Dan Rice: The most famous man you’ve never heard of.
The son of a grocer, He was born Daniel McLaren, in lower Manhattan, on Jan. 25, 1823. He was born as Daniel McClaren, but he is better known by his mother’s maiden name of Rice. Dan 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, song writer, 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.
When he was eight years old his mother died, and Dan ran away from home. He was hired as an exercise boy at a Brooklyn racetrack, became an expert rider, and a year later made his debut as a professional jockey in Trenton, N. J. He rode Lizzie Jackson, a filly named for a niece of Pres. Andrew Jackson. Jackson, who was at the track at the time, congratulated Dan and said, “My boy, if you live you’ll make either a great man or a great fool.”
In 1837 Dan was hired to walk a champion racehorse from New York to Pittsburgh by way of Buffalo, N.Y. His orders were never to ride the horse. Upon reaching Buffalo on Dec. 1, the boy was stricken with fever and bedridden for several days before he could continue the journey. Dan walked the horse into Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve, 1837, ending a trek that had lasted two months and five days.
When he turned 17, he went toSt. Louis, where he met J. H. McVicker, an actor who later became the father-in-law of Edwin Booth. McVicker recruited Dan as a member of his theatrical company, but the boy soon lost interest in acting and sought more excitement as a professional gambler on theMississippi River steamboats. He won money, furniture, horses–even one of the steamboats, which he generously gave back to the luckless riverboat captain.
In 1840 Dan took his winnings toPittsburghand invested them in a livery stable. One day he attended a circus and made friends with the performers, who later induced him to sing and dance “The Camptown Hornpipe” as part of their show. Fascinated by the circus, Dan became an apprentice of the “Nicholls Circus”. As “Yankee Dan”, he dressed in a red, white, and blue costume. Rice performed a ring act of topical songs, weightlifting, and tricks by his trained pig. Rice took lessons from the strong man, and was said to have been “converted into as powerful a human machine as anyone of his day ever saw.”
When this propaganda reached a notorious barroom heavyweight called Devil Jack, the Bully of Bayardstown, who lived across the river from Pittsburgh, Jack boasted that he could tear Dan apart. One night they met in a saloon. After exchanging a few blows, they began to wrestle. Dan maneuvered Devil Jack close to a stove in the center of the room, suddenly forced Jack’s face against the red-hot iron, and held it there until the skin sizzled. Jack was scarred for life. Dan became a hero.
Now Dan decided to organize a show of his own. He formed a partnership with C. L. Kise, who owned an educated pig, Lord Byron, which they took on tour. Lord Byron was advertised as being able to predict the future, play cards, and read from a book of fate. After several successful months, Lord Byron died, and Dan as a twenty-year old in 1842, went to work for P. T. Barnum in New York and a tour of Europe. Rice was a great acrobat, minstrel, and clown known as the “American Hercules.”
Upon his return to the United States Dan heard about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. He became an agent for Smith, but because of public antagonism toward the Mormons, he quit this job and joined another circus.
Rice later joined “Spaulding’s North American Circus” in 1844. Dan Rice made his first appearance as a circus clown, inGalena, III. at $15 a week. There had been American clowns before, but none quite like Dan Rice. He crammed his routine with animal acts – including an elephant on a tightrope, an act with a trained rhinoceros, equestrian derring-do, feats of strength, wire-walking, songs (often self-composed riffs on current events), dances, topical orations, and lots of quick-witted and easy banter with his audiences. Rice changed the circus into what it is today by mixing animals, acrobats and clowns.
He was funny and he was provocative, and he grew into such an attraction that in 1848 he established his own one-ring circus, Dan Rice’s Great Show, which traveled by steamboat. A whirlwind force, Rice became so popular and influential even the politicians he sent up sought his endorsement; in 1848, Zachary Taylor sought and received Rice’s endorsement. One of the things Rice would do was inviteTaylorto ride on the circus bandwagon in the circus parades. Local politicians would clamor to ride as well hoping his popularity would benefit them. People would comment, “Look who’s onTaylor’s bandwagon,” inspiring the phrase “jump on the bandwagon.”
