Coco the Clown: The UK's Number-One Vintage Clown

By Karen Harris
Coco the Clown inspects a replica of his face painted on an eggshell. (Peter Johnson/BIPs/Getty Images)

On September 25, 1974, the entertainment world, particularly in the United Kingdom, got a little dimmer as the shining light of Coco the Clown went out forever. Before clowns became little more than horror movie villains, the lovable Coco captured the heart of a nation for over the course of a career that lasted decades.

The Man Behind The Clown

The story of the Coco the Clown is really the story of Nicolai Poliakoff, the man who created the Coco character and played the delightful clown for most of his adult life. The poor Russian Jew, born in 1900, quite literally ran away to join the circus when he was a boy, dazzled by the promise of fame and fortune. He was already at home in front of a crowd: When he was just five years old, he sang on street corners to earn money to feed his family, and later, he worked at a local theater.

At just eight years old, he took a 300-mile train ride all by himself to a town in modern-day Belarus, where a circus was headquartered. He convinced the director of the circus that he was an orphan with nowhere else to go, so the director took pity on him and placed him with a clown and acrobat named Vitaly Lazarenko, who would later become one of the Soviet Union's biggest celebrity circus performers. Poliakoff's father eventually tracked him down, but the boy wasn't ready to give up his circus dreams. He persuaded his father to apprentice him to the son of Massimiliano Truzzi, the founder of Russia's great circus dynasty. Truzzi took to calling young Poliakoff kokishka, meaning "little cat," while training him in acrobatics and trapeze. The nickname was eventually shortened to "Koko" and Anglicized to "Coco" when Poliakoff moved to the United Kingdom.