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Circus folds tent on the season

Beneath those brand-name jeans and stylish brocade vests, Kimberly Northrup and her three friends are clowns. Their teachers at Progress Village Elementary School wouldn't know it. To them "we're sweet little children," said classmate Sabrina Baptista, 11.

All it takes to unmask them is the right occasion _ such as Kimberly's 11th birthday _ a few jars of greasepaint and an audience.

The quartet challenged Rod-O, the head clown for Roberts Bros. Three Ring Circus, on Saturday beneath his big-top tent. Fresh from Kimberly's birthday party, they slathered their faces in paint and trooped to the amateur clown contest.

They mugged. They giggled. Then they rushed back to their front row seats to await their debut, waving American flags in the grand finale.

The show Saturday was the last until March for the Sarasota-based circus. The show lumbered into the middle of the Bloomingdale West subdivision with Winnebagos, llamas, in-laws, and an Asian elephant named Lisa.

Rod-O, 52, had some advice for the would-be clowns. By show time, their red mouths had streaked to their chins and their white paint had bubbled.

"Notice my makeup. I can touch it and it doesn't come off. I use baby powder," he confided.

Just before show time Saturday, Rod-O and three clown friends warmed up an already sweltering crowd of about

300 parents and children.

"The big problem is a lot of people are used to watching TV," said circus spokesman Brent DeWitt, also known as Chico the comic, and Chico the gorilla. "We have to remind them this is live. It's OK to clap. It's OK to cheer."

And cheer they did.

They clapped for Ron Dykes, 37, as he pranced across the high wire. In this little big top, the wire was about seven feet from the ground. They "oohed" and "aaahed" for Jodie Murrillo, 21, who shimmied to the top of a 20-foot metal pole that husband Nino, 24, balanced on his forehead. Defying gravity, she twirled atop the pole with her body parallel to the ground.

Kimberly's clown crew took it all in as they munched miniature chocolate bars. "I do gymnastics," said Lauren Kelly, 11.

But as Mrs. Murillo took another spin above the big top, Lauren's eyes went wide. "I can't do that."