In the aftermath of World War I, Americans became obsessed with fitness. The sacrifices of the Great War and the catastrophic flu epidemic intermingled with the postwar Red Scare, a fear of radical politics and immigrants in general. Some solutions were good old-fashioned nostrums of exercise and medicine; some sought legislation banning immigration and laws calling for sterilization of undesirables. And some, particularly strange individuals thought that educational comedy was the best method of combatting such social ills.
The Child Health Organization (CHO) of New York was one such organization. The CHO was founded in 1918 by Doctor L. Emmett Holt, a well-known pediatrician specializing in infant nutrition and childhood diseases like rickets and whooping cough, with funding from Columbia University. Holt hired Sally Lucas Jean, a former Army nurse and educator well-regarded for her efforts heading a wartime commission on children’s health, to head the CHO’s Education Division. Jean sought to engage children about the need for improved diet, exercise and other easy ways of avoiding disease and malnutrition. She turned to old-fashioned pedagogical methods: doctors lecturing students, health curricula for schools, pamphlets and other literature.
Unfortunately, Holt and Jean found that young students were inclined to ignore such traditional methods. Almost by accident, they stumbled across a solution. During a fall 1918 school lecture on the importance of drinking milk, they hired a local clown to entertain children while undergoing weight and physical exams. To their surprise, the clown’s ad libbed jokes and cheerful demeanor proved a hit with kids. Holt hired him full-time on the spot, promising him a healthy sinecure to promote the CHO’s message. Thus was born Cho-Cho the Health Clown.
Who was Cho-Cho? Blogger “YoungM2015,” a genealogist, concludes that he was probably Joseph Henrici of Palmyra, New Jersey. Henrici worked as a carnival roustabout and rodeo clown before joining Barnum & Bailey as a full-time comedian. He alternated between clowning, vaudeville comedy and stage acting, working steadily but never gaining particular acclaim or notice. Henrici was about to fold up his tent when he encountered Dr. Holt, and the comedian eagerly embraced his new mission. Whereas adult audiences were a hard sell, Henrici commented, “children are more appreciative of what you try to do for them…Give me the children, whom I can make to laugh and teach to be happy.”
So commanded Cho-Cho, and America’s schools obliged. Beginning in 1919, Cho-Cho began a nationwide campaign of educating kids on the importance of diet, exercise and proper bodily care. His act was a mundane clown routine including slapstick (pretending to cook a chicken with a defective frying pan), wordplay and general silliness. His patter with the juvenile audiences showed a good command of a child’s mindset. He noted that milk contained vitamins and minerals “needed in your body to keep them well,” and warned kids that if they didn’t drink their milk, “the doctor will come to you and give them to you in bad tasting drugs.” Thus did the Clown turn some fussy tykes into a crowd of dairy fans.
Cho-Cho’s act wasn’t always so positive. An attendee at one of Cho-Cho’s Nebraska events recalled that he dropped the jokes for a “brimstone and health-fire against fried food, young ladies who eat chocolate between meals… and boys and girls who scorn their parents’ wishes and stay up until after 8 o’clock at night.” He’d also shame children into proper dental care by saying that he made them laugh “to see how many of you have nice, pearly white teeth and how many have teeth like coffee beans.”
Cho-Cho’s advice, included in his “eight health commandments,” offered commonplace advice about eating fruits and vegetables, bathing at least once a week and playing outside daily. Other tidbits resembled folk wisdom, as when he encouraged children to sleep with their windows open, to only eat bananas with “dark streaks” (yellow bananas would make them sick) and to discard pickles and peppers as “bad vegetables.” He urged monthly weigh-ins to log whether they’ve gained weight (a good thing, in Cho-Cho’s time, as it demonstrated proper nourishment) and asked kids to make one meticulously timed bowel movement a day. In hopes of enforcing these rules, Cho-Cho created a correspondence club where children could report their findings to him (or, more likely, secretaries at the CHO who soon tired of reading about little Johnny’s dumps).
