Americans haven’t always hated mimes. In the nineteenth century clowns and pantomimes, imported from Europe at first, were enormously popular here, and the American pantomime George L. Fox was one of the very most successful entertainers in the land during the decade after the Civil War. Although he was inspired by French pantomimes, his act was nothing like the Marcel Marceau whimsy we came to know and loathe in modern times. The Three Stooges in whiteface comes closer to the mark.

He was born in Boston on July 3 1826 and named George Washington Lafayette Fox, the eldest of six kids. The family prophetically nicknamed him Laff, which they pronounced Lahf, like the first syllable of Lafayette. His parents worked backstage at the Tremont Theatre, for a while the only one in Boston. They put their kids to work on the stage as the Little Foxes, singing, dancing, acting in their own variety shows and in others’ productions. Laff was considered less skilled and charismatic than some of his siblings and relegated to comic buffoonery. The Foxes later intermarried with another theater family, the Howards, to form a popular company that toured morally uplifting programs like The Drunkard to New England’s Puritan and temperance towns.

When Laff was six the Ravel Family came to the Tremont. The French troupe was in effect the Cirque du Soleil of their time. An evening with the Ravels combined circus acrobatics (tumbling, rope-dancing, feats of strength), ballet numbers, and a pantomime play, often with a storybook theme. Their marvelous stage transformations in the pantomime part of the program had American audiences gasping and laughing for the next forty years. Startling appearances and disappearances abounded; performers seemed to skate on ice, walk through walls, sail in balloons, row boats across the stage. The Congregationalist minister and author Lyman Abbott describes a charming bit of Ravel stage magic in his Reminiscences: “The lover was captured and set up against a wall; soldiers filed in and shot him; he fell upon the floor in three or four pieces, a leg rolled off in one direction, an arm in another, the head in a third; the irate father marched off in triumph; friends of the lover came in, picked up the pieces, stood them up against the wall; one of the friends blew a blast on the magic whistle, and the recovered lover stepped down from the wall and executed a gay pirouette before our eyes.” Their comedy was broad but never low, and unlike much theater at the time it was considered suitable for respectable family audiences. Henry James, who saw them a number of times, praised their “pure grace and charm and civility.” They had come from Paris to New York’s Park Theatre in July 1832. Driven out of Manhattan by one of the city’s periodic cholera outbreaks, they took their show to Philadelphia and then to the Tremont that November.

They must have made a lasting impression on Fox, who would become their chief homegrown competitor, not to say shameless imitator. He triumphed by Americanizing — critics said coarsening — European clowning and pantomime for the working-class audiences on and around the Bowery. He arrived there in 1850 to take low comic roles at the New National Theatre, a variety house on Chatham Square run by “Captain” Alexander Purdy, whose rank was evidently as fanciful as Colonel Tom Parker’s a century later. A rather dour Yankee in private life, Fox didn’t look like a jolly comedian. Bony and gawky, his face narrow and pale and his nose long and thin, he did all his pratfalling and other silliness with a straight face, as though not in on the joke with his audience. Think Stan Laurel. His whiteface makeup didn’t obscure his features, the way a circus clown’s does, but accentuated them. On the Bowery he seemed an underdog playing to life’s underdogs, and they loved him for it. He was soon the National’s star, in an era when stars made or broke a theater.

In 1852, the National staged New York’s first dramatic interpretation of the most widely read and hotly contested novel of the era, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Even with the great minstrel Thomas Dartmouth Rice appearing in an afterpiece, the show closed after only two weeks. The National’s heavily Irish audience was generally against abolition, often violently so, but the real problem seems to have been that it was simply a bad production.

Meanwhile, the Foxes and Howards were staging their own adaptation in Troy, New York, written by family member George Aiken. It made Laff’s four-year-old niece Cordelia Howard, playing Little Eva, an overnight sensation. Laff convinced Captain Purdy to bring this version to the National. It opened in July 1853, with Laff taking a small role. It was a sensation, playing to packed houses and much ballyhoo in the city’s several newspapers. To satisfy the demand Purdy added regular Wednesday and Saturday matinees, the first theater manager in New York to do so. Everyone came to see the show. The great Edwin Forrest was moved to tears by little Cordelia’s performance. Black audiences flocked to a segregated section of the balcony. Other impresarios in town threw together their own versions, including Barnum at his American Museum, where he got T. D. Rice to play Uncle Tom. But the Fox-Howard production remained definitive, breaking records with 325 consecutive performances at the National, then touring the U.S. and England to similar success. Cordelia would continue to play Eva and other tearjerking kid roles until 1861, when she voluntarily gave up the stage at the age of thirteen.

