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. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

All this for $5.00 !

It was 1977 and it was time to present the new season’s gags to Mr. Feld.  I was set to go; I had everything except a walkaround.  I had no idea what I was going to do! 


So on the day we had to present, I just happened to be out and about in Venice and I couldn’t resist stopping in to the local music store.  I walked inside, and there hanging on the wall on display was a huge harmonica!  My mind started working, the wheels started turning… I figured it was a great clown prop!  I had to ask the guy if it was for sale, and he told me I could have it for $5.00!  Of course I bought it.  What clown wouldn’t buy a prop like that?



So after my day out shopping and scoring a massive harmonica, it was time to head to the arena to prepare for the evening events.  I hadn’t even stopped to think about the walkaround I was expected to have that evening!  I decided to head upstairs to the Attic, which is a sacred place above Clown Alley where old clown props are stored.  I was looking for something… anything that I could use to get through the presentation!  Nothing seemed to catch my eye.


Then it hit me!   I’m thinking “HUGE HARMONICA!”  But what could I do with it besides walk around with it?  Think…think…think…


Then it started to come to me.  I started to think about some every day clothes I wore almost daily: an old pair of overalls, and my oversize mountain climbing boots...   Suddenly, an entire character was born!   Adding a pillow in my belly was almost an afterthought, but it had to be…


At this point in time, Barry Lubin was doing Grandma, and he had a lot of whoopee cushions.  Ideas, Ideas!!  I asked him for one, split it open and put it on my head for a hat.   At the very least, this character would look funny and hopefully I could get by with that.


Standing at my trunk, I glanced at the bag of ping pong balls I would use for noses.  Hmmmm, could I put them in my mouth… play that giant harmonica… and when I pulled it away, my cheeks would remain puffed out?  YES! I had my walkaround!


The presentation began and I was nervous about whether or not this would be enough.   So often what seems funny to us, just doesn’t go over well.  To me, it seemed pretty funny!  I had great fun putting this character together!    Now it was my turn to show it.  I walked out with the harmonica in front of my mouth sat on the ring curb and started to rock out to the music.  I really went at it stomping my  feet and dancing around.  I waited for a break in the music and just at the right moment I pulled the harmonica away and wiped my brow.  I looked up to see Mr. Feld, and he was laughing hysterically!  It actually worked! I knew I had succeeded…



This character became very popular and in the following years I would do it more and more in the show. It really worked well for the seats in Come In.  With this character, I could do almost anything and get away with it!   At the time, I didn't know what I had started but I knew it worked and I was having a blast doing it!


Fast forward to 2000: Tim Holst called me to the office in Palmetto to settle the contract for that coming season.  He specifically asked me if I still did the character with the ping pong balls.  I told him I did every once in a while but not all of the time.  “Well, we want you to do it all the time.”  Holst said.  I wasn't sure I could, but told him I would sure give it a try.


He handed me the contract to sign.  When I read through it, it said, "Jonathan Freddes, clown with ping pong ball in mouth character."


Wow!  All the time?    I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing.  It felt great that a character I had made up on a whim had been so successful and they wanted him all the time, but there’s a lot of pressure in doing that kind of thing.  It didn’t take long to figure out that doing it all the time was quite painful with regular sized ping pong balls.  I had to do a lot of experimenting until I found something I could use that was less painful.  I won't even tell you what I finally found that worked. That’s my secret!


For the next seven years it was written exactly like that in my contract.  All of this, for $5.00!



Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Morning Newspaper

Back in 2000, when I returned to the show after 20 years, I expected some changes.  Tim Holst had told me things had changed quite a bit, and to try not to be too surprised.  Walking into the arena for the first time, I noticed there were huge numbers made out of tape laid out on the floor.  What were these? We never had them in the past. I was soon to find out...


That first day of rehearsals was really full of surprises. After going through all the introductions, the director told us to line up at the Portal.  The what?  I looked around to see if I could figure out what was going on just by watching, but I had to ask what that was.   “The back curtain…” I was told.  The what?  In my day, it was called the back door.


Then, the director gave us each a number and told us he wanted a clown bust out. A what?  Another term I never heard before. So I just asked him what that was…


He began to explain to me that it was when all of the clowns would run out screaming and yelling and go to their number spot.  Ohhhh okay.  He told us we would do our skill in that spot. Our skill?  I really didn’t do too much in the way of “skills”, but I sure knew how to be a clown.