Clowning for health provided Henrici with a lucrative profession; he earned $50,000 a year for his work. Reporters praised Cho-Cho’s “pills of wisdom and good advice concealed in a sugar coating of jest and merriment administered by the universal favorite of all children, a real, sure ‘nough circus clown” as a way to interest children in self-improvement. Audiences seemed enthusiastic, attending school events, camps and outdoor events where Cho-Cho regaled them with frying pan antics (“you can eat a chicken before its born and after it’s dead” he lectured, disappointing anyone planning to eat a live, raw chicken) and weird musical couplets (“G is for gaining [weight]/As every child could”).
At his peak, Cho-Cho commanded enough popularity to inspire corporate sponsorships, with Colgate using his image to sell toothpaste. Children’s author Eleanor Glendower Griffith even published a story book for children, which explored the whimsical adventures of Cho-Cho and the Health Fairy (who sometimes appeared alongside Cho-Cho, portrayed by a school nurse or local health aide) in their efforts to the rid the world of bad habits. “Now Cho-Cho from his Magic Window in the great city had never ceased to look each day toward the country and the Farm where the Boy lived,” one story concluded, “and as he saw the Child grow strong and healthy, he smiled with pleasure, for Cho-Cho was the Friend to Children.”
Some adults wondered if Cho-Cho’s whimsy was really effective, whether his antics inspired laughter rather than serious reflection. One medical journal observed that “the value of this and other health plays depends largely on the follow-up work by the classroom teachers,” who could help students sort sensible advice from the silly asides about streaky bananas and open windows. Whatever the case, Cho-Cho’s performances attracted thousands of viewers, who enjoyed the jokes if not the advice; and parents, glad that their kids were ostensibly learning something, swallowed their reservations.
The original Cho-Cho couldn’t do it alone, of course. Besides the Health Fairy, he was sometimes joined by a cartoonist, appropriately named the Picture Man, who drew caricatures which transformed “a white loaf of bread into a sour-faced boy… a brown loaf into a round-faced smiling boy,” and “vegetables weeping great tears because children do not eat them.” Actor Clifford Goldsmith played another character named Professor Happy, who “entertained child and adult audiences with snappy health maxims.” Additionally, a rival clown named The Jolly Jester sometimes entertained children with ventriloquism.
Soon, limitation Cho-Chos (including Woodrow Mengel, an Australian-born wrestler and Will Lea, a famous “double-jointed” clown from Mississippi) spread the Gospel of Hygiene both within the United States, and even abroad to China, Iran and the Philippines,
terrifying educating children around the world. There were even Cho-Cho clubs for kids, designed to uphold his principles in absence of the Great Clown himself. At their meetings, beclowned young commissars commanded their peers in the exercise of body, brushing of teeth and a shared regret that they hadn’t chosen to play kickball instead.
But Cho-Cho’s message wasn’t always as banal as diet, exercise and dental care. Like many contemporaries, from Calvin Coolidge to Margaret Sanger and the United States Supreme Court, Cho-Cho evinced an interest in racial as well as dental hygiene. In 1920 he began combining his comic stylings with Madison Grant’s fears of “race suicide” and genetic pollution, spreading the pseudoscience of good breeding to his young charges. He allied himself with the Fitter Families Initiative, a wide-ranging program to legitimize eugenics among the wider public.
Fitter Families was the brainchild of Mary T. Watts of the Eugenics Committee of the United States.1 Watts had been president of Iowa’s Parent Teacher Association for over a decade, where she hosted exhibits on children’s health and a “Better Baby” contest at the Iowa State Fair. In 1920 the Kansas Free Fair invited Watts to expound upon her views on child care, which emphasized genetics as much as self-care. A friend of eugenicist Charles Davenport, Watts envisioned fairs where “while the stock judges are testing the Holsteins, Jerseys and Whitefaces…we are judging the Joneses, the Smiths and the Johnsons.” She did not blanch from comparing humans to livestock, suggesting that “it’s about time that people had a little of the attention that is given to animals.”
In September 1920, Watts and social worker Dr. Florence Brown Sherbon inaugurated their Fitter Families program at the Kansas Free Fair in Topeka. Visitors taking a break from horse races, tractor pulls and funnel cakes could enter the “Eugenics Building” and hear a lecturer, often Watts herself, speaking about the importance of proper breeding and the dangers of poor genes. These visitors could then examine interactive exhibits, including a sign with buttons that flashed at intervals of 16 seconds, to represent the frequency of American births, and 15 seconds, to show how often “$100 of your money goes to the care of persons with bad heredity.” There were even puppet shows, where Punch-and-Judy type marionettes imparted such lessons as “Some People Are Born To Be A Burden On The Rest” for younger fairgoers.
