Hobo and Tramp – History vs. Practicum


Historically, in the circus and in competition, clowns have created a hierarchy of sorts that I will discuss in a later blog. For simplicity, it breaks down into three categories: Whiteface, Auguste, and Character/Career Clowns. I would note that these are not the only categories of clowning. Clowns have been categorized as Vaudevillian, Singing, and Caring among others. For now, we will discuss the ones that we encounter in the traditional circus. The Whiteface are generally more well kept and, in a duo with an Auguste character, they would be the straight-man. The Auguste are the ones with large features that act as the fall guy in the duo. Character and Career clowns are clowns that do not always adhere to the Whiteface and Auguste traditional looks or actions. Instead, they model their look and action off of a personality or a type of job. From this category, the Hobo and Tramp category has sprung. They are historically considered Character or Career clowns because they are inspired by real individuals, the homeless people of the late 19th century, according to clown historian Bruce “Charlie” Johnson. Though it is a point of contention between historians and practicing clowns, it is my belief that they have earned their own category of clown through their contributions to the American circus and their recognizable roles in the clown hierarchical ladder. For this “new” category to take hold, it is important to understand its murky rules and whether or not there is a distinction between the Hobo and the Tramp.


Red Skelton Museum
Portrait of Red Skelton’s character, Freddy the Freeloader. Pulled from the Red Skelton Museum and Education Center.Do Hobo/Tramp Clowns warrant their own category?


Do Hobo/Tramp Clowns warrant their own category?

The distinction of the Tramp variety from the Career/Character clowns is well deserved.

Professor Emeritus LaVahn Hoh of the University of Virginia, a dear friend and teacher of the only circus history class at an American university, categorizes the Tramp clown as a breed of Character clown, his section on Character clowns in Step Right Up! The Adventure of Circus in America highlights Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly, Red Skelton, and Mark Anthony, 4 Tramp clowns who were among the 6 initial inductees to the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1988. Hoh’s book also highlighted Michael Christensen, who helped found the Big Apple Circus, as another notable Tramp. Historically speaking, Tramp characters have been instrumental in the circus, but they have have also formed a category of their own in competition.

There are three major clown organizations whose expertise goes beyond the circus: World Clown Association (WCA), Clowns of America International (COAI) and International Shrine Clown Association (ISCA). All three of these organizations through competition and definition have marked Tramp/Hobo clowns as a separate category from the Character Clown. Below are the definitions and judging points that each organization uses to classify the Hobo/Tramp category. Note that they do not all agree on the rules of the Tramp and Hobo. It is my belief that this identity crisis needs to be addressed if we are to rightfully add the two characters to our clown hierarchy.

Tramp/Hobo (Competition Judgement Criteria of WCA 2016):

May be either happy or sad. (Examples are Emmett Kelly, Otto Griebling and Red “Freddy the Freeloader” Skelton.)
a. Face has a flesh tone base that is accented with red, white, black, or gray. A dirty effect is sometimes created with the makeup.
b. Hobo may wear old clothes that are neatly kept or bright and colorful.
c. Tramp may wear old clothes that are more tattered, torn, and/or patched.
d. Female Tramp could be a Bag Lady character
e. Competitors may have skin not fully covered by makeup and/or wardrobe. (ie., wrists, fingerless gloves, neck) ” ~ World Clown Association

Tramp/Hobo/Bag Lady (Competition Judgement Criteria of COAI 2012)

  1. Character: Red Skelton in his Freddie the Freeloader character, portrayed this type of character. Considered the only true American clown, some believe that this character developed from the days of the depression in the 30’s when men “rode the rails” looking for work. Other historical references indicate the Tramp makeup goes back to vaudeville and minstrel shows of the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Regardless of the type of Tramp/Hobo, he/she is the one who is the brunt of the joke and will be on the receiving end of the pie, slap or kick from the Whiteface or Auguste. There are some variations in this clown category. The classic Tramp epitomized by Emmett Kelly and Otto Griebling of circus fame is the forlorn and downtrodden character who has nothing and knows he will never have anything. By nature he probably will be a loner, who is reflected in his determination to be silent, generally not talking to anyone but his peers. His downcast mannerisms and shuffling, burdensome movements reflect his hard life.

  2. Tramp Makeup: Male is black or a shade of dark gray to reflect the soot and beard, feathered into the upper cheeks and down under the chin. A ruddy nose is used. A little red shading in the cheeks can help create the sunburned look. The eyebrows and mouth should be turned down to reflect sadness tones.

  3. Tramp Costume: These should be well tattered and held together with rags or other materials, with uneven stitching or held together with whatever available. A dark, battered hat, tattered shoes and socks, worn shirt and tie will exaggerate the character. Gloves are generally old and worn. In keeping with the unemployed status of the Tramp, this character would not wear expensive watches, rings, or new belt, shoes or socks.

