Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of

Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of

Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of

Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of

Excerpt

Dan Rice and I were both clowns. When I began writing about him, I assumed that label was all we shared.

I had been one of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus's cavorting crew, anonymous, low paid, and apparently interchangeable. Decked out in baggy pants and a big red nose, I flung gags into the three‐ ring spectacle. Rice, in stark contrast, was a rich, glittering star—the Johnny Carson of the nineteenth century—standing alone in the center of his own show's single ring. The spitting image of Uncle Sam in stripes, a top hat, and the most recognized goatee of the age, Rice was a talking clown, quipping spontaneously, booming out Shakespeare, singing about bloomers, feuding with Horace Greeley—and running for president. He was Will Rogers, Robin Williams, and John McCain rolled into one.

The gap between Rice and me seemed even larger as I studied antebellum performance. In the 1850s, the circus overlapped with theater, minstrelsy, and lectures in a bubbling stew of adult fare, full of near-nudity and racy jokes, of violence, and public affairs. Increasing the excitement, audiences of all classes and interests voiced their opinions in a noisy public conversation across the footlights as they talked to each other and to the performers.

When I was a clown myself, I had not heard of Dan Rice. He had long faded from cultural memory, and even in the circus, no one mentioned him. But even knowing, I would have found little in common with him as I changed into costumes as a chaps-wearing cowboy with no pants, as Mercury delivering flowers in winged spats and winged helmet, as a balle‐ . . .

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