Expanding his horizons he went into producing his own shows and often had more than one tour going on at the same time. He wanted to move on from his circus clowning and reinvented himself as a gentleman. He started to take up politics and would often have Democratic undertones in his shows. He was then regarded as not only a multi-talented performer, but a smart and noble man who was to be looked up to. He won the affection of many newspapers and publicists including that of a then unknown Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Mark Twain paid him homage in his description of a circus in Huckleberry Finn, and it is likely a boyhood Twain actually saw Rice perform when his circus came toHannibal for a show. His shows became more famous than any of the other shows touring at the time, including that of rival, Phineas Taylor Barnum.
From there he moved on to singing and dancing, and got caught up briefly in the popularity of the ‘negro song’, singing in blackface. Gaining fame and popularity, 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. “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.
In 1852, Dan settled inNew Orleanswhere Dan managed the popular, lucrative circus company known as “Dan Rice’s Great Hippodrome and Menagerie.” Business was booming and with a profit of nearly $1000 a week, Dan was one of the highest paid performers in the nation.
Deeply patriotic, Rice often included political commentary and satire in his acts. Rice first wore a costume sporting the stars and stripes in 1852. His nontraditional costume consisted of red, white, and blue-striped tights, a star-spangled cloak, a top hat and chin whiskers, the regalia that would later be associated with “Uncle Sam.” Today, he is arguably best-known as the political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s model for Uncle Sam. With his brushy goatee and stove pipe hat, Rice did, however, contribute to the development of Uncle Sam by appearing in costume before audiences across the country in the 1850s and 1860s. Rice’s style as clown was based on that of William Wallet, who was an English “Shakespearean” clown who could respond to comments from the spectators with appropriate quotes from the Bard.
Without Dan Rice, there would be no Uncle Sam, no Will Rogers, no Mort Sahl, no Mark Russell, no Dennis Miller, no Howard Stern, no Bill Maher, no John Stewart and The Daily Show, and no “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live. For, as surely as Rice’s favorite costume of patriotically striped trousers, a star-spangled coat, top hat and a beard that would do a billy goat proud formed the model for the nation’s personification, his wise-cracking political commentary and cracker-barrel philosophizing laid the foundation for every tart-tongued, quick-witted political satirist who’s followed.
In 1953 Dan brought his “Great Show” to Girard for the first time. Looking to expand his appeal to the northern United States, Dan took the advice of friend and former colleague Agrippa Martin and bought several tracts of land in Girard as a winter headquarters for the circus. Martin, who had worked for Rice as an animal trainer, now lived in Girard and operated a hotel on Main Street. Dan agreed with his friend that Girard was in an ideal location. Route 20, the major coast-to-coast thoroughfare of the time, ran directly through Girard and intersected with the newly built Erie Canal Extension which ran north to south, providing easy access from all directions. As Girard was largely unsettled, plenty of land was available for barns and other structures to accommodate the large number of circus animals and workers.
Unfortunately, many of the 600 residents of Girard were unhappy with the prospect of hosting a circus troupe every winter. The town was a close-knit community and wary of outsiders, especially those whom they considered to be low on the social ladder, even though Dan came from a prominent family in New York City. Circus performers, regardless of their level of wealth and fame, were generally looked down upon as “riff-raff” and not suitable to share a community with proper folks.
Not one to give up easily, Dan set out to win over the people of Girard. He was delighted with the small town atmosphere and envisioned making Girard his permanent home. Determined to become a respected member of the community, Rice began by building a magnificent home on the north side of the town square, decorated with fine art pieces and surrounded by exquisite English-style gardens. Parties and balls were held on a regular basis, and with his natural sociability and charm (along with substantial donations to local churches and charitable organizations,) Dan was eventually able to win over many of the townspeople.
For the next several years, Dan Rice’s Great Show arrived in Girard via canal boats every October. Zebras, giraffes, monkeys, and polar bears paraded downMain Street, followed by a special performance exclusively for the people of Girard before the animals were settled in for the winter.
