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. 

Monday, March 1, 2010

The "Bug Man"

John McHugh was a clown way ahead of his time. He had scientific approach to his clowning and used modern technology as much as possible.  Even his costumes were advanced!  They were made of a very high tech vinyl material he could only get in New York, so every two years when the show was in NYC, he would get enough material to make his costumes for the next two years.  That’s a lot of planning!  One of the them that stands out in my mind is one he made where he sewed flashing lights (similar to Christmas lights) into the front of his costume!   


When he was in Clown College, he adapted a character similar to Sherlock Holmes.  He would wear a cape and carry around a huge magnifying glass.  He even had a pipe!  As with many clowns, he evolved over the years, and that character slipped away completely.   He quit wearing the cape, ditched the lights and the pipe… He added big ears and changed his wig… The birth of a new character!


One year we came to winter quarters and John had a bunch of battery operated cars.  Of course, we all wondered what he was going to do with them.  They were the type that when they run into something, or off the edge of something, they would turn.  Maybe some of you old timers remember these?  Way before remote control…


John was always very secretive about what he was building.  During the day you’d see him working on something but never knew what it was, then at night he would assemble all of the pieces.  You’d walk in the next day and lo and behold, he had a prop!


So we would watch him with this pile of fake fur and foam rubber; he’d be cutting away at the fur, and carving the foam… he’d be gluing the pieces of fur to the foam and we just couldn’t figure out what it was!  John would never tell you what he was building.  You could ask a hundred times, and he would just say, “Oh, it’s a prop...” 


So we kept watching.  When all was finished, this talented man had made some giant BUGS that fit over the cars!  He took two pieces of plywood and cut out some discs about three feet in diameter.  When the bugs were placed on the wood they would turn, move all around and bump into each other.  If they got to the edge of the plywood, they would also turn, never leaving the plywood.  He would get out his huge magnifying glass from his “Sherlock Holmes” days, and go searching for them.   He’d then shoot at them with a pop gun that shot ping pong balls.  I believe he also had one of those sprayers that he would spray at them as if he were an exterminator.  This was his Track Gag, and it was brilliant!  From then on, we called John the "Bug Man." 


Another year John showed up with a big piece of graph paper and a bunch of electrical conduit.  On the paper was drawn a bunch curved lines.  We’d watch him take the conduit and hold it to the paper, and bend it just so.  He would never have the whole drawing with him, so we could never figure out what he was making.  Of course asking him never did any good, so we just had to watch, and guess.  After a week or so of bending the conduit this way and that, it was driving us nuts!  Then he would stay late after everyone left, and begin his assembly… Finally the day arrived when we walked in, and there was John, with a set of wings that fit on his shoulders.  They could even flap! It also had a tail like an airplane and really looked like a flying machine! 

That year for Track Gags, he would be looking for the bugs with his wings on.  He had a hoist lift him into the air, and he would flap around and shoot the bugs from the air. 


His flying machine became so popular that we made a spot for him in the come in.  He would go into the cage at the top of  Gunther’s tiger props.  We would stop everything to make an announcement and have the audience count to three.  He would flap his wings and simply jump down the props level by level finally landing in the ring.  This always got a huge applause!


Leave it to John McHugh to leave us all laughing!


1 comment:

  1. I remember this guy!! LOVED the ping pong balls!!