33: Clownfall

A true story of crime, infatuation, betrayal, and death. And also clowns.

Slivers the clown was a superstar. In the years before Charlie Chaplin became famous on the Big Screen, Slivers was famous in the Big Top. He was the best-known clown of his generation. He played to crowds of thousands at Madison Square Garden and the Hippodrome. He made up to $1,000 for a week of performances, the equivalent of around $30,000 today.

Slivers was tall and lanky. His act was entirely pantomime. His most famous routine was a baseball game he acted out, playing every position on both teams with an invisible ball. Audiences loved it. Buster Keaton was such a huge fan that years later he paid homage to the baseball routine in his film The Cameraman.

Slivers spent part of his career as half of a two-person act alongside a clown named Marceline, who was famous in his own right. One of their bits was a boxing routine, with Slivers towering over Marceline who couldn’t get a punch in. As part of his costume, Slivers had comically oversized feet. The New York Times described them as “a foot long and covered with rings and colored stones.” It’s said that this is the origin of the big feet that have become a clown costume standard. That’s how influential Slivers was.

Slivers’ real name was Frank Oakley. His father was a clown, as was his father before him. His mother was a concert singer who dreamed that Frank would do something more professional. After flirting with circus life as a teenager, he eventually dropped out of college to pursue the circus full time. He landed a job doing chores for Barnum & Bailey and became close friends with the elephant keeper “Nosey” Monroe, who became his test audience for a routine where he did pratfalls pretending to jump over the elephants. Before long he was performing for the whole circus crew, and his career as a clown took off.

Frank married a vaudeville singer named Nellie Dunbar in 1902, and they had a daughter, Ruth. The marriage didn’t last long. Nellie left Frank after six years.

Being a clown wasn’t always easy. In a 1910 interview, Frank described the abuse that clowns sometimes got from unruly children:

“It’s funny,” said Slivers, his eyes resting thoughtfully on his circus feet: “it’s funny how people can’t understand that we clowns are fellow-human animals with just about the same outfit of feelings that the rest of ’em have. I suppose it’s because people have become so accustomed to seeing the clown always getting the worst end of it in the circus ring that they’ve come to think that he’s built to stand the same kind of a hand-out all along the line.

“Do you see that?” asked Slivers, pointing to a long white scar just below his right eyebrow.

“Now, you’d never guess how I picked that up. It’s a little souvenir of my last appearance in Chicago. I was just entering the ring when a young hopeful out with his dad for an afternoon’s amusement shied an old can at me. The ragged edges of the tin caught me. As I mopped the blood out of my eye I was comforted by this conversation:

“‘Say, Pa, did you see me hit that clown?’

“‘Yes, son.’

“‘It was a corking shot, wasn’t it, Pa?’

“‘It was, my son.’

“I couldn’t miss my cue to get busy in the ring. Otherwise that young hopeful’s trousers would have needed patching.”

In another interview he told of a performance where kids pelted him with peanuts and popcorn during a slackline routine. “I lost my balance and fell. I don’t know how I escaped broken bones. I guess it was because a certain kind of providence watches over actors and circus performers.”

In 1913, Frank was in his early forties, playing a show in Utica on the same bill as a pretty blond 16-year-old actress named Viola Stoll. One night, after Viola was fired from the show, Frank found her in tears. So he offered to buy her a ticket back to Manhattan. A few days later he also returned to the city, and the two stayed in touch.

She didn’t have many friends in New York, and when she soon ran out of money, Frank suggested that she stay at his place. They lived together for a few weeks and Frank grew more fond of Viola. He gave her some expensive jewelry that had belonged to his ex-wife.

The situation was exactly as messed up and one-sided as it sounds. Here’s how Viola later described this time:

I was down and out when I met Slivers. He went with me to several managers, thinking his influence would get me a position, but it was the end of the season. Then, he said I could stay at his house. I was desperate and went. I had known him only two or three months and wasn’t dazzled by his fame because I didn’t know how great he was. I was only 16 and hadn’t been in the business long … I didn’t like being with him and said so after two weeks. He wouldn’t let me go.

One day while Frank was in Baltimore, Viola saw an opportunity to flee. She took the jewelry and left. She pawned a ring for $200 and went to St. Louis where she had friends and family.

Frank came home, found Viola and the jewelry gone, and called the police. Viola believed the jewelry to be a gift, but Frank claimed that she had stolen it. The cops caught up with Viola in St. Louis and she was arrested. Aside from the one piece she pawned, all the jewelry was recovered, around $5,000 worth.

Frank told Viola that things would be easier if she pleads guilty. She did, and was sentenced to three years at the New York State Reformatory for Women in Bedford.

