What Makes a Clown “Clowny”?

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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In 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.

So, how much pay will clowning around get you? Are you ready for this? Ringling Brothers pay their clowns between $85,000 and $92,000 per year. Putting yourself in harm’s way and choosing the path of a rodeo clown will only net you $51,000. The median salary for all clowns averages between $36,000 to $51,000. Not too shabby for being a barrel of laughs.

So, if you think this is your chosen career, what exactly does it take to get started? Frankly, it can be relatively inexpensive and easy. You first have to decide on what type of clown you want to be, such as a circus clown, ventriloquist or mime, just to name a few.

The main thing is the face paint. Most use greasepaint for their faces. The white face is traditional, where the eyes, nose and mouth can be accented in a number of different ways. Then there is Auguste clown paint, where makeup is a bit more flesh toned. Tramp or hobo paint is a bit darker, more sooty looking, because this is usually used on clowns with sad faces.

When it comes to the costume itself, it is basically anything goes. You can start with a clown supply outfitter, although this can get a little pricey. Many go to a local thrift store or Goodwill store and start with a Halloween costume, colorful clothes or bright pajamas. My outfit consisted of an old bi-colored shirt and old bib overalls that I sewed brightly colored patches of cloth onto. A pair of size 22 shoes with paper towels stuffed in the toes will round out the costume. There is no set rule, almost anything goes.

Clowns are generally known to make people laugh, make people cry, but sometimes they make people scared. Believe it or not, there are people who will not look at a clown, not even a clown doll, or even be in a room with one. What gives? It’s called coulrophobia, the fear of clowns.

How can this be? There are a lot of different factors. One of the most unnerving is that you don’t know what is behind the mask. You can’t see the real face. Then there is the perpetual smile; there could be a very happy person behind it or a sinister one. Many times, dark and twisted individuals have hidden behind an innocent clown face to practice evil.

Horror films have played a large role in this good/evil battle. Many characters have come across as jovial, yet are creepy. In the 1970’s John Wayne Gacy portrayed a clown called Pogo. He was found guilty of murder and sexual assault of more than 35 men. When asked about the crimes, he said, “You know, clowns can get away with murder.” One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.

The season of hometown fairs, carnivals and circuses is winding down in our neck of the woods. I keep thinking, what would these attractions be without the proverbial clown? Most anything can be good or bad, it’s all in how you perceive it. With that said, bring on the clowns!

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