Frank “Slivers” Oakley (b. either 1871 or 1885, I’ve seen both) has been called the greatest circus clown of his generation. In a 1960 interview, Buster Keaton placed him at the top of his list of his favorite clowns. Oakley’s most famous routine was a pantomime of a baseball game, in which he portrayed every player in the field — a routine Keaton paid tribute to in his 1928 film The Cameraman. Another famous (positively Dali-esque) routine had Slivers riding around a Hippodrome track on two giant lobsters.
He started out as a contortionist as a teenager, and became a clown a couple of years after that. From 1897-1907, he worked for a number of the top circuses, including Ringling Bros. and Forepaugh and Sells. At his top salary he was supposedly pulling in $1000 a week.
Around 1910, he decided he wanted to break into vaudeville. Aside from some dates on the giant stage of the Hippodrome in New York, he seems to have had a tough slog getting bookings and was relegated to the small time for the most part. When he tried to go back to Ringling, they punished him by offering him $75 a week, a far cry from his old salary.
In 1916, he took his own life — asphyxiation by gas. This was possibly because of the failing career, possibly because of an unrequited love he had for a young vaudeville actress, or possibly a combination of the two.
Some folks are raising money now for a feature length documentary about Slivers which they hope to complete in time for the Centennial of his death in 2016. To find out more (and even donate) go here.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.