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Send Out the Clowns

Aspiring pratfallers take heed: The Harvard of clown schools has stopped accepting new students.

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Because of a clown glut, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College will no longer be teaching the three R’s: Razzing, Rolling Around and Running after other clowns with a rubber two-by-four.

The college was created in 1968 after Irvin Feld, the owner of the circus at that time, looked around his rings and saw a bunch of aging clowns. New blood was needed, so Clown College was started to teach 30 students a year such basic skills as makeup, gag development and stilt walking. During three decades, more than 1,400 budding Bozos graduated from the school’s grueling eight-week, 12-hour-a-day program. Some alumni joined the circus as apprentice clowns, and many became full-fledged members of the troupe.

Not every graduate has been invited to join Ringling Bros., nor has everyone wanted to become a member of the traveling ensemble. “There were lots of people who attended the college but never intended to be clowns,” says Barbara Pflughaupt, a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spokesperson. “There were psychologists who went through because they wanted to learn to use humor as a healing art. We’ve had pediatricians who took courses because they felt it’s a way of reaching children.”

Actually, the school is not closing its doors, just changing its focus. Now that there are more young clowns than the circus can shake a stilt at, Clown College is abandoning beginner classes in favor of advanced courses to help veteran clowns develop new routines for the circus.

“We’ll change the presentation of the act, but not the basic elements,” says Pflughaupt. “Perhaps what you’ll see is clowns doing a comic trapeze act instead of just walk-arounds. It’s opening up the possibilities for clowns to do unique routines and continue to challenge today’s audiences.” Does this mean — heaven forbid — that the car full o’ clowns will be put up on blocks? “My guess is that the clown car will not see its demise,” she says, reassuringly.

The news of the school’s shifting focus gave its alumni pause for bittersweet reflection. “It’s tough, because for many of us going to Clown College was a real coming of age,” says Kenny Ahern, a 1983 graduate who toured with Ringling Bros. for five years before returning to teach at the college from ’92 to ’94. “I didn’t fully realize the impact of the school’s change until I had to tell someone whose ambition for the past three years has been to go to Clown College. It really hit home for me, seeing the disappointment in his face.” Luckily, a good education gave Ahern the skills to cheer up his friend.