When worlds collide…with clowns

Anyone who studies or writes about history will tell you that people, stories, facts, and weirdness will often intersect. I found that out when I was writing my book Arequipa Sanatorium: Life in California’s Lung Resort for Women back in 2018.

I discovered that the work of one of the sanatorium’s doctors spilled over into my previous life as the Levi Strauss & Co. Historian, and into the town where I live, Sonoma, California.

Dr. Harold F. Unsinger was a young physician fresh out of Cincinnati Medical School when he moved to San Francisco in 1921. He was one of the visiting doctors at Arequipa, which meant that he spent one or two days per week looking in on the patients. He did this for a couple of years and then worked in a variety of hospitals in the City.

In the early 1930s he also had an interesting side job teaching the “Diet and Hygiene” class at the San Francisco Workers’ School, which was set up by the local Communist Party. The school was investigated by a special Committee on Un-American Activities in 1935, well before the big McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, though Unsinger himself was never hauled in for questioning.

Anyway, Dr. Unsinger had hospital duties at Park Emergency hospital, near a former football stadium in San Francisco called Kezar, the original home of the San Francisco 49ers, and site of a memorable scene in the movie Dirty Harry. On June 7, 1945 an injured man was rolled into the emergency room, trailed by about 100 people. And not just any man.

It was a clown. A rodeo clown. A really famous rodeo clown.

His name was Homer Holcomb. He was the most celebrated rodeo clown in America, and on a previous visit to San Francisco in 1939, he became part of Levi Strauss & Co. history.

The Golden Gate International Exposition was held from 1939-1940 on man-made Treasure Island in San Francisco bay, and LS&Co. created a mechanical rodeo at the Exposition to advertise the famous jeans. Wooden puppets in the likeness of real rodeo stars wore teeny little 501 jeans and satin rodeo shirts, sat on a fence, and watched the antics of a bucking bronco and a stubborn mule on a rotating stage. One of those puppets was Homer Holcomb, and the mule’s name was Parkyakarkus, which was also the name of one of Homer’s three famous trick mules, which accompanied him to every rodeo. Another was Mortimer Snerd, pictured above.

Fast forward to 1945. Homer was performing in a rodeo at Kezar, in an act where he pretended to be a bullfighter. His antagonist was a huge Brahma bull who suddenly lunged at the clown, got under him with his horns, and threw him into the air. When Homer landed, the bull trampled and “rolled him over and over with his horns,” according to news reports. He was rescued by another clown who started off in rodeo but later became a famous actor: Slim Pickens (see “Dr. Strangelove” and “Blazing Saddles.”)

Rodeo staff took Homer to Park Emergency, where Dr. Unsinger operated on him, though he was apparently not critically hurt. The crush of fans who had followed him to the hospital refused to leave until they saw Homer come out of the operating room.

Homer was supposed to perform at the Millerick Rodeo in Sonoma later that month. He couldn’t make it, but locals understood, and they got to enjoy the antics of Slim Pickens instead.

Homer lived to bullfight another day, and died in 1971 at the age of 75. Here’s some more information about him, from the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame: https://www.prorodeohalloffame.com/inductees/contract-personnel/homer-holcomb/

18 thoughts on “When worlds collide…with clowns

  1. I’m so glad you started a blog. I love your writing, and reading about history, and how you make the stories come alive. You have such a gift!


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