Sunday, August 10, 2008

Donkey on Ice

The unusual comedy art of Karl Kossmayer and his mule (with a new discovery)

One of the most intense circus experiences of my childhood was the act of the “unrideable mules”: in wich a good dozen of spectators is invited to win a prize if able to complete a ring circle on the back of the savage quadrupede, catastrophically ending with the impossible attempts of a quiet but tenacious old man. Later, you could have spent weeks puzzling if he was a genuine spectator or some kind of strange performer.

For me, the image of the little old gentleman, approaching the ring with his program in the hands, pursued by his wife and finishing to lost his pants, was a shock. A contrast between the greatest humor and a feel of unease; a masterpiece on the border between fiction and reality, completely played on the separation line between the shadowy space of the audience and the bright territory of the performer. Was this man from the circus? Nobody could really answer in front of the immense showmanship of Karl Kossmayer. A perfect illusion in which, long before Wharol, everybody was promised five minutes of celebrity. And, slowly during the act, this little character carried to the ring a perfect history of an universal retired middle-class type, life-dominated by his wife’s discipline, and wasting in few second all his life’s boring dignity to reach the impossible world of the clowns.

This was great drama, revolutioning the roles of the theatre far before the avant-gardes. An actor impersonating a spectator who wants to be an actor, without declaring to be acting… Pirandello was nothing, compared to Kossmayer.

Karl Kossmayer (1917-2000), from a great trainers family, started his act in 1928, and with it toured the globe, generating imitators all around the world. His sister Julie impersonated perfectly “the wife”. Starring with the best jugglers, acrobats, clowns, trainers of his time, his act was so strong on the audience that the only place to put it was mostly to close the program.

The act was filmed by the great Jacques Tati as part of his circus movie “Parade”, in 1974 (mostly of the movie critics are still thinking that this perfect act was a Tati’s idea).

And now, our little discovery.
In fact, we have found also an unusual clip. Kossmayer toured briefly in Usa with Holiday on Ice of 1960. That’s it.
They used to put for few minutes a carpeted circus ring on the ice and display the mule act. And the comedy effect was emphasized immensely when Karl repeatly covered on ice the distance between his loge seat and the circus ring, with a masterful catalog of falls and trips. Unfortunately, his American success was short, because, for safety issue, audience members were discouraged to test their skills with the “dangerous” mule. The homeland of rodeos was starting to be politically correct also for the masters of European circus artistry.

I became friend with Karl in his last years, always sharing wonderful times visiting the Monte Carlo Festival.

Today we wants to divulgate his art to the new generations of the world, with a double tribute: his act in the traditional version, from the mentioned Tati movie; and our discovered excerpt of the way he did it on Holiday on Ice, from a forgotten Ed Sullivan special.


Pat Cashin said...


Absolutely brilliant!

Wade G. Burck said...

For many years in America in the 50's-60's they put on what were called "Donkey Basketball Games." The producer of the events would bring 10 donkeys and local "celebrities" Mayor, counsel members, local Dr. etc. would attempt to ride the donkeys on a parquet floor gymnasium and play a "basketball game." I enjoyed a number of these events as a young man in a small rural village, but insurance concerns, and concerns for the safety of the donkeys, shut them down by the early 70's.
Wade Burck

Locations of visitors to this page