The director asked each clown what was their particular skill.  One clown said, “Balancing…”  the next guy said “Juggling…” and he just went down the line until  he got to me.  He asked me and I thought about it for a moment… then said, "I read a newpaper."


The director looked bewildered and said to me,"Thats no skill!"  I had no other reply than, "The way I read one takes a lot of skill."   I knew that the director had  no other choice but to give me the benefit of the doubt and let me show him. I figured with all of the chaos of the opening I would be subtle and read a newspaper. Now to me, THAT was clowning.


The first time we came out in rehearsal, I obliged this number system, and marched out to my number and started reading my paper.  Yes sir, I was reading my paper and ignoring all that was going on around me. We did it again. This time I brought a chair with me and sat down to read my paper.  We did it again, and this time I brought a chair and a table with a coffee cup. Yes, I sat down and drank the coffee and read my newspaper. This continued over and over, and every time I brought something more with me.  And I read my newspaper…


I finally ended up coming out with a chair, a table, a coffee cup, coffee pot, an extension cord…and… my newspaper.


I set up the chair and table with the coffee pot and cup. Then I would get all caught up in the extension cord, fight that for a bit, then finally get loose from it. I  would then look for a place to plug it in… all of this was going on during the Opening Parade.  After I would finally get the cord plugged in, I would pour a cup of coffee offer it to an audience member.  When they refused, I would sit down drink the coffee and… read my newspaper.  This would continue until the opening was over.


It was obvious that the Director wasn’t used to this type of clowning.  My how things had changed!  After a lot of coaxing, he gave in and let me do it.  Old fashioned Clowing prevailed…


Someone got a picture of my routine, and put it in the program. Ringling liked it so much they used it on their website for a number of years under Special Offers.


A few years later, that picture was used for some e-cards you could get for Valentine’s Day, and I was told that picture was the best selling one!


Again, old fashioned clowning prevailed.  I was so pleased....

Monday, February 15, 2010

Biking and Brawling in Kentucky with John Russell

I had help in editing this story by my dear friend Gigi Paul. She was around then and knew both of us quite well. Thanks for the help.

One year, five of the clowns decided to get motorcycles. It was Ruthie, Kerry Griffin, Tim Doody, and John Russell, and me.  We were a regular motorcycle gang!


We would drive them overland and when the weather got bad Carl Wong would carry them on a flatbed trailer for 5 cents a mile. The ramp we used to load them was nothing more than a plank of wood. Packing up in Norfolk, it was cold and rainy that day so we decided to load the bikes. As I rode up the plank, the plank kicked out and came straight back and hit me square in the forehead and knocked me out.  From then on, I always walked my bike up the ramp.


 Later in the season, we were in Washington D.C. and it was our first time in the Capitol Center. The Bullets were in the finals for the NBA.  John Russell and I were invited to do the halftime show for their home game while we were there.  What an honor! John walked his stilts and I did the hat catch.


But that’s not the story I’m telling today, you'll find out later why I told you that part.... 


When we left D.C., we were headed for Louisville, Kentucky.  The weather was great that day, so we decided to ride the bikes.  It was quite a hike and we needed to stop, so we decided a State Park would be a great place to spend the night. We had no idea that Frosty and Ruthie were staying at the same State Park…


 We really needed to try to get a good night sleep for the drive the next day, but as the night wore on, sleep was not to be.  The people in the campsite next door were being quite loud.  John’s idea was to go talk to them and ask them to tone it down.  I agreed.  Little did we know…


 We went over to their campsite, and much to our dismay, it turned out to be six big guys and their girlfriends celebrating their graduation. They were all quite drunk and apparently did not care who knew it. As we walked up to them, they were already on their feet; three of them took their places in front of John, and three of them in front of me.  Now bear in mind, John was over 6" tall… and there I stood a mere 5'4."  Next to these guys, we seemed frighteningly small… but our leather jackets we wore made us both feel that we could conquer the world.  We were TOUGH!


So just then, John decided it was a good a time as any to say, “Why don't you guys shut up! We're trying to sleep over there!"  I knew then we were in trouble. One of the guys got all puffed up and asked John, "Do you want trouble?" John said “No." and immediately hit the guy in the face. 


