Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


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In Appreciation Of Libraries

By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson


I have done very few library shows, but I spend a lot of time in public libraries.  I am at my local library at least three times a month, and when I travel I like to visit the public library and browse through their collection.  I believe a public library is one of the most valuable resources for a variety artist.  If it wasn’t for the public library I doubt that I would have become a professional entertainer.

  I became the proud owner of my own library card when I was seven years old.  A year later it became very valuable when magic became my hobby.  I checked out every book our library had on magic, and repeatedly checked out The Amateur Magician’s Handbook by Henry Hay.  Those books taught me the basic principles of magic and made it possible for me to construct some of my own effects. 

  In Junior High, I checked out The Man Who Was Magic by Paul Gallico.  It is a novel about a fictional town of magicians.  It’s theme of achieving success by remaining true to yourself has guided my career.  It is another book that I checked out of the library many times over the years.  I recently realized that one of the characters, Ninian The Nonpareil, was a major influence when I created Charlie, my clown character.

  In 1974, I began clowning as a hobby while I was in college.  There was very little information available at that time about clowning.  In the search for more information I went to the library to consult a reference book called the Periodical Guide To Literature.  That book gave me a list of magazine articles related to clowning.  I gave the reference librarian the list and she checked to see which ones were available in the library’s files of back issues.  She gave me a copy of Scouting Magazine which had an article on Circus Kirk, a professional circus that hired high school and college students for the summer season.  The article included an address for the circus.  I sent them my resume, and to my delight was hired.  It was my experience with that show that gave me the foundation to become a professional entertainer. 

  I have spent a lot of time and money collecting my own personal reference library.  However, I still rely heavily upon my public library.  The bibliography for Creativity For Entertainers lists over 200 books that I used during my research.  At least a fourth of them are books I obtained from my public library.  Through the interlibrary loan program, my local library was able to give me access to two rare and valuable books that I wanted to use to confirm some information.  One of the books was so rare that I was not allowed to take it out of the library.  I could sit in the study room for as long as I wanted to read it during a week, and then it had to be sent back to the library that had loaned it.  The reference librarian at your own library can help you use the interlibrary loan program to borrow books that you have been looking for.

There is a lot of free information on the internet, but there are other very useful sites that charge a premium to access them.  Some public libraries subscribe to those services and then provide them to their patrons.  I have found some very interesting information by using those sources.  For example, while researching Bert Williams, an International Clown Hall of Fame inductee, I discovered an ad from a 1903 issue of the New York Times for “In Dahomey”, a Broadway show Bert Williams produced along with his partner, George Walker.  According to the ad, the show began at 8:15 and “at 9:30 PM – Don’t Miss It – Bert Williams sings his famous comic song, ‘I’m a Jonah Man.’”  I know about the song, but didn't realize that it was so popular it got its own mention in advertising to make sure late arrivals to the theater were on time to hear him perform it.  I would never had learned that without the service provided by my public library.

Even with free internet content it can still be difficult to find what you are looking for.  Search engines may give you a list of hundreds of possible web sites.  I've learned that librarians at reference desks know some useful web sites and can direct me to them.  For example, my wife and I both enjoyed books by a particular author and had read everything they wrote.  I asked the reference librarian if he could recommend similar books.  He immediately went to a web site maintained by another public library, entered the name of the author we liked, and printed out a two page list of recommended books that were similar in style and theme.  We have both enjoyed reading books off that list that we probably would not have discovered without the assistance of the librarians.  There have been other times when the reference librarian was able to find information for me by going directly to a relevant web site they were knew about without the need to wade through a list of search engine results.

  You can gain valuable information by doing research at the library.  You can also gain a lot of ideas just by browsing.  I often pick a library aisle at random to wander down.  I pick up a book that catches my eye and glance through planting idea seeds that may sprout later.  For example, I picked up a book on kite construction and discovered that the design of one of the kites was a perfect design for a silk production for my act. 

  I don’t just read for information.  Reading mystery novels is one of my favorite forms of entertainment.  Even then, I often learn from the novels.  I learned some additional information about Native American clowns by reading Sacred Clowns, a mystery novel by Tony Hillerman.

  Last winter I read The Cat Who Brought Down The House by Lillian Jackson Braun.  It is part of her series of mysteries featuring John Qwilleran, a newspaper columnist who lives with two cats.  One of the cats likes to knock books off a shelf.  In this story, Qwilleran can’t think of a subject for his column.  So, he sets the cat down in front of a bookcase.  He uses the title of the first book to hit the floor as the subject for his article.

  That is an example of a creativity technique known as a Forced Relationship.  I was aware of the technique, but had not used it much myself.  The deadline for an article for my column in Clowning Around was two days after I finished that novel. I did not have an idea about what to write about.  I had several slips of paper on my desk with notes for Creativity For Entertainers.  Inspired by the Braun story, I decided to pick a slip at random and start writing about it.  It worked.  It started a chain of associations that lead me to an idea I could use for the article.  Within a couple of hours I had gone from not having any idea to having a finished article.  Since then a Forced Relationship has been my favorite way to jump start my thinking when needed.

  Reading not only provides information, but it can also provide inspiration.  I have used my love of mystery stories to inspire routines.  I have performed as Charlie, my tramp character, most often.  However, one year early in my career I experimented with a whiteface clown character who was a detective named Sirlock Homes, Private Defective.  Mystery was also the inspiration for a routine combining magic and juggling.  I had three people pick cards from a deck used to play Clue.  Then to reveal the selected cards I juggled a paperback book, a bottle of mustard, and a hank of rope tied into a noose because Colonel Mustard committed the murder in the library using a noose.

  In The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People, David Niven, Ph, D., wrote, “Those who read books benefit from what they learn and the entertainment they receive.  But in addition, they get to exercise their brain, and when we do that, we feel satisfied that we are spending our time wisely.”

  The puzzle element of mysteries provides an obvious mental exercise, but I think any type of literature provides two valuable types of exercise.

  First, because reading inspires you to create mental images it gives you practice in visualization.  Studies have proven that visualization is a useful tool both for generating new ideas and for preparing to perform.

  Second, I believe that literature rich in metaphors and similes makes you mentally more flexible.  Studies have shown that humor is an effective mental warm up for creativity because the majority of jokes create one mental image and then force you to switch to another mental image.  Many jokes do this by starting with one meaning of a word and then changing to a different meaning.  I have not seen any studies on the effect of metaphors, but I believe they work in the same way.  A metaphor causes you to switch mental images.  Authors are encouraged to collect interesting metaphors.  The intent is not to plagiarize them, but to read them for inspiration.  I think authors have intuitively realized that reading them serves as a mental warm up allowing you to consider more varied ideas.  Read these two examples.

  “… a palm tree arched like the slender arm of a cheerleader to pom-pom-like fronds.”  (“The Kanaima” by Scott Kackay.  Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 2004)

  “We sat in a living room I’d been in a hundred times before in other remote corners of New Jersey .  It was the architectural equivalent of an old gym shoe: aromatic, broken-down, and comfortable.” (“A Sunday In Ordinary Time” by Terence Faherty.  Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine August 2004)

  How many different images came to mind as you read those passages?  The changing images increase your mental flexibility which is then useful in generating new ideas for routines.

  As a variety artist you should spend time at a public library.  It is a great source of mental exercise, information, and inspiration.  If you want to be a more creative entertainer, the library will help you both with imagination and implementation of great new ideas.  I am very grateful for the many contributions the public library has made to my life and my career.


This article was originally written for the Funny Paper Magazine.  A condensed version of the article appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of that magazine.


Copyright 2004 by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson.  All rights reserved.


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