I was introduced to the long shirt gag my first year on the road as a clown with Ringling Brothers. As the tallest member of the troupe inside the clown car, I had to lay flat on the bottom while the other clowns piled on top of me. When it came my turn to pop out I was immediately grabbed by the traffic cop, played by Tim Holst, and hauled off to jail. Except that as he pulled on my shirt it just got longer and longer -- until it spanned the entire length of the arena. At which point it came off of me, my pants fell down, and I toppled over the ring curb. That was the blow off.
The simple elegance of this sight gag has always pleased me. It requires no gadgets or fiddling with -- it’s just a long tube of cloth with arm holes and a large opening for the head. Someone working for the Marx Brothers thought it was a great gag, too; for it’s used to great effect by Harpo during the football match in their film ‘Horse Feathers.’ I’ve never seen it used in any other slapstick comedy movie. And I have no idea who first thought it up. It’s probably as ancient as the toga.
Years later, after I had left the Ringling fold, I described the long shirt to my wife Amy, to see if she could sew me up one to take on the road with the next mud show I was scheduled to join in the spring. It didn’t sound too complicated to her, so we shopped around for some suitable fabric, finally settling on a long swath of an elastic nylon/cotton blend that had both stripes and polka dots in red, blue, and yellow. She stayed up all night cutting and stitching, and in the morning I was the proud possessor of a 25 foot clown long shirt.
It was rather bulky to wear, but that turned out to be a good thing. The show I went out with had two other clowns -- the Calabozo Brothers from Brazil. They were rough and tumble performers, who did a slack wire act and blew on whistles as loud as they could while they pummeled each other with broomsticks. They liked to pummel me as well during our clown entr’acte, but with the long shirt providing lots of padding I never felt a thing. The Calabozos were unfamiliar with the long shirt, and eventually grew tired of heaving on it while I got all the laughs. So one day when I wasn’t looking they cut halfway through my long shirt near the top -- the next show, they gave it a perfunctory tug and the long shirt came apart, with most of it still around my waist. We still got a laugh, but it was only a titter -- not the satisfying belly laugh the full unfolding of the long shirt usually created.
Infuriated at their callous and lazy tomfoolery at my expense, I took the sundered apparel to the wardrobe mistress -- a Catholic nun from the Sisters of the Sacred Heart that volunteer world-wide with circuses. I explained what happened and implored her to bind up my broken long shirt before the evening show. She was glad to do so, and even reinforced the whole thing to make it harder to snip through. I offered to pay her for her heroic efforts on my behalf but she gently refused -- her order took a vow of poverty and never accepted payment for services rendered. After that I kept my long shirt with me at all times -- I even used it as my pillow at night. There was no more trouble from the cursed Calabozos.
That long shirt stood me in good stead over the following years. The material was so durable that it outlasted all of my other clown wardrobe. And it was always good for a laugh, no matter what clown gag I stuck it in. In fact, I had a business card printed that read, in part, “Dusty the Clown. Have long shirt -- will travel.”
We weathered several years of grassy lots and muddy sinks together, that long shirt and I. And then one winter’s day during the off season while I was enjoying a leisurely game of Scrabble with my older kids, Amy took my long shirt into her sewing room and cut it apart. She then made nightshirts out of the material for me and the kids.
At the time I didn’t understand her action or reasons. She hadn’t asked me if she could do it -- she just did it, silently and swiftly. Now I know it was her way of telling me to quit traveling with the circus once and for all. But I didn’t parse her meaning back then; I put it down to female whimsy.
I’ve still got that long shirt nightshirt. I wore it this past winter, even though I’m in a subsidized apartment where I don’t pay for utilities -- so I can have the heat up as high as I want at night. I like keeping it cool so I can put on that sturdy old piece of material -- rubbing it like a magic lamp to conjure up the memory of happy trips and tempo of years fled past.