The only thing I remember after that was three of those guys were on me and three of them were on John. They threw us to the ground and proceeded to kick the livin’ daylights out of us, and hit us repeatedly.  I was on the ground, and I rolled into fetal position and tried my best to cover myself.  I remember at one point, I looked over where John was, and saw him laying there out cold.  Completely knocked out!  I then heard breaking bottles and saw them coming towards us. I had no idea what was coming next…  But the guys’ girlfriends stepped in and told them to stop and they all got in their cars and started to leave. The next thing I know, I’m hearing gunshots coming from a few feet away! By now, I’m wondering if we’re going to make it out of here alive…


But lo and behold, it was Frosty at the door of his trailer shooting and yelling, "What's going on out there???"  By now, John had come to, and we got up and ran to Frosty’s trailer.  We must have terrified Frosty, because all you could see were our eyes… everything else was covered with blood.  He didn’t even recognize us at first…

Once he realized it was us, he put us in his truck and rushed us to the nearest hospital.  As we were leaving the Park, we could hear the crunching sounds of our bikes being destroyed. 


 It was about twenty miles to the hospital, and the drive seemed like an eternity.  After a few stitches, we started on our way back. That’s when Frosty remembered we left Ruthie back at the Park all alone!


By the time we got back to the Park, it was daylight. We went straight to Ruthie’s camp to wake her up. To our surprise she never heard a thing! Thank goodness!


The police arrived and asked if we wanted to press charges.  They said they knew the boys and their parents, that they were influential in the town.  One of the boy’s father was actually the Mayor!  We were told we’d have to return for court, and that just wasn’t possible, so we decided against it.  Frosty and Ruthie had to leave to get to Louisville, we stayed behind… 


Sure enough, we found our bikes thrown into a creek with picnic tables on top of them.  Since we couldn't put makeup on and couldn't work, we decided to stay to get our bikes in order. 


We were moving awfully slow, so on the way to Louisville we got a hotel to rest and recover.  Relaxing in the evening, we turned on the TV and the 7th game of the NBA playoffs was on.  At halftime they showed highlights of the last six games. 


Well what do you know!  Right there in front of us was the halftime show we had done just a few days earlier. Watching ourselves on TV was just what we needed to cheer us up and help get us back on track.


The next day we left for Louisville, and two days later we were back to work, none for the worse!


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The King and the Clown

It was a three show day in Japan. The first show I noticed a man in a wheel chair with his wife. They were both dressed very nicely and looked quite distinguished. He was really enjoying the show and was paying particular attention to me every time I made an appearance. People were around him making sure he was well taken care of. 
 We started the second show and I noticed he was still there enjoying the second show as much as the first one. In between shows I saw him backstage mingling with some of the other performers. I just assumed he was just a circus fan who knew some of the people.
 After the third show the producer of our show told me this man would like to meet me. Who was this person? Perhaps a government person? Or maybe another producer?  Either way, I knew he was some one important. 
 He introduced himself as Mr Okabe, a well known artist in Japan who especially loved to paint clowns. The first American clown he painted was "Blinko" Ernie Burch. In fact this painting hangs in the Ringling Museum in Sarasota. They became good friends and visited him many times over the years until his Ernies death in 1997.
 Blinko was a clown known for wearing 2 1/2 " long eyelashes. Bobby Kaye told me that those big eyelashes he wore were cut from tin cans! Can you imagine how that must have felt to wear those every day? I shared this with him and he thought that was amazing. 
  He first met Chuck Sidlow when he was boss clown for Ringling. Mr Okabe was visiting and asked to meet the clowns, especially Lou Jacobs. Chuck obliged and brought him into the alley.  It was something he never forgot.

   A few years later Chuck went to Japan with Ringling.  Mr. Okabe visited the show and found Chuck again. Chuck fell in love with Japan and decided to stay. During that time they had become very good friends. 

   Later Chuck moved back to America and went to work for Circus Sarasota. Mr Okabe came to see the show and once again they were reunited. Out of respect for Lou and his family, and the way Dolly and Pedro were carrying on the traditions of circus. He volunteered to paint the poster for the next years performance of Circus Sarasota. 

 When he heard I not only knew Chuck but that we were good friends and sometimes partners he couldn't believe it . We talked for about an hour about people, circus, and his artwork.
 He had written a chidrens book ten years ago about a clown and a King. The illustration of the clown in the book came from his imagination. He happened to see a poster of our show with a picture of me on it. He realized instantly I was the clown he had dreamed of ten years before! Not exactly me, but a close similarity. 
 He couldn't believe he had found the clown from within his mind! They got in his car and drove 2 hours just to be able to meet me.
 He asked if he could come back the next day and do a sketch of me. What an honor this was for me to do this for an artist who was so well known. The next day, as he was drawing me we talked
about a huge mural he was doing of clowns. One of the clowns was the clown from the book. He wanted to replace that clown with me. 

