Wednesday, September 23, 2009

From Homemade Shrine Buffoons to Cheapskate Big Tops, American Clowning Stumbles to New Lows

It was never a charmed path, not for most of those who donned greasepaint, eager to make people laugh under big tops big and small. Many in years gone by were acrobats and horse riders before retiring to take up clowning as a second career. And not on a summer lark. There above are some iconic greats on the Ringling show in 1955. Most of them stayed in makeup for their entire lives, building up household images and taking comfort in painting smiles on children of all ages.

Not so anymore.

Lately, the situation seems particularly bleak, what with some shows treating comedy as if all you need are some red noses and a few pratfalls, and anybody can do that, right? Or worse still, what with the "clowning" on too many Shrine dates being handled by the Shriners themselves, who have helped decimate circus art and drive it to new lows. Shame on you, Shriners! And shame on your enabling producers who refuse to uphold even the most basic artistic standards!

There was a time and a place when a Shriner did not pass himself off as a working joey. He would not dare on the Polack show in the 1950s. Even a time, perhaps, when the circus producer he hired would not have tolerated such selfishly indulgent amateurism. Nearly a quarter of one audience exiting a Shrine circus in 2000, surveyed on the "poorest features" of the show, included Shrine clowns. Brazenly they flop on and flop out. One Shrine temple had not a single Shrine clown act on its 2000 program. By 2007, it had two.

Irvin Feld’s attention-grabbing Clown College, conceived in spin to fill an alleged void, feels to me like a sad distant memory, a sort of make-believe oasis that never really existed because it did not, like other schools, keep its doors open permanently. This will be hard for many to accept. Even Paul Binder, who admires the school, may resist a truth inherent in the Feld operation. It was first and foremost born of ballyhoo, ego and imagery. Would you say the same of Yale or Oxford, Florida State or Texas Tech? — or that humble little community college up the road from where you live? When last I checked, none of these institutions had closed its doors. Real schools tend not to.

Feld may have had his heart in the right place at first, but this consummate master of circus press agentry immediately turned his academy into both a publicity mill and a means for replacing the older clown alley he had inherited when he purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1967. Dismissing most of the old-guard clowns with ageist ingratitude, Feld set out to restock the alley with young energetic pretty faces (stress pretty) who were designed and directed not to be (theoretically) scary.

There is a sad dichotomy within the Feld fun factories. The circus got and still sometimes gets what it needs in the youngsters it hires to perform its sometimes very clever production gags. So the circus treats “clowns” like dime-a-dozen Forty Second Street hoofers. Which is why, I suppose, I have usually been more impressed with the work of some of the show's producing clowns than with the eager young recruits hired to take their direction. Reviewing my notes after taking in past Ringling performances, I am impressed at how much of the original comedy delivered ample amusement.

Indeed, this resourceful circus is a producing machine with or without a subsidiary training wing. Think the inventive duo of Kelly-Miller Circus cut-ups Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs (above), who came off the Ringling show but not through the college, which ceased operations in 1998. Now here is a theoretical question: Had they attended the college, might they have been as good, not as good or better than they turned out? Talent tends to find a way.

Ironically, some of the best clowning produced under the Felds may have come out during the last ten years. And I'm not talking audience participation bore David Larible or cute, charming, all around performer Bello Nock, hardly a memorable laugh maker. For example, in 2000, the mirth makers stole the show working three big gags, one involving a TV riddled with bad reception; another, a robotic cow; and the third, two huge inner tubes.

Beyond a few names like Bary Lubin (Grandma) and Bill Irwin (the latter, a CC graduate whom the Felds did not hire but who then established his brilliance with another great Pickle Family Circus clown, Geoff Hoyle -- aka: Mr. Sniff), what became of all the others? Approximately 1,200 students attended the school. Where are they today? Not with most of the shows I see. Not even, I suspect, with the very circus that nurtured their young dreams. Among the alumni, Greg DeSanto, who clowned on the big show for ten years and spent five winters directing Feld's funsters, proudly estimates that up to one hundred graduates are still working in circuses today. I strain to imagine where all of these one hundred are. Mark Gindick, a Big Apple Circus asset last season, made it through the college. Usually, the clowns I see are from Mexico and Russia and other foreign ports.

Many of the matriculating mischief makers who landed Ringling contracts soon fell out of love with the novelty of trouping and/or the insultingly low wages they received. Some quit mid-season their first year out. No matter, Clown College kept turning out more bodies.

Why did it close? Not for lack of funding. The circus that ran it is today filthy rich. No, I suspect that Kenneth Feld tired of the whole thing and realized he does not need a "college" to attract and audition prospective talent. Which does not exactly honor his father's artistic argument. Let’s not kid ourselves, kids. Irvin Feld’s grandiose vision was never about building up a strong and enduring Ringling clown alley. It was about cheap bodies to fill the floppy shoes and free publicity to sell tickets. It was about a circus with little patience for character, really wishing to white wash clown alley and serve Feld's arching aesthetic: Young and beautiful. . Maybe that is why I feel a deep sadness. Behind a noble idea lurked a cynical game plan whose legacy, I believe, is weak.

