During a two year study, circus artist Bram De Laere blows the dust off of 250 years of circus history in search of the soul of the clown. With every issue this column puts a different Belgian circus clown in the spotlight. Today: Patrick Malter. “I am happy to have known the golden years of the circus. These days it’s a lot less appealing, the idea of traveling around with the tent.”
Born in Leuven, November 6, 1963
Clown from 1968 to 2003
For years the Malter family ran the largest circus in Flanders, and its name still evokes pure nostalgia. Tigers, lions, human cannonballs, … you name it! All to be seen under the Malter’s bigtop. The media also sprung on the story like hyenas when the family declared bankruptcy at the end of 2014. Patrick Malter puts it in perspective: “It was a difficult period for us when Jean Gebruers, my father and the pater familias of the circus, died. We went bankrupt before we’d even had a chance to suffer much. There was never a pile of depts to be reckoned with.”
“I am happy to have known the golden years of the circus. I began my clowning career at the age of five in the Tiroler Circus of my grandparents. I still remember the act I did together with my father: ‘Fress Fress’. My father, who was a fantastic August, would sit down to eat something in the piste. First I would steal the cheese out from in between his bread, and by the end I would run off with the whole sandwich. It’s a classic number that you still see performed from time to time.
As a child I only had to work the matinee at 3 o’clock. After the performance I went to the box office wagon where my grandmother would pay me, usually a sack of 25 centime pieces. During the evening performance, when most of the audience were adults, I was replaced by adult clowns. In 1971 my parents started their own circus: Apollo. I was eight years old and from then on I was a permanent clown in the company. We worked seven days a week, and played in 250 towns in the course of 300 days!
My father and my brother Jos did the clown numbers, but since Jos also had a job at the funfair, he could never perform on the weekends, so then I was his replacement. My father had a hard time working with me. In the old days there was a lot of dialogue in the clown numbers, but my child’s voice just couldn’t fill that big tent. I always had some kind of problem with my vocal cords.
I mostly learned the profession from my father, and as time went by I also worked with Benoni Verswijvel and Joop Teuteberg. In the old days the clowns were the thread which held the circus together. Between each number the clowns would appear, and when an artist was late or the lights went out, we were there behind the orchestra, ready to save the day whenever necessary. It wasn’t unusual to run onto the piste without the vaguest idea of which number we were going to play, but once you got started, you could feel what the audience was in a mood for.
The acts we performed were determined by the season. In the summer we often did the ladder number, in which I completely walk around a ladder three times, with a full bucket of water, before realising I could just step over it. By the end of the number my father and I were completely soaked, and so was the ringmaster and everyone in the boxes. The people cried with laughter, and they were also thankful for the cooling off they received – it could get up to 40 degrees in that tent in the summer!
Usually the season lasted until the beginning of November, then we had a winter break until Easter. During the break we would repaint all the wagons, so the circus would look brand new in the spring.
“I could go back on tour tomorrow. It would be fun to introduce my youngest children to the circus life. James is six now and he makes himself up every day like a clown. He was born the same year my father died. It’s as if a piece of my father’s soul just crawled right into him.
But these days it’s a lot less appealing, the idea of traveling around with the tent. You no longer sit around the fire after the performance. And organising a tour has not gotten easier. The pitches they give you these days are too small and far out from the center of town. Electricity and water are often a problem. The kind of advertising you can do is also controlled.
If I am going to make circus it has to be by my own standards. I don’t want to cut costs on anything, because that has an effect on the quality and the audience won’t get the show they deserve. That’s why at the moment I am concentrating on a piece of land our family owns in Moerbeke-Waas. During the summer we run a kind of play-park there. I also organise gala shows, and we rent out circus tents as well. I am definitely not ready for retirement yet. I’ve still got the circus in my blood.”
This article was published in Dutch in Circusmagazine #63 – June 2020 // Author: Bram De Laere // Picture: Michiel Devijver // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information