Circus Smirkus: Training Clowns On Tour Where do circus clowns come from? Some of them are being trained by Circus Smirkus, an award-winning touring show for young aerialists, jugglers and rubber-nosed pranksters. Smirkus is an incubator of sorts, where scouts for big-time big tops find their new talent.
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Circus Smirkus: Training Clowns On Tour

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Circus Smirkus: Training Clowns On Tour

Circus Smirkus: Training Clowns On Tour

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day. A good clown is hard to find, but try Circus Smirkus. It's a touring company training camp for aspiring aerialists, jugglers, and rubber-nosed pranksters.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's an incubator of sorts. Scouts from big circuses, including Ringling Bros., hire new talent from Circus Smirkus. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR stopped by the show in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

ANDREA SHEA: Circus Smirkus sounds and looks like a traditional European-style show, with its canvas big top overhead all covered with stars. But there's a difference. The performers here are kids, some as young as 10. Eric Allen of Shelburne, Massachusetts is 18.

Mr. ERIC ALLEN (Performer, Circus Smirkus): I pretty much just taught myself how to do flips on my couch.

SHEA: Allen's uncle showed him how to juggle. His grandmother took him to see Buster Keaton in "The Navigator." He's had the big top in his sights ever since.

(Soundbite of yipee)

SHEA: For the past three summers, Allen's been clowning with Smirkus in white greasepaint and a rubber nose.

Mr. ALLEN: My character is kind of like the Jekyll and Hyde clown, so I'm a nerdy scientist who drinks a potion and then changes into a monster, and so there are some clown gags with that.

Mr. ED LECLAIR (Manager, Circus Smirkus): He's just got an incredible joy. He's an incredible troublemaker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LECLAIR: I love the kid. I mean, he's got all that clown energy.

SHEA: Ed LeClair runs Circus Smirkus. He says it's like boot camp. 30 young clowns, aerialists, and acrobats stage more than 70 shows each summer all over New England.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Smirkus preps kids for jobs in the real circus world. 10 to 15 percent go on to work for big, big tops, including Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey. Today, Tim Holst is scouting talent on the Smirkus lot. He travels the globe keeping Ringling's three enormous touring shows staffed.

Mr. TIM HOLST (Talent Scout, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey): Anywhere and everywhere. I just came back from an extended trip in the Ukraine and Russia, Hungary, Romania. I'm often in China, Brazil, Peru, Chile to find talent.

SHEA: What kind of talent?

Mr. HOLST: I'm looking for tumblers and wire walkers and jugglers and clowns, oh my!

SHEA: Good clowns are hard to find these days, says Holst. He watched Eric Allen and the others go through their paces during the show. Peter Bufano remembers the day Holst found him, 22 years ago.

Mr. PETER BUFANO (Clown, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey): You know, it was everything. I thought that, like, all my problems were solved. I thought, I'm a clown in the biggest circus in the world. That's it. That's all I have to do for the rest of my life. I was so wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHEA: Wrong because Bufano says being a clown show after show after show is grueling. These days, he's a freelance circus musician. He was conducting the Circus Smirkus band when the ringmaster delivered big news.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, Eric started in our school residency program, went to our camp, ended up here on tour. Book (ph) started in our camp, ended up here on tour. And both of them, right here in Wellesley, yesterday and today, received contracts to tour with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.

SHEA: Eric Allen signed a one-year contract with Ringling on the hood of a car right in the parking lot.

Mr. ALLEN: It was pretty weird. I didn't really know what to think. I've never signed anything that big before, and I'm, like, I'm literally right out of high school, too. It's, like, I just graduated, and then I came here.

SHEA: Allen will make 325 dollars a week touring the country. And he says he knows it won't be easy.

Mr. ALLEN: I'm a clown, yes. I'm going to stick with that for now.

SHEA: And who knows? Tim Holst of Ringling says his company is taking a risk on Allen, too.

Mr. HOLST: Is he a great clown now? No, I don't think he is a great clown now. But he has potential.

(Soundbite of hooting and cheering)

SHEA: This fall, when Eric Allen's friends head off to college, he'll be learning how to make them laugh again and again and again. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

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