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Clown College Holds Reunion

January 26, 2001

LAS VEGAS (AP) _ The man with the bulbous red nose, his friend on stilts with the huge blue feet and striped pants and the woman with canary yellow hair have a lot in common.

They were among some 300 alumni of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College who reunited this week to snap photos and swap stories at _ appropriately _ the Circus-Circus hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

``My family and friends said all my life I was born a clown,″ said Joe Strange, 44, who says he joined the class of 1984 because he wanted to live up to his name. ``Then I was going to school in theater, bugging the teachers to do comedy and they said why don’t you go to clown college?″

The tuition-free clown college based in Venice, Fla., produced more than 1,500 graduates from its opening in 1968 _ when the profession seemed to be dwindling _ until it closed in 1997.

``Basically we had trained more clowns than we could hire at that point in time,″ said Peggy Williams of the class of 1970.

Clown school wasn’t just for laughs. Students worked and lived with each other around the clock for 8 1/2 weeks before the ``Big Show,″ which served as their final exam. While no one failed, it was their chance to prove themselves and be chosen to tour with Ringling Bros.

``I think clowning will be around whether there’s a formal institution to teach it or not because it’s been around for centuries,″ said Dawn Pollock Jones, who earned a degree in theater from Northwestern University before attending clown school. ``It’s going to stay around because everyone likes to have fun.″

Others worry theirs is an art form in transition.

``We don’t know if it’s going to go up or down,″ Strange said. ``It’s like the stock market.″

After nine years of traveling with three different circuses, Strange now operates a dinner theater in Indianapolis.

Since the college shut down its training rings, Ringling Bros. is calling former graduates to come back to the circus tent, Strange said.

``I got a call from the boss of the red unit saying ‘Are you sure you don’t want to come back?’ It sure was tempting because that’s your family,″ he said. ``But I got tired of being on the road.″


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