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Growing up a class clown: The burdens of a professional circus performer

By Sara Phelps

By Tim Torkildson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, June 24 2014 8:40 a.m. MDT

Tim Torkildson with his children and grandchildren. After attending the Ringling Clown College, Tