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What Makes a Clown "Clowny"?

| 10/9/2015 9:25:00 AM

Country MoonIn my younger days I used to be a part-time clown, going to children’s parties and sometimes to the children’s ward at hospitals. Though I no longer have the outfit, some people still think I am a clown. Enough said, I won’t go there. Like them or not, clowns can be fascinating and there is a lot more to being a clown than just clowning around.

Actually, clowning is a style of comedy rather than a style of makeup as many people believe. It is also considered an art form and ranks right up there with other forms of theatre. The art form itself is so much more than the slapstick antics of slipping on banana peels, falling over, chasing someone around or getting buckets of water dumped on them.

There are actually clown camps and clown colleges that chosen candidates attend to become the funny guys. The most famous was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College, founded in 1968 by Irvin Feld, then owner of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. At the time they only had a few clowns, most of them over the age of 50. So, they created a school to train a new generation in the ancient art form.

The method of application was an extensive written personality profile. Tuition was free and students were only responsible for their own room and board. Graduates finished with a full “agent suit,” which was a specific clown costume including wig, proper clown shoes and complete makeup kit, as well as the training. Classes included makeup, costume design, acrobatics, stilt walking and pantomime. They studied Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges and the cartoon work of Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny.

Yearly sessions were held in the fall with only 30 to 50 students, mostly men. Students would “play” off each other for 8-1/2 hours a day, six days a week for 8 weeks. The entire session was one long audition for the “Big Show.” Those chosen from the class received a one year contract to travel with the “Greatest Show On Earth.”

The school operated until 1997 when the needs of the show changed. During that time a couple of national events took place. On February 17, 1988, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey broadcast their “Clown College: 20th Anniversary Special,’ hosted by Dick Van Dyke. It featured the top clown alumni of the college. Then on August 4, 1992, Ringling Brothers created “Smile Across America,” an event done locally in cities and towns across the country to raise awareness of various issues and help make people happier. Clown college grads visited hospitals, parks, did photo ops and did “meet and greet” to spread goodwill. Dick Van Dyke and Willard Scott, the first person to portray Ronald McDonald, are both honorary grads of the clown college.

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