Among the most popular attractions, however, was Cho-Cho himself. Cho-Cho often took center stage at these events, performing an abbreviated version of his usual shtick before simplifying complicated concepts of Mendelian genetics and feeblemindedness for younger audiences. Cho-Cho interrupted jokes by “encouraging visitors to examine their family histories and explaining exhibits pertaining to eugenics.”2 He concluded his seriocomic lecture by handing out literature reminding children to minimize their contact with the handicapped and mentally ill.
Children and their parents, whether enlightened, baffled or a little scared by the clown babbling about racial purity, could then sign up for the Fitter Families contest. Contestants who entered could submit detailed family histories while being “examined by busy physicians working on hour schedules, a faithful psychologist…two or three nurses to assist the doctors…and a couple of untrained women trying to fill in names on scorecards.” Points were added for blonde features, clear skin and large broods of children. 3 The winners of this rushed assessment, selected by Senator Arthur Capper,4 were awarded with medals inscribed with Psalm 16 (“Yea, I have a goodly heritage”), a trophy and a certificate of pure health. And, needless to say, the beaming approval of Cho-Cho.
The Fitter Families events were a huge hit, spreading throughout the United States and conveying Dr. Sherbon’s wish to “contribute to the strengthening of the family as the organic racial and social unit.” Some winning families even went on tour with the exhibit, paraded by exhibitors, as one historian observes, alongside “freak shows and ethnographic displays.”5 Cho-Cho sometimes accompanied these exemplars of healthy Nordic stock onstage to “elaborate on the resident Fitter Family’s superior genealogy.” Even after Watts’ sudden death in December 1926 the fairs continued, under the aegis of the new American Eugenics Society. Cho-Cho’s boosters were thrilled at his broadminded plan of fixing genes as well as bodies. “On the rules which Cho-Cho…teaches,” Dr. Holt enthused, “a new race of Americans can be built.”
Despite Dr. Holt’s praise, Cho-Cho’s pursuit of the Jester Race alienated him from his employers. Henrici began to act “as a real authority on diet, hygiene and even the morals of childhood.” His carefully scripted acts soon turned into rambling lectures on subjects beyond his purview. Henrici further attempted to create health clinics in Tampa, Florida and invested in dairy farms and real estate investments, losing money and embarrassing his sponsors. Historically, clown sponsors haven’t been very supportive when performers grow too big for their oversized shoes, and Cho-Cho was no exception.
Eventually, the CHO’s successor the American Child Health Organization grew tired of Henrici’s antics and financial speculation and fired him. Perhaps it helped that CHO’s benefactors at Columbia included Franz Boas, an anthropologist who’d long denounced eugenics as “a dangerous sword that may turn its edge against those who rely on its strength.” They still had use for Cho-Cho, though, replacing him full-time with his substitutes Woodrow Mengel and Will Lea (who also performed a more mature act as “the Physical Culture Clown”). Henrici retired to Philadelphia, where he died in 1943, outliving Lea by three years; Mengel continued the act as late as 1940, along with various imitators who “borrowed” the name.
Ultimately, scientists in the late ’20s and ’30s began to reject eugenics, before World War II and Nazi Germany discredited the pseudoscience entirely. Hitler’s Third Reich took the concepts of Grant, Lothrop Stoddard and others to their logical conclusion, not only of sterilization and ostracization but mass murder of the “unfit.” Suddenly a clown telling jokes about recessive traits no longer seemed so amusing, let alone fit for children, and the remaining Cho-Chos packed up their tent. Long dead and only dimly remembered through his comedy, Cho-Cho the Health Clown faded into obscurity, a strange testament to the mainstream acceptance of scientific racism.
Sources and Further Reading
General background for this article comes from Harry Bruinius, Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity (2007); Daniel Okrent, The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America (2019); Robert W. Rydell, World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Exhibitions (1993) and Tamsen Wolff, Mendel’s Theatre: Heredity, Eugenics, and Early Twentieth-Century American Drama (2009). Special thanks to YoungM2015 of Genealogy and Local History at the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira NY, whose research on Cho-Cho filled many gaps in this story.