The artistic ironies that dominate our big top scene are not flattering: This last summer, at Zing Zang Zoom I watched the most unfunny group of silly make-do clowns I think I have ever seen on a Ringling program. Yet, at another Feld unit, Boom A Ring, I rejoiced in the comedic genius of three glib entertainers from foreign shores, two of whom, Russians Vasily Trifonov and Stanislav Knyazkov, are seen here in this picture.

Clown College taught students at four campuses: in Venice, Florida; at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, at the Opera House in Sarasota, and in Japan. Ringling’s website claims that its legacy lives on through the materials it provides to various schools around the world and to the training the circus itself offers the new recruits who sign on to tour with one of Ringling’s three units. Certainly, some of the comedy still seen on the show is better than average for an American circus. I still see very good production gags now and then, but rarely does a particular face stand out.

Once upon a time, many of the greatest ring buffoons, like Otto Griegling, worked well into their twilight years. That was before Irvin Feld came along to replace an aging group of pros with his exuberantly cheerful young acro-clowns. They still come and go. Some will amuse us. A few may hang around to endure all of the hardships and the low pay. Most will vanish quickly back of a heartless big top.

Ten years following the demise of Clown College, at a reunion held in 2008, 170 grads showed up. I wonder what they felt deep down in their hearts? Some would no doubt tell you what a thrill it was to be taught by Lou Jacobs. Others may share fond memories of life in and around the sawdust rings. That was yesterday, and yesterday is now history. Cry, Clown College, cry.

[photos, from the top: Ringling-Barnum stove gag, 1955, produced by the late Paul Jung, who had been with the show since 1917; Yaarab Shrine Circus and Carnival clowns, 2009; Irvin Feld addresses a new Clown College class, circa 1972; Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs on Kelly-Miller Circus, photo by David Miller/Loveland Magazine; Vasily Trifonov and Stanislav Knyazkov, with Boom A Ring, 2009; Otto Griebling with Ringling-Barnum, circa 1969]

First posted September 23, 2009


Anonymous said...

I can tell you first hand from m my own experience. I came from the early cc days. In those days at the graduation if you didnt get a contract you had many producers waiting at the back door to sign you up. I spent 6 years on the Ringling show From 1974-1980 trained under some of the greats, Lou Jacobs, Mark Anthony, Duane Thorpe, Bobby Kaye, to mention a few. I was brought back in 2000 on the red show, and in 2003 I was asked to be featured on the first Gold unit. I was there until 2007. At the end of the season I was expecting to be asked back. Instead nothing was ever said to me. I wasnt even spoken to. The last day of the season was just my last day. Since then I have tried to find work in the US but it seems as if there is no place for me to work in America. The days of the traditional style of clown who likes to wear full makeup, wigs shoes etc. have gone by the wayside in this country. I work in a pantomime style communicating through body language instead of verbal comedy. I guess market research tells us its not what audiences here want. I have spent the last two years doing mostly everything in foreign countries because with pantomime, language does not become a barrier. With the exception of Jimmy Hamid I have not been able to work here. He is really doing a good job of changing that trend by hiring some veteran clowns this year. My hat goes off to him for doing this. Perhaps more producers will follow his lead and you will start to see more veteran clowns on the shrine dates. Mitch Freddes

Showbiz David said...

thanks for sharing, Mitch, and happy mirth making!

Anonymous said...

Like you said, it is not a charmed path. I believe that the original concept for Clown College was to be a PR tool for the show (Jack Ryan can add to this I'm sure) as well as a way to replenish the thinning and aging clown alley ranks of 1968.

It did become a big feather in Irvins' cap and the program grew under Bill Ballentine's era. Each dean afterward added his own personal comic point of view. The role of CC was never to teach young people on how to be a clown...but really to teach them on how to be a Ringling Clown. To work in the style of arena big-ness and general fast paced knockabout slapstick. With a clown alley of 25+ clowns, you either developed a standout style or character or a great sight gag image that drew the audiences eyes to you or you were lost in the feathers and sequins of spec.

The alley was a wonderful place to learn from older clowns from the tent era. (Prince Paul, Lou, Otto, Duane Thorpe, Bobby Kaye, Mark Anthony, Swede Johnson, etc) Here you could begin to try to learn the craft of the clown. It was and still is hard work. Talent such as juggling, stilt walking, mime, whatever can be learned...funny was not a class taught at Clown College. You could hone up that funnybone, but either you were funny when you got there or you weren't. Many clowns got a job for their skill sets and it was always apparent that "funny" was not on that list. But they provided the show with an element that was needed, be it juggling or stiltwalking, magic or whatever the director wanted to feature.

