Alums Clown Around At Ringling Bros. Reunion

Graduates of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College are gathering for a reunion at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisc. Murray Horwitz, a graduate of the Clown College, which operated from 1968 to 1997, talks with Scott Simon about what clowns do for fun.

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NPR: rodeo clowns, dancers who dress up like clowns, and clown colleges. So imagine our excitement when we heard that an old friend was going to a clown college reunion. Well, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College graduates include the magician Penn Jillette, actors Bill Irwin and David Strathairn, and our friend Murray Horwitz, a Broadway lyricist and director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theater. He and other clown college alumni are in Baraboo, Wisconsin, this weekend for a reunion. Murray, thanks for being with us.

MURRAY HORWITZ: Thanks, Scott. I'm sorry, I thought you wanted me to talk about dulcimers.

: I mean, do you guys make balloon animals with each other? I mean, what do you do at a clown college reunion?

HORWITZ: That's an awfully personal question, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: Actually, you know, more than anything else, people are, like, sharing the vibe. I mean, there are a lot of stories, as you can imagine. I was reminded of the time when in Miami in 1972 I was driving the clown car filled with 26 performers and hung it up on a slant wire, and we couldn't do the number. And it's one of the most embarrassing moments of my career.

: What kind of lives have clowns gone onto?

HORWITZ: This is the 40th anniversary year of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Some people - a lot of people have gone on in performing and in show business, and a lot of people have taken it upon themselves to continue making people laugh in one way or the other. I mean, I think if you're going to be successful as a clown - why has this turned into a serious interview? If you're going to be successful as a clown, it means that you have mastered the art of being yourself. That is making a fool of yourself in front of audiences of thousands of people. And once a clown, always a clown, really. I mean, that's spiritually and intellectually, even, who I am.

: As you know, we're having an unexpectedly serious interview. And is that because clowns, when they get off the makeup, tend to be serious people?

HORWITZ: We're very serious about making people laugh. I mean, it is a cliche, but laughter is a serious business because it's so important to humanity. I think there's a kind of a shared sense if you're a clown that we're the people who understand that most people take life too seriously. But, yes, what we do here - and of course people are swapping stories - probably the most noteworthy session was they actually had a dean's symposium where three former deans of the clown college came and told stories.

: Oh, my gosh. Deans of the clown college?

HORWITZ: That's right.

: I'd give anything for one of those business cards.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORWITZ: Well, actually, somebody did give me their card. I said, oh, let me get your information. He said, I'll give you my card. And sure enough it was one of those cards that says "My card."

: Murray Horwitz speaking with us from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College reunion in Baraboo, Wisconsin. This is NPR News.

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