The purpose of this blog is to share stories from the road of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown Alley. With this resource we can relive those days and have a better understanding of the transitions within Clown Alley over the years. I feel historically it's important to share these stories for future generations. 

Sunday, January 31, 2010

What to wear?

When it came to wardrobe Bobby Kaye was the man! Not only was he a great clown, he could sew like some of the finest tailors in the world. In the info package before our arrival, we were told bring about 50 dollars for make up and costume expense. That's exactly how much I had.

 We had to make everything from scratch. Some of the wigs we had were pretty creative. They were made of everything from rope to sponges! Yes, sponges! Rick Davis bought some kitchen sponges, cut them up, painted each one, and then sewed them one at a time onto a skullcap. Another one made his out of macrame rope and dyed it. And of  course we had Jeff Miller, who came from the beaches of California. He didn't need a wig at all! He had an afro bigger than a beach ball. Fake fur was the material of choice. In the 70's you could get the real long stuff. I haven't seen that stuff in years. I took the fake fur route. 

When it came to shoes we had to be pretty innovative. Some bought big tennis shoes and painted them, others wore ballet shoes. I took some foam rubber carved out the shape of clown shoes, covered them with material and glued them to the front of  some canvas  tennis shoes. PF Flyers I think.

 Venice was a small town back then. They didn't even have a movie theater. On days off I would hitch hike to Sarasota, treat myself to Red Lobster, and catch a movie right next door. So when it came to material for costumes, Sarasota was the place.

 As we looked at the all of  the colors and different blends Bobby would explain why one material was better than another, and what print would "read" the best from the audience. I remember him saying some of the best prints are on bed sheets. Cheap too!  Guess what I used? 

We designed our costumes putting them together a little at a time. Each piece was added until finally  you had it! Some more complicated than others, but each one had its own personality. By this time we were getting closer and closer to developing that character that would become our clown. At least we knew what to wear. 

Saturday, January 30, 2010

What a face!

Makeup!!!!!! This was like hearing reveille in the military. Every morning we would get the call. You see they wanted us in makeup every day so that we would get used to it. Not only did we have to learn makeup, we learned to make noses out of latex rubber. What better people to teach makeup than Bobby Kaye and Keith Crary. Both of them were meticulous when it came to makeup and costume.

 Bobby was a gentle man who was very receptive of the Clown College, and and what it meant for the future of clowning. He a true Master of his craft. He would take you under his wing and slowly nurture you along. Keith was a fun loving guy who never seemed to have a worry in the world. The precise way he put his makeup on was unbelievable. When he finished, it was if he measured each little mark on his face to exact size and shape, with the precision of an architect. He's in Hollywood now has won many Emmys and other awards for his make up designs.

  The first thing I needed to know was whiteface or auguste. The whiteface was a more magical sort of clown. The auguste was more of the fall guy.  When I speak of  the two types I'm speaking from a traditional sense, not todays standards. There was also a third type called the character. He wore very little makeup. This was one Irvin Feld  didn't particularly care for, so it wasn't really pushed too much. 

These days those lines aren't as strict. In fact the whiteface is almost gone, and the character is more popular than ever. Funny how things change. The auguste seems to be hanging in there. We spent hours mugging in front of mirrors trying to find the shapes and wrinkles with different expressions, searching for that one unique look that was only yours. I had a hard time deciding which one was best for me. Whiteface? Auguste? Which one? 

Noticing my frustration Bobby would calm me and assure me patience would win out. One morning he came in and told me he had dreamed of a makeup design that would work for me. It was white on the bottom blending to flesh on top. He painted the eyebrows on me with their familiar forlorn look. He also told me one should be short and one long. This is one thing which has never changed in 35 years. Thanks Bobby.

 When it came to noses I always wanted a small ball nose about the size of a ping pong ball. As everyone was molding all of these fancy noses I tried to make a mold of a perfect round nose. As much as I tried I couldn't get it too look right. Again frustration set in. Keith came to me and said, "Why don't you just use a ping pong ball." So I did. 

The ball was thin and had an edge that would cut my nose. I decided to make a mold of my real nose. I could then just glue the ball over the latex piece. If you look closely you can see it in the picture. I still use the same look of a small round nose the size of a ping pong ball. Thanks Keith. Some things never change.

Friday, January 29, 2010

More than just clowns

Besides the unbelievable staff, we also had a lot of other people around our Clown College. There was Phillipe Petit who had just made his historic walk across the World Trade Towers. He was going on the new Bicentennial show and he was there to practice. He stayed in the villas with us. Other than wire walking he was an incredible juggler, magician, and basically an all around performer. Those of us that got to know him really had a chance to  get a little different take on clowning and street performing. 

