Tomassino, in the midst of his famous “Coppa Traffica” routine, 1943
Tomassino the Clown
Silver Medal, Freestyle Clowning
The European tradition of competitive clowning is all but forgotten by modern fans, but as recently as the ’30s, it competed with soccer and horse racing as the continent’s most popular spectator sport. The pre-war decade was “the golden age of fools,” to quote Fitzgerald, and no performer embodied the sport’s dignified status like Tomassino, the Clown of Torino.
Born in 1894 in Gallodoro, Sicily, Tomassino was the only son of of a popular cobbler, also named Tomassino, who raised him alone after his mother left to try her hand at acting when the boy was just two. Despite her absence, it was a happy childhood for Tomassino, who spent his youth at play when his indulgent father didn’t have the heart to put him to work. Though the boy was expected to take over the family business, the elder Tomassino saw the spark of show business in his son- the same fire that had driven his mother away- and granted him permission to pursue his dream in the cities.
Tomassino toiled in Venice and Rome for six years before attracting the attention of a young fascist named Benito Mussolini, who was delighted by the clown’s bold and subversive impressions of Italian authority figures, including the current Prime Minister, Vittorio Orlando. He agreed to become Tomassino’s patron, installing him in Torino, where the clown grew in fame over the next 15 years. Soon he had eclipsed even the legend of Pagliacci, and when Mussolini came to power in 1922, he had free rein to take unprecedented risks in the clowning arts without fear of political reprisal. Yet while his fame increased, so too did his melancholy; a particularly hard moment for Tomassino came when he found an old prostitute begging in the streets of Milan before a show, and realized it was his own mother, the failed actress. The chance meeting had a profound effect on his clowning, which took on a somber quality and resounded with a new artistic depth.
A variety of bad luck and injuries kept him out of the Olympics until 1936, but Tomassino felt he was at the peak of his career that summer, and traveled to Berlin in a rare spirit of optimism. The clowning finals took place on August 5 at the Dietrich Eckert Open-Air Theatre, in front of a capacity crowd, five judges, and Adolf Hitler himself. From the beginning, two favorites emerged. Tommasino’s chief rival in the Berlin Games was Reinhold the Daft, Hitler’s personal clown, who onlookers described as “stiff but methodical, and very anti-Semitic.” His routine produced polite laughter, but nothing like the emotional highs and lows of what was to come.
Tomassino performed last, faced with the difficult task of out-clowning the native fool. But though the pro-German crowd was reserved at first, it was only minutes before they gasped in delight as Tomassino segued from the renowned “Coppa Traffica” routine to “Il Presidente,” to “Coppa Traffica Deux” to “Mi Nombre No Es Tomassino” to “Maximo Loco” (“Crazy Maximo,” a routine that satirized the abysmal condition of Italian mental hospitals while maintaining a ribald humor). He finished with the gorgeous “Mama Mia, Il Prostituta,” bringing the crowd to tears and securing the gold medal.
Or so he thought. (He wasn’t alone in his judgment; the Reuters wire service, anxious to be the first to report the story, sent out a report that Tomassino had won gold before the final decision arrived, leading to great confusion in newspapers the next day.) But the judges, four of whom were German, awarded Reinhold the Daft the gold medal in a decision that led the crowd to erupt in confusion before chanting “Dieb-stahl! Dieb-stahl!” (the German word for theft). Hitler’s body guards were forced to shepherd him out of the stadium as furious spectators pointed and hurled invective- one of the few times that such opposition to the Fuhrer was openly expressed in Germany.
Tomassino returned heartbroken and bitter to Italy. His artistic melancholy turned to rage, and his performances took on a cynical edge. Four years later, in Siena, his none-too-subtle “Malo Hitler” act landed him in prison- by then, even Mussolini couldn’t protect him from Nazi reprisal- where he died of dysentery in 1943. After the war, the International Olympic Committee ruled that clowning’s diminished popularity, along with the arbitrary nature of the judging process, rendered it unfit for the Olympic Games. It has never returned, and Tomassino’s beloved Berlin performance remains the last act of a forgotten sport.