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