During the long snowy months, Dan and his crew used their down time to achieve some of the most remarkable training feats ever seen inAmerica. In the unique round barns built specifically for training purposes, Rice and his assistants taught an elephant to walk a tightrope, and also produced an astonishing act featuring the first trained rhinoceros in theUnited States.
Overall, Rice’s years in Girard were happy and prosperous ones. Dan did his best to stifle his tendency toward heavy drinking and occasional brawling, and by now the majority of townspeople had accepted him and his troupe, even looking forward to the excitement and additional income generated by the circus’s yearly visits.
Horrible as the Civil War was, it made superb fodder for Rice’s comic parodies, tart observations and his ability to connect with crowds, and Rice, once again, seized opportunity. Labeling himself “The Great American Humorist,” he regularly addressed large assemblies, and his political bite and acid-tongued commentaries – in costume in the circus ring or in mufti on the soapbox – made him the nation’s first entertainment superstar, amazingly embraced by both ofAmerica’s presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Rice and Lincoln became such friends that many considered Rice Lincoln’s personal court jester. Rice naturally capitalized on that, too; by the mid-1860s, he was earning a staggering $1,000 a week – twice that of the White House occupant – and was breathlessly awaited wherever his circus went.
Rice’s was reportedly generous to a fault, and despite his many talents was a poor businessman. In fact, Rice built and lost three fortunes during his lifetime. Ever focused on the present moment, Dan donated or loaned money to whoever needed it at the time, regardless of his own financial situation. A philanthropist he gave generously to many charities and erected the first monument to soldiers killed during the Civil War. At Girard, he funded construction of a monument to the fallen war heroes ofErieCounty. The memorial, designed byChicago sculptor Leonard Volk, was dedicatedNov. 1, 1865, in Girard’s public square. It was reputed to be the nation’s first monument to soldiers who died during the Civil War.
Dan became deeply interested in politics, and because many people agreed with his frequently expressed political ideas, they urged him to run for public office. He was a democratic candidate for Congress in 1866. By 1868 Dan was convinced that he could actually win the presidency. He plunged into an energetic campaign, and several newspaper editors found his ideas so sensible that they supported him–rather than Ulysses S. Grant–for the Republican nomination. Inevitably his opponents ridiculed him as a “professional clown,” and within a few weeks the campaign that had taken off like a skyrocket had completely fizzled out.
In the years that immediately followed, Dan became a heavy drinker. He lost his beautiful home and along with it his fortune. Dan Rice’s fall can certainly be blamed on the missed performances ascribed to his now heavy drinking, but as America changed in the decade after the Civil War, so did its tastes. As entertainment, the circus fell in esteem, and Rice’s brash participatory style of humor, loud and interactive, took on an air of crude tastelessness, fine for the lower classes, but no longer acceptable to those aspiring towards a more refined culture and higher rungs on the social ladder.
Eventually, with great personal courage, the broken clown overcame alcoholism and became a Temperance lecturer, giving speeches in the some of the same churches who had earlier preached damnation of his circus. Dan sought to reenter the circus industry but the once “Greatest Clown on Earth” could not secure financing for his circus venture. The town he had donated $35,000. to erect the Civil War monument refused to even meet with him much less loan him a dime! Dan Rice, the premier clown of the “Golden Age of Circus”, officially retired in 1887. Rice tried a one-ring show inNew York. When that attempt died in a blowdown, he turned his energy to selling a medical cure-all, dealing inTexasland, writing newspaper items and rehabilitating his reputation. This extremely talented, humane and often pompous man lived a life filled with more victories and defeats than most will ever experience as he had made and lost three fortunes. He had gained fame through his gift to entertain and his colorful lifestyle. Dan Rice would go to the “Big Top in the Sky” at the age of seventy three onFebruary 22, 1900as the result of Brights Disease. The “New York Times” who once gave the thousand-dollar-per-week-earning clown entire pages now featured only a paltry two paragraph obituary located in the back of their publication!
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