 Personally, he was the one who taught me how to do hat tricks, which became my main skill in those early days. He also taught me the trick with hat, cane and vest. I used this trick when I worked the blowoff to come in. This was a place just before the show where one clown would warm up the audience with a series of different skills. This has changed over the years , and now the blowoff involves all of the clowns in Clown Alley .

 The days of the single clown doing it any more are gone. This was a spot every clown wanted and really worked hard  to get.

 Some others that were with us were Jule New breaking in a lion act for the Blue Show, along with Mike Aria a bear trainer who was helping him. Mike was one of those special people that comes into your life. Years later he contacted Lou Gehrig disease and left us. 

When he was in Japan he became fascinated by bamboo and Japanese culture. As he slowly began to lose his motor skills he learned to paint with his mouth. He made a beautiful calendar and set of note cards that I still cherish. The above picture comes from the calendar. This fascination allowed him to become president of  The National Bamboo Society. 

He later married Janis Gillespie. They knew each other since sixth grade and never lost the love between them over all those years. She was a girl clown from an earlier Clown College, and they joined the show together. One of the funniest girl clowns I ever met. She did an Olive Oil character that was hilarious! Together they went on to have a great bear act at Circus World. Janis also did a liberty dog act with some Golden Retrievers.

 I would visit their compound years later  as the dogs were getting old. Even though they could run loose they would still run around in all of their patterns following the lead dog. They never forgot  the act! I hope your reading this Mike and, I got everything right.

 Jule rode a Harley with a lion on the backseat! Cool stuff.

 Last but not least Charlie King was there training a group of girls for a female King Charles Troupe. They were constantly fighting and arguing to the point they had to send them home. I dont know if it ever did come to be. I never saw it. Boy were we ever lucky! 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

No Sweat!

 Here I am at Clown College on the grounds of Winter Quarters for  The Greatest Show on Earth! I realized from here on out my life will never be the same. No matter what the outcome, I was doing something very few people get to do. I wanted it! 

We were broken into groups and rotated throughout the day into the different classes. My first class was with Jim Donnelan. During the warmup I once again experienced something new. SWEAT! Since I came from a dry climate I never experienced sweat like this. The humidity coupled with the intense heat really made you perspire.  Especially in a building with no air conditioning. 

I couldn't wait for that first break. It finally came.  There was a auto repair across the street that had a soda machine that was only 25 cents. That first break I think all 48 of us went to that machine. As I waited in line I thought about how cool and refreshing a cold soda would taste. Just as I got to the machine it was sold out. This was a disappointment but,  there was always the drinking fountain in the arena. It was one of those old ceramic ones without any refrigeration. Better than nothing.

 On another occasion when I did manage to get one of those sodas I got caught by Roberta Ballantine, our nutritionist. She lectured me about how bad soda was for me and how important it was to drink water. When she left I looked at that soda with the can dripping and thought about how bad I wanted it. I felt so guilty that I gave it to someone else. Oh well, back to the drinking fountain.....  

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

We were 48

That first day we were introduced to our staff. What a lineup! We had Bobby Kaye and Keith Crary for makeup and costumes. Hovy Burgess, juggling. James Donnellan, mime and exercise. Victor Gaona, acrobatics. Roberta Ballantine, nutrition. Graham Coco and his partner taught stilt walking. And David Nicksay was our clown and character teacher along with Bobby and Keith. 

 He was a third year clown on the show, and very good, especially with character development.  As we were there he and his girlfriend and our bus driver were working on a comedy gorrilla act on the high bar for the next years show. David later became a Hollywood producer. If you google him he has done quit well.

 We also had two lady dance instructors perhaps someone can remember their names. I just remember them bending us around until we were in the shape of a pretzel!

 In those days we didnt meet Lou Jacobs until much later and only for one week. 

 This picture was the first day, sitting in the seats watching Keith Crary demonstrate makeup. I apologize for clarity it is quite old! If you look closely you can pickout a young Barry Lubin, Dale Longmire, Bill Irwin, and the rest of the soon to be greats.

 We were introduced to Keith and Bobby in full makeup as they did a magic display. If you never saw it, Bobby had one of the most beautiful linking rings routine I've ever seen. Then they took the makeup off and I was surprised to see the ages of the two of them. With costume and makeup there was no age.

 As Bill Ballantine introduced our staff he informed us we were the biggest group of aspiring clowns since the origin of Clown College only five years earlier. He said we were 48. What a great group! 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What am I doing here?

