Merriam-Webster defines “clown” as “a fool, jester, or comedian in an entertainment (as a play); specifically: A grotesquely dressed comedy performer in a circus.” Lately, the grotesque element seems to be winning over the comedic one, with reports of scary clown hysteria sweeping the world, and a frightening orange-faced one running for the White House.
Torontonians have long been alternately amused and angered by clowns. We smile each year at those who walk in the Santa Claus Parade, or at adorable trick-or-treaters every Hallowe’en. We scowled when off-duty clowns provoked a mid-19th century circus riot. We shuffle kids off to them for amusement during parties or public events.
This week’s quartet of stories touches on some classic stereotypes surrounding clowns. The performer who finds little joy in their civilian identity. The child who fears clowns. The inappropriate use of certain venues to engage in a little tomfoolery. The temptation to join the political circus.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages, we direct your attention to the centre ring, where the clowns are about to arrive…
Fifi the Clown and the Infinite Sadness
Two things stand out while tracing the half-century career of Fifi the Clown via the Toronto press: His given name never appeared the same twice, and, out of costume, he was deeply melancholic. “My life has been one long round of sadness ever since I was a youngster,” he once observed.
Writers loved describing how miserable Fifi was during interviews. Headlines such as “Jolly Clown Melancholy in Real Life” and “Fifi’s Sad Face Not All Provided by Greasepaint” played up the stereotype of the merry entertainer who is gloomy offstage. Fifi’s background was enough to make anyone grim: Born in Ireland during the first decade of the 20th century, he was placed in an orphanage at age five. He was sent to Canada several years later by a religious order, where he performed farm work and was abused at school. He ran away to join a circus in his teens.
Fifi built a solid career performing at church picnics, country fairs, clubs, the CNE, the Royal Winter Fair, and the Rameses Shrine Circus at Maple Leaf Gardens. During the Second World War he enlisted in the RCAF and spent three years entertaining airmen across North America. He declared himself “Canada’s king of the clowns” and carried around an increasingly battered briefcase full of photos and clippings to push upon reporters (who, if one reads between the lines of interviews with Fifi, found the experience depressing). “I’m known in every city in Canada,” he once moaned, “but nobody knows anything about me.”
What we can trace of his life reinforces his oh-woe-is-me attitude. In 1934 he was jailed for 15 weeks in Buffalo for lying about his citizenship shortly after accepting an offer to join a travelling circus while performing at Sunnyside. The Star hinted that the fired clown he replaced tipped off American immigration officials. Recounting the experience, Fifi noted that while he was treated decently, he had to eat dinner with dope fiends, gunman, and condemned men. He lost his marriage licence in 1939, which was found by a young girl who took it to the Star’s office. A swim near Centre Island to cool off on a hot day in 1944 nearly ended in drowning. He claimed to be estranged from his children, noting that “the root of things is that a man puts up a fight in his own way.”
His soft spot, likely based on his time in the orphanage, was performing for homeless and ill children, leading to appearances at Sick Kids Hospital. But performing for children also hinted at personal darkness. When he told the Globe and Mail’s Scott Young that “love of kids is the only thing that saved me from actually turning the other way” in 1960, Young was puzzled by Fifi’s statement and was afraid to ask what it meant.
Fifi, whose real name was given as numerous combinations of John/Richard/Dick and Mahony/Mahoney/O’Mahoney, claimed in a 1949 interview with the Globe and Mail’s Bruce West that “the only time I’m happy is when I’m in my costume and makeup, doing my act. The moment I get into my street clothes I get the blues. I can’t help it. I just worry all the time.” West claimed they shared a good cry at the end of that conversation. “For Pete’s sake, Fifi,” West requested, “the next time you drop in to say hello, wear your costume, will you?”
By the mid-1960s, bookings declined. During a 1964 interview, he claimed that television had destroyed clowning, that he was only one of three “real clowns” left in Canada (discounting nightclub comics whose slapstick didn’t amuse him) and that teenagers were the worst audience due to their smug attitudes. Still, he remained active at the CNE through the mid-1970s.
The last trace we found of Fifi was a 1984 Star article on income diversity in Parkdale. Living in a tidy rented room near Exhibition Place, Fifi served as an example of the dismal experiences of the elderly and poor living in the neighbourhood. He was still pretty miserable. “Everything’s changing,” he sighed before drifting back into his room. “Oh yes, everything is changing.”
What If Your Child Is Afraid of Clowns?
For the youngster with a severe case of coulrophobia, we look to a mid-1950s edition of the syndicated “Your Baby and Mine” column which appeared in the Star. A Mrs. E.C. wrote in to request help for her three-year-old daughter who was frightened by television clowns. Writer Myrtle Meyer Eldred suggested that the mother practice patience and understanding to work through the girl’s fear. “You might help her by buying her a clown or other funny costume and tell her she will laugh when she sees herself in it. Show her how she looks and when she realizes it is she—in the costume, she should stop being afraid.” The column ends with a plug for “Common Childhood Fears,” the 60th in a series of leaflets by Eldred.
Clowns and Cenotaphs Don’t Mix
A circus-style atmosphere reigned over the baseball Maple Leafs home opener on May 4, 1960. Fans lined Bay Street as the players rode by in open convertibles from Harbour Street to (Old) City Hall. There, the team was greeted by a marching band, a jazz ensemble, a television orchestra, and a barker to introduce them.
