Earl Chaney – Master Clown & Magic Mentor

It is nice to be home after traveling to Las Vegas for the World Magic Seminar. There are so many benefits to being home in our small mansion on the now iced- over Lake Mystic just two miles from the Mystic Hollow, Michigan village limits. Here I am graced by family, friends, and familiar faces.

But I also met wonderful new friends and saw some faces that will be familiar the next time we meet.

(I do not believe I have any family in Vegas. I may later though because I ?liberated? a cup full of Sea Monkeys into the canals of the Venetian Hotel and Casino.)

Earl Chaney is a name you will not find on the World Magic Seminar schedule of events or even in a list of the many essential personnel responsible for the Seminar?s smooth running. In fact, he wasn’t even associated with the Seminar but meeting him was one of the highlights of my trip to Vegas.

I was introduced to Mr. Chaney by Steve Daly after we attended the incredible Showgirls of Magic. He joined us all for breakfast and we picked his brain for hours. Somewhere along the line, perhaps when I was finishing my steak and eggs, Mr. Chaney dropped in a Circus shibboleth. It told me that this guy was legit. He was from the inner-sanctum of the circus. He mentioned he was at one time a ?First of May? ? Circus Talk for ?rookie? and usually applied to a rookie clown.

I…

It is nice to be home after traveling to Las Vegas for the World Magic Seminar. There are so many benefits to being home in our small mansion on the now iced- over Lake Mystic just two miles from the Mystic Hollow, Michigan village limits. Here I am graced by family, friends, and familiar faces.

But I also met wonderful new friends and saw some faces that will be familiar the next time we meet.

(I do not believe I have any family in Vegas. I may later though because I ?liberated? a cup full of Sea Monkeys into the canals of the Venetian Hotel and Casino.)

Earl Chaney is a name you will not find on the World Magic Seminar schedule of events or even in a list of the many essential personnel responsible for the Seminar?s smooth running. In fact, he wasn’t even associated with the Seminar but meeting him was one of the highlights of my trip to Vegas.

I was introduced to Mr. Chaney by Steve Daly after we attended the incredible Showgirls of Magic. He joined us all for breakfast and we picked his brain for hours. Somewhere along the line, perhaps when I was finishing my steak and eggs, Mr. Chaney dropped in a Circus shibboleth. It told me that this guy was legit. He was from the inner-sanctum of the circus. He mentioned he was at one time a ?First of May? ? Circus Talk for ?rookie? and usually applied to a rookie clown.

I love the Circus Life and take great pride that I was once a gunsel for a whole day with the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus. I helped with the set-up and tear-down of the big tent and hauled chairs to and from the tent. I wasn?t paid anything but an Annie Oakley and a dukey so I could get a corn dog and bug juice the pie car. That?s my connection to the Circus and the closest I came to my dream of working in any capacity with a real show.

But Mr. Chaney was more than I could ever be. (He wasn?t some day-dreaming ? but strapping, handsome and stupid ? teenager trying to learn how to do a high-wire act to be a Funambulist like Phillippe Petit. You may remember him from his daring walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center).

Mr. Chaney was on-the-show with Ringling after graduating from their Clown College.

He was the real deal and he still is.

His love for clowning and for magic is simmers beneath his personable smile. He is thinking constantly about how to improve, add to or even invent new effects. With Steve Daly, he sounds as if he cannot wait to end the conversation to begin building their new invention or effect.

Mr. Chaney was with Ringling Brothers for seven years before leaving in 1975 to take on other projects and venture to places off the trip routes he had traveled only by train or indirectly by car when he wanted freedom from the rails. He took on shows around the country and developed a television show for children featuring his character Mr. Clown and appropriately entitled ?Mr. Clown?s Clown Alley.?

One of his sponsors, McDonalds, found their advertisements on the show did very well in reaching precisely the audience they wanted. Unfortunately the show was cancelled with the encroachment of the Bozo show into the television market. McDonalds, not wishing to lose their conduit to their target audience, asked Mr. Chaney if he would work as Ronald McDonald.

His career as Ronald lasted 20 years. Given Mr. Chaney?s love for invention and innovation, it isn?t surprising to learn he developed gags, promotional items and best-practices for the other Ronald McDonalds around the world. Read a brief but interesting biography of Mr. Chaney here.

Mr. Chaney was kind enough to allow us into the many backrooms of his Planet Mirth magic studios. At this point of the narrative, I need to make a disclaimer. It will not be possible for me to remain objective about my visit to Planet Mirth. Even if my brain was as large as a normal human?s ? rather than one-third the size and made of crusty wood putty ? it was too much for anyone to absorb.

You enter the store as you would enter any magic store. Around you are glass display cases and bookcases filled with the type of magic supplies you come to expect from a well-stocked store. Mr. Chaney has a delightful collection of first edition books from which you and I learned magic such as: Fun with Magic and More Fun with Magic. If this was all there was to Planet Mirth, it would be sufficient.