That first day was so intimidating. I remember looking at all these people doing all kinds of things juggling, magic, tumbling, etc. You name it and someone was doing it. And of course my roomate was riding his unicycle around the edge of the pool, and even riding it off the end of the diving board. Things I never saw in my life!

 Unlike most of the people there I was a musician from a music family for generations back. I was on my way to college to pursue my music career when my mother read a story about Peggy Williams " First Girl Clown To Graduate From Clown Colllege"

 I came home from work one day and she showed me the article. It was then she suggested it might be something I would like because of my out going personality. I applied, and the next thing I knew I was on my way. I think my mother must have seen something I didnt even realize about myself. She was good at that sort of thing. 

As I  stood there watching all of this talent  I was asking myself,"What am I doing here?" Just then I heard this voice behind me say, "Can you do any of this stuff?" The voice had a real  southern accent. I turned to say no when the voice said, "Hi my names Ruth Chaddock  from Quero, Texas." At this point I felt more at ease knowing there was someone else from a small western town, and didn't feel quite as intimidated. Thank you Ruth! From that day until now we have remained very special friends.

 Just think if we would have known the talent that surrounded us. The likes of Bill Irwin, Barry Lubin, Dick Monday, Steve Laporte, Ruthie, Dale Longmire. Just to name a few. There are many more that went on to be very successful in some area of show business. Don't worry I remember everyone.

 The first thing we did, was go in the ring, one at a time and we were told to make everyone laugh. When it was my turn I was scared to death, and had no clue what to do. I entered the ring and sat there  scratching my head wondering what would make them laugh. 30 seconds..... 45 seconds..... 1 minute.....  nothing! And then it happened. I heard a small snicker, and then a laugh, and then more, and more . Soon everyone was laughing. At that point I knew what I was doing there.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Why Mitch ?

Many of you know this story, but for those who don't here goes! 

After the air conditioning started I decide to finally get a shower. Bill Williams had a different idea. He wanted me to meet Bill Ballantine the Dean of Clown College! He said he was in the office and would like to meet me. The thought of having to meet Mr. Ballantine  in my present state did not appeal to me. I didn't know what to do so I decided I better go. 

As Bill turned to introduce himself he just stared and said, " You look alot shorter than in your picture." (In those days we sent swimsuit shots with our application.) 

He then introduced me to my new roomate Mike Perry. Many of you may have known him. He went on to the Blue show that year, along with Rick Davis, Dick Monday, Peggy Ford, I believe there may have been one more. After that Bill turned and left.

  Every time Mike would speak to me he would call me "Mitch". I would tell him that was not my name. At which point he would apologize and explain that I reminded him of his best friend and that he would try to remember. As others arrived and we went around meeting people he would say, "Hello my name is Mike and this is Mitch" I would remind him and once again he would apologize.

 As we entered the building the first day they had a bulletin board with Polaroid shots of each student and there names below. I looked at mine and it said Mitch Freddes. After that I decided to give up and the name stuck. I had never met anyone named Mitch in my entire life! So goes the story of Mitch.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Journey Begins.....

The year was 1974 when I left the mountains of Colorado, boarding a bus that would take me to sunny Florida. I was on my way to Ringling Brothers and  Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice. I was finally on my way!

 Three days later with no sleep and no shower I arrive at my destination. AT TWO IN THE MORNING! The bus stopped and kicked me off, but there was no bus station,only a small building with a bench in front of it. It used to be next to Smittys Steakhouse.

 For those who remember, there was a 7-11 nearby. I proceeded to go over there and call Bill Williams,who was the owner of Venice Villas, my home for the next 8 weeks. He told me they were across town and he would leave the key hanging on the door to my room. 

I searched in the phone book for a cab company. There was only one. I called and was informed they closed at midnight. What to do. 

Just then some rednecks in a pickup pulled up I asked if they could give me a ride. They said yes and off we went.
Finally I'm here and can now rest and take a shower! As I lay in the room it starts to get warm so I go to this thing called an air conditioner. Something I never saw in my life. I pushed the on button and layed back down. The room got hotter and hotter until I could stand it no more. This thing must not be working! 
I decided to go outside and lay on a chaise lounge by the pool to cool off. Apparently I fell asleep, the next thing I know I'm being woke up by Bill Williams and the police shaking me! They thought I was a vagrant. Remember I hadn't had a shower in three days.
 I explained who I was and why I was outside. His air conditioning didn't work. He told me to go with him and he would check it. He walked in, looked at it, pushed a button, and said it worked fine. As I looked at the button it said...........COOL!