Fox headlined in numerous other productions at the National, going from triumph to triumph, until 1858, when he felt a need to step up to another level. He took over management of the Bowery Theatre, the flagship of variety houses, and brought a lot of the National’s audience with him. Captain Purdy struggled without his star until 1862, when he closed the theater. He died that year.

In 1859 Fox and a partner built the grand New Bowery Theatre between Canal and Hester Streets, just a block up from the old one. Producing, directing and starring, Fox gave the Bowery boys a typical mix of slam-bang melodramas and riotous farces. When not in his own theater he visited Niblo’s Garden over on Broadway near Prince Street. From a fenced-in pleasure garden in the 1830s it had grown into a 3000-seat theater that was the Ravels’ home away from home in New York for decades. Both Abbott and James saw them there. Like everyone else Fox marveled at the Ravels’ stage effects. But he also studied them with a pro’s eyes to steal whatever he could use, a practice at least as common in the entertainment business then as it is today. (For instance, in the 1860s a new stage illusion came to New York from England: Pepper’s Ghost, in which an actor’s image was projected onto a clear sheet of glass with stupefying results. The girl-to-gorilla bit in carnival sideshows uses the same trick to this day. Fox and every other producer in town quickly figured it out and threw it into their shows, until every audience in New York had seen it and grown weary of it.)

Fox’s pantomime plays grew more and more openly imitations of the Ravels’, only roughed up and, it’s probably fair to say, dumbed down. He sometimes even billed his company as Fox’s Ravel Troupe. Like theirs, his shows had fairytale-themed titles — Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose and the Golden Egg — that were mere pretexts for antic tomfoolery and spectacular stage tricks. Unlike the Ravels’, his shows weren’t suitable for respectable families and kids, who didn’t venture into Bowery theaters anyway. The kids in his audience were street-hardened newsies, pickpockets, hooligans and gang members. He gave them lots of the violent slapstick that made them roar with laughter, and some winking sexual innuendo, and topical jokes. Satirical references to Tammany Hall’s brazen corruption or to the bumpkins of New Jersey always got a laugh.

After time off to serve as an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, Fox accepted an invitation from Barnum to perform at his museum on Broadway, near Niblo’s Garden. Although it was a move of just a few blocks, it was seen at the time as a leap across a vast social and cultural divide separating the vulgar amusements of the Bowery from the supposedly more refined fare offered middle-class patrons in Broadway venues. It was Fox’s first chance since Uncle Tom’s Cabin to get reviewed by the newspapers’ theater critics, who generally disdained to cover the Bowery houses. They now discovered what the Bowery boys had known for years, that Fox was a brilliant pantomime and a homegrown equal to the French. Still, they never quite let him forget the lowbrow taint of his Bowery days. As late as 1893, one theater historian would describe Fox as “a man of no intellectual power, but he was very expert in his peculiar vocation. He made clowning a fine art. His field was not high, but within it he was a chieftain.”

Fox took over management of his own Broadway theater, the Olympic, on the block above Houston Street. There in 1868 he debuted his magnum opus, Humpty Dumpty. Like his other shows it was only remotely related to the nursery rhyme, and in fact the title seems to have been picked at random. It started with Humpty’s giant egg cracking to release Fox in whiteface and wearing a magnificent commedia-style costume. After that it was a grab-bag of songs, dancing, stage spectacle and lots and lots of violent knockabout gags. A verse prologue continued to satirize topical subjects, including the then-popular romantic novelist George Payne Rainsford James and even the Ravels. A painted backdrop depicted the Tweed Courthouse, an outrageous Tammany Hall boondoggle that cost twice as much to build as the United States paid to buy Alaska. It was then seven years into its desultory construction. The painting showed the incomplete structure with a giant billboard announcing that it would be finished in 1960. (In fact it took twenty years and wasn’t completed until 1881.)

