The other day, my 5-year-old grandson sat upon by knee and was ready to talk business. He had that look of impishness upon his face.
“Grandpa, what did you want to be when you were growing up like me?
“Oh, lots of things,” I told him. “A train engineer, baseball player, cowboy, and yes, a clown like Emmett Kelly. Emmett was the greatest clown who ever worked the circus. He made people laugh.”
“Did you ever become a clown?”
“Well … sort of,” I snickered.
I thought back to that day, precisely 30 years ago, when the circus had come to town—the spangled world of clowns and trapeze artists, obedient elephants and dancing bears.
There’s something grand and glorious about a circus, which never grows old on you. Perhaps it’s the magnetic appeal that holds you spellbound, or the buffoonery that splits your gut laughing.
I was working on the next day’s edition inside a busy newsroom when a woman dressed as a harlequin popped through the door.
“We’re looking for a volunteer to be a clown,” said the promoter. “How about you?”
She was pointing her finger at me, diverting my attention. Or maybe it was because I was the only fool in the office on a hot summer’s day.
You’ve got to be kidding. Me? A clown?
An old editor once told me that the only way to get a good story was to get involved. Besides, what could be more of a challenge?
“You’ve got yourself one reporter-clown,” I offered.
It was more than I had bargained for…a day in clown alley with make-up and four acts. I always considered myself a funnyman of sorts, but couldn’t entertain a doubt. I was determined to make the most of this.
The makeup tent was hardly the captain’s quarters. Inside were eight clowns, each busy putting on another face. The one that captured my eye was a 61-year-old midget named Rainbow who had been making people laugh for 40 years.
“Welcome,” he said. “The last newspaperman to join us for a day is still here.” There was a certain insinuation in his voice.
I was assigned to a mime specialist called Yakkedy-Yak who found solace in the circus. As memory recalls, his mirror was cracked in the middle.
“Split personality,” he howled. “Suits me just fine.” Only time I heard him say anything.
The clowns all seemed eager, painting the movable parts of their faces with distinction and flair.
“It’s very unprofessional to keep the same face,” one clown told me. “We’re looking to change character after a couple years.”
Showtime was in 30 minutes and it took him that long to transform me into a character that I had trouble recognizing. I became a country bumpkin, white-faced with big, smacking red lips, and eyelids to match, with a nose that looked like it had been placed accidentally.
The face appeared like it had worn out six bodies. The lower jaw receded so much, I had to use my Adam’s apple for a chin. As for the mouth, I could have eaten a banana sideways.
“Make them laugh! Make them laugh! Don’t you know everyone loves to laugh?”
Music blurted over the loudspeaker, bringing the clowns to their feet. “Showtime,” they said.
First order of business was the grand march. Just walk, wave, and smile. No rehearsal needed.
The next was more substantial, called the bend-over. A manikin was tied to my posterior, hidden by a dress. “Bend over,” said Rainbow.
A cape flashed before me and lo! Another character appeared from “nowhere” as I stooped with my head between my legs.
I nearly wrenched my back getting into a straightforward position. My family was seated in the front row, laughing so hard they sent the audience rollicking. I had passed my first audition.
My next script called for a fire rescue filled with buffoonery. I was to read a newspaper, off to one corner, and pretend to be naive over the whole episode. One clown even paid a compliment saying he had never seen a yawn with such expression.
Now wait a minute, Jocko! I didn’t volunteer my services to walk around the oval once, bend over, then yawn a couple times. If that’s what it took to be a clown, I was better off in journalism.
The youngsters flocked around the more professional clowns that evening. No need to be so forlorn. I had a knack for sketching Mickey Mouse and once word caught on, I drew a line.
Later in the tent, I overheard Bozo telling Willie, “That reporter’s a natural. Maybe we can find a spot for him.”