#973: The Vanishing Chicago Sewer Clown

August 29th, 2018

Chicago has a sewer clown problem, but it’s not what It looks like.

A month ago, I was looking through an online collection of circus memorabilia, as one does, and I came across a sentence that smacked me in the face.

“Immediate below the poster is Panel G enclosing seven old handbills, some of which came from the ‘Sewer’, a basement rendezvous in Chicago for people of the stage, circus, ring, and entertainment world, from which Harry Hertzberg secured many interest items for his collection of show paper,” it read.

So there was a basement rendezvous (Bar? Speakeasy? Flophouse? Private club?) in Chicago called The Sewer filled with circus performers. Oh, I had to find out.

I reached out to the Hertzberg Circus Collection, now housed at the San Antonio-based Witte Museum of Texas history and prehistory, to find out more about this magical place that seemed to tick off my interests one by one (clowns, Chicago history, old-timey bars, things hidden underground), and I discovered…

Nothing. The collection curator was out on separate vacations both times I called. I have a Hail Mary email out there, so we’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, I reached out to other places, like the Ringling Circus Museum.

And the Illinois State University Milner Library Circus & Allied Arts Collection and Circus World’s Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center and the University of Texas at Austin Harry Ransom Center’s W. H. Crain Barnum & Bailey and Joe E. Ward circus collections and Fédération Mondiale du Cirque Preserving Circus Culture and Promoting the Art of Happiness Under the patronage of H.S.H. Princess Stephanie of Monaco and online I searched the Chicago Collections Consortium and the Newberry’s inventory of the American Circus Collection and WorldCat and HathiTrust and Archive.org and Google Books’ collection of old Billboard magazines and I tried but kept getting dead links at the Chicago History Museum’s ARCHIE system and no matter what I did or where I went, I could find hide nor hair nor squeaky red nose of any basement bar frequented by clowns, lion-tamers and Pyro Sam the Human Ostrich.

“Regretfully we do not have anything in our collections relative to ‘the sewer’ and in fact prior to your email had never heard of it before. I conducted a review of our databases, and of our primary research files and regretfully could not turn up anything that touched on this. It does indeed sound like a fascinating topic and I wish you the best of luck with your research project,” wrote one circus archivist, summing up the general consensus among the circus researchers who did get back to me.

And that, my friends, is Chicago’s sewer clown problem.

No matter how many collections or resources across the globe are devoted to the art of circus, from your Kulturhistorische Gesellschaft fur Circus und Varietekunst E.V. to your Colección del Circo Josep Vinyas to your Mundijong Clown & Circus Museum in the Whitby Falls Coach House, something is going to fall through the cracks. Although even as I compile this list, there’s a part of me wondering if I should shoot an email to the Central Cultural Palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, or the Showmen’s League of America offices in the West Loop, in general I have resigned myself to a life not knowing where, what or what took place at a basement dive called The Sewer where the circus people hung.

History unmaintained vanishes. The default mode is that the handbills yellow, the jokes get forgotten, the big top molders and the source documents develop dry rot. If people don’t protect, preserve and archive this history, it’s lost. Forever.

Old photos never die, they just fade.

Maybe my Hail Mary email will return dividends from Texas and I’ll come back next week with a probing historical look at The Sewer where Chicago’s clowns and acrobats let down their guard, hair and sequins for a night.

Or maybe I’ll get another apologetic shrug from an academic who lives in history, so knows how fragile it is.

But in the meantime, my thoughts for today’s Afternoon is that I’m glad so many people want to preserve the past, but I wonder what we already lost.

UPDATE: It took the Chicago Aussie Jack Brandtman all of a half hour to find this 1916 reference to The Sewer in the New York Clipper entertainment magazine:

Insane levels of gratitude and respect to Jack for the find.

Read about a Theater Oobleck’s modern circus show

And a Chicago-based circus for nerds

I did not make up “Pyro Sam the Human Ostrich”

And holy crud are there a lot of circus museums, libraries, archives and collections around the world

It wasn’t a typo in the first sentence

What's this?

You are currently reading #973: The Vanishing Chicago Sewer Clown by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • -30-