 After that he presented me with a copy of the book signed for my daughter and a loose interpretation of it in English. It is a treasure I will always keep in a special place within my heart. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Happy valentines day to all of my readers. I'm taking a day off to be with my two valentines Lisa and Elizabeth

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Those Freddes Boys"

 As young kids in the mountains of Colorado who would have thought we would end up in Sarasota Florida. Two more opposite places you couldn't find, even if you were looking for them. Snowy Colorado and Sunny Florida! 
 As children we were very close brothers and, this continues today.  We are only 17 months apart so, everything we did growing up we did together. We had the same friends and went through the same experiences together as teenagers. I can't tell you how many times we have been referred to as "Those Freddes Boys" In fact many people thought we were triplets!
 When I went to Clown College and later on to the Ringling show was the first time we would be separated. I never thought how much I would miss them. I just figured it was part of growing up.
 My father had been a very big business man in the state of Colorado. At the height of his career he owned 3 music stores, a recording studio, along with a talent and booking agency.
 In the sixties with the influx of rock and roll he was responsible for bringing all of the top groups of the time into Colorado. It was nothing for me to be backstage hanging out with the likes of Eric Burdon and the Animals or The Young Rascals to name a couple of them. He was also responsible for starting the career of  Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, a popular fifties group of the time. 

  He owned a club for teenagers that had 3 floors with a local live band on each floor. There were even mixed drinks that were non alcoholic. Only people under 18 were admitted and I was the doorman for this club. One thing he served was a six foot sub sandwich called the "Yellow Submarine" after the popular Beatles song at the time. 
 Always an eye for detail he even went so for as to have the bread tinted yellow. Decorating it with olives and various condiments so it resembled a real submarine! If you ordered it they would present it to you by playing the song "Yellow Submarine." My father was always ahead of his time. 

  Our town was built on the military and during Vietnam the influx of soldiers for training really made it into a boom town. We had Ft. Carson Army base just south of town, and the Air Force Academy just to the north.
 In 1975 with the end of the war, and the failing economy it forced my father to close everything. It was then that my mother called me and told me her blindness was getting worse and about the situation for my father. She told me the boys would be out of school soon and wondered if maybe I could get jobs for them on the show. I was excited to think we would all be together again! 
 I talked to the management and it just so happened they could use someone on transportation and, someone in the wardrobe 
department. I called my mother told her the news. They were put on a bus to meet us in Tucson Arizona, as this would be the closest the show would come to Colorado. 
 I remember the anticipation I felt going to the bus station to pick them up. Just like old times. Once again we would be together. 
 Transportation was a job that included transporting anything that had to do with the show including loading the train and bringing in the cats for Gunther. Wardrobe consisted of taking care of all of the costumes and props. Mark went to wardrobe. Matt would be on transportation. 
 You can imagine what fun we had traveling around the country with a circus and being in all the big cities. This was some thing new and exciting to all of us.
 Towards the end of the season Matt met a really nice girl in New Jersey and decided it was time to leave. Mark stayed on and continued working, eventually becoming the assistant in the wardrobe department under Wally Piper. 

 At that time our props were built by a company in New Jersey. Mr. Feld had decided that we should start building our own props since we maintained them on the road anyway. Wally was the one to head up the project. 
 Wally told Mark to stay on the show until he had it going. Once it was up and running, Mark could come down and go to work for him in Florida. Hence, the beginning of what we all know as Hagenbeck -Wallace. 

 Mark was one of the first employees of the company along with handful of others. They were set up in the back of Winter Quarters in one of the bays. With nothing more than a band saw, welder, table saw, and a few hand tools they were able to build an entire show! I believe it was the undersea adventure for the Blue show. 
 Marks first prop was a little red submarine he built entirely by himself and was really proud of. In fact he still keeps that picture and tells people about how it was his beginning. 

 Matt had moved back to Florida a few years later and went to work for Hagenbeck -Wallace. So now the three of us were working for the Feld Family once again. 
 As Hagenbeck expanded they moved it to Sarasota. My brothers went with them. By this time the Felds had acquired Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice and were building all of the shows at Hagenbeck.  
 Sharon Bayer came in 1987 and was hired as secretary to the Vice President of Ice Show operations Dick Haskell. She must have really caught Marks eye. They fell in love and were married in 1990. In 1998 Sharon was offered a job in the Circus Creative area of the company as secretary for Tim Holst, Vice President of talent. 

