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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: Clowning around to deliver a serious message years ago

FIRE ENGINEERING MAGAZINE AND MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTOS

Marion native Harry Rogers performed in the 1920s and '30s as Sparky, then Smokey, the Fire Clown.

Marion was the hometown for a national celebrity of sorts in the 1920s and ’30s. His legacy, in a modified form, lives on today as a cultural icon whose name may have been influenced by his performances.

After graduating from Marion High School in 1908, Harry Rogers, son of Marion’s first physician and pharmacist, John N. Rogers, became a mainstay in local theatrical productions, frequently taking the lead role in productions at the city’s old Auditorium.

Especially after this father’s death in 1912, he began taking an active role in civic affairs, too. He became a volunteer firefighter and reorganized the local Boy Scouts troop, serving as its scoutmaster. He also became active in Democratic Party politics and ran a business showing movies, first in Marion and then in Hillsboro, as well.

By 1916, he was vice president of the Motion Picture Exhibitors of Kansas. The next year, he also began entertaining in blackface, a now discredited art form, at his movie showings.

After his stage and movie venue, the city’s auditorium was destroyed by fire in 1919, he began developing a new routine, as the Marion Record of December 1921 reported:

“Harry Rogers is developing a fine show teaching lessons in fire prevention to children of impressionable age by means of a clown stunt.

“The show is designed to rivet their attention by the antics of the clown and at the same time to fasten in their minds, unconsciously, knowledge of the causes of fires and preventative measure.”

After a trial run in Marion, he presented his show in Wichita under the auspices of the fire department there.

It was so successful he was invited to repeat his show two months later in 12 of Wichita’s schools.

From there, his show took off.

The state firefighters and fire chiefs associations sponsored him on tour throughout the state as Jumping Jack, the Fire Prevention Clown.

Rogers described his show in an interview at the time:

“The kiddies are startled to hear that a fire occurs every minute of the day in the United States. The frequency of the fires is demonstrated to them by a fire gong that rings each time the big fire clock, special property of the clown, checks off a minute.

“Greater is their wonderment when they learn that seven out of ten fires are caused by some one’s carelessness.

“Good and bad qualities of gasoline are explained. The explosive energy of one gallon of gasoline is equal to 87 sticks of dynamite. ‘Mother’ will be told to go out doors and away from all fires whenever she uses gasoline for cleaning or other purposes. Mr. Merchant will have a hard time fooling the little boys and girls about matches after listening to the Fire Clown. They will demand the match with the head of two colors, which is safe, and will refuse to take the match with the solid red head for it is the dangerous kind.

“Each child will go home determined to play fire marshal at home in the future and will see that all fire hazards are removed at once.”

The Adjuster, a national insurance industry publication, took note, writing later that year:

“Dressed in striking clown costume, he impresses on his audience a fundamental understanding of common fire causes, meanwhile holding their attention with his antics, which are related as nearly as possible to his talk.

“Such a method of putting over prevention to a coming generation of careless people opens a vast field of public service.

“A general application of the idea is to be recommended.”

And the recommendation stuck. Before long, Rogers had been hired by an insurance bureau in Chicago and was putting on shows throughout the western United States — including a return engagement in Marion.

Newspapers from multiple states contain frequent references to his shows in the late ’20s and early ’30s, by which time he had become known as Smokey the Clown, a possible namesake for the later animated Smokey the Bear.

Rogers got national publicity in 1928 when Collier’s magazine featured a photo of him driving a midget electric fire engine equipped with actual firefighting items for his shows.

In 1932, he told the Owosso (Michigan) Argus-Press that he initially didn’t like the ridicule he received performing as a clown:

“Everywhere I went, everywhere I spoke, they would say unkind things, forgetting that a clown could be human.”

Then, one day, a child who had seen one of his shows saved her own life after her clothing caught fire, telling everyone who would listen that she had known what to do because Smokey the Clown had told her.

Rogers died in 1956 at age 67 and is buried alongside his parents in Marion Cemetery.

Last modified Feb. 27, 2019

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