Mayor Nathan Phillips predicted the team, which finished in the International League basement the previous season, would capture the pennant. After he spoke, a clown covered in soft drink ads walked up the steps of City Hall and handed Phillips a long-stemmed rose. As the clown walked away, he left Phillips holding the stem, prompting laughter among the 5,000 spectators. The clown soon returned and broke an orange balloon in Phillips’s face.
Not everybody smiled. During the festivities, many people leaned against or sat upon the cenotaph in front of City Hall for a better view. This incensed Civic Employees’ War Veterans Association president Charles Taylor. “The memorial is consecrated ground. We had assurance from the city it would be treated with respect,” Taylor told the Globe and Mail. “I just hope those people would not sit on their own relatives’ graves.” Several city councillors were also not amused by the spectacle, considering the clown an example of bad taste. Not that Phillips, the “Mayor of all the People” who enjoyed public displays of humour, would have cared much about their concerns.
The clowning didn’t help the Maple Leafs, who lost to the Miami Marlins 2-0 despite starting pitcher Al Cicotte only giving up three hits. The opener wasn’t a bad omen, as the team lived up to Phillips’s prediction and won the league title.
Rosy for Mayor
1974 was not among the most thrilling mayoral races in Toronto history. Unlike the fierce contest David Crombie won two years earlier, his quest for a second term faced few obstacles. None of council’s heavy hitters ran against him, nor did anyone attempt to return from the political wilderness. When the final candidate list was released in early November, it was Crombie versus 10 fringe candidates.
With the potential for a circus-like atmosphere among Crombie’s challengers, a professional clown stepped into the race.
Rosy Sunrise, who belonged to the Puck Rent-a-Fool group of clowns, saw an opportunity to educate families about the electoral process. She went into schools to perform for kids, encouraging them to tell their parents to vote. Buttons and bumper stickers were distributed with the slogan “vote early and often.”
Rosy felt that her efforts were good for raising interest in the election, as well as improving her clowning skills. “I really resent being called a headline hunter,” she told the Star. “We devised a policy that we’d lower the voting age to nine to make our campaign even more ludicrous. We don’t expect or want to get any votes.” The press played on the humorous aspects of her campaign, including declaring that her first action as mayor would be to declare a recount. Attending all-candidate meetings was occasionally a challenge whenever a babysitter couldn’t be secured.
While some observers felt Rosy’s presence made a mockery of the election, at least her aims made more sense than other challengers. While she got her professional name on the ballot, Rik Peretz failed in his bid to be listed as “Rik of the Universe.” He clad himself entirely in black, complete with a cape, mask, and leather pants. Complaining about few invites to candidate meetings, he became the ’74 campaign’s equivalent of Donald Trump when he claimed that “the election has been rigged against me from the very beginning.” Rik urged people to avoid voting, noting that he would claim victory if only a minority of Torontonians cast their ballots. He also vowed to fly through the streets nightly to fight crime. Other candidates included an anti-sin clergyman who felt the city was heading toward the abyss, a writer who wanted to separate Toronto from the province to create a libertarian oasis for Canada, and a white supremacist.
While he wondered how seriously his opponents took themselves, and cut his campaign budget in half, Crombie attended candidate meetings. “I don’t think I’m wasting my time because the campaign is worthwhile,” he told the Star. “People have an opportunity to ask questions about my two years in office and say what they like and don’t like.” He didn’t feel that the collection of oddballs cheapened the race.
Rik of the Universe’s hopes for election day were fulfilled, though we wonder if he was disappointed to receive just over 1,000 votes. Due to low interest in the municipal campaigns and heavy snow fall, turnout across Metro Toronto on December 2, 1974, was only 27 per cent. In the City of Toronto, Crombie won over 100,000 votes, placing him 95,000 ahead of the second place finisher. Unfortunately, Rosy wasn’t the runner-up, though she managed to earn 2,294 votes to finish in fourth.
The person who sat behind Crombie caused consternation: white supremacist Don Andrews, who attracted 5,662 votes. Under rules at the time, if Crombie had died during the campaign, Andrews, whose platform was so vile that Crombie refused to utter his name, could have become the new mayor. The thought terrified politicians like North York mayor Mel Lastman, who felt such a possibility “inspires fear because of what it would do the reputation of Toronto by having a fascist mayor.” The rules were soon changed to prevent runner-ups from the right to succeed the mayor.
As for Rosy, she resurfaced a few years later as a radio host at Brampton’s CHIC under her real name, Vicki Gabereau. By the end of the decade, she began her long association with CBC Radio. “She brought to the campaign a nice zaniness that almost made a mundane political bash interesting for awhile,” Star radio columnist Bruce Blackadar observed in a profile of Gabereau in 1980. In the same piece, she reflected on her days as Rosy Sunrise—while she enjoyed the experience, “I wasn’t a very good clown. I was always shy. I didn’t want to make an ass out of myself. I was a ‘mumsy’ clown.”
Additional material from the August 16, 1949, May 4, 1960, May 5, 1960, July 16, 1960, April 28, 1964, and November 11, 1974 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the October 18, 1934, February 28, 1939, November 24, 1943, July 12, 1944, October 20, 1956, November 2, 1974, November 12, 1974, November 29, 1974, November 30, 1974, December 3, 1974, December 5,1974, June 7, 1980, and June 11, 1984 editions of the Toronto Star.
Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
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