 By 1979 I had left the circus but not the Feld Family. I went on their first ice show in the concession department. This is were my son Ian was born. I remained on the Ice Shows for several years throughout the '80's    
 I had an older brother Jim who was a painter living in Florida who also went to work at Hagenbeck in the paint department. At one time there were six of us working for the company all with the name Freddes! After a year or so my older brother left and moved back to Colorado. 

 My sister Marybeth still lives there. Never involved in the circus herself she's very proud of her brothers but, vows never to leave Colorado. 
 Mark eventually became Vice President of Hagenbeck - Wallace and Matt became his right hand man. In 2000 I returned to the Red Show. In 2004 I went to the Gold Show. Once again we were working together for the Feld Family. 
 After 30 years Mark retired from Hagenbeck to start doing some of his own projects. Shortly after that Sharon left, and three years later I left the Gold Unit.
 My brother Matt continues to work for the company. He still carries on the legacy of "Those Freddes Boys" 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A beautiful story.......

Sometimes we don't know the impact we have on people by being in the circus. As clowns we meet thousands of people throughout the season as we move from town to town. How many names do we ever remember? Very few. Of course it would be impossible to remember everyone.
 The town was Greensboro, North Carolina my first year on the road and I was working the seats. During the come in if you weren't in a gag on the floor you would work the seats doing small bit of business and general meet and greet. Because the audience was not allowed on the floor.
 You meet so many people that most of them are just faces in the crowd. Every so often you have that very special person who you might remember. 
 Two years later when I returned to Greensboro I was getting ready for the come in.  A note came for me backstage that someone wanted to see me. 

 The note read as follows: My name is Michael Daniels and I met you two years ago with my daughter Amy. We are in seat numbers 22, 23, and 24. Would you please come say hello? Since the audience couldn't come down to us a note like this was not uncommon. 
 When I got there, sitting in the seats was a family with a beautiful little girl who was about four years old. As I approached them the girl started to wave and jump before I even got to them. Pointing and saying,"There he is!"  I said hello to them and the father started to tell me this story. 
 When they came to the show two years previously I had made such an impact on their daughter that when they went home she named everyone of her stuffed animals Mitch. And it was quite a collection of them. 
 For the following two years she never left them alone, always asking when the circus would be back so they could take Mitch the clown out to dinner. They asked if I would go out after the show and have dinner with them. Of course I obliged. 
 We continued to correspond for the next two years. When the show came back, again we went out to dinner. Now the little girl was about six and telling me her own version and how her animals are still all called Mitch. I left the show in 1979 and lost contact over the years.
 When I came back to Ringling in 2000 we went to Greensboro and I was working the adventure. A woman in her late twenties came up to me with a beautiful little girl. She pulled out a picture of me and a little girl from 1975. 
 She said, " Do you remember me? My name is Amy Daniels and this is my four year old daughter Mary." She told me her daughter had inherited some of her stuffed animals and they still call them all Mitch. They asked me out to dinner with them after the show. Of course I said, "Yes."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Henry and my 50 dollar car

 It was my third year on the road and I decided I would by a car. It was a little Toyota station wagon that I paid $500.00 for. 
 As we left Venice everything went well. We got to Miami and I needed new tires and figured I would get them there before we really got going out of Florida. I decide to get some good Michelins  that would cost me $200.00.
 From Miami we would start the trek up the east coast working our way up to New York. This was always the worst part of the tour. Miserable cold with that wet snow up through the Carolinas into Virginia and then Baltimore. 
 We left Miami towards Greensboro and my distributer on the car decided to blow up. I had to be towed off the highway to a shop. The towing plus the repair was $500.00.
 After that every thing was going good until the trip to New York. On that trip one of the cylinders on the engine quit working but I was able to limp into New York City. We had a lot of Polish people on the show at the time and, they were all good at mechanics. 
 One in particular, named Bogden was really good at rebuilding engines. He told me since we would be in New York for 12 weeks he would have time to do it for $800.00. I was bound and determined I was going to have a car so I said go ahead. We finished New York and my car was done. After 12 weeks in one place I was ready to drive. 
 From there it was Philadelphia and then the three day drive to Oklahoma City and on to Phoenix. This marked the beginning of warm weather  and sunny California just around the corner. It was the trip to Phoenix when it happened. 
 They call it the high desert out there because of the surrounding mountains. Going across the mountains in the desert my engine started to get hot. I didn't know what to do! I saw a sign for a town twenty miles ahead and thought I would just keep driving. I didn't have much choice as I was in the middle of nowhere. 
 Just as I finished reading that sign my car stopped running. I tried to start it to no avail. What was I going to do?  I stood there trying to think of some way of getting out of this mess. Out of nowhere here comes Henry Schroer. He was Gunthers right hand man.  
 Gunther had a trailer he would use as a dressing room at the buildings, and Henry drove it from town to town with a beautiful van. It was a black van with tigers and leopards painted on the sides. You couldn't miss it coming down the road.

