EXPIRED: 12/06/09 – Michael Polakovs, 86, spent his entire life performing in circuses and eventually became the most well known clown in the entire world. Many clowns that came after him adopted his slapstick and make-up techniques.
Polakovs was a second-generation circus clown, born backstage at a Latvian circus while his father, Nicolai Polakovs, was performing. The elder Polakovs was the original Coco the Clown and was known as the King of Clowns in Europe and was decorated by the Queen of England for his achievements.
Michael inherited the Coco character from his dad when he joined the family circus show in England at age 14. He, as the clown “Coconut” and his sister Helen as “Cocotina.” When war broke out the circus area was taken over for use as a n internment camp. Nikolai and Michael dug roads and laid gas pipes. Eventually the younger Polakovs became a driver for the government.
Polakovs was brought to America by the Mills Brothers Circus and joined Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1961. He performed center ring for five seasons before becoming the circus’ advance clown — a position that involved going to towns where the circus would be performing to promote it in the local media. That job landed him on numerous radio and television programs.
But Polakovs was perhaps best known for his role in developing a clown that would become an enduring cultural and advertising icon.
In 1966, the McDonald’s Corp. hired Polakovs to design Ronald McDonald. He designed the outfit and makeup that is worn by the character to this day. He also appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as Ronald McDonald and appeared in the first eight TV commercials that featured the character.
Polakovs also was instrumental in the founding of the Ringling Brothers Clown College. Last year, during a 40-year reunion, the college presented Polakovs with a lifetime achievement award voted on by its clownish alumni.
Polakovs and his wife, Hazel, traveled to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., for the ceremony at which Polakovs received the award.
In an interview prior to the trip, Polakovs, as age 85, said he was essentially retired from clowning. He said at the time that he hadn’t donned greasepaint in about two years, the last time being when he performed at a birthday party for his doctor’s daughter.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Polakovs’ survivors include two sons, both of whom are clowns themselves. His eldest son, Graham, is known as Coco Jr., and youngest son David performs under the name Coconut. David Polakovs adopted that moniker because of a decree by Nicolai Polakovs that there be only one Coco per generation.
An interesting bit of trivia, Polakovs usually wore the sailor hat with the name ‘Coco’ on it so people would stop calling him Bozo. So even in the clown world, there’s a lot to be said for branding!
Bye, Bye Coco!