Clifford Combes, Muriel Combes, and Pepito the Spanish Clown (2011)

January 1, 2011

To write the biography of Pepito and Joanne, I have organized their personal archive of photos and newspaper clippings; and researched all the available historical newspaper databases on the internet.  

One of the missing pieces is Pepito’s scrapbook of his entire vaudeville career, which sat in Pepito & Joanne’s Santa Ana parlor for decades, bulging with yellowing clippings and old photos.  The scrapbook was sold off when Joanne’s estate was liquidated in 2005.  If only I could find that scrapbook, so many questions could be answered, and it would be so much simpler to put the P&J archive into chronological order.  After much effort to trace what became of Pepito’s scrapbook, and lots of help from the estate liquidator, there is only one clue: it was sold to a paper collectibles vendor, who then sold it to an unidentified person in Las Vegas.  End of story.  

After the let-down of failing to find the scrapbook, I figured that if I couldn’t find Pepito’s scrapbook, then I would try my best to find people who had worked with Pepito, to see if they kept scrapbooks.

I knew that two of the people who had worked in his act were Margaret Shorey, Pepito’s first female partner/assistant/foil when he came to the United States; and Clifford Combes, whose name I found on a 1928 vaudeville contract for the six-month engagement on the Tivoli Circuit in Australia.

After a long people-search for Margaret Shorey on the internet, I finally found and spoke to Margaret Shorey’s nephew and his wife, which was a delightful experience.  But I was saddened to learn that if Margaret kept a scrapbook of her vaudeville days with Pepito the Spanish Clown, it no longer exists.


Next I turned to finding Clifford Combes or his descendants.  Using, the Social Security Death Index, and an obituary of his brother Victor Combes, I was able to determine that Clifford had no children and his wife was deceased as well.  Having hit a dead end, I was frustrated, because I did not know the names of any other performers who had worked with Pepito and Joanne in their hey-day.  

When a newspaper article about my Pepito & Joanne research project was published in the Orange County Register in October of 2010, I had my fingers crossed that friends, acquaintences, former students, and maybe even former vaudeville associates might see it and contact me.  I was thrilled that over 20 individuals emailed me after reading the article.  In fact, I have not had the chance to interview everyone yet.

Muriel Combes, age 14, and her big brother Clifford, age 16.  Clifford became acquainted with Pepito as a young boy by pet-sitting his menagerie, and he soon joined Pepito’s act in 1928 as an acrobat and clown.  Muriel enjoyed seeing Pepito & Co. onstage whenever their Orpheum vaudeville circuit schedule brought them back to the Los Angeles area.


Imagine my shock and surprise when I received an email from Muriel Combes, Clifford Combes’s sister, who is a spry 99 years old!  Actually, the email was sent by her daughter, Marilyn, to let me know how much her mother had enjoyed the article and photo of Pepito and Joanne in The Orange County Register.

I have had the pleasure of speaking to Muriel and Marilyn on the phone, talking about those amazing years in the 1920s.  It is so amazing to hear the stories first-hand for a change, instead of hunting through old newspaper archives.  Muriel’s memories are crystal clear, making me feel like I am right there, watching everything happen on stage.  She the only person I have interviewed, and likely will ever interview, who was at the 1928 premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Circus at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  She knew Pepito and Joanne well, because her big brother Clifford Combes, was a clown and acrobat in Pepito’s act.  

Muriel’s memories of Pepito and Joanne centered on three areas:  their pets, the Grauman’s Chinese Theater premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus” in 1928, and Pepito’s special midget clown car.

Muriel Combes prepared to blow out the candles on her cake at her 99th birthday party, 2010.  As a young girl, Muriel was at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1928 for the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s film, “The Circus” and proudly watched her brother Clifford Combes perform in the ballyhoo stage show which preceded the showing of the film.  Clifford Combes and Joann Falcy were the newest members of the act of Pepito the Spanish Clown.  Clifford was inside the lion suit in this surviving film clip from the Ballyhoo on opening night.

The Pets

Pepito’s home was a bungalow in the pleasant, middle-class Athens District of Los Angeles, (now gritty South-Central Los Angeles).  The Combes family lived nearby, and the young boy Clifford was entrusted with caring for and feeding Pepito’s menagerie of animals when Pepito was out of town on the vaudeville circuit.  Sometimes little sister Muriel tagged along and helped Clifford feed the pets.  The menagerie included trick dogs, and even a very mischievous monkey.  Pepito’s trained lion must have been on the road with him, because Muriel does not recall ever seeing the lion at the house.  

When Clifford demonstrated acrobatic talent at age 19 in his high school gymnastics class, Pepito brought him into the vaudeville act.  The eyar was 1927.  Clifford’s first public performance was in the Ballyhoo at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in January 1928.  After 16 weeks at Grauman’s, Clifford toured with Pepito and Joanne at the height of their vaudeville fame, parting ways with them sometime in the 1930s when vaudeville “went blooey.”  

The Premiere

Clifford’s first public appearance was the Grauman’s premiere on January 1928.  Pepito’s act at Grauman’s included a “lion tamer” routine, in keeping with the theme of the evening, and because there was a lion in the Chaplin film.  Clifford was the energetic fellow inside the lion suit.  

Sixteen-year-old Muriel Combes was at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1928 on the opening night of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus.”  Muriel spent a lot of time backstage watching everyone get into costume for The Ballyhoo and apply make-up.  She watched some of the acts from the wings.  She spent some time in the audience watching the ballyhoo.  She doesn’t recall seeing Charlie Chaplin in the audience that night, because she was too busy moving around so she wouldn’t miss any part of the show.  

Muriel recalls that the lion costume was kept in a special locked area backstage, and appeared to be made from an real lion pelt.  

The Clown Car

Muriel has a special memory of riding in Pepito’s special clown car, driven by Pepito, on a July day in 1928.  They drove together on the surface streets of Los Angeles, from the Athens district, all the way down to the docks in Wilmington.  On that momentous day in 1928, Pepito, Joanne and Clifford were departing for a six month tour of Australia with the Tivoli vaudeville circuit.  Upon arrival at the docks, the unusual little car was loaded onto the boat; it was part of Pepito’s stage act. 

Pepito the Spanish Clown, posing with a Charlie Chaplin impersonator in Pepito’s miniature Packard, in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, 1928.

Muriel told me in a recent phone interview that Pepito would actually drive the car onto the theater stage and do a routine with it.  Muriel recalls that at the conclusion of her amazing ride in the miniature roadster, her legs were numb from being cramped in the tiny passenger compartment, and she could barely get out of the car or stand up.  Muriel confirms that Pepito’s little car resembled a miniature Packard.