 He pulled over to see if he could help. I told him what happened and asked if he thought he could tow me. It was only 20 miles to the next town and I would get it fixed. He said yes but we had nothing to tow it with.

 I looked across a field and out about a half a mile out I could see a tractor. I thought there might be a chain on it we could use, and when we got my car fixed I would return it. So I walked out to it and sure enough there was tow chain sitting on it. I dragged it back, we hooked it to the car and off we went. 
 We had gone about three miles and ran into a road block. When we stopped we could see an old farmer standing with the police. They told us that the chain belonged to the guy and he wanted it back. He had seen me go out and take it off his tractor and called the police. He would not press charges as long as we gave it to him. They left us there and told us we would have to figure out some other way to tow it.

 Thats when we decided to cut the seat belts out and tie them together. We started down the road and Henry started to go pretty fast. Remember we had a van pulling a trailer and my car behind the trailer! Well from my car moving back and forth and me hitting the brakes the seat belts kept breaking. We would stop tie them together and go again. Each time they would get shorter and shorter until I was only 2 feet away from the trailer. 
 I think Henry may have forgotten I was behind him, because he  started to go about 70 mph. I was holding on for dear life! My knuckles turned  white from holding the wheel so tight. We both had CB radios and, in panic I would yell at Henry to slow down. When I did he would come back with, "What? I cant understand you. Your talking to close to the microphone." Or he would say I was talking too loud. He kept repeating this over and over as I tried to get him to slow down. 
 We finally made it into this small town with a junkyard that did repairs. The man told me I had cooked the engine and it would cost me another $500.00 to fix it. I asked him if he wanted to buy the car from me.
 He said if I had the title he would give me $50.00 for it. I took everything out of it and put it in Henrys van. I looked in the glove box for the title and couldn't find it. He gave me his card and said if I mailed to him he would send me a check. We got in the van and headed for Phoenix. 

 No, the story doesn't end there.... I went to my train room and looked for the title and couldn't locate it anywhere. Two years later I got a new room on the train and while moving into it I found the title in a bunch of papers. I still had his card in my wallet, so I mailed it to him and got my $50.00!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Roll out the Barrel

 It was my first year on the show. I was still doing the walkaround with the big fish over me, and the levitation stop gag. 

  I was trying to find that special thing that would be all mine. We were allowed to experiment back then and try different things every day in the walkarounds, come in, or stop gags. This is how you learned. 

 Other than the production gags nothing else was set in stone . You also had the freedom to change your makeup until you found that perfect one. Sometimes this could take years. 
 Of course this was done under the supervision of Frosty and the other veteran clowns. This policy changed over the years. I suppose because of the passing of Lou Jacobs, Bobby Kaye, and Duane Thorpe. Together the three of them had over 100 years of experience. If they didn't know about clowning who would? 
 Finally the retirement of Frosty Little who was Boss clown for 20 years. I can only speculate because that was during a time when I had left Ringling. 
 I was practicing my balancing and hat trick skills trying to come up with some different for a track gag. I would go out and try doing these things and nothing but applause was received from the audience. NO LAUGHS! Where do I get them? I was really getting frustrated about it.
 Lou noticing my frustration came up to me one day holding a wooden hoop About 14" in diameter. He said to me, " Your doing some good tricks but they're not funny."  After that he showed me the hoop and told me it was something I could add that would make it funny. Then he doubled up his 6'?" frame and slid through it as if  it was nothing! 
 After that he showed me a few more tricks I would be able to do with it. He told me to take it and work with it, add it to what I was doing, and make it funny. He said I could do a whole act just with that hoop. 

 Immediately  I started to take it out on the track and try it during the stop gags. I GOT LAUGHS! I continued to keep working at it the rest of the year. I liked getting those laughs.
 When we got to winter quarters Lou showed up with a red barrel. He told me it used to be Kinkos barrel and he had it sitting around in his garage. 