But there is so much more. Over the next two hours, Mr. Chaney took us on a tour of rooms off of rooms off of rooms containing one of a kind items or memorabilia of Mr. Chaney?s long and successful career in Magic and Clowning.

We started at the Rehearsal Studio. Many top-name Magicians and performers have rehearsed their shows in this open-space lined with mirrors and a newly installed wood floor. Hanging from the ceiling is a Spanish Web and two trapeze apparatus. There are lights that can be configured to allow for show conditions and space for dress-rehearsals.

I was tempted to pull myself up onto the trapeze but because my upper-body strength is roughly sufficient to twist off a cap on a cold Diet Coke, I decided to continue the tour without showing off.

The next stop was the Ronald McDonald Room. If Ronald had it, gave it away, used it or conceived of it, it was here. The scene was an incredible pastiche of the most vibrant yellow and red hues plus the famous arches, lots of arches. Mr. Cheney explained the history of Ronald McDonald?s image. He started out as a clown with a paper cup for a nose, and a tray of food for his hat and progressed to the more refined and friendly clown we have today.

The first version of Ronald was worn by Willard Scott and was used in a very limited way. Technically, then, Willard Scott was the first Ronald McDonald. In fact, the McDonald?s website credits Mr. Scott as the original Ronald. It does not mention, however, that because of his size he was not chosen for the role. As the advertising campaign went nationwide, the restaurant wanted to change Ronald?s image.

McDonalds sought the help of the famous Russian clown, ?Coco? a/k/a Michael Polakovs into the Ronald we know and love today. Mr. Polakovs? short biography can be found here. (Note, the page is in Spanish).

Mr. Chaney?s walls are lined with photographs of him in various Vegas locations as Ronald. In almost each ground-breaking photograph, he is standing in a deserted lot. There weren?t many buildings in the area yet. These images of Vegas are a far cry from the way the city looks today ? but ironically, Mr. Chaney as Ronald looks the same.

Being a clown for Ringling Brothers is tough work but apparently the demands on those hoping to be Ronald McDonald is even tougher. Mr. Chaney was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and the following excerpt gives a flavor of the demands on a Ronald McDonald clown:

?Ronald trainers enforce the rules. At the Ronald conventions, sometimes held in Oak Brook, they inspect Ronalds, according to people who have been in attendance. ?You had to pass, and, if you didn’t, you would go home without a job,? said Earl Chaney of Las Vegas, who played the clown for 20 years. Some simply got Ronald probation.?

Read complete article here as reprinted in Maryland?s SunSpot.com.

Our next room was also the entrance to the labyrinth of smaller and larger rooms where Magic is built, refurbished, improved and practiced. I could have stayed in the Ronald McDonald room for about a day but I wouldn?t have left the labyrinth for weeks.

Mr. Chaney has the advanced power tools and space to build illusions and small close-up effects. We had a chance to see a couple of Zig-Zags, a beautiful Sub Trunk and several production cabinets. As we ventured further down the labyrinth, we encountered one of the more breath-taking sights ever. One of the most startling fixtures was against the far wall of the gigantic warehouse; the authentic Dante Skull Backdrop/Curtain. The backdrop featured a cut-out in the Skull?s mouth through which stage hands could push or pull any stage illusion.

An enormous Carter poster took up about a quarter of the wall to the right of the backdrop. The walls held other posters of the famous of our time and these beautifully drawn faces of Magicians seem to be looking down in approval on Mr. Chaney?s assembly of illusions in various stages of completion.

Mr. Chaney is a member of the International Clowns Hall of Fame and a respected speaker and instructor in Clowning and Magic. Check out some of his teaching credits here. He is considered by many on the Internet to be a ?Master Clown.?

One of Mr. Chaney?s more refreshing characteristics is that while he is opinionated, he is not jaundiced. As I listened to his evaluation of acts performing at the World Magic Seminar, it was clear that even if he did not necessarily appreciate the individual Magician, he gave credit where it was due. He could not help but like the style or presentation of some we witnessed. On the other hand, he was constructively critical of the performances of those he considered friends.

It is almost clich? on Inside Magic applaud how subject of our articles truly love Magic. Mr. Chaney truly loves Magic. He loves talking about it, building it, inventing it, funding projects to develop and present it.

In his rich history, he has assisted or instructed or refined some of the top-names in Magic to help them perform better, get better shows, or win competitions.

We entered the Planet Mirth Magic Studio in the afternoon and when I looked outside as we emerged from the labyrinth; I noticed it was now dark.

Time had rushed by.

We had to move on and Mr. Chaney had other commitments. But for the requirements of reality and the linear nature of time, I could have spent hours more with Mr. Chaney.

He is such an asset to our Art and so encouraging to me personally. What a rich history we have and what a great historian we have in Mr. Chaney. Mr. Chaney is not only recording our history, he is playing an active part in shaping it.

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