  4. Hobo: The vagabond, elegant or happy Tramp is the businessman, scholar or playboy who, being fed up with his life, walked out of society for the wanderlust of travel He will work when he must. He is the king of the road, happy with what he has, and does not expect much. His character may take on some of the characteristics of the Auguste. Red Skelton in his Freddie the Freeloader character portrayed this type of character. It is considered to be the only true American clown.

  5. Hobo Makeup: Male is black or a shade of dark gray to reflect the beard, feathered into the upper cheeks and down under the chin. A ruddy nose is used. A little red shading in the cheeks can help create the sunburned look. The shape of the eyebrows and mouth should turn up to reflect carefree attitude.

  6. Hobo Costume: Usually a dark suit, tuxedo, tails or just shirt and pants made to look old and worn for the male and an old worn-out dress and/or coat for the bag lady. Should be well patched with rags or other materials, with uneven stitching or held together with whatever available. A dark, battered hat, tattered shoes and socks, worn shirt and tie will exaggerate the character. Gloves are generally old and worn. In keeping with the unemployed status of this character he/she would not wear expensive watches, rings, or new belt, shoes or socks.

  7. Bag Lady Makeup: Bag Lady makeup is similar to the Tramp or Hobo – minus the beard, of course! Makeup should be a base color of flesh tone. A little red shading in the cheeks can help create the sunburned look adding some brown or gray makeup highlights to reflect the image of living on the streets with a little White above the eye.

  8. Bag Lady Costume: She usually wears layers of clothing – a frumpy dress or skirt and blouse, perhaps a sweater and jacket over top. Add a scarf around the neck and some type of headwear. Bag ladies often wear worn sneakers or boots with droopy socks, perhaps a piece of cheap costume jewelry and, of course, carry a tattered bag or push-cart for their worldly possessions.

TRAMP/HOBO CLOWN (Definition from ISCA)

“The TRAMP/HOBO character is the only true North American clown. This character grew out of the tramps/hobos who rode the freight trains across the country looking for work. Although the TRAMP and HOBO clown is considered a single category, each is unique. The main differences between these subcategories lies in the areas of attitudes and costumes.

“The TRAMP believes the world owes him a living; that his condition is caused by others. He wants (and expects) everybody to feel sorry for him. He does everything in his power to avoid work. This shaggy vagabond is the individual for whom nothing ever goes right. His face and neck are colored to make them appear dirty and unshaven. Red is added to the beard line to make the face appear sunburned, and the mouth and eyes are white where the tramp has wiped away the dirt with his hands. The eyebrows should be small and worried looking. He may have a drop of glycerine or similar material to make a tear running down the side of his face. His expression is usually SAD and/or SOULFUL. Many times tramps use their own hair which has been ratted up to look shaggy. If a wig is used, it should be one of the darker, duller shades. The TRAMP is ragged but clean. His costume is usually a two or three piece suit which is extremely worn and ragged. The rips and tears may be left open, patched (with ragged patches- not neat iron ons), or pinned together with large safety-pins. The color is usually black or other dark color, but may be brown, grey, or tan. The vest, if one is worn, may be a dark mismatch. The shirt can consist of a worn and full of holes red ‘long handles’ or a worn out regular or work shirt. The color of the shirt should be something other than white. The necktie should NOT be flashy. It should be a regular tie that is worn out. A clothespin, a mousetrap, or other article might be used as a tie clasp. A rope might be used for a belt or suspenders.

“The HOBO wants to be a HOBO; he may be down but he certainly is not out. He often appears to be HAPPY. A HOBO usually will not ask for a ‘handout’, preferring to work for it. He will take a job-but usually not for long because he wants to move along to someplace else. His face is much like the tramp’s make-up except in the expression. He is apt to smile, and his eyes generally appear larger, more wide awake, open, and HAPPY looking than the tramp’s eyes. His costume is quite similar to the tramp’s, but may contain brighter colors in various parts. His vest is likely to be a bright color, as are many of his patches. His shoes should be the same as the tramp’s. The TRAMP/HOBO category is the only category in which the use of any kind of color gloves, gloves with holes, gloves with fingers cut off,or the complete absence of gloves is permitted. However, if gloves are used, they should be CLEAN but APPEAR DIRTY, STAINED, and WORN. The overall effect of make-up, costuming, and performance must compliment the character portrayed.”

Emmett Kelly 1 wikiwand.com:en:Emmett_Kelly
Photo of Emmett Kelly with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. The photo was taken for an ad for the pan American Coffee Bureau.