 Kinko was a clown in the early part of the 20th century who used to do comedy contortion with it. His real name was Glenn Sundbery? Probably spelled wrong. I actually saw a drawing of Kinko using it at the turn of the century. Lou used it sometime in the thirties. He gave it to me in the seventies. 

 He told me that the tricks he showed me with the hoop could be done with the barrel and showed me how to do it. I created an act with it that eventually became my signature.
In fact, when Lou went to Clown College to teach, the show needed something to fill in for the little car gag. They asked me to do it. What an honor this was. Center ring in "The Greatest Show on Earth" all by myself!  I sure made Lou proud. 
 In the 90's I took a break from clowning and donated it to a small circus museum in Venice owned by Fred and Laura Landrum, along with all of my costumes. In 2000 I got it back from them because I was going back to Ringling. Shortly after that they both died and I heard everything was sold on Ebay! Someone was watching over me and that barrel, I think I know who it was.
 I continue to do that gag today 35 years later. To this day, every time I do it I can still feel the spirit of Lou coaching me with his broken German accent and telling me to make it funny......   

Me and Gene Kelly

We were on our way to St. Pete Florida for the TV taping . What excitement for a young kid only 18 years old to be on National TV! Before the age of video we always would make a 90 minute special that would air every year. I had the pleasure of doing 3 of them. The ringmaster ways always a big celebrity and one them was Gene Kelly. I couldn't believe it!
 He was from Pittsburgh, Pa. and my mother came from Johnstown. Her father was a prominent business man in that town. From the time to time as a child I heard this story...
 Gene and his brother were looking to open their first dance studio in Pittsburgh and needed some funding. My grandfather was one of the people who helped them out. For this my mother was one of his first students. 
 I had heard this  story every time a Gene Kelly movie would come on the TV . I knew it well. 
 When we did the taping there he was in real life! During one of the breaks I figured I would ask him about it. I collected my nerves and approached this icon of the silver screen. Introducing myself  I told him about this story I'd heard all my life. To my surprise he remembered my mother and grandfather as if it was yesterday! 
 He asked about my mother and I told him about her pending blindness. Thats when he asked for her phone number so he could to call her. I didn't know he meant right then!   
 We went to a phone booth and called her. They talked for a 1/2 hour!  As I listened to them talk it was like listening to two kids reminiscing about their youth......  

Monday, February 8, 2010

Richard Slayton

Today marks one year since my dear friend has left this earth. 

 Richard and I met on" Little Miss Venice". This was a boat the show would lease and have a party for the first of mays to be welcomed. It was on this night I first met Richard. 

 I was talking to him about some one who was going to give me a ride to the train. He warned me about about this guy and said not to go. So I didn't. Sure enough he was right. This person ended up hitting the Venice bridge and injuring everyone in the car. 

 From that day on we became inseparable friends. We even shared the same birthday. This seemed to make our friendship even more special. 

Whether driving overland together or  staying with him in his trailer we always had fun. Richard was born on the show and went from concession vendor to concession manager. He always dreamed of  being manager on the Red and it always seemed to elude him. Finally he was able to achieve that dream. He called me personally to let me know how happy he was. This was a true friend.
 I want to share one story I'll never forget. We were in Miami in 1977. It was a cold day and the train was far away so I was staying in his  trailer on the lot. In fact it actually snowed. He didn't have any propane so the trailer was freezing . Because of the busy schedule we didn't have time to get any propane. 

 We noticed there was a fly on the curtain that hadn't moved in 2 days. Finally we were able to get some propane and warm up the trailer. We watched the fly and noticed it started to move slowly and stretch its wings. Slowly it twitched until it got warmed up. At first it flew slowly around until it got going.  We let him warm up, opened the door and our friendly fly was gone.......      - Mitch -

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Where do I sign?

