December 4th, 2013
Circus clown Frank Oakley, born Frank Anderson but known as “Slivers,” was born in Sweden in 1871. His most famous act, the pantomime “Ball Game,” played on the baseball fan’s fantasy trope, “Kill the Umpire.” According to a Detroit writer of the day, quoted by John Pult in his fine essay “Chalk Face” [http://goo.gl/01k18z], Slivers, after setting up a diamond in the center ring of the big tent,” emerged as a catcher, with his ‘bird cage’ mask and heavily padded mitt. He popped his fist in the glove a few times and set up, crouching behind the plate. He feigned receiving a pitch, and then in the midst of the motion of tossing the horsehide back to his battery-mate he suddenly wheeled to argue the call with the imaginary ump, throwing off the mask, gesticulating wildly and jawing with his adversary. Later he took a turn at bat, and, after working the count full, ‘hit’ one in the gap, but was thrown out trying ‘to stretch a three-bagger into a home run.’ Another rhubarb with the umpire ensued. By all accounts, at this point the crowd watching Slivers was delirious. One circus memoir of the period references the need for extra medical personnel because so many in the audience were passing out from laughter. ‘The entire act was in pantomime,’ the writer states. ‘No one but Oakley was on the stage. But so realistic was every move and gesture, so convincing, that he never failed to carry the house.’”
For ball fans of a certain age, this recalls not only Max Patkin, Al Schacht, and Nick Altrock–who was termed “The ‘Slivers’ of the Diamond”–but also Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, film pantomimists who surely emulated Slivers as well. Barely ten years after his death, he was legendary. “Every Spring visit to the [Madison Square] Garden,” wrote George MacAdam in the New York Times in 1925, “brings back to me the memory of Slivers. To the generation of youngsters that now crowds the circus, Slivers isn’t even a name. But some dozen or so years ago he was the king of clowns. Never before, never since,, has the whirl ceased in all three rings while a clown ‘pulled his stunt’; Slivers had the huge arena to himself while he played his one-man game of baseball and thousands rocked with laughter.”
The passage below by Wyndham Martyn is from Pearson’s Magazine, July 1916, some three months after his suicide, also reported at length in the New York Times [http://goo.gl/vrlZ43]. It is an excerpt from his larger article, “Concerning Clowns.”
NONE among modern American clowns was so widely known or universally liked as Frank Oakley, better known to his public as “Slivers.” Less than three months ago he died by his own hand and the sorrow this deed created showed how deeply he had crept into the hearts of those who knew him.
Frank Oakley was born of English parents in Sweden and came here when a child. In 1898 he ran away from home. Boys of English stock when they forsake the parental dwelling either go to sea or follow the horse tents in the circuses. Slivers was attracted to the traveling show of John McMann where he became a groom. It was not long before Oscar Lowander, of a well-known circus family, discovered that Slivers had more talent than was needed by a horse masseur. In fact the boy was brimful of whimsicalities and promise. He jumped at the opportunity to be for a time the least of the troupe of clowns. He did not long remain the least among them. Probably no man in his profession ever made good in a shorter time. Fame and money were speedily his and older heads might have been turned by the reward his wit brought him. Not so with Slivers.Like Jules Turnour, he had a serious cast of countenance when not playing. He was very tall and slim—his nickname was gained from his build—and in ordinary life sparing of speech. Sometimes he fell into introspective moods and a certain habit of brooding melancholy. But these moods were never such as to make him anything but kindly to those about him. When his old friends came to see him for the last time as he lay in an undertaker’s room last March one of them pronounced a truth about him which could very well be called the most fitting epitaph. “He never made any one cry. He brought laughter to the hearts of a million people.”
Circus folk see a good deal of tragedy of which the public knows nothing. When an accident occurs the music must never stop, the clowns must keep on with their antics and the beautiful ladies on the prancing horses must keep on smiling and dancing. The public must never be permitted to feel other than light-hearted. Slivers had belonged to the “Big Top” long enough to have seen many such accidents. The miscalculation of a gymnast that meant broken limbs or death, the misstep of a rider that might mean a broken back, all these Slivers had seen and for all these he was prepared in so far as any man may be prepared for the death of those whom he likes and with whom he works. But he used to brood on these accidents and never weary talking of them.
A fellow clown, Dan Luby by name, met his death on the tan bark one night when he was doing his trick of jumping over four elephants. When his audience saw that he did not get up as usual they thought it merely another laugh-provoking stunt. And they shrieked with pleasure when the other clowns solemnly picked him up as though dead and carried him away. Slivers used to talk about this tragedy a great deal.”We picked him up,” he said, “and carried poor old Dan off, doing funny stuff every minute while the spectators roared with laughter. When we got Dan behind the scenes we cried over him. That’s two sides of a clown’s life all in a nutshell.”
Some few years ago his wife died, leaving him with a daughter named Verona, who is now in the care of a once famous bareback rider, Josie Dermott Robinson. It was thought by some that his death resulted from grief at his loss. But it was an even more pathetic thing than that.He became very much attached to a girl who is now serving a three-year sentence at Bedford Reformatory for the theft of the jewels that belonged to the dead Mrs. Oakley. To regain the gems that were to have come to his daughter when she grew up, he put the matter into the hands of the police. He was sorry almost directly be had done so but could not stay the prosecution. But he tried to procure her release, although in vain.
The girl went to serve her sentence and Slivers went back to his work and people watching him thought it was greater than ever. Yet all this time he was brooding over the imprisonment his charge had brought to the girl he realized he loved. A week before his death he went to Bedford. And there, before the superintendent of the institution and a friend, he asked her to marry him directly she was released.
The girl absolutely refused. She was impatient at the very suggestion. Then he broke down and cried so bitterly that she relented sufficiently to say she would think it over and let him know.
Slivers came back to New York rejoicing. Although the girl had been sentenced for a crime and deserved what punishment she received, he could not forgive himself for bringing the Bedford sentence upon her. He wanted her forgiveness and waited for it with terrible eagerness.
When the letter came it was from Mrs. Moore, the superintendent. And it was written not to him but to the friend he had taken to the institution. “I have had a long talk with her,” she wrote. “She has no interest in Slivers, neither has she a desire to marry him now or at any other time. I again advise you to disillusion him.”
So the man who used to be billed as “the college-bred king of grotesque fools,” the man who never made any one cry in his life, had about him when he lay dead a few blocks from Madison Square Garden where he had scored such great successes, a group of friends, not one of whom had dry eyes.