Clown College

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By Dominique Jando

Clown College (1968-1997) was created in 1968 by Irvin Feld, then co-owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, with help from former Ringling clown and author/illustrator Bill Ballantine, who became Clown College's first Dean. Its purpose was to bring fresh blood to The Greatest Show On Earth's Clown Alley, the few members left of which were seriously aging, with no young clowns able or willing to replace them.

Feld also wanted to bring to the show a fresher—and hopefully funnier—approach to clowning, more attune, visually and energetically, to the times and the show's rejuvenated image. Additionally, Clown College offered good PR opportunity, which was not lost on Feld, and would be used for all its worth over the years.

Clown College was free, but applicants had to submit an extensive application form that was designed to give the directors a clear understanding of the applicant's psychology, interests, and previous experience. The circus also organized live auditions along its route, which was an efficient way to create interest in the show and generate press stories. The 30 to 50 students that were accepted each year followed originally a 13-week course of studies, six days a week, eight hours a day. The length of the session shrunk over the years, eventually cut to eight weeks in Clown College's last years of existence.

The program included basic clowning, various circus skills (acrobatics, juggling, stilt walking, unicycle, etc.), makeup, costuming, and all facets of comedy from Chaplin to Keaton, the Three Stooges to Warner Bros. cartoons. But most of it was devoted to the creation of clown gags that could be used in the Ringling shows: In its own way, Clown College served as a think-tank for clowning at The Greatest Show On Earth, in terms of comic material as well as makeup, costuming, character definition, etc.

To the students, the ultimate goal was to get a two-year contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey upon graduation—which only the best of them were offered. The Clown College program was in fact an extended audition for The Greatest Show On Earth. Although originally, students were free to accept or not the Ringling contract, it soon became part of the Clown College deal after too many of the most gifted students had refused to sign it (most notably among them, Bill Irwin). After all, Feld invested in free professional clown training, and was entitled to recoup his investment!

Irvin Feld died in 1984, and Feld Entertainment, Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, passed into the hands of Irvin's son, Kenneth. Kenneth Feld became the producer of The Greatest Show On Earth, with which he had been associated since 1970, and continued to operate Clown College through 1997: It was then judged too expensive to run, and Feld Entertainment closed it, to the chagrin of its many graduates—about 1500 of them...

Clown College was originally located in Venice, Florida, where Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had their winter quarters. When Ringling Bros. left Venice in the 1990s after a dispute with Sarasota County over their rail connection, Clown College moved to Baraboo, Wisconsin, home of the Circus World Museum, which is located on the site of the original Ringling Bros. Circus's winter quarters. Clown College eventually relocated in Sarasota until Feld Entertainment closed it in 1997. Its successive Deans have been Bill Ballantine (1969-1977), Ron Severini (1978-1984), Steve Smith (1985-1994), Rob Mermin (1995) and Dick Monday (1995-1997).

For its twentieth anniversary, Clown College had been featured on a CBS TV special hosted by Dick Van Dyke, which aired on February 17, 1988.