1. Stage

From creepy masks to the closing circus, it's a hard time to be a clown

The colorful pranksters of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown Alley have one goal: to make people happy.
The colorful pranksters of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown Alley have one goal: to make people happy.
Published Jan. 23, 2017

When the clowns found out the circus was closing, they turned their red noses to each other for support.

It had been a hard year already. Their centuries-old art form had been reduced to a punchline for creepy clown sightings. And now, corporate managers from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had delivered the worst news, that the show would close forever in May.

Nobody else could understand what the clowns were going through as they faced unemployment. After the meeting, they headed to the train where they live and stayed huddled together until late at night.

Their skills include juggling, stilt-walking, unicycle-riding and balancing on spinning objects. Their only goal is to make people happy.

And yet, like the old Emmett Kelly gag, the practitioners have tried but failed to sweep up the spotlight, pooling on the ground.

• • •

Clowns, like the circus, might be an antiquated idea. Or, they might be a national treasure. Both can be true.

While one historian says they've been "culturally exhausted" and headed to the pop culture trash heap, the Smithsonian Institution is taking a serious look at their place in folk art history.

Their future might rest on the revival of interest in circus arts and from parents putting their kids in after-school circus programs. But it's sinking in that they are unlikely to hear the roar of such big crowds again.

It doesn't help that clown hysteria swept the country last Halloween, with people dressed as clowns menacing and threatening people. There were more than a dozen arrests around the country, many for hoaxes, but social media had a field day.

"It's tragic, to lose the circus," said Jeannie Sommer, 54, a professional clown from Safety Harbor who performs under the clown name Wags. "And then the creepy clown thing, it has hurt our business when we intend to bring laughter and joy. If we can bumper the stresses and make people happy, even momentarily, that's what we try to do."

Sommer knows well the healing power of laughter. It was a clown who visited her family while her brother-in-law was dying from cancer. The clown performed magic tricks and got them to laugh and "look at life in the present."

"She'd make me a balloon hat, or tell a joke," Sommer said. "After we'd have an hour of fun, we could go back and we were healthier to deal with what we had to deal with. We were stronger."

It was a life-changing — and career-changing — encounter for her. Before her brother-in-law died in 1999, Sommer told him she was going to go to clown school in his honor.

• • •

Clowns, jesters and jokers have been around for eons. Ancient Rome was full of them. Pygmy clowns made Egyptian pharaohs laugh in 2500 B.C. The court clown Yu Sze in ancient imperial China is said to have poked fun at the emperor. Hopi Indians had a tradition of clownlike characters who interrupted serious rituals.

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It wasn't until the 19th century that the prevailing clown figure from Western Europe was turned into the buffoon in makeup we know today. But historians say clowns have always had a dark side, like a fun house mirror that reflected back on society.

Some historians, including Andrew McConnell Stott of the University at Buffalo SUNY, call clowning anachronistic. He wrote several articles and books on the history of clowns including The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, about the most famous comic of the London stage in the early 1800s.

Stott has said that clowns operating as children's entertainers is a small and recent historical development. The clowns of merry Olde England had more in common with Charlie Chaplin than Bozo.

England exported the circus and its clowns to America, where in the late 19th century the circus traveled by train — a system that hasn't changed much in 146 years. Emmett Kelly, the sad-faced hobo clown with a five-o'clock shadow, became the most famous Depression-era clown. His dark humor resonated with American audiences sinking into financial ruin.

Clowns were drawn several shades lighter in the 1950s when they became the stars of kiddie TV shows, from Howdy Doody's partner Clarabell the Clown, to Bozo, to Ronald McDonald hawking hamburgers since 1963.

But in recent decades, the murderous clown has become a staple of haunted houses. From horror movies to theme park attractions to Stephen King's 1986 novel It, evil clowns manage to strike terror in audiences. It makes the sunny ones seem as old-fashioned as vaudeville.

• • •

With a tiny hat perched on his pointy head and a gargantuan smile drawn on his face, Lou Jacobs was the emblem for the Ringling circus posters. In 1966, he was the first living person to have his portrait appear on an American postage stamp.

His daughter is circus royalty Dolly Jacobs, 59, co-founder of the Sarasota Circus Arts Conservatory and a former star aerialist for Ringling. Her father, one of the most recognizable clowns in Ringling history, is credited with popularizing the clown car and often cited as the originator of the red rubber ball nose. Before his death in 1992 at 89, he was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame.

Jacobs called clowns such as her dad "the heart of the circus."

"Clowning is not just dress up and blow balloons. It's a trade," Jacobs said. "It's not easy to make someone laugh. It's probably harder than doing a triple summersault."

The famous clown's daughter is an example of the recent revival of creativity in circus arts, the kind that appeals to the chardonnay-sipping crowd at Cirque du Soleil. In 2015, Dolly Jacobs was the first circus artist to be awarded a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

This summer, for the first time, the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival will feature circus arts, specifically Circus Sarasota setting up a big top on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. With no exotic animals, the circus arts program will focus more on human physicality and performance finesse.

"Glitz and glitter aside, the circus arts belong on the family tree of the folk and traditional arts," festival director Sabrina Lynn Motley said.

One of the five "pillars" of the circus arts the Smithsonian will feature will be clowning.

• • •

Despite the shaky job market, there might still be a chance for clowns.

In the early 1990s, there were a handful of circus schools. Today there are more 200 bona fide circus programs, according to the American Youth Circus Organization, a nonprofit network of circus schools.

The Sarasota Circus Arts Conservatory started a summer camp program five years ago with 90 students, and last summer it hosted nearly 700 students, said managing director Jennifer Mitchell. Though Ringing closed its Clown College in 1997, it continued to have auditions to replenish clowns over the years. And many circus professionals have found work in new circus schools.

"That speaks to the interest that young people have in engaging," Mitchell said. "I also think circus is a very unique meld of performing arts and athletic ability."

Between regional circuses and the booming school programs, Jacobs is optimistic.

"I don't think Ringling is the only place for clowns," Jacobs said. "I really don't feel it's the end of the road. I hope I'm right."

The clowns are ever hopeful, said sixth-generation performer Ivan Vargas, 26. When Ringling broke the news to performers a little more than a week ago, the clowns were mindful that Clown Alley had recently gotten two new members. This was their first circus.

"The newcomers, we told them even if it was for a short time more, that they made it," Vargas said. "We told them they will be part of history now, to be some of the last Ringling Bros. clowns."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.


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