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Meet Dan Rice—“The King of American Clowns”

Tijana Radeska
Dan Rice

Dan Rice’s name isn’t well known today, but in the mid-19th century, he was a world-famous performer who counted the likes of Mark Twain and President Zachary Taylor as acquaintances and admirers.

Dan Rice

Dan Rice. Source

Dan joined a full-fledged circus at age 20, and along with his wife Maggie traveled the country with various troupes, all the while learning and honing his craft. He proved a natural at performing, rapidly rising through the ranks to become one of the circus world’s most popular acts. A star of the one-ring circus, Rice achieved national prominence as an equestrian jester. By the 1860s he was at the height of his career, commanding the then-phenomenal salary of $1,000 a week.

Rice gained 19th-century fame with many talents, most of which involved him gallivanting around as a clown figure in circuses. In addition to his ‘clowning’ talents, he was an animal trainer, songwriter, commentator, political humorist, strong man, actor, director, producer, dancer, and politician. He ran for Senate, Congress, and President of the United States — dropping out of each race.

Dan Rice

Dan Rice. Source

Rice changed the circus into what it is today by mixing animals, acrobats, and clowns. he changed styles once again; he starred in various parodies of works by William Shakespeare, including that of “Dan Rice’s Version of Othello” and “Dan Rice’s Multifarious Account of Shakespeare’s Hamlet“.

He would perform these with various songs and dialects. David Carlyon wrote a book about Rice – Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of . In Carlyon words, “Rice was not simply funnier than other clowns; he was different, mingling jokes, solemn thoughts, civic observations, and songs.”

During the 19th century, his name was synonymous with theater. He reinvented the theater into a vaudevillian style before there was vaudeville. He was also one of the main models for “Uncle Sam”.

Vaudevilles, performing arts poster, 1894

Vaudevilles, performing arts poster, 1894. Source

Unfortunately, Rice was an alcoholic. He was reportedly generous to a fault, and despite his many talents was a poor businessman. And even though he was one of the highest paid performers in the nation, he died almost penniless in 1900. Rice is buried in the Old First Methodist Church cemetery in West Long Branch, New Jersey.