Years later, a former member of Fox’s troupe wrote an abbreviated version of the Humpty script from memory. Much of it is the sort of slapstick we’d recognize today as precursor to acts like Laurel & Hardy and the Three Stooges:

HUMPTY fires a stuffed brick from the wall and hits him bang on the head. FOP stops singing, runs down to footlights, takes off his hat and feels his head with his hand—looks at his hand—don’t see any blood—shakes his fist. HUMPTY throws second stuffed brick, which hits him in the head, and he does a sort of half-forward somersault, and lands sitting. He gets up quick, looks towards pig-pen, sees HUMPTY DUMPTY laughing, and shakes his fist at him. HUMPTY fires third stuffed brick. FOP dodges it and runs off … just as OLD ONE TWO comes out of cottage and catches brick in face, which knocks him down flat on his back in front of cottage. HUMPTY laughs, and ONE TWO gets up apparently stunned—picks up brick, looks at it, rubs his head, studies a moment, puts his finger aside his nose, and walks with a circling motion, the brick in his hand, to front of the pig-pen and looks behind it, supposing some one to be there hiding, when HUMPTY takes all the bricks and lets them fall on ONE TWO, who falls flat on his face from the weight of the bricks…

And so on and so on, with pies, bats, logs, guns, irons and assorted other devices of mayhem.

Broadway audiences found it all as hilarious as the Bowery ruffians had. Humpty was a gargantuan success. It ran for sixty-two weeks in its initial production, after which Fox periodically updated and revived it into the early 1870s. He performed it more than a thousand times himself, and there were touring productions with various stars, including his brother C. K. Fox. Like long-running Broadway hits today, Humpty became one of the de rigueur tourist destinations in New York City. By the early 1870s Fox was surrounding the pantomime with many other acts to create a packed evening of entertainment, almost a vaudeville program, including Tyrolean singers, “the Belgian Zig-Zags or Human Insects,” more acrobats, trick cyclists, even other pantomime companies. The caricaturist Thomas Nast drew wonderful illustrations of Fox as Humpty that helped make his name and image familiar everywhere. All sorts of Humpty Dumpty and Fox brand products appeared, from baking powder to cigars, appropriating some variation on Fox’s Humpty image as their logos. Theater historian Laurence Senelick even found a wooden cigar store Humpty. When Americans thought “clown” they saw Fox in whiteface.

He had other successes, including a parody of Hamlet in which he lampooned the leading Hamlet of the time, Edwin Booth (John Wilkes’ brother). Booth loved it, as did many other straight Shakespeareans, one of whom punned that Fox was “a great Dane.” But Humpty was his pinnacle and signature piece.

Then in 1874 Fox began a precipitous slide from being one of the country’s best-known comic figures to one of the most tragic. On and off the stage his behavior became increasingly erratic and bizarre. He shuffled and mumbled on stage, seemed to forget where he was, or flew into weird rages, attacking other performers. One night the crew had to restrain him from going on in his Civil War uniform rather than his clown costume. Off-stage he could be almost paralytic with lethargy. It became too obvious that he was in serious mental distress for his family and colleagues to hide it from the public. One popular and enduring theory was that the lead in the whiteface mask he’d applied every night for years was poisoning him. Another was that he was suffering the dementia associated with syphilis, which was rampant. Senelick argues that probably it was just physical exhaustion and mental stress. For years Fox had been the hardest-working man in show biz as a producer, director, writer, knockabout actor and business manager. By the mid-1870s he was a middle-aged man, a familiar old figure with a parade of younger, more limber imitators nipping at his heels. He was a terrible businessman and perpetually plagued by money troubles. The Panic of 1873, which caused a sharp economic downturn that spread as far as Europe, brought havoc on all theaters. It may be that it all just got to be too much for Fox.

He was in and out of asylums, said to be recovering and then slipping back again, until 1877, when he died at the age of 52. The heyday of American pantomime effectively died with him. Knockabout slapstick of course survived and would be a staple of vaudeville and Hollywood in the next century. But between the ceaseless performing of Fox and the Ravels, not to mention many other imitators, the audience had seen enough of the storybook pantomime play and moved on to new entertainments. You can catch what may be some faint echoes of Humpty for a while in the 20th century — maybe in Lon Chaney’s masochistic clown in He Who Gets Slapped, arguably the most grotesque and disturbing circus movie ever made, and maybe in Koko the Clown from Max Fleischer’s extraordinary Out of the Inkwell animations. But Fox and Humpty had been long forgotten when Senelick’s 1988 biography The Age and Stage of George L. Fox stirred a revival of interest. In 2004 the clown Bill Irwin, whose performing has always been informed by history, debuted Fox: A Rumination, recreating Humpty in full regalia.

by John Strausbaugh