gentler times young boys would often daydream of running away from home to join
the circus. Irv Romig didn't have to run very far. In fact, he didn't have to run
at all because he was born under the bright lights of the Big Top. Irvin Hugh
Romig was born in Detroit, Michigan on February 1, 1920.
His father, Carl Romig, was a performing cowboy and horse trainer for the
Ringling Bros. Circus. His mother, Catherine Rooney, was a bareback rider and
aerialist in the family circus act, The Riding Rooneys.
got his first taste of applause at the tender age of five in the Frank McIntyre
Circus. Little Irvin would sit obediently on a trunk in the dressing room, while
his parents performed. The dressing room was also shared by clowns Ed Raymond
and Marcus Hunkler who decided one day to enlist the tiny tot in their act.
They gave Romig a clown face, a swallowtail coat and a huge frying pan and
spoon. Raymond and Hunkler played a comical version of the tune It’s
Three O’ Clock In The Morning on the trombone and clarinet. When they got
to the chorus the clowns instructed the youngster to bang the frying pan with
the spoon three times. When Romig heard the laughter radiating from the
bleachers he knew that sawdust was in his veins and the circus was in his
family traveled with various circus shows and rodeos from Canada to Mexico and
across the United States. At the end of the season they would settle in the
Detroit area. In the spring, the routine started all over again.
In 1924 a new member was added to the troupe when Romig’s sister Fay
great depression the family formed their own show, the Romig
and Rooney Circus, which appeared at local movie theaters like the Macomb
in Mt. Clemens, and the Redford in Detroit. A vintage poster
for the show boasts of
“Trained Horses, Educated Mules, Trick Dogs, Clever Ponies, Acrobats,
Bareback Riders, Jugglers, Wire Walkers, Aerialists, Trick Roping and Clowns,
By the age of fifteen Romig was a
full-fledged circus performer. Known as “Irvie- The Circus Buffoon”, the
young clown would do trick riding, a comedy mule act, clown routines and walk
arounds. Working with the top circus performers of the day was like a “Clown
College” for Romig. He learned
the old routines from veteran clowns and invented many new ones.
In his autobiography The Show Goes On, Romig said, “If I
could do something that was a little outstanding, that nobody else could do, I
took pride in that. I think that got into my head through the circus. Anytime I
found something that I could do that others couldn’t, that made me real
happy… inside and all over.”
performing with the Jay Gould Circus he got his induction notice from the Army.
Corporal T-5 Romig was the camp bugler, horse and
dog trainer and a member of the Section 8 Gang, a troupe of clowns
who entertained the servicemen. When he was discharged in 1945 Romig decided to leave the family
circus and strike out on
several small circuses, Romig’s reputation as a clown was growing. In 1946 while in New York
with the Jimmy Cole Circus Romig had his first brush with a new medium-
television. Cole made a deal with a TV producer to televise his show, which was
the first broadcast of a circus on television. “We didn’t get paid extra for
the TV show,” Romig recalls, “It was just for publicity.”
In 1949 Romig
met Rose Dobo, an AT&T supervisor, at the Campus Ballroom
in Detroit. “I went over to where there had been a line of girls,” he
remembers. “I asked the first girl to dance, and she refused. Then I asked the
second girl, and she refused. I ended up working my way down the line. I swung
around, and ran right into Rosie, and asked her to dance. This is where I met my
wild Hungarian, and we’ve been swinging ever since.” The pair was married a
Romig signed on with the Shrine Circus, an association that lasted for
twenty-two years. Knowing that people wanted to see something new, he invented new, elaborate routines. The old-time clowns were “suitcase
clowns”, meaning that their entire act would fit into a suitcase. They did the
same tried and true gags over and over again. Romig, being a clever clown, knew
he could do better. For the Shrine Circus he created an elaborate train ride gag
by converting a small lawn-cutting tractor into a mini steam-style locomotive
with coaches and a caboose, built out of small trailers .The train
routine was one of the highlights of the show that season. Romig also trained
animals for his act, something few clowns had the knowledge or patience to do.
Trick horses, donkeys, llamas, a miniature buffalo and various other critters
were all part of the act at one time or another.
Bros. Circus heard of Romig’s versatility and invited him to join the
“Greatest Show On Earth.” Romig’s new bride Rose got into the act, too.
She rode a float in the parade, assisted the aerialists and worked as a
seamstress, creating and repairing costumes. The pair even appeared in Cecil B.