So is there a difference between Hobo and Tramp?

By the standards of the various organizations, it would appear that the Tramp and Hobo have clear cut rules like the Whiteface and Auguste. In addition, Hobo and Tramps are distinguished by all three  organizations in the way that Whiteface clowns are often split into Elite/European, Neat, and Grotesque.

This brings me to the question, are Tramps and Hobos different? The three big clowning organizations all claim that they are. This, of course, is necessary so that they can have a basis to judge their clowns in competitions. Every competition needs a rubric in order to create a fair judging system. However, I am interested in this question historically and in the realm of character distinctions in the circus.

I first turned to my professor, LaVahn Hoh for some guidance on the issue. As the historian for the Ringling Brothers Clown College, he was not aware of the circus clowns ever making a distinction. His good friend, Barry Lubin, often known as “Grandma” came to visit our class. He too was hesitant about the distinction. They both pointed me towards Bruce “Charlie” Johnson, well known as a clown historian. LaVahn also recommended John Towsen’s book Clowns, which he views as a pretty definitive bible for clowning.

My dad, Gerry Giovinco, known to many as Captain Visual among clowns and balloon twisters, reached out to Johnson for thoughts on the Tramp/Hobo distinction. Johnson replied:

“Some people divide the Tramp character into Hobos, who are supposed to be happy all the time, and Tramps, who are supposed to be sad all the time. Those terms are used mainly by people involved in the hobby of competitive clowning. I don’t use those divisions. First, because they are not historically accurate. Nat Wills, a very influential vaudeville headliner, was known as the Happy Tramp. Throughout history the term Tramp has been used. Very seldom has a professional clown been known as a hobo. Second, a good clown portrays a variety of emotions. Otto Griebling, considered one of the greatest clowns of all times, was a tramp clown who expressed a variety of emotions. I have been a Tramp clown for over 40 years. At first I tried to maintain a sad expression, but I found that didn’t work. I needed more variety to effectively interact with audiences. Most importantly, I learned that because audiences cared about Charlie they wanted to be able to cheer his successes. So my character is happy about some things that happen. I discovered that when kids looked at photographs of my character they were surprised that I look sad in them. They don’t consider Charlie to be a sad person.”

I agree with Mr. Johnson that the happy/sad distinction lacks flavor when actually developing a character. Perhaps others have made this distinction as a generality of the characters’ countenance. As we saw with the competition standards, the “sad” tramp generally appears more tattered and the “happy” hobo would have a higher regard for their clothing, making sure to patch up the tattered articles. As a man of the theater, I am not interested in emotional adjectives such as happy and sad. They tend to dull down the performance. Many actors have a standard method of attack when they “act happy” or “act sad.” Perhaps it is how they hang their head or perk up their shoulders. They forget that there are degrees to happiness and sadness. Such as jubilance, depression, whimsy, melancholy. I instead promote the use of verbs and adverbs. I would not call a specific action happy or sad. I would however mark them with optimism or pessimism. I think that there lies the actual distinction between the two clowns. And so I will choose to disagree with Johnson, and I propose that there are distinctions, just not the happy/sad ones that he is used to hearing.

yA couple weeks later, my dad ran into Leon McBryde, known to many as Buttons. Leon, a very lovable Auguste has hobnobbed with some of the great Tramps and Hobos of Ringling history. Speaking from practice and actually dealing with hierarchical traditions in the ring, Mr. McBryde had always noticed a very stark distinction between the characters. He saw the traditions of Hobos patching themselves up and being proud of who they are while the Tramps always appeared tattered. He noted that Hobo characters are based off of people who will work for their keep. They could be in a gag where they were trying to earn their place through action rather than begging. Whereas, the Tramp character would expect handouts. Ahh, now we are understanding some actions of the characters. Tramps, though they could have happy moments were always looked at as victims of the world, according to Buttons, and the Hobos had more optimistic personalities.

And so I turn to Towsen’s Clowns for some final thoughts on the subject. Towsen reflects on the actual lives of real hobos and tramps, as these clown characters were based on those actual careers. He writes:

“Many of these nomads were in search of a job wherever they could find it, while others were determined – like the more recent ‘beat’ and ‘hip’ generations – to improvise a bohemian life-style around the bare necessities, working as little as possible. Hobo is the proper word for the first group, the migratory workers. The tramp, on the other hand, prefers to live off the food and spare change he can beg at back doors as he roams the country.”

