Pepito Meets Joanne: Their Matchmaker Was Charlie Chaplin (1928)

January 1, 1928

The 1928 premiere of of Charlie Chaplin’s movie “The Circus” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre Hollywood included a live stage prologue (a stage show before the movie) called the “Ballyhoo.”  Chaplin wanted an actual three ring circus to precede the screening of the movie, to fit the theme of his film, but by necessity it was squeezed down to a one ring circus on the Grauman’s stage.

Opening night, before the film’s showing, featured the Overture “A Trip to the Side Show” with Will Prior, Conductor, followed by Sid Grauman’s “Ballyhoo” starring some of the biggest acts in vaudeville:  Samaroff and Sonia, Pepito the Clown, Ed and Jenny Rooney, The Dancing Horse, Three Freehands, Slayman Ali Clowns, Pallenberg’s Bears, and Poodles Hanneford.  

During casting for the Ballyhoo, a young contortionist named Margaret Janet Zettler (our Joanne), with the stage name Joan Falcy, was hired.  Chaplin hinted to Pepito that he should include Miss Falcy in his segment of the Ballyhoo, since Pepito’s former female partner, Peggy Shorey, had recently quit.  

Joanne paired with Pepito and they perfected a clown-meets-mechanical-doll act, using her contortionist abilities to do inhuman moves such as squeezing into a tiny box, and moving with slow precision like a wind-up toy.  From 1928 to Pepito’s death in 1975, Pepito and Joanne were a team on the stage, in marriage, and in their business “The Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance.”  Joanne always proudly credited Charlie Chaplin for introducing her to her husband.

Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus” was a United Artists Corp. production and starred: Charlie Chaplin, Allan Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Harry Crocker, Stanley Stanford, John Rand, George Davis, Henry Bergman, and Steve Murphy.

Pepito Perez in Sid Grauman’s Prologue Ballyhoo for Charlie Chaplin’s motion picture, “The Circus,” 1928.  From the collection of Michael Brannan.
Joan Falcy (later Joanne Perez) the Human Rubber Doll, in Sid Grauman’s Prologue Ballyhoo, 1928. Joanne was literally born with one leg behind her head, and a natural ability for contortionism. As a baby, she slept in the crib with her legs in a split position, causing her mother to worry that she might be deformed, but doctors assured Mrs. Zettler that young Margaret was perfectly normal. In Pepito and Juanita’s “Rag Doll” routine, Pepito would roll and toss Joanne around the stage as if she had no human joints. PHOTO CREDIT: COURTESY OF MELANI CARTY
The cover of the program for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus” including the Ballyhoo prologue.  From the collection of Cheryl Taylor.

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