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L.A. at Large

He's the Circus' Clowning Glory

Ringling's David Larible, praised for his antics, reflects on a timeless craft

July 18, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There've been funny clowns and tragic clowns, heart-wrenching clowns from Italian verismo opera and homicidal-maniac outer-space clowns from Hollywood B movies.

Then there's David Larible, the Italian-born "prince of laughter" and star attraction of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which has taken up residence at the Los Angeles Sports Arena through Sunday. Appearing at a Tuesday night reception in his honor at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood, Larible was everything one might expect from a man who's been amusing friends and strangers since childhood: spontaneous, intelligent, warm, un-self-important and, thank goodness, funny. He'd left his red nose and oversized shoes behind, but then, you can't have everything.

A gentle-eyed, barrel-chested man who can look like Robin Williams or Harvey Keitel, depending on his expression, Larible is one of the best-known clowns alive. He has won practically every major award that international clowndom bestows, including the Golden Clown, presented to him by Prince Rainier of Monaco. He comes from a family of circus and vaudeville performers, seven generations' worth, and is said to play seven instruments and speak five languages.

But on Tuesday, all he needed was his accented English to express why clowning, to him, is not always a laughing matter. "Every time people take themselves too seriously, big tragedy happen," said Larible, 45, who wore a gray business suit and round-collared shirt. "I don't think Hitler ever laugh at himself. Do you think Osama bin Laden is going to laugh about his beard?"

At first glance, the soiree had the look of one of those surreal, inconsequential L.A. happenings. And, anyway, what was a professional pratfaller doing at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, a place that normally devotes itself to toasting the glories of the Arte Povera movement or the cinematic genius of Fellini, Pasolini and Antonioni?

But as several of those present observed, clowning has deep Italian roots, extending from the archetypal buffoons of medieval commedia dell'arte, to the cuckolded antihero of Ruggero Leoncavallo's 1892 opera "I Pagliacci," to comic Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning turn as a father who tries to joke his way through the Holocaust in "Life Is Beautiful."

Some would even argue that Mussolini, the fascist dictator who ruled Italy in the 1930s and early '40s, was one of the greatest unbilled clowns in history, though nobody laughed very much at the time. An exception was that notable English-born clown Charlie Chaplin, who envisioned Mussolini as the buffoonish "Benzino Napaloni" of the country "Bacteria" in his 1940 comic masterpiece "The Great Dictator."

Chaplin, Larible said, was part of a fine old tradition of clowns who enjoyed success in the United States, including Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs. "Then I think they started to do it a different way with Ronald McDonald and Bozo."

By L.A. standards, the occasion was low-key: first, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres in the institute's courtyard, then a brief video presentation on Larible's career, followed by a few remarks from the guest of honor and a Q&A with the audience. A speedy 90 minutes from start to finish.

Both Larible's wife, America, a Mexican-born trapeze artist, and his mother, Lucina, were present. Now a Florida resident when he's not on the road, Larible has been with Ringling Bros. for 10 years.

Larible, who was born in the northern Italian town of Novara, said he was, "of course, the class clown. I was always in trouble." Did he study clowning or just learn it on the fly? "I'm not a big believer in clowning school," he replied. "I don't think anybody can teach you to be funny."

At that moment, a woman who'd been listening to Larible and said she teaches at the Second City improvisational comedy troupe chimed in. "If tragedy is about a class war, maybe even against God, clowning is the one remedy that can be treasured," she said. "Clowning is about taking off the mask, which is the prison."

Larible looked startled but nodded in agreement. "Fellini used to say that the clown is the shadow of the human being," he said. And clowns, he insisted, are not actors. "The clown always plays the same character; the situation changes around him. Chaplin was a clown because he always played the same character."

Kenneth Feld, producer and owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, said he recruited Larible after seeing him perform in Europe. Larible's signature is coaxing audience members into the spotlight to perform with him, and Feld said his star's genius lies in being able to seize on a telling bit of body language to "produce humor out of an Everyman." "He could pick up your pen and do something funny with it," Feld said.

Guests drifted into a small theater, draped with American and Italian flags, to watch clips of Larible's performances. Afterward, Larible recalled the first time he made an audience laugh. "That sound was, for me, music," he said.

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