As a book about the Milan-born performer who rose to become one of Britain’s most famous clowns is published, Douglas McPherson delves into his legacy, which includes nearly 40 seasons as the star of the Blackpool Tower Circus
If one name is synonymous with clowning, it is Charlie Cairoli. Even 40 years after his death, Cairoli remains probably Britain’s best-known clown, thanks to his children’s TV series Right Charlie! and a record-breaking near 40 seasons as the star of the Blackpool Tower Circus. His achievements are celebrated in a new book, Charlie Cairoli – 39 Years Under the Tower by Nigel Male and Steven B Richley. It combines photos and posters with the clown’s own account of his life as originally recorded in Write Charlie, the newsletter of the Charlie Cairoli Appreciation Society, and a series of newspaper articles in the 1960s.
He was born Hubert Jean Charles Cairoli on February 15, 1910, in Affori, Milan. His parents and grandparents were all circus performers. “Our roots in the circus go deep,” Cairoli said. His great-grandfather had trained under Joseph Grimaldi, the English pantomime star known as the father of clowning, and after whom clowns are still nicknamed Joeys. Another legendary clown, Grock, had once played the organ for Cairoli’s great uncle.
As a baby, Cairoli was looked after by his grandmother while his parents performed with France’s leading circus, Cirque Pinder, as the clown act Messina and Catastrophe. The duo was named after an earthquake in Messina, Italy, a couple of years before. At the age of eight, Cairoli joined his parents’ knockabout musical act. Wearing blackface and dressed as a bellboy, he played saxophone, xylophone, banjo and guitar, which he’d learned under his father’s “stern and remorseless teaching”.
The trio performed all over Europe, but their fortunes were precarious nonetheless. “My father was a great artist, but he was the world’s worst businessman. Sometimes we would be down to our last 50 francs, and had to pawn everything we had to buy the train fare to our next engagement,” Cairoli said.
‘Our roots in the circus go deep’ – Charlie Cairoli
By his late teens, Cairoli adopted the stage name Carletto and, inspired by Charlie Chaplin, began to develop his trademark look of bowler hat and small moustache. By that point, his mother had left the act, and he appeared in the Trio Cairoli with his father, Jean Marie, and another clown, Porto. The highlight of their act was the young Cairoli’s send-up of then dance craze the Charleston while playing the sax. His show-stopping performance won the trio a 12-year residency in a building known as the temple of clowning, the Cirque Medrano in Paris.
The engagement was almost derailed in the first week when the trio travelled out of town for an afternoon show in an old folks home. Their driver got lost on the way back and they missed their evening performance. Cairoli slunk in the stage door expecting to be fired, only to discover that the evening’s performance had been unexpectedly cancelled due to the death of the proprietor’s father. The long engagement at the 1,200-seat Medrano was a creative time, as the Cairolis had to devise a new act each week. “Often only a matter of hours before opening night we would still be reading feverishly through the papers hoping to find some items in the news that would give us a new gag,” he remembered.
Parisian circuses traditionally closed during the summer, and in 1929 the trio used the break to make its British debut at the Empire Theatre, Bristol, and the London Alhambra, where they earned as much in a fortnight as they did in four months in France.
In 1934, Cairoli married Violetta Fratellini, the daughter of another famous circus family, whom he met while she was sharing the bill at the Medrano in a knockabout acrobatic act, the Tomboys Girls. “It was a real circus wedding,” said Cairoli. “It made the front-page news in all the Paris papers.”
When Porto left the trio, he was replaced by Cairoli’s elder brother, Philip, who was 10 years his senior. The act transferred to Cirque d’Hiver in Paris and also toured Denmark and Germany where, at Circus Krone, they appeared in a special show for Adolf Hitler. After the show, the German dictator presented Cairoli with an inscribed watch. Soon after, in 1939, the Cairolis were booked for their first summer season at the Blackpool Tower Circus, where they were an immediate hit. When war broke out that September, Cairoli walked to the end of the pier. He threw his present from Hitler into the sea and never went home.
Philip left the act to join the French Free Army, and Cairoli and his father continued performing at Blackpool and around Britain as the Cairoli Brothers.
Looking back on his war years, Cairoli was especially proud of a silver mug presented to him by the RAF as a thank you for his performances at bomber stations. “What an audience they were, those wonderful, carefree boys, enjoying what must have been for so many of them their last laugh in this life.”
After the war, Jean Marie retired to France and was replaced by Paul Freedman as the whiteface clown to Cairoli’s auguste, the figure of fun. Jimmy Buchanan completed a new trio billed as Charlie Cairoli and his Company.
Cairoli’s popularity in Britain was confirmed in 1970 when he was the subject of This Is Your Life. He reached a further audience through his children’s TV series Right Charlie!, which first aired in 1972. Other TV appearances included David Nixon’s Comedy Bandbox and America’s Ed Sullivan Show. He also appeared on Desert Island Discs, where his selections ranged from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 to the Scaffold’s Lily the Pink.
Cairoli’s record-breaking run at the Tower Circus was brought to an end by a series of strokes that meant he was only able to work a few weeks of the 1979 season. He died the following year on February 17, aged 70.
Cairoli was one of the first clowns to pioneer the modern trend for minimal make-up, so as not to frighten younger children. His approachable nature led to one instance of unplanned slapstick. When a small lad asked if it hurt when another clown hit him on the nose, Cairoli explained that it was a false nose and took it off. The child promptly “landed a punch on my nose that made me see more stars than on the American flag”.
Charlie Cairoli – 39 Years Under the Tower by Nigel Male and Steven B Richley is published by Double Crown Books.
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