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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.
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.