 Reflections of a 35 year friendship by Jeff Darnell. Clown College graduate from 1978

It was a Dream come true… the first of many.  35 years ago today, I received the opportunity of a lifetime… to be  a “guest clown” with the Red Unit of  Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus!   I knew for several weeks in advance that this was going to happen, so I did all I could to prepare for such an experience.  I was fifteen at the time and had already dabbled in clowning.  I had what I guess they now call “Coulro-philia.”  (I hate the word coulrophobia…but that’s a topic for another day.)  I loved clowns!  Lou Jacobs, Coco, Otto Griebling,  Pio Nock, and many others were my childhood heroes!  They were larger than life.  They could put 6000 people in the palms of their hands and make them laugh, cry, and sit on the edge of their seat for as little, or as long, as they wanted to.  They were masters of mirth!  As early as I can remember, my dad would take me to watch the elephants walk down Lee Street on their way to the Coliseum.  The “Elephant Walk” was as big as the Christmas Parade to me, maybe even bigger.  People would line the streets back then.  Whole classrooms took field trips for this annual tradition.  Local newspaper, radio and TV personalities would ride on the backs of these majestic pachyderms as they sauntered from downtown Greensboro to the their home for  six days on High Point Road.  It was now officially circus week!    The shiny silver train was parked on a side track just off  Spring Garden Road.  My dad and I would drive up and down the road running parallel to the tracks at least a dozen times during show week.  You see,  I had known since second grade that a career in the circus, and a diploma from Clown College, was what I wanted.  By 1975, I had already written to Mr. Irvin Feld several times about my desire to attend this unique institution.  Back then, clowns were respected and revered as heroes!  It was the big leagues.  It was the Greatest Show on Earth!  I walked through the back door of the Greensboro Coliseum on February 8, 1975 at the appointed time to find Mitch Freddes waiting for me.  He somehow drew the “short match” for this PR event and got assigned the task of  herding me around backstage.  His job was to keep me safe, and transform me into a guest clown that afternoon.  Mitch was a “First of May” in 1975.  He was one of 11 from his class that received contracts on the Red Unit that year.  I’m not sure what his expectations for the afternoon were, but, for me, it was like meeting my long lost older brother for the first time.  We both played drums, we both loved the circus and clowning, and we’ve been friends ever since.   My first encounter with Frosty Little came about the time we were powdering the clown white when he yelled “10 minutes… hoterini!”  This meant Come In started in ten minutes, so we needed to finish up the make up and get ready for the first of several gags they let me participate in.  I was in Come In, did an “antique phone” walk around with Tim Doody, and climbed out of the clown car with over a dozen other clowns and a two man giraffe.   It was awesome!  A whirlwind of activity made those three hours fly by so fast that it seemed like a dream.  I was surrounded by the likes of Lou Jacobs, Bobby Kay, Duane Thorpe, Peggy Williams, Barry Lubin, Frosty Little, Jimmy Tinsman, Jim Howle, Tim Doody, Dougie Ashton, Steve Laporte, Lenny Wholen, Serf Rocha, Jimmy Briscoe, Ruthie Chaddock, Richard Mann, Dale Longmire,Ron Jarvis,Mark Buthman,and a host of others  (Mitch, please help me fill in the blanks), and, of course, Jonathan “Mitch” Freddes.
Oh how I wish my father had had a decent camera to capture those moments, but in the spiritual realm where I was dwelling that day, no technological device could come close to capturing the moments I lived and breathed that day.  I sat beside Papa Lou’s trunk and played with Pee Wee and Knucklehead.  I watched Lou prepare for the hunting gag, his walk around, and other spots in the show.  I was fascinated by the seemingly effortless way he went about his two show day routine.  He was a master at conserving his energy for a long day at the office, where he held court like no other.  Going into this, I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous that day…very dangerous.  Mitch was the epitome of a “diplomat.”  When I showed up with my own idea of how to apply make up, my own gag neck tie rigged with a coat hanger, and a costume that a “yom” would’ve looked down their nose at, Mitch just said, ok, let’s get you made up.   Mitch taught me proper make up application technique with just the right amount of grace and poise.  I was a stubborn kid.  He busted my chops a bit, but cut me just enough slack to calm my nerves and shaking hands to get me ready for  and through this experience that helped chart the course of my life as a clown.   I eventually made it to Clown College in 1978.  After graduation, I got called up into that big office, up the stairs and to the right, the one with the big windows that overlooked the arena floor of the old Winter Quarters in Venice, Florida… and was offered a contract by Mr. Irvin Feld to perform with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.   Four words… Where do I sign?         
                   - Jeff Darnell -
On this day 35 years ago I first met Jeff.  He went on to actually go onto the Blue show in 1979. After his tenure on the show Jeff was asked to continue as an advance clown for both units of "The Greatest Show on Earth." Traveling across the country ahead of the show. Spreading joy with every mile.
  He couldn't have made me more proud. What a good feeling to know that you helped someone live out their dream. Thank you Jeff for having that dream!