Clown College

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RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY CLOWN COLLEGE

By Dominique Jando


Clown College (1968-97) 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 second Dean. Its purpose was to bring fresh blood to The Greatest Show On Earth's Clown Alley, whose few members were, at the time, seriously aging, with no young clowns able or willing to replace them.

Clown College Logo
Feld also wanted to bring to the show a fresher—and, with any luck, funnier—approach to clowning: one more attuned, visually and energetically, to the times and the show's rejuvenated image. Additionally, Clown College offered Ringling a good PR opportunity, a fact which was not lost on Feld, who would milk the college for all its PR 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 of generating interest in the show—as well as press coverage. The thirty to fifty students who were accepted each year followed, originally, a thirteen-week course of study, six days a week, eight hours a day. The length of the session shrunk over the years, eventually cut back to eight weeks in Clown College's final few years of operation.

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 all, the College was devoted to the creation of clown gags that could be used in the Ringling shows. In a sense, Clown College acted 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.

A Path To The Greatest Show On Earth

20th Anniversary Celebration Poster (1988)
For the students, the ultimate goal was to secure a two-year contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey upon graduation—something 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 accept the Ringling contract, compulsory acceptance of an offered contract soon became part of the Clown College deal, after too many of the most gifted students refused to sign it (most notably Bill Irwin). After all, Feld invested in free professional clown training and so felt 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. The College was then deemed too expensive to maintain, and Feld Entertainment closed it, to the chagrin of its many graduates—about 1,500 of them.

Clown College was originally located in Venice, Florida, the home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's winter quarters. When Ringling Bros. left Venice in the 1990s following 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 to Sarasota until Feld Entertainment closed it in 1997. Its Deans were Mel Miller (1968), Bill Ballantine (1969-77), Ron and Sandy Severini (1978-84), Steve Smith (1985-95), Rob Mermin and Dick Monday (1995), and Dick Monday (1996-97).

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

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