By Alex Starace
Clowns and Americana go hand-in-hand. But the origin of clowning seems to have Scandanavian roots: It was in the 1560s when the Icelandic word “klunni” (a boorish, clumsy fellow) first appeared in text. “It seems plausible that folly and fools, like religion and magic, meet some deeply rooted needs of human society,” wrote Peter Berger in Redeeming Laugther: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience. “For this reason, clowning is often considered an important part of training as a physical performance discipline, partly because tricky subject matter can be dealt with, but also because it requires a high level of risk and play in the performer.”
Each year in January, to the glee of young and old alike, the circus train – and it’s clowns — arrives here in Miami. South Florida Opulence had the opportunity to sit down with Taylor Albin, boss clown with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He gave us an inside look at the day in the life of the clown.
How a Clown Joins the Circus
Albin grew up in the small town of Mineral Wells, Texas, where as a kid, he visited the circus every year with his family. The young dreamer envisioned one day joining the circus as a clown. But as childhood dreams often do, the vision faded and adulthood approached.
In 2009, Albin attended college in Tennessee, putting the finishing touches on a business degree. However, like a call from his inner child, his ears perked up when he learned of open auditions with Ringling Brothers in Madison Square Garden. He thought, “If I really want to do this, I should do it now.” Despite having not performed in any capacity in high school or college, the determined Albin flew to New York and auditioned.
“I’d never been to an audition before,” Albin recalled, “Really, what was going to happen? I had no idea. Because I’d been to Ringling so many times, I was like, ‘Okay, I know it needs to be big, and I know it needs to be funny. I think if I can achieve those two things, I have a chance.’”
In his routine, Albin started out asleep on the floor. His arm woke up and tried to wake up the rest of him. Once he awoke, his arm fell asleep – and so then he tried to wake it up. The routine must have been a hit: he was accepted into the circus.
For Albin, being the latest link in Ringling Brothers’ clowning lineage is an honor he takes seriously. He’s inspired by old-time greats like Lou Jacobs and Frosty Little and fondly recalls watching Tom and Tammy Parish, David Kaiser and Tom Wheaton while growing up. “All these amazing clowns that came before me – to think that I am trying to walk in their footsteps is humbling,” he said, explaining that within Ringling Brothers’ traditional tiered clowning structure, there are three types of clowns: Whiteface, Auguste and Character.
During a typical pie gag, the Whiteface clown always throws the pie, while the Auguste clown (which Albin is) always plays the victim. “The Auguste clown is the complete and total buffoon, the butt of all jokes, the craziest clown out there,” he said with a laugh. Predictably enough, the Whiteface clown has an all-white face, while an Auguste clown is “going to look a lot like your old school traditional Ringling clown. White around the mouth and white around the eyes, [with a] big wig or big hat.”
As for the third type of clown: “We have the Character clown … who sees what’s going on, understands the situation, might be part of the joke, but tries to avoid it completely. They kind of stick to themselves.” A Character clown, traditionally referred to as a Tramp clown, has very minimal, lightly painted makeup and often takes on a more brooding persona. A classic example is the famed Emmett Kelly (who performed with Ringling Brothers in the 1940s and 1950s) in the role of “Weary Willie,” a personage modeled after a stereotypical Depression-era hobo.
A Unique Lifestyle
While clowns go for laughs, like all professions there are also practical matters to consider. For circus performers, good lodging and transportation are primary concerns: “We travel by the nation’s largest privately-owned train. Our train is a mile long. I have my own mini-apartment on the train [with] my own bathroom, my own little kitchen. It’s really cool because I look out my window and every week my backyard is different.” The train has been a mainstay of Ringling Brothers for decades. “We’ll go through a small town, whether that’s in upstate New York or in Florida or Minnesota or Oregon, wherever it is, people always come out and see the circus train. That’s been going on for over a hundred years now. … And to think that at least that small tiny stitch of American history is still going strong – it’s awesome. I love that.”
In fact, many clowns’ connection to Ringling remains strong. According to Albin, at almost every city on tour, former clowns drop by the dressing room to talk shop, see what’s changed and take in a show – which only proves that once you get a taste for clowning around, it’s hard to stop.