Send In The Clown: The Comedy Stylings Of Hans Leiter

Hans Leiter performed in so many ice shows that he kept a little black ledger book just to keep all of them straight. For more than three decades, the Austrian ice clown performed in four hundred shows a year (three on Saturdays, two on Sundays) but never let it phase him one bit. In a 1983 interview with "The Free Lance-Star" he said, "I'm like an old car. You have to start me up and let me run for a while before you back out of the driveway and get me going. But when I get out there on the ice, I feel like I'm 25 and I could go on forever."

Most skating fans are familiar with the unique stories of pioneering ice comedians like Frick and Frack and Shipstad and Johnson but Leiter's story is every bit as fascinating. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1913, Hans started skating at the age of six with his twin sister Gretel (you can't make this stuff up!) but never seriously started training as a figure skater until he was twelve. He trained as an ice dancer but as a youngster, skating wasn't his only talent. He showed impressive skill as a tumbler, winning the Vienna Junior Gymnastics Championships and was a soloist with the Vienna Boys Choir. Although his coach was none other than two time Olympic Gold Medallist and seven time World Champion Karl Schäfer, Leiter's childhood aspiration was to become a dentist. He gave up skating at one point to go to dental school. 

Rarely when they say "break a leg" in show business do they mean it, but it was actually the broken leg of the star of a South American skating tour that Schäfer was involved in the production of that got Leiter back on the ice for his big (pardon the pun) break in professional figure skating. An eight month stint as star of the show in the southern hemisphere led to a five year stint with the Karl-Schäfer-Eisrevue in Vienna and Leiter's career as an ice clown was off to a sensational start. He moved to the U.S. and toured with Ice Capades, Ice Follies and Disney On Ice, thrilling audiences from coast to coast. 

The basis of the comedy skating acts he performed on tour were a dramatic or military piece and a drag act (I use the term loosely) where he'd put a comedic spin on characters such as Cleopatra, Cinderella's 'ugly stepsister' and even Dolly Parton. Historian Bruce Johnson wrote of Leiter's performances in his article "Ice Skating Clowns" thusly: "His drag act so popular that it usually was placed in closing position just before the finale. It was risque and hilarious without becoming vulgar. The humour was firmly grounded in a likeable character. Leiter said, 'the hardest part is getting the character right.' The act included things the female audience members could identify with. When the front clasp of his corset's shoulder strap comes undone he tries vainly to reach the strap hanging down in the back. He finally asks a male audience member to help with it. Leiter was particularly adept at topping his gags. Just when you think a gag is over one more punchline comes. For example, his drag characters would slip and stumble across the ice finally coming safely to rest on the edge of a couch. Just as the audience starts to applaud, he reclines to relax, and the seat breaks away sending him crashing to the ice. Most clowns performing a drag number use balloon breasts which they fall upon and break. When Leiter falls, he breaks one balloon. He stands up and centers the remaining balloon which is helium-filled so it floats up out of his low cut neckline. He sadly waves good-bye to the balloon as it drifts away. Leiter improved upon any standard clown gag he used.  In his military act he performed his version of the "Bucket Chase." He had a sump pump mounted on a water trough, so the audience can see his assistant fill a bucket of water which he throws on Leiter. Leiter grabs another bucket which the audience sees him pump water into. What they don't realize is that the bucket has a screen bottom so that the water flows through the bucket back into the trough... When Hans chases his assistant towards the audience and throws the contents of the bucket, the spectators duck, but nothing comes out. When they straighten back up, Hans reacts with an 'I-fooled-you' gesture. Then spring snakes fly out of the bucket, causing the audience to duck a second time." Leiter referred to the gag in a 1982 "New York Times" interview, remarking, "I always involve the audience. It's funny how people want to be fooled. You skate over with a bucket. They know you're not going to throw water at them, but they always duck." A highlight of Leiter's programs was his superb backbend cantilever.

Photo courtesy City Of Vancouver Archives

A November 28, 1980 article from "The Chicago Tribune" offered great praise to Leiter's first performance but wasn't as crazy about his drag number: "As a light-hearted complement to all the technical fireworks, the show offers the hambone antics of Hans Leiter. A kind of Red Skelton on ice, Leiter can clown and carry on with endless comedic invention. His most hilarious gags come in a Romeo and Juliet spoof, in which he portrays the romantic hero as a clumsy, ice-bound clown. When Leiter's Romeo climbs a ladder to serenade his Juliet, he immediately slides back down again, crashing on to the ice. And when he plunges a blade into his heart, he falls to the ground, then rises again, not quite sure whether he is dead or alive. Occasionally, though, Leiter's humour becomes a bit heavy-handed, as in a no-holds-barred sketch called 'Cleo's Back In Town.' Here Leiter appears in a drag as a superbusty Cleopatra, and the routine is rife with all the obvious anatomical jokes."

Photo courtesy City Of Vancouver Archives

Despite painful hip spurs, Leiter carried on with his gruelling performance schedule well into his fifties. In 1983 he said, "Every year when the new kids join the show, some of them will tell me they saw me in Louisville or New York or Seattle when they were kids. They come and they stay for a few years and then go off to get married or the travelling gets to them and they quit. There aren't many old gypsies like me." Sadly, the following year Leiter suffered a heart attack that ultimately forced him to stop touring and slow down. He sadly passed away on Christmas Day, 2011.

Leiter once said that "you have to play to the top of the stadium in ice shows" and I think that advice rings true for any skater who has found great success in the comedy genre. Look at skaters like Kurt Browning and Scott Hamilton! Having an audiences in the palm of your hand while making them laugh is no easy feat... but if you want to make people roar, you have to go big or go home sweetie and ham it up! His legacy as a pioneering and enduring ice clown serves as an important reminder that we can never laugh enough.

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