TAMPA, Fla. — For 30 years Clown College taught the basics--how to apply your perfect clown makeup, how to take a pie thrown smack at your big clown nose.
Now the creme de la creme of clowning is moving on to more advanced lessons--and that's bad news for amateurs wanting to learn about clowning around.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has decided to stop offering eight-week introductory classes in funny stuff. Instead, clowns already in the business will get a crack at "Masters of Comedy" workshops.
Clowning, the circus announced, needs a makeover.
"When I spoke to the clowns on the unit about this, they gave a standing ovation," said Kenneth Feld, the chairman and chief executive of Feld Entertainment Inc., which runs Ringling Bros.
"They know in eight weeks you can only learn so much. Then you go on the road and that becomes your graduate school," Feld said from his headquarters in Virginia. "This will be like a master's class in clowning."
Clown College was the brainchild of Feld's late father, Irvin Feld. In 1968, the clown profession seemed to be dwindling--Ringling Bros. had only a dozen clowns, most of them elderly.
Irvin Feld wanted to make sure there were clowns well into the future.
"He wanted to create a place where young people could get into the business," said his son.
So the college's directors held auditions at colleges and theaters around the country. Thousands of would-be clowns showed their stuff squeezing into tiny cars, laughing wildly at jokes and taking shaving cream pies in the face.
Dubbed the "Yale of Yuks," the competition was intense. Only 30 new clowns were accepted into each year's class.
There, they donned Size 40 shoes and baggy pants to learn about makeup, juggling and the fine art of falling down. They took classes in stilt-walking, gymnastics and pantomime.
The classes were free and the best clowns took their floppy footsteps on the road with the Greatest Show on Earth.
But the Clown College became a victim of its own success, Feld said. Today, there are about 1,400 trained clowns and there's little danger of the playful profession dying out.
Even at Ringling Bros., there is less and less turnover among clowns. So the new challenge is creating better clown acts that are "more refined, more skilled, acts that relate to the comedy of today," Feld said.
Ringling Bros. now has an aerial bungee act, a human arrow act, a double cannon act.
"We can create clown acts the same way,"' Feld said. "But what we have to do is take discipline and the amount of time--three, six, eight months--it takes to create special clown acts and routines with existing talent."
For now, the classes will continue at the Sarasota Opera House in downtown Sarasota, about 70 miles south of Tampa. The original Clown College spent 25 years in nearby Venice, at the old winter headquarters of the circus.
"This is pretty exciting; this is innovative," Feld said. "But it doesn't mean that in two or three years we won't go back to what we had before."