Tag Archives: Yury Nikulin

Karandash the Clown monument, Moscow

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Not a good day to sit down and write. I’m doing this for the wrong reason. My apologies to the great Soviet clown Karandash, or, Karan d’Ash (given name Mikhail Rumyantsev) for dragging him into a battle that has absolutely nothing to do with him. But today, on the day that my native nation elected a so-called clown and showman (small letters) to be its leader for the next four years, I can only write about a genuine Clown and Showman.
Mikhail Rumyantsev (1901 – 1983) was born in St. Petersburg and began his young adult life as an artist drawing and painting posters for theaters and then the circus. But it was Moscow and the still very new art form of cinema that would change Rumyantsev’s life. Let me turn this pivotal moment over to a source that has put it as well and succinctly as possible:
In 1925 Rumyantsev moved to Moscow where he began drawing posters for the film industry. But 1926 was the year that changed the young artist’s life when he saw up-close Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Like them, Rumyantsev resolved to become an actor. After taking lessons in stage movement in 1926, he entered a school for the circus arts in a class that educated eccentric acrobats. By 1930 he successfully graduated from the circus school and began working as a circus artist.”
In his earliest years Rumyantsev imitated Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp but pretty much gave that up after a few years. Whether by instinct or by good advice, he quickly realized that imitation was not the proper road to real success. He began working as a clown in Leningrad in 1935. It was at this time he came up with his own persona and the pseudonym by which he would be known for the rest of his life – Karan d’Ash, or, Karandash (which means “pencil” in Russian). He then jumped to the Moscow Circus the following year, in 1936. This was the moment when the last stroke of his stage character came together – in addition to his ill-fitting, over-sized suit, his cane and his frumpy hat, Karan d’Ash added a little fox terrier to his act. The Karan d’Ash character was a clumsy, good-natured, star-crossed, half-unaware bumbler who constantly got into trouble no matter what he did. There are quite a few videos of him on the internet. If you’re interested you can begin with this one of him stumbling around in a park and work from there.
Karan d’Ash was not only a wildly popular performer (he starred in several short films and he and his dog were the subject of an animated film), he was a true artist and a renowned teacher. Other great clowns served under his tutelage, including the equally great Yury Nikulin. It is said that his demeanor outside of the ring resembled his dopey, endearingly silly stage image in virtually no way at all. He was sharp as a tack, a stickler for detail (as every comedian and every circus artist must be) and a severe task master for anyone working for him and his act. These, of course, are traits that separate a Clown from a clown.

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The small statue pictured here of the diminutive Rumyantsev-Karandash stands outside the building where he once lived and where the headquarters for the Union of Circus Performers is located today. The address is 12 Yefremov St., Building 2, not far from the Frunzenskaya metro stop. The statue was created by Vyacheslav Dolgov and was unveiled in 2008. I can’t say the location suits the work well. The cheap facade, obviously slapped on an older building in some recent time, has a fake quality that clashes with the attempt to paint a loving portrait of the beloved Clown. Small in size – in order to maintain a certain realism, I presume (Rumyantsev stood all of 4 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall) – the statue is almost lost against the backdrop of the crass red doors of the Circus Union, a pedestrian railing and a potted plant. The tiles on which the sculpture stands are the exact same tedious ones that were put in all over Moscow en masse in one fell swoop a few years ago by a construction company belonging to the wife of the then-Moscow mayor. Gee, wonder how her company got that order? Just lucky, I guess.
Speaking of luck, the right thumb of this statue of Karan D’Ash is said by tradition to be good luck if you rub it. As you can see in the last photo in the block above, a lot of people figure nothing can be lost by trying the old rub-that-finger thing. Had I thought of it in time, prior to the latest American presidential election, I would have gone and rubbed that thumb madly as if it were a magic lantern. I would have rubbed it until the skin came off my palms. It’s too late now.
Many have called the American President-elect a clown. I beg to differ. A Clown is a higher calling. A Clown like Karan d’Ash is a national treasure, a great artist who does his people proud. The soon-to-be American president elect is no Clown; he is an unthinking, insensitive, corrupt, lying, cheating individual who – at the very best – will give us all a bad name for a very long time. Would that this were the least damage we and our friends and loved ones will suffer. I have done what I could to salvage the epithet of Clown for today. My repeated apologies to Karan d’Ash for dragging him into this. But I suggest everyone beware of the buffoon who soon plans to masquerade as the President of the United States.

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Bulgakov-inspired bas relief, Moscow