DeMille’s 1951 epic film The Greatest Show On
Earth, along with
Romig’s sister Fay, who doubled for Betty Hutton.
settle down to raise a family Romig decided to try his hand at TV. He got
an appealing offer from Pete Strand, programming director at WXYZ.
After two auditions, Strand decided to hire Romig for a new weekly
children’s show. Tip-Top Fun starring Ricky the Clown went on the air in
October 1953. Strand insisted though that Irvie change his clown name to Ricky-
easier for the kids to remember.
The early shows
featured Laurel and Hardy shorts, a peanut gallery of about twenty-five kids,
Bambino the donkey and Ricky the Clown’s songs and antics. The show performed
well in the ratings, often beating Roy Rogers at rival station WWJ. To the dismay of Tip-Top
Bread, the show’s sponsors, FCC regulations stipulated that you couldn’t use
the sponsor’s name in the title of a program. So Tip-Top Fun became the
Ricky the Clown Show
Ricky became so
popular that his show was expanded to five days a week. Many of his circus
friends were guests on the show, like famous clowns Otto Griebling, Ernie Birch,
Felix Adler, Jackie LeClair and Happy Kellems.
Other performers on the show were Kay Hanneford and her
dog act, unicyclist Don Phillips, and Gloria Peebles with her trained
dogs and monkeys. The show became a family affair with Romig’s sister Fay
Snyder and her dog act, his father Carl with various animals and his
adopted sister Grace McIntosh on the flying trapeze.
programming director Pete Strand created a different type of program for Romig,
the Robin and Ricky Show. Robin, played by the pert Lolly
Deene, was a
waitress at a fictional lunch counter. Romig played Ricky the busboy. The lunch
counter angle appealed to the show’s sponsors, making it easy to weave the
commercials for their food products into the fabric of the show.
By May of 1958, Robin and Ricky flew the coop. Strand returned the show to its original
circus format, along with a small increase in the show’s budget. Romig still
spent a lot of his own money building props and gags. Games and prizes were now
a part of the show, along with cartoons and Fonda the Llama. Since Romig was
collecting a menagerie of animals for the TV show, he decided to create a small
zoo and amusement park in the backyard of his home in Birmingham, Michigan
featured trained animals, train and airplane rides, a circus museum and fun
house, circus acts, a picnic area, donkey rides and of course, Ricky the Clown.
At the end of the day each child got a balloon, a bag of popcorn and a picture
of Ricky. Admission was on the honor system; a bowl was put out front for
donations. Romig recalls only one occasion when he saw any money in the bowl.
When he went to count it at the end of the day, the money was gone. Rickyland
closed after only a year of operation because it became too expensive to feed the
animals and maintain the grounds.
Romig was very proud of the fact that he had the only kid show in the country with an
automobile dealer, Hanley Dawson Chevrolet, as a sponsor. The dealer even
insisted that Ricky himself do the commercials, rather than staff announcer,
Larry McCann. Ricky the Clown was also a popular guest host, filling in for
other WXYZ kid show personalities who were on vacation or too ill to perform. On
more than one occasion Romig would get a frantic call from Pete Strand asking if
Ricky could get down to the station in fifteen minutes, because so-and-so was
unable to make it to work that day. When Romig subbed for a vacationing Soupy
Sales, he insisted that Soupy’s puppeteer Clyde Adler be allowed to show his
face on air, something that Soupy had never done before. Romig wrote a sketch
where an incompetent plumber, played by Adler, was sent to Soupy’s house to
fix a leak. By the end of the show water was cascading everywhere.
In 1962 Romig
was partnered with Johnny Ginger for Action Theater, an hour’s worth of
Three Stooges shorts, with a little bit of live comedy from the duo thrown in
for good measure. By 1965 Romig packed up the old clown shoes, greasepaint and
bulbous red nose, ending a twelve-year run at WXYZ.
his association with the Shrine Circus and still did many personal
parades, industrial shows and private parties. In 1986 Ricky the Clown became
Professor Ricky, when Romig signed with OmniArts in Education, a Detroit-based
arts education program that brings live artists and musicians into the public
schools to entertain and educate children. In 2001 Romig was inducted into the
International Clown Hall of Fame, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, joining other
luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin, Red Skelton and Emmett Kelly.
passed away on May 23, 2010 after a short illness. His body may have been 90
years old, but he always had the heart, the curiosity and sense of wonder of an
eight year old boy; a boy who sits at the window and daydreams of being a clown
in the circus.