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. 

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......   


  1. I'd always heard that Lou started out as a contortionist, but I'd never seen any evidence of that 'til today . . . What did you do during your "break" from the circus? And what it must have been like when you went back!!!
    Keep writing! You've only got 34.5 years to go til you're up to date . . .
    Bruce the Clown

  2. How cool that must have been to have the freedom to experiment with different bits, gags, and even your make-up. By the time I made it on the road (late 80's & early to mid 90's) that was definitely not the case. If you wanted to make any changes like that, you had to first ask the boss clown. He was limited in approving such changes, and usually had to get the OK from Mr. Feld before the changes could occur. Having the ability to try different things at your own discrection seems like a wonderful way to really learn circus clowning. You are very fortunate to have had that opportunity.