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!