Frank told the judge that he wanted to help Viola, and the probation officer said that if he felt the same way in six months perhaps something could be done. But as Viola told it, “he didn’t stick to me. After two months he said he had been thinking it over and didn’t care enough about me to disgrace his little girl any more. He wanted to get rid of me.”

And so Viola served her sentence while Frank moved on.

Two and a half years later, Frank wasn’t doing so well. His ex-wife died and he began drinking heavily. He wasn’t commanding nearly as much money as he used to, but he was still working. During a performance in Chicago, he ran into Viola’s mother, who was an actress. She told him that Viola was doing well, and would be leaving the reformatory that summer.

Frank got to thinking.

One day in early March of 1916, three months before the end of Viola’s sentence, he went to the reformatory and told the superintendent Mrs. Moore that he wanted to marry Viola Stoll and take her away with him. As his wife, she would get released on parole. He had just signed a contract with Barnum & Bailey and the two of them could go traveling with the show as husband and wife — although it’s unclear how this would work, as the terms of parole didn’t allow for parolees to leave the state. But Mrs. Moore said she would pass along the message.

Viola Stoll of course wanted no part of Frank Oakley. “He never loved me,” she said. “If he had, he would have paid me some attention since he disgraced me and had me sent up here. I never loved him. I was afraid of him and I never wanted to hear his name again.”

Viola said she’d rather finish her sentence than marry Frank, and furthermore begged Mrs. Moore not to give him her contact information after she leaves the reformatory.

So Mrs. Moore wrote a letter to deliver the news. But before it reached Frank, he was already dead.

Shortly before 2:00 in the morning on March 8, 1916, police were called in response to a strong smell of gas coming from Frank’s apartment on West 71st Street. The door was barricaded and they had to break it down. Inside, they found Frank dead on the floor, partly dressed, having committed suicide by gas asphyxiation. He had put towels against the thresholds and turned on the gas.

Mrs. Moore hadn’t sent her letter directly to Frank but to a friend who was supposed to deliver the news. However he hadn’t yet had the opportunity — it had only been 12 hours since Frank’s visit to the reformatory — so it’s unclear whether or not Frank actually knew he had been rejected. But his friends assumed the word had somehow gotten to him already.

At the end of his life, nobody was laughing.

Afterword

I’ve long thought that there’s a movie to make from this story. It’s an interesting period piece with colorful characters and locations and a story so intriguing that I’ve been thinking about it since I first heard it more than ten years ago. But it’s also a story about a person’s despicable downfall with no redemption arc, which makes it hard to tell without being a bit of a downer. Perhaps it would need to be told from Viola’s perspective. Or maybe there’s a gimmick where Slivers and Frank Oakley are treated as distinct characters, and Slivers becomes disgusted with Frank later in their life.

I heard at some point that one of Frank’s grandchildren wrote a screenplay, but I don’t think it ever went into production. I found some evidence that there may have been a stage adaptation of Frank’s story, but I can’t find any information about it. There was also an attempt a few years ago to crowdfund money for a documentary, but it didn’t come close to meeting its goal.

The most recent update I could find on Viola Stoll is an interview just two days after Frank’s death, which is where her quotes in this story come from. In the interview, she said she had no desire to return to show business, and planned to move to Chicago where her mother lived and take up dressmaking.

Echos in the Modern Circus

From what I can tell, Slivers is highly regarded in the clown community for his contributions to the industry, and it seems that Frank Oakley was well-liked in his own time when he wasn’t in character. I don’t see very much criticism today of how he treated Viola. But there are disturbing echoes of Slivers in the modern circus.

Just a few years ago, Barry Lubin, the clown who headlined the Big Apple Circus for decades with his character Grandma, resigned after he was accused of pressuring a 16-year-old aerialist to pose for nude photos. Like Slivers, he lured her with promises that he could get her work with the circus. The incident occurred in 2004 but she came forward with the allegations in 2018 after seeing he had emerged from taking time off and was headlining again. He admitted that it was true and left the circus for good.

Last year an Instagram account was established called @victims_voices_circus which describes itself as a “safe space for victims of sexual abuse in the circus community” to anonymously tell their stories. You can learn more about that movement on the website Circus Talk.

One Last Tragedy

You remember Marceline? He was Slivers’ partner from way back at the beginning of this story. Around the same time that Slivers’ career was on its decline, so was Marceline’s. Movies were beginning to excite audiences, and clowns just weren’t as popular as they used to be. His wife left him. He made ends meet playing benefits and doing corporate gigs. He languished for a while. And then in 1927, in the hotel where he had been living, he committed suicide by gunshot.

And with that, we bring another edition of the newsletter to a close. But wait, I can’t leave you on such a downer. So to end on a lighter note, here is Buster Keaton’s homage to Slivers’ baseball routine. Enjoy it, and I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for reading!

David