Life with an eastern European expat clown in Kentucky
ASHLAND, Ky. (AP) — Editor’s note — The publication three weeks ago of a vintage photo in The Daily Independent stirred fond memories in a Catlettsburg woman whose life changed when she met a Russian expatriate whose business was laughter. This is her story.
The trim doublewide at the bend of a road in rural Boyd County is about as far from the Big Top as can be imagined.
But here, in the home of Hazel Polakovs, resides the memory of one of the circus world’s most famed funnymen, Coco the Clown.
Coco was a household name among American circus enthusiasts in the mid-20th century, the son of the original Coco, who achieved the same fame a generation before in Europe.
Out of costume and makeup, Coco was Michael Polakovs, born in Riga, Latvia in 1923 and brought up in the circus by his father, Nicolai Polaikoff.
They emigrated to England when Polakovs was 7 and he grew up there before coming to America.
He retired in Catlettsburg because that’s where his wife Hazel was from and where she still lives. How the clown and the country girl met and forged a life together was the result of an arranged date.
Michael Polakovs was an established performer with the Mills Brothers Circus, which put up its tent in Ashland in 1959. A local veterinarian and circus lover, Dr. Jack Martin, caught a performance and befriended Polakovs. Martin invited him to visit Ashland again at the end of the season before heading to Florida, circus people’s traditional winter stomping grounds.
The visit ended up lasting all winter and that is when he met Hazel. “A friend of mine said, would you like a date with a clown. I said, well let me see him first, because I didn’t know — he was a foreigner from England, just fresh in the United States,” she said.
They were introduced at a high school basketball game and the next day her friend asked if she would accompany Polakovs to the annual policemen’s ball.
“In those days, there were big bands, formal gowns and everyone went,” she said. “I knew I would be well chaperoned, 20 couples going together so I went. That was the date and I didn’t plan anything else.”
Polakovs did have further plans — within days he proposed. “I said no! I’ve got three children, I’m back home divorced, I’m not going to put that on any man,” she said.
But they did date that winter and at some point agreed to marry. In the spring of 1960, shortly before going back on the road, Polakovs met Hazel on Winchester Avenue downtown. “He said, let me see your hand. He had bought a ring from Pollock’s Jewelers and he put it on.”
They set an October wedding date and in the meantime Hazel visited Polakovs from time to time while the circus was on the road. “I didn’t know anything about the circus, anything at all, except when I was a little girl I saw a man on stilts, and that’s what my husband did,” she said.
Hazel’s daughter Patricia, whose married name is Dalton, was 12 when her mother married Polakovs, and from that moment she thought of him as her father.
The feeling was mutual and Polakovs immersed her in the world of canvas, sawdust, glitter and glory.
“When I was 12 years old my life turned totally around. For the best part of my life I experienced things most people only read about,” she said.
While Polakovs and her mother were dating, “I was going to Garner Elementary School. Dad at that time was working; he’d go into schools and he and his (fellow clown) friend would do little skits for the children and they charged 25 cents per student to see the show.
“I thought . . . I knew this clown personally, knew someone these other children were looking at in awe of him and I knew him.
“And that night when he came to the house, he gave me my quarter back.”
Polakovs moved the family, which included his son Graham from a previous marriage, Patricia and Hazel’s two sons Byron and Bruce from her first marriage, and eventually two more children, Helen Michelle and David Anthony, to Sarasota.
Hazel and her daughter remember it as a thoroughly blended family, “his, mine and ours,” in which the delineations of stepchildren and stepsiblings were irrelevant.
“When we moved to Florida, Dad had me on a trapeze within weeks,” Patricia said. “He said, you’re going to learn this; this is our life; this is our business . . . I went from a farm, chasing cattle, to being a trapeze artist.”
Patricia performed in the Sailor Circus, which then was an after-school program of Sarasota High School, the mascot of which was a sailor. The Sailor Circus was a natural addition to a school to which circus people sent their children. There she honed her performance skills and learned the myriad jobs associated with the circus, from costuming to putting up tents.
Behind the makeup and giant shoes and slapstick antics of his alter ego, Polakovs was elegant and gentlemanly, his widow and daughter say.
It was a quality Hazel noticed when they met. “I didn’t know much about clowns or England, where he was from, but he was interesting, not bad looking, and he spoke good English. But that wasn’t what got me. He was just a gentleman,” she said.
“Dad brought little things from his European life, like respect. The boys would come to the table with shirts on. The girls didn’t come with curlers. No one started to eat until Mom and Dad were at the table. It was respect and manners that almost don’t exist any more,” Patricia said.
His melodious voice, even after his English accent faded, drew in listeners and his skill as a raconteur kept them listening. “People didn’t walk away when he started talking,” Hazel said.
He had little formal schooling but listened and absorbed information and had a firm grasp on public affairs.
His celebrity, and that of his father Nickolai Poliakoff before him, never ceased to astonish and please his family.
“I was excited for dad to be who he was, for him to be my dad. I wanted my name to be his last name. I wanted people to recognize me as his daughter,” Patricia said.
After her own marriage, she and her husband met an Irishman in a restaurant and mentioned her father’s and grandfather’s names. “He said, oh my goodness, I’m in the presence of royalty, and the chills just ran up my back . . . he called his wife and that made me feel so proud.”
The circus life became their life and circus people embraced them. “When you’re in a circus, that’s your family. You picnic together, barbecue together, to movies, watch out for each other,” Hazel said.
“I’ve seem mother drive motor homes, trucks, trailers. She didn’t have a driver’s license when she met him,” Patricia said.
Polakovs groomed their son David from an early age to follow in his footsteps and he became Coconut.
Polakovs even urged Patricia to marry in the center ring of the Ringling Brothers circus. His grand vision called for her to ride in on an elephant.
Her fiance, an outsider to the circus, resisted and they instead married the traditional way. “But it all worked out. We just celebrated 50 years,” she said.
Polakovs died in 2009, but Hazel’s home is crammed with mementos and photos, from a basketful of size 18 shoes to a framed certificate naming him a Kentucky Colonel.
Patricia says she could always laugh at Coco’s routines after seeing them hundreds of times. “He was having fun, so he made it fun for everybody else,” she said.
Information from: The Independent, http://www.dailyindependent.com