeared in ice shows. There are many other skating clowns that I saw one time, or that I did not see at all. Some of them appeared in ice shows for a short time.
In addition to those clowns who used skating skill in their acts, other clowns and variety acts appeared in the ice reviews. Dennis Lacombe became famous for a music conductor routine that he performed in one of the Cirque du Soleil productions. I saw him perform the same routine, on a platform set up at the edge of the ice, in one of the Ice Capades productions. I saw Peluzza perform a chivari routine with men from the ice chorus on mats covering a portion of the ice in another ice show. I saw Don Dunfleld perform his “Diving Fool” comedy diving and trampoline act in the 1983 Ice Capades production. I saw some outstanding circus variety acts, like the juggling of Albert Lucas, in ice shows.
Stars on Ice
The large ice reviews
utilized chorus lines, spectacular sets, and costumed characters like the
Smurfs. After winning the Gold Medal
at the 1984 Winter Olympics, Scott Hamilton began his professional career with
the Ice Capades.
He became frustrated with the elaborate
production values which he felt detracted from the skating.
In 1986 he was instrumental in creating a new show called
Stars on Ice which used minimal sets
and a cast of national and world champions.
The show did not include any variety acts.
Stars on Ice competed with the large established ice revues and now
only the former Ice Follies, renamed
Disney on Ice
remain in the
In one way
Stars on Ice reduced the number of
opportunities for skating clowns in the
Kurt Browning in particular is a Stars on Ice cast member who perpetuates the art of clowning on ice. Browning was the first person to perform a quadruple jump in competition. He has studied the history and art of clowning to create a character named Raggidin. His performances are amazing. They appear simple, but are technically complex. His first Raggidin routine was created for the 1998 Professional Figure Skating competitions where he was the first person to receive a perfect score. A description of that routine, which also was originally published in The Clown In Times, is available at
Browning has performed other clown routines in Stars on Ice productions. I remember one in which a breakaway pair of pants instantly turned into a tuxedo coat with tails. He doesn’t wear traditional clown make up. He uses a red nose to indicate that he is in character. He continually surprises the audience. I remember in one routine he took off his nose, threw it high in the air, caught it in his mouth, and ate it. (I suspect that his nose had been formed out of salt water taffy.)
Ice reviews are an important venue for clowning. Clowns combined technical skill with strong entertainment. Their clowning was not based upon their appearance, but upon the character they portrayed, their interaction with the audience, and their humor. I have been inspired by them and have learned things that I have incorporated into my own performances as a clown.
Fortunately many ice show performances were filmed so they have been preserved for our study. Many of the ice shows produced highlight television productions to help promote their appearances. The Great Circuses of the World 1989 television series, hosted by Mary Hart, included ice shows as a type of circus. Variety shows like Ed Sullivan and the Donnie and Marie Osmond show sometimes featured ice clowns.
As you watch the
skating competitions this winter, including those at the Winter Olympics in
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Disney on Ice are trademarks of Feld Entertainment, Inc.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Clowning Around published by the World Clown Association.
Copyright 2013 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson. All rights reserved.
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