Coco the Clown

Strange but true: Coco the Clown shared a birthday with Toto the Clown, October 2. At least the elder Coco did. There were at least two, a father and a son, who used that handle. The father, Nicolai Poliakoff (1900-1974), was a Latvian Jew, and a second generation performer. Poliakoff was only a child of five when he began busking for coppers, and eight when he ran off to join the circus. He worked at various circuses in Belarus and Russia (later U.S.S.R.) into the 1920s, with an interlude of a few years when he was conscripted into both the Red and White Armies. By 1929, he had made his way to Western Europe, performing with Circus Busch in Berlin, then with Bertram Mills Circus in Manchester. (Max Fleischer’s animated clown character, Koko, or Ko-Ko appears to have been an unrelated phenomenon, based more on Bessie McCoy’s “Yama-Yama Man” look).

The U.K. was to be Coco’s home for the duration. For decades, he was beloved by British circus, music hall and television audiences for his oversized shoes and fright wig, which split in the middle. In 1950 he wrote his memoir, Behind My Greasepaint.

Nicolai’s five children also performed in the circus. His son Michael (1923-2009), who’d performed in the ring since the 1930s as “Cocoanut”, started to use the name Coco in the 1960s. By then, he’d moved to the U.S., where he performed with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, becoming famous for inventing the soap gag, and creating the clown look for the advertising mascot Ronald McDonald.