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Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) again. He is as ubiquitous in Moscow as Pushkin. This time we’re looking at another in the series of illustrations of characters from BB’s writings that showed up on city walls and archways as part of the Best City in the World Festival in 2014. This particular bas relief, etched out in a thin layer of cement, is of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, from BB’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Like the others, it was created by Novatek Art. Unlike most of the others, this image is not in a readily visible position. In fact, it occupies a fairly forlorn spot behind a wayward post not far from some junk gathering behind a tiny, leftover wall, and squeezed on all sides by a rough paint job. If you’re looking for it, go to 36 Starokonyushenny Lane in the Arbat district and peek around the right corner of the building from the street.
Ivan Vasilyevich is simultaneously an obscure Bulgakov play and one of his most popular. How does that work? Easy. It was made into a film called Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession by the great Soviet comic film director Leonid Gaidai in 1973. The film – the top grossing Soviet film for that year (it was seen by over 60 million spectators) – became an instant classic and still maintains its cult popularity today.
The play itself – a comedy about two Soviet citizens being carried back into the 16th century by a time machine which also tosses Ivan the Terrible into the 20th century – has lived a much quieter life. It was written in the mid-1930s for the Satire Theater, but it didn’t see the light of day until it was published in a small collection of Bulgakov’s plays in 1965. Even then it was not until Gaidai got hold of it that anyone really paid it any attention. And, truth to be told, even following that wildly popular film, theaters did not clamor to stage it. In my nearly 30 years of theater-going in Russia I have never seen a production of it.
In fact, Ivan Vasilyevich began life as a play called Bliss. That early variant was written roughly between spring and fall of 1934 but the Satire Theater declined to stage it. Director Nikolai Gorchakov and actors at the theater encouraged Bulgakov to keep working on the play. He did just that and it is considered that he finished it on Sept. 30, 1935, giving a reading of the play in his home for the Gorchakov crew on Oct. 2. The play was proverbially received enthusiastically by the company, although that did not stop them or Bulgakov from believing that it needed to be reworked severely. That mutual agreement was reached on Oct. 29. Bulgakov went back to the drawing board, changing the comedy drastically – the new version was no longer a science-fiction tale of time travel, but now became an unreal tale of a man having a strange dream. This version was completed in April 1936. I haven’t found when the play went into rehearsals (it was  probably before April), but a dress rehearsal was held on May 13 and was promptly banned after that.
Gaidai’s film of the play introduced a large number of changes and innovations. Not surprisingly, in it the characters travel back and forth between the 16th century and the 1970s, rather than the 1930s of Bulgakov’s original.

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Gaidai (1923-1993) was one of the most beloved makers of comedies in the Soviet era. I think we would be safe in calling them screwball comedies. He made approximately 20 films between 1955 and 1992. Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the last in a fivesome of unsurpassed successes. The run began in 1965 with Operation Y, and Shurik’s Other Adventures, hitting stride with The Captive Girl of the Caucausus (1966, aka Kidnapping, Caucasian Style), The Diamond Hand (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1971, not to be mistaken, of course, for Mel Brooks’ Hollywood version of this classic comic novel by Ilf and Petrov). Every one of these films is spoken of with the greatest love and reverence by virtually anyone who has grown up in the Soviet Union or Russia since the 1960s. The films are wacky, off the wall and fast-paced, and Ivan Vasilyevich is no different.
What is interesting about Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession is that Gaidai – despite the wave of success he was enjoying at the time – apparently had a difficult time casting it. He wrote the script with the great clown and actor Yury Nikulin in mind, but Nikulin – who had starred with such success in The Diamond Hand – curiously wanted nothing to do with the project. According to Russian Wikipedia, the reason for Nikulin’s reticence was that he didn’t expect this film featuring a satirical vision of Ivan the Terrible ever to pass the censor, and he had no desire to waste his time making a film no one would see. Frankly, that sounds a little simplistic to me, but I have no reason to buck Wikipedia’s received wisdom.
Another eight actors – most of them big stars – auditioned for the lead, which was a dual role of Ivan the Terrible and one of the hapless Soviet citizens being sent back into the past. They included Yevgeny Yevstigneev, Georgy Vitsin and Yevgeny Lebedev – all of them legends in their own right. However, the part eventually fell to Yury Yakovlev, who emerged in the 1970s as one of Soviet cinema’s finest lyrical/comic actors.
Of course, it is Gaidai’s film, and not Bulgakov’s original play, that made the Novatek artists want to memorialize the character of Ivan the Terrible in the series of Bulgakov-inspired bas reliefs that still dot the city of Moscow today. Bulgakov only returned to Russian readers in the 1960s when the unofficial ban on his works was lifted. As such, Gaidai’s film of the obscure Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the first successful film adaptation of the writer’s works. It helped cement the writer’s fast-growing reputation as the people’s favorite.

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Yury Nikulin Monument, Moscow


Yury Nikulin. The words “great” and “legend” were imagined by mankind at one point to describe people like this. Nikulin, the great clown, the great actor, the great man. Funny as hell and as warm,  human and as personable as they come. Without Nikulin you’d have to downgrade Soviet comic cinema by 50%. This guy was like Chaplin but not a copy in any way. His characters were clumsy, silly, sometimes stupid and almost always naive. They were so rich in heart, so lovable, so vulnerable, that you felt about them the way you felt about your fuzzy-blankey, your teddy-bear, your imaginary friend, whatever it was that meant warmth and love when you were a child.

IMG_5562.jpg2I remember Nikulin for all that, for every film I have ever seen rerun on television over the last quarter century (I arrived here too late to see any of them in original release), but what I really remember him for was seeing him joke with the coat-check women at the coat rack at the Actors House on Arbat. He was bigger than life – a very big man, tall and broad. But he was Yury Nikulin, so when he would walk into the Actors House it was rather like the world drew back to let him pass. Smiles appeared on the faces of everyone present. People stopped what they were doing, even if it was just walking by. They watched him and smiled and it was as though you could feel them becoming better people for those brief moments. The rest of us had to turn our coats over to the coat-check woman for which we were given a little plastic tag to keep until we wanted our coat back. Nikulin just walked into the coat-check area and hung his own coat up in the back. No waiting in line for him, coming or going. And the whole while he cracked jokes, told anecdotes, teased the coat-check women and make them blush and laugh – not because they were uncomfortable, but because they were so flattered. This guy was History moving amongst us. He was Greatness and Humanity, all in one. He was one of those people who make you wonder if genuine Greatness requires this kind of warmth and humility. It probably doesn’t, but in my more sentimental moments I might be convinced to say I wish it did. The photos posted here were taken on a rainy day in front of the Circus on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where Nikulin worked for, it seemed, an entire age. Wikipedia tells me his dates were 1921 to 1997, and my mind I can’t possibly believe it has been 17 years or more since I last saw Nikulin cutting up with the coat-check women at the Actors House.