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Zurich celebrates King of Clowns

Grock could play 14 musical instruments including a minature violin swissinfo.ch

The comic genius of Adrien Wettach - better-known as Grock, "the King of the Clowns" - is being celebrated in an exhibition in Zurich.

This content was published on March 7, 2003 - 09:25

Born in 1880, Grock was a multi-talented entertainer who became a household name throughout the world and who made even Hitler laugh.

The exhibition, in Zurich's city hall until April 17, features costumes, circus posters and photographs spanning Grock's six decades as a mime artiste, acrobat, musician and composer.

It also features a miniature violin which was one of the 14 instruments he mastered for his act, and film of him performing.

Born near Biel in canton Bern, Grock displayed a gift for comic timing from an early age. He made his circus debut at 14 and was equally at home in music halls.

Jean-Pierre Hoby, head of Zurich's department for the promotion of culture, told swissinfo that language was never a barrier for Grock when he went on world tours.

"He was perhaps the first clown to be known everywhere," he said. "He saw life as a kind of entertainment and never lost his talent to amuse."

Many prominent figures from the European aristocracy and even Hitler claimed to be fans and boasted about their friendship with him - a claim that was not reciprocated.

Funny business

When asked about the secret of his success, the clown himself said: "The genius of clowning is transforming everyday annoyances, not only by overcoming but actually transforming them into something strange and terrific."

"It is the power to extract laughter from millions out of nothing and less than nothing."

When he began clowning, Grock based his routine on that of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), known as the "father of clowns", but the act evolved into a way of commenting on life.

Man over matter

For example one of his trademark routines was to carry an excessively large violin case from which he would produce a tiny violin. He would then give a virtuoso performance on the instrument which would repeatedly attempt to escape his grasp.

Another stock routine was to sit on a piano stool which was too far from the piano for him to play it. But instead of moving the stool closer, he struggled to push the piano towards him.

Grock epitomised the triumph of the man who would succeed in spite of himself - the perfect human foible struggling to tame nature.

At one time the highest-paid artist in Europe, Grock lost his fortune after buying a circus tent for his variety show following World War II, but recovered financially through successful tours.

He retired to the 50-room villa he had built in the 1920s on the Ligurian coast of the Mediterranean and died there in 1959.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

In brief

Adrien Wettach was born in Loveresse, canton Bern, in 1880.

His father was a watchmaker who as an amateur musician and acrobat taught the young Karl the first rudiments of his art. From an early age he also learned to play 14 musical instruments, including a miniature violin.

He made his circus debut in 1894, became the partner of a clown named Brick and changed his name to Grock in 1903.

During his long career, Grock performed throughout the world in theatres and music halls as well as the circus and appeared in a number of films.

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