When Irvin Feld purchased the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey circus in 1967, he noticed that “The Greatest Show on Earth” contained only a dozen clowns. But what really troubled the late Ringling Bros. boss was that the average age of the circus’s small but talented stable of funnymen was nearly 60 and that there were few suitable replacements waiting in the wings.
At the time, there simply wasn’t a great deal of quality clown talent being developed in America. This wasn’t a good sign for an industry of which P.T. Barnum once said, “Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.”
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The farsighted and industrious Feld immediately began looking for ways to help remedy this problem. It didn’t take him long to come up with an answer. In 1968, just a year after acquiring the circus, Feld unveiled the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice, Fla. It was billed as the first and only professional school in the world devoted exclusively to training its students in the art of circus clowning.
Clown College, which begins its 1995 session this August and is now located in Baraboo, Wis., has graduated more than 1,250 clowns in its 27-year history.
“People used to have to be born into clowning,” says Dick Monday, one of the college’s two presidents. “That was the only way you could learn it. Clown College is unique in that we’re actually teaching the art of clowning (in an academic setting).”
Monday calls the college’s annual eight-week session in clowning “a huge sandbox where adults get to play.” But there’s no denying that this intensive program is far more than mere fun and games. It’s also hard work. Classes are held six days a week and a typical day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. Students study such clowning disciplines as acrobatics, juggling, stilt walking, improvisation, makeup and arena choreography.
“It was grueling,” recalls Heide Karp-Briggs, who attended the college in 1984. “But I don’t think I really noticed that until I was done with the program. I was so thrilled and excited to be there.”
Classes are typically taught by veteran clowns, some of whom are big name circus performers. Monday says that as many as 40 different instructors are brought in each year to teach the college’s small group of 30 students.
It isn’t easy getting admitted to Clown College. Ringling selects its students from a pool consisting of thousands of applicants. “They say percentage-wise it’s more difficult getting into Clown College than Harvard Law School,” says Philip Karp-Briggs, a 1988 graduate. “The year I applied they received 3,500 or more applications.”
Monday spends much of his time conducting auditions across the country. Auditions are often held at arenas the day of Ringling performances, but they also are conducted apart from circus appearances.
“When I go out on the audition trail, it’s more important for me to see people who are flexible with their bodies and their minds,” says Monday. “I want people who take chances.”
Monday says the students aren’t expected to become proficient in all of the various circus disciplines while attending the college. There simply isn’t enough time to accomplish that. What he wants to see from students is progress toward developing a distinctive comedic voice or point of view.
“A lot of people think that the clown costume and makeup covers up (who they are as a person),” says Monday. “But a good clown uncovers and shows more of themselves.”
At the end of each Clown College program a handful of students are selected to tour with the Ringling Bros, circus the following year. But Philip Karp-Briggs, who was chosen to perform with the big circus in 1989, says the college’s environment is more supportive than competitive. Grades are not given and everybody graduates. In addition, students are required to pay only for room and board and a material fee of $600, which covers everything from makeup to shoes.
“(Clown College) was like magic,” says Philip Karp-Briggs, who now performs with his wife, Heide, at various private, company and school events in Southern California. “Everyday we were working in a circus arena, smelling sawdust and animals and being around people who were extraordinary performers. I had just finished four years of college at Duke University and was full of cynicism. When I was done with Clown College I had no more cynicism in me.”