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. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Getting To Know You

After the graduation we had 10 days off until the rehearsals started. Most of the students went home.  I had planned to go home also when I received a call from home informing me my mother had contacted glaucoma and was losing her eyesight. Worried that she might go blind by the time the show got to Denver the following October, they decided to come to Venice to watch the opening of the show. Fearing it might be last chance she would have to see me perform. It would be an expensive trip for them, so they couldn't afford for me to come home. 

I was lucky the train  had just arrived in Venice and I was able to move right on to it. I was taken to the train by Charlie Smith the train master to show me my room. There was a door with a piece of masking tape that said " Mitch Freddes, clown" Something about seeing my name there made me a feel really special.  Charlie told me to go to a hardware store and get a padlock. Unlike today we each had our own lock and no one else could have access to your room . That first year my salary was 125.00 a week. We paid 7.00 a week for the train. This was to cover clean sheets and porter service. Funny, I don't remember anyone who used the sheets. 

 We were also part of AGVA.  Which stood for American Guild of Variety Artists. This was a union for many different kinds of artists. With the train fee and union dues I cleared 85.00 a week and was very happy. The Clown Car was empty as most people had gone home on the break. It was quiet and kind of had a ghostly feel to it.  Although the room only measured 4 foot by 6 foot it was all you needed. At least it wasn't a bunk, which is what I expected  from seeing the movie "The Greatest Show On Earth". No matter how small it was it was still my home.

 About three days before rehearsals the other clowns started to arrive. The car started to fill and take on a new life. There was one room that was longer than the others. It was built for Richard Mann who was 6'7' tall. To compensate for this the room next to it was a little bit shorter. This room belonged to Mike Padilla, one of our little people. There were ten rooms on both sides with a center hallway. On the end there was a kitchen with a stove and ten small refrigerators. Two of us would share each one of these. Right in the middle were three toilets and three sinks which we would all share. Very cozy! Richard Mann had gotten a bigger room on a different car so the tall room went to Dale Longmire who was also very tall. 

The first day of rehearsals was one I will never forget. We all sat in the ring as Mr. Feld greeted everyone and welcomed us to the Winter Quarters. He then introduced the director Richard Barstow. He was a brilliant man who had been directing the show for 30 some years. He also was one of the most flamboyant characters I had ever met. As he grabbed the microphone he pointed at the band and they began to play. He started to sing and dance to the song "Getting To Know You." As he went around the ring he would take us one at a time in front of every one and ask your name. Once you told him he would sing the song and walk with you all the way around the ring and have you shake hands with everyone. After this the rehearsals began. He always said I had calves eyes and loved to point it out to everyone. I still don't know what he meant by that. For some reason he seemed to like me and always would always call me " favorite." He would say it in a kind of whiny voice which made me wonder what he really meant by it. I must say it was kind of irritating but, I loved the man. 

Every time we would take a break he would come back with a whole new wardrobe. I always wondered where he kept all of those clothes! He never wore anything twice! As we started to put the clown routines together we had three types of gags we would use. Production gags involved all of the clowns in the ring we usually had two including the clown car. That first year in the car we had 18 clowns plus one driver and a two man giraffe inside a Datsun B-210. I was the back end of the giraffe. You have to start somewhere. The second type was a walkaround in which you would continuously walk around the track with some kind of sight gag. This was used as they set up the flying act. My first one was a giant foam rubber fish that fit over me leaving only my legs exposed. It was a man eating fish. I thought it was funny. The third was a stop gag which was a short gag usually about 2 or 3 minutes long. My first one was the levitation gag with Ruth Chaddock and Bruce Gutilla. I was the guy with the fake legs. 

The clowns were always the first ones there and the last ones to leave. Always building props and rehearsing until sometimes midnight. About two weeks into it we would show Mr. Feld the gags that we had. We would show about 50 gags and maybe end up with 30. The show ran three hours plus the clowns worked 30 minutes before the show. We had a lot of spots to fill. That first year I made 13 different appearances every show. Three costume changes in the spec alone. This was the big production that would close the first half.

 After one month of rehearsing we were finally ready to open. That first show would be especially important for me. This may be the only time my mother would ever get to see me perform. After all, it was her idea to begin with.       


  1. I am enjoying reading your posts.... A piece of history.

  2. Funny... I also did the levitation gag my first year on the show (1989 Blue) with Gina Allison & Dave Kiser. We also had a clown car. Although I wasn't the back end of a giraffe in the car, I did have to wear this tight fitting, bright, neon colored, spandex outfit with a strap-on, skull cap hat covered with neon colored sponge balls. Kinda makes the giraffe thing sound a bit more glamorous!

  3. Thanks for letting us see the inside of clown ally and sharing your life with us
    we have meet many clowns but few compare