Clown College was a unique institution that trained hundreds of clowns for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1968 to 1997. It was founded by Irvin Feld, the owner of the circus, and Bill Ballantine, a former Ringling clown and author. Their goal was to revive the art of clowning and create a new generation of performers for the Greatest Show on Earth.
Clown College offered a free and intensive course of study that covered everything from basic clowning skills to makeup, costuming, comedy, and circus arts. The students had to undergo a rigorous audition process and submit a detailed application form that revealed their personality, interests, and experience. The circus also organized live auditions along its route, which generated interest and publicity for the show.
The program lasted for 13 weeks at first, but was later reduced to eight weeks. The students learned from some of the best clowns in the business, such as Lou Jacobs, Frosty Little, Steve Smith, and Dick Monday. They also had guest lecturers such as Dick Van Dyke, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, and Robin Williams. The curriculum included classic clown routines as well as new gags created by the students themselves.
The ultimate reward for the graduates was a two-year contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. However, not everyone who completed the course was offered a job. Only the best and most talented clowns were selected to join the Clown Alley of the circus. Some of the famous alumni of Clown College include Bill Irwin, Penn Jillette, David Larible, Barry Lubin, and Matt McCoy.
Clown College was not only a training ground for clowns, but also a think-tank for clowning innovation. It helped shape the style and image of Ringling clowns for decades. It also produced several special events and shows, such as the 20th Anniversary Celebration in 1988, which was broadcast on CBS and hosted by Dick Van Dyke; and Smiles Across America in 1992, which was a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of various issues and spread happiness.
However, Clown College came to an end in 1997, after nearly 30 years of operation and 1,400 graduates. The reasons for its closure were mainly financial and practical. The circus no longer needed to recruit new clowns from Clown College, as there were plenty of applicants from other sources. Clowning had also become more mainstream and accessible, thanks to other schools, books, videos, and workshops. Moreover, the circus itself was undergoing changes in its format and style, which required less clowns and more acrobats.
Clown College was a remarkable experiment that left a lasting legacy in the world of clowning and circus entertainment. It inspired many people to pursue their dreams of becoming clowns and making people laugh. It also preserved and enriched the tradition of clowning that dates back to ancient times. As Steve Smith, one of the deans of Clown College, said: “Clowning is an art form that transcends all languages and cultures. It’s a universal expression of joy.”
– Clown College – Circopedia, Circopedia, 17 February 1988
– Everything You Learn in Clown College – VICE, VICE, 14 September 2017
– Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College – Wikiwand, Wikiwand, no date