Yuri Belinsky/Sputnik; Yevgeny Ivanov, Semyon Mishin-Morgenshtern/MAMM/MDF/russiainphoto.ru

Just like any other clowns, they wore funny clothes, had painted faces and behaved in a silly way. Funny enough, in the Soviet Union, circus clowns probably played more important roles than silver screen stars. They helped those behind the Iron Curtain cope with mundane matters, proving the age old adage that laughter is always the best medicine.

1. Mikhail Rumyantsev (1901-1983)

Mikhail Rumyanyntsev was much inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, the Tramp.

Mikhail never cried over bad grades at school – he was born with a gift of laughter. At the beginning of his career in the late 1920s, Rumyantsev was profoundly moved and inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, the Tramp. Like Chaplin, Rumyantsev, whose stage name was Karandash (“The Pencil”), was also fairly clumsy, awkward and funny, and constantly found himself in embarrassing situations.

There was something innately comical and sad about him. He would turn up on stage dressed in an oversized suit and a hat. Despite being very short, just 142 cm tall (that’s less than five feet) he never worried about his looks (his wife was tall, beautiful and twenty years younger than him). The way he carried himself left no chance for an inferiority complex.

Rumyantsev’s partner in crime on stage was a Scottish Terrier nicknamed ‘The Blot’. During his long career, Karandash had performed with at least 13 Scotties.

Rumyantsev’s partner in crime on stage was a Scottish Terrier.

Rumyantsev actually became a clown quite by chance. In 1926, America’s sweetheart of silent cinema Mary Pickford and one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, Douglas Fairbanks, paid a visit to the Soviet Union. Rumyantsev saw the pair and decided to become an artist. He chose his stage name in 1935, to pay tribute to the 19th century French satirist Caran D’ache (whose pseudonym, in its turn, was a creative French transcription of karandash (карандаш), the Russian word for ‘pencil’).

The Soviet artist worked in the circus for over 55 years and his name on the billboard was invariably the guarantee of a sold-out show. However, Karandash didn’t like posters with his name. His peers said he was too modest to brag about success. On stage, he was just an ordinary bloke, good-natured, witty, cheerful, full of childlike spontaneity and charm.

His performances crossed genres, boasting stunts in acrobatics and gymnastics. Karandash became the first Soviet clown whose popularity transcended the geographical barriers of that time. In his best years, he had an army of fans in Finland, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Uruguay.

READ MORE: 10 funny Pepe the Frog doodles by Russian artists (PICS)

2. Slava Polunin (b.1950)

For Russia’s most famous clown, hope and laughter are like Siamese twins, bound together at some physical level. A sense of humor once helped Slava get through the turbulent times. Which is why Slava brings laughter wherever he goes.

Polunin's signature clown character ‘Assissai’ became the epitome of comic relief.

One of the founders of the Litsedei pantomime theater in St. Petersburg, Polunin is a master of tragi-comedy. His yellow clown character ‘Assissai’ became the epitome of comic relief.

Polunin made headlines shortly before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He organized the so-called ‘Peace Caravan’, in which mimes and clowns from across the globe got together to give street performances in Europe.

His major tour de force – ‘Slava’s Snowshow’ – has been staged in more than 80 countries worldwide, praised for warmth and wit, wisdom and sadness. Veering between laughter and tears, it was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and won dozens of theatrical awards, including the coveted Laurence Olivier award in 1998. 

His major tour de force – ‘Slava’s Snowshow’ – has been staged in more than 80 countries worldwide.

Polunin’s signature theatrical performances are like this: you laugh to keep from crying. Slava blends freedom with anarchy as naturally as a knowledgeable bartender mixes tomato juice with vodka. Polunin did himself a big favor when he allowed himself to be not only the clown, but also the artist and the thinker. 

(Read more)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.