Robert Edwin (Bobby) Clark was born in Springfield, Ohio on June 16, 1888, the son of a Pullman conductor. His father died in 1894. At the age of twelve, Bobby met a classmate named Paul McCullough, a boy four years his senior, and a huge fan of acrobatic tumbling. Paul invited Bobby to join him in tumbling classes at a local YMCA and a lasting friendship was formed. By 1900, now quite adept at acrobatics, the pair made the decision to break into the world of show-business. Unfortunately for the new team, jobs for tumblers were scarce. They finally managed to find employment with a traveling minstrel troupe where they were forced to expand their performing range well beyond acrobatic tumbling to include song and dance and midget juggling. Unhappy with their life in the minstrel troupe, Clark and McCullough joined the Hagenbach-Wallace Circus as clowns. While there, they developed a complicated comic routine involving their unsuccessful attempts to place a chair atop a table. The routine, which included, for the first time, dialogue from the team ("Complicated, isn't it? Really a problem for the scientist, but we will attempt it!") would result in torn clothes, black eyes, and the final destruction of the chair and table. It was a resounding success. Between 1906 and 1911, the pair drifted from one circus to another, honing and perfecting their delivery, comic styling, and costumes. Bobby Clark had created a distinctive look for himself during his years with the circus by painting a pair of eyeglasses on his face with greasepaint while Paul McCullough favored a tiny artificial "toothbrush mustache". Both men seemed to have a fascination with hats and apparently had a vast collection of all manner of straw boaters, derbies, top hats, and Stetsons. Their manner of performance had become quite extraordinary. Rapid-fire, non-sequitir dialogue was combined with frantic stunting and bizarre sight gags. Clark and McCullough were quickly becoming certified show-stoppers. The sheer level of energy of the two men left audiences breathless.
On December 2, 1912, Clark and McCullough made their debut as a vaudeville comedy team at the Opera House in New Brunswick, New Jersey with their by now perfected 'chair and table' routine. Before long, their comic repertoire had vastly expanded. The public approval was clear and they found themselves being booked into vaudeville houses of greater and greater prestige with a subsequent increase in salary. In 1917, famous impresario Jean Bedini invited the team to join his burlesque company as featured comedians and, soon, thanks to frequent appearances in England, Clark and McCullough became internationally renowned. It was in London where Clark and McCullough scored their first big stage hit in the musical-comedy revue Chuckles of 1922. Irving Berlin caught their act in Chuckles and brought the team back to America for their Broadway debut in the Music Box Revue. The show was an immediate success and ran for 272 performances plus a touring road-company edition.
Following another edition of the Music Box Revue in 1924, Clark and McCullough were given a starring role in their own Broadway musical, The Ramblers. Although their producer, Phillip Goldman, had former success promoting W.C. Fields in his first Broadway starring vehicle, Poppy, Clark and McCullough had their misgivings and prepared for the worst. They needn't have worried. The Ramblers was yet another hit for the team, winning over many of the staunchest Broadway critics with its brisk dialogue and madcap humor. It was the first of many starring shows for Clark and McCullough.
Then the unexpected happened. Synchronized sound film had finally come into its own with Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer and Hollywood was suddenly eager for proven stage talent. Among the very first lured from Broadway to the West Coast were Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, a fact glossed over by most of the film history books. (In actuality, Clark and McCullough had made their film debut the year before in a silent feature! Two Flaming Youths starred W.C. Fields and the team, rather appropriately, appeared as a part of a circus sideshow.) In 1928, they signed a contract with Fox Studios for a series of sound films. These pictures, perhaps lost and definitely unavailable for appraisal today, ranged from brief one-reel recreations of their stage routines, to five reel featurettes. The studio was glad to have the team at their disposal and spent much time, money, and effort on the Clark and McCullough films.
At any rate, the comedians were uncomfortable with the restrictions of early sound film production, especially considering their own freewheeling methods. They left Hollywood for Broadway just as their contemporaries, the Four Marx Brothers, were doing precisely the opposite. Once Clark and McCullough had returned for a featured role in Kaufman and Ryskind's Strike Up the Band, they were viewed as the Marx Brothers' natural successors.
Several more Broadway productions followed before the team received an offer from RKO-Radio Pictures. Their new contract allowed Clark and McCullough to film during the summer and perform on Broadway during the winter. Clark and McCullough returned to Hollywood and, between 1930 and 1935, made 22 pictures for the RKO short subjects department. These shorts, many scripted by Bobby Clark himself, combined verbal humor and wild slapstick. The plots were loose and the gags were often risqué, even for the period. The shorts were a huge success.
Suddenly tragedy struck. In 1935, having completed their last short for the studio, Clark and McCullough went on tour in a version of George White's Scandals. The breakneck pace was apparently more than Paul McCullough could take and, suffering from nervous exhaustion, he entered a sanitarium in Medford, Massachusetts. He was pronounced cured in March, 1936, and was released. As he was driving home with a friend, he decided to have a shave. They stopped at a local barber shop where McCullough struck up a friendly conversation with the barber. Without warning, as the barber's back was turned, Paul McCullough grabbed a straight razor and slashed his own throat and wrists. He was taken to a nearby hospital in critical condition and died several days later.
Devastated, Bobby Clark went into seclusion for several months, finally reemerging to take the place of Bob Hope in the Zeigfield Follies of 1936. Although initially nervous about going it alone as a "single", Clark found continuing fame on Broadway in such shows as Streets of Paris and Sweethearts. Bobby Clark made his final Broadway appearance in Mike Todd's As The Girls Go in 1949 and briefly came out of retirement in 1956 to tour with a version of Damn Yankees. He died in February, 1960 at the age of 71.
Bobby Clark made made only one film appearance without his partner. In 1938, he appeared in The Goldwyn Follies, a film he contemptuously referred to as "the world's longest trailer".
copyright 1999 by Aaron Neathery