Clowns are the jesters of modern society. We chuckle at just the thought of that rosy-red nose and oversized shoes. Slapstick and visual gags are the base of their careers, but beneath the pancake makeup is a role in the circus that even a clown can not make light of.
“Clowns are the ambassadors to the circus. We can break through the wall that separates the audience from the performers … no one else can do that,” said David Solove, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s boss clown.
Since age seven, when Solove began performing puppet shows, he felt a constant calling to the spotlight. For the past 11 years, he has fed that call by spending 50 weeks a year on the road with his fellow clowns.
Inspired by Kermit the Frog’s “zaniness and optimism … and knowing when to let the craziness run free,” Solove began his professional career in performance after graduating from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1990. He spent two seasons as an interactive storyteller at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va.
In 1991, Barnum & Bailey rode into town and Solove went to the circus for the first time in his life. After seeing the clowns in action, he decided to attend an open call for the circus. There, he was chosen to apply for the Official Clown College of Barnum & Bailey’s.
Solove saw clowning as an opportunity to improve his ability to reach children through his performances. Once accepted to the college, he fell in love with clowning.
“Being a circus clown is a lifestyle,” Solove said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that being a clown isn’t a job.”
After a year of Clown College, Solove graduated and was offered a position in Barnum & Bailey’s Clown Alley, their traveling clown division. Originally when Solove joined Clown Alley in 1992, he was one of over 30 clowns that performed during the circus. Now, due to budget and time constraints, Clown Alley has been reduced to only 12 members, three women and nine men.
In the 10 years he has been part of the circus, Solove has tried many gags and many costumes, and kept only “the ones that brought the laughs.” He and his fellow clowns are allowed surprisingly little freedom with their roles. Although they are permitted to design their costumes, they must have approval from the administrative departments of the circus before they are worn. This management is something that Solove knows a great deal about.
As boss clown, Solove works as a liaison between Clown Alley and management.
“I take care of management’s needs and my clowns’ as well,” Solove said. “And I do a little clerical work, but only when I have to.”
Along with approval for their costumes, the clowns must also have approval for their gags and routines.
“Our gags are an individual and group effort,” Solove explained. “Management tells us what we must work with … and then we fit it all into our time restraints. Most importantly we have to make it look fun and spontaneous, even though it is all extensively choreographed and rehearsed.”
Solove hopes to eventually retire from riding his tiny bicycle and move on to experience more traditional acting roles, such as Broadway and the theater.
But for now, “I am going to stay until it stops being fun,” Solove said. “I am touching people’s lives here. I help make memories, and that is the most rewarding experience I have ever had.”
Moira Cochran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org