Towsen goes on to point out that the distinctions in the Tramp and Hobo lifestyles are often brushed over by society, which perhaps has led to the confusion among clowns in the circus when developing characters. He discusses the many hats that tramps have worn in the public eye, some have been painted as jolly, some pitiful, but never fearful. Many people have given them a philosophical bent as well. It turns out that the many hats of the tramps became characters that they would play to earn money, perhaps then, a Tramp clown has the ability to be dishonest with himself and others to make it by and the Hobo remains an honest worker. The Tramp is sited to be capable of even stealing from others, an example being Joe Jackson’s stolen bicycle act. This is as far as the fear of the tramp will go, as we should always pity that character. Jackson’s tramp struggles to get the bike to cooperate as it falls apart in his hands and he is forced to rebuild it (albeit incorrectly).

Emmett Kelly, though often labeled a Tramp due to his sad countenance has described his character, Weary Willie, as “the hobo who found out the hard way that the deck is stacked, the dice ‘frozen,’ the race fixed and the wheel crooked, but there is always present that one, tiny forlorn spark of hope still glimmering in his soul which makes him keep on trying.” I think that Kelly had it right in calling Willie a hobo. In many moments, Willie is seen working. Whether it was the classic sweeping spotlight gag or him hanging his clothes up to dry on the tight rope, Weary Willie’s optimism in the fight against life’s trouble was always prevalent and he never expected a handout in the ring.


Otto Griebling 1 All about clowns
Otto Griebling in a picture found on Allaboutclowns.com

Otto Griebling is perhaps more correctly described as a Tramp. He is known for his bits where he would perform for the audience, being paid in applause in the way that actual tramps performed for their money. He was willing to put on various countenances as a ruse until the second that he was pitied, in which his anger would pop out. This aspect of his character hints towards the pessimism that envelopes the tramp character, different from the hope in Kelly’s eyes. An audience member once wrote about Otto in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, “It is almost impossible to forget the reproach in his eyes.” Otto once said in the Toronto Star Weekly that he lets “the emotion come from inside and penetrate the eyes. I’m the same man underneath, I’m always part of the human tragi-comedy.”


So where did everything get murky, why would both of these men be labeled a Tramp, if only one really is? Perhaps it began outside the realm of the circus and instead with the most famous “Tramp” of all time. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was created on the fly and was evolved entirely out of costume pieces that Charlie pulled from a rack. He used the costume to inform the character, which was a generally optimistic, but a down-on-his -luck character who often held various occupations in films. Sounds to me that the Little Tramp was more similar to the Hobo type, though the character’s notoriety spread the improper name far and wide. With many performers attempting to mimic that style under the guise of the “tramp” title and with the greater part of America blurring the lines between the tramp and the hobo, it became easy for the two breeds to merge. However, times have changed in clowning, and many clowns have begun to choose distinctions as we have seen through competition guidelines. These distinctions will hopefully begin to correct the false lens of history that we have haphazardly peered through for some time.

Final Presumptions

It is clear to me that the Tramp and Hobo clowns have had enough historical and cultural significance in clowning to develop their own type outside of the Career/Character Clowns. In having this distinction, they enter the hierarchical ladder of clowns and have consistently showed that they find a place on the bottom rung of the ladder. Like the Neat Whiteface’s higher placement over the Grotesque Whiteface, the Hobo is placed above the Tramp due to general appearance and attitude.

The difference between the Hobo and the Tramp is not as simple as happy vs. sad. In performance, good acting should develop every character, and simple adjectives are not enough for character building. Instead, one should think of the Hobo as more optimistic than the Tramp. Their actions can characterize them in the ring with the Hobo hopefully attempting to earn his position through work and while the Tramp is more willing to beg and steal.

While it has been suggested that the Hobo should have more of a smile in the face than the Tramp, it is perhaps more appropriate to focus on the eye and brow region. A raised brow can show more attentiveness and hope in a situation than a lower brow which generally creates despondence and negates any glimmer in the eye that could have been caught by the light. The makeup colors of both the Tramp and Hobo is inspired by their riding the rails. The grey and black on their faces is meant to represent dirt and soot from riding the rails and doing dirty work, reds show the burn of the sun, and white indicates the part of the face where the dirt and soot have been wiped away.

The Hobo character’s costume should remain more well kept, patching up any rips in the clothes and the Tramp should have a more tattered look. The Hobo can allow more color to their look but overall the Tramp and Hobos sport muted colors.

Of course, these are just basic rules. A character like Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie can remain a hobo clown without these hard distinctions. In more complex characters, one should follow the Shriner’s rule, “The overall effect of make-up, costuming, and performance must compliment the character portrayed.”

Related Links and Resources:

Clowns of America International – Competition Rules

World Clown Association – Competition Rules

International Shrine Clown Association – Types

Bruce “Charlie” Johnson – Types

Step Right Up: The Adventure of Circus in America (Book by Hoh, Lavahn G., Rough, William)

Clowns (Book by Towsen, John H.)