Class Clowns Re-unite! Inside Ringling Brothers’ Clown College
I don’t do class reunions. I’ve never been to a high school reunion, even though my school hosts an annual Alumni Day. And I’ve never had a desire to go to my college reunion. Who would I know from my massive graduating class at NYU? But I did make a one-time exception and attended my favorite alma mater’s school-wide reunion – the 40th anniversary of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
Now there are many different training grounds for clowns, but there is only one true Clown College, and that is the one run by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Clown College was formed by Ringling Bros. in 1968 and ran for 30 years. The tuition-free school was created when Ringling Bros. realized that their clowns were getting up in age and if something wasn’t done, the art of circus clowning would be lost. Some would describe the dire situation thus: “The clowns could fall down, but would they be able to get back up?”
Auditions for Clown College were held nationwide, and lengthy applications were filled out for this special program often referred to as “boot camp for clowns.” Questions on the application ranged from general circus knowledge to “When was the last time you cried and why?” As for the audition, making a fool of yourself through improvisation was the order of the day.
When I completed my New York City audition on the floor of Madison Square Garden, I said, “That was amazing. I want to go again next year.” I never entertained the thought I would actually be accepted and attend this prestigious school 5 months later.
Unbeknownst to me, the competition to get accepted into Clown College was stiff. Only fifty students were accepted the year I applied, and there were thousands of applicants from all over the world. Moreover, graduating did not ensure a clowning job with the show. Eleven people from my class went on to tour with the circus, and only one of them was a woman.
In the 30 years of existence, only 1,272 people can say they graduated from Clown College. We are small group of alumni, but we are bonded by a most unique experience.
Classes for me were held in Venice, Florida and ran for 10 weeks in the fall. For six days a week, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., we’d learn everything from pie throwing to pyrotechnics, from stilt walking to sewing clown underwear. We watched Bugs Bunny, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films to study the roots of physical comedy. We created our personal clown faces, sewed our own costumes, and created clown gags. We even rode elephants, took slaps and falls and spit water as we prepared ourselves for “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
Clown College is actually where my husband and I met (and weren’t my parents thrilled). Truthfully, I use my clowning degree far more than my academic one. I keep in touch with many friends from Clown College, but none from NYU. Perhaps this is why I jumped at the chance to see these people again.
While driving to the reunion with my children, I explained to them that even though Mom and Dad are unique back home, this would not be the case for the next few days. Many of the parents there would have non-traditional jobs and lifestyles, too. Perhaps the kids at the reunion could bond over this fact. Should we be embarrassed by Mom and Dad or are they the coolest thing ever?
So what happens at a Clown College reunion? First, let me say that very little time of our three-day reunion was spent in greasepaint, which was interesting as I had never met some of these people out of makeup before. Imagine how hard it is to recognize people at a normal class reunion. Add (or take away) some greasepaint and it’s elevated to a whole new level.
Once we got re-aquainted we shared historic circus memorabilia and stories. Rarely-seen clown footage was viewed. An eccentric dance workshop taught us how to move with loose limbs and rubber legs. Unfortunately, my husband decided that eccentric or not, he is still not a dancer.
There was a “laugh off,” and a Dean’s Forum (yes, there truly is a Dean of Clown College) where four different deans spoke about the history of the college. There was a roast of esteemed alum Grandma the Clown from the Big Apple Circus. And a semi-serious softball game was played in which second base kept getting stolen, literally.
Human pyramids were formed to take class photos. An alumni variety show was open to the public and used as a fundraiser. The show included not only clowns, but jugglers, puppeteers, a sideshow glass eater, a slapstick scientist and a bubblologist. Obviously, when you graduate from Clown College, the possibilities are endless.
While my husband and I are graduates of Ringling Brothers Clown College, we do not clown anymore. Instead, we have taken the skills we have learned to become a comedy juggling duo. We may not wear the makeup or big shoes, but the influence of Clown College is definitely there. Besides our juggling skills, we know that slow burns, double-takes and comic timing are at the core of our show.
While Clown College may seem like a joke to many, it remains one of the hardest things I have ever done and one of the things I am still most proud of. It’s a shame that it no longer exists in this form for future generations. Perhaps that’s why Clown College graduates cling to that amazing time and experience from their lives. And that’s why I will try to make it to the next reunion, wherever it may be.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEVE RUSSELL AND KOBI SHAW (who appears, in makeup, in the second picture)