Which plays into the Shrine clown issue you mention...just because you look like a clown ,dress like a clown and say your a clown, don't mean you ARE a clown. Circus producers dealing with tight budgets and poor economy see a quick way to save money and keep that "clown" element in a shrine show. Like Mitch said, James Hamid is one of the few shrine circus producers today who uses professional circus clowns in his shows. I've booked a half a dozen clown college clowns onto his dates last year and the audiences always gave very positive feedback. American mud shows don't use alot of american clowns. They can get a much cheaper act from Mexico or Russia, and the clowns will help set up and tear down and drive a truck. It seems the skill set needed today to be a clown is "do you have a CDL". Most american clowns today work spot circus dates if they are lucky, cruise ships, clown festivals in China, street busk, teach clowning at local clown camps and schools, fairs, and create their own opportunities in a theater setting. I personally haven't toured with a circus for a full season since 2006. That was Big Apple Circus and it don't get much more comfortable than that. What the Steve & Ryan & Jessi's are doing on mud shows is keeping this art alive. They didn't go to clown college, but they were very funny people who learned despite not having the advantages of the formal training. That to me is a great legacy for Clown College. I remember Ryan saying to me that as a kid growing up, watching the circus and wanting to be a circus clown, we were the Lou and Otto and Coco's of his generation. High praise and while I don't put myself on their level of greatness, I do feel that whatever I saw and leaned from watching them perform has been now passed onto a new generation and they show a passion and desire that is exciting to be around. Hopefully someday a kid watching them bust their butts in the rain and mud will remember the laughter and want to join this very long parade of fools.

-Greg DeSanto

Anonymous said...

The primary motivation for the establishing of the Clown College had nothing to do with artistic sensibilities.
Rather it was to circumvent the intent of the newly signed AGVA (performers union) contract,by having an endless supply of "first year" clowns.
"First year" clowns were paid the LEAST,as per union agreement.

Showbiz David said...

Greg, I am very touched by how Ryan was moved and inspired by you in his boyhood, as you were by the magic of the master jester whom I saw in my own boyhood when he motored into the Polack ring in his tiny auto -- Lou Jacobs.

Anonymous said...

I too was humbled by Ryan's comments. It reminded me of something I've heard from Lou Jacobs, Steve Smith and a few other clowns whom I respect, which is "no matter how you feel or think, when your out there performing, there is always a set of eyes on you." People used to think you could get lost in the spec or big production gags, but you dog it out there just once, and that set of eyes on you might just be diminshed and the magic that we try to create is lost. That was what I leaned at Clown College.

-Greg DeSanto

Showbiz David said...

Here is something possibly related, spoken (or written) by none other than Lillian Leitzel, something which I found extraordinary: “It is frequent that one person — often, a child who seems tremendously appreciative of what I am doing, will be the only person in a tent filled with twenty thousand people who really has my attention. Manifestly it is impossible to play to them all and the logical person to work for is the one who probably appreciates what I am doing.”

Anonymous said...

Clown College changed many people's lives for the better and left a rare few lives in disdain. I carry my Clown College education and experience very close to my heart.

I believe that Clown College was a very powerful muse that enabled many students to discover an honest passion for creating laughter. I am perpetually and happily committed to sharing this passion each and every time I perform.

Would I be performing professionally today, had I not attended Clown College? Honestly, I do not think so.

Irregardless of his intent in creating Clown College, I will remain forever grateful to Mr. Irvin Feld.

Kenny Ahern
Clown College 1983

Wade G. Burck said...

Well said. The thought, that as long as you love performing, money is an afterthought get's tired and depressing after a while. No offense to any one, but that is a patch that I think circus folks are unique in accepting. I also think that most "towners" who aspired to the circus profession had a hero who originated from the GSOE. It is what it is. I, of course did not go to clown college, but I will be forever grateful for the experience of being able to witness the graduations, and Nuremburgs. Don't try to imagine anything funnier or more spontaneous, then a bunch of desperate clowns, because there isn't anything more hysterical. You witnessed some creative, once in a lifetime improv for sure. LOL. The magnitude and beauty of the graduation's were something to behold. There are complete circus's today that don't come close to that one night for circus magnificence. I hurt that every circus performer including clowns, acrobats, animal trainers, and aerialists do not earn what they were/are worth, but even if someone didn't get a hoped for contract from the GSOE, the chance to be in a graduation class was more prestigious then many, many other opportunities, so it is hard to fault any "ulterior" motive Irvin Feld may have had. After most of a life time around Shrine clowns the best I can find to say about them is that they really suck. I had the Potentate of the Detroit Shrine approach me in 1977 about making a tiger act exclusively for them to be used by a select few other temple dates. A few temples had their own camel liberty act's and horse act's years ago. Fortunately the cost of those acts made the practice die out. Unfortunately the clown profession was not as lucky. There is very little that is wrong with the circus today that can be attributed to the artist. It rests squarely in the lap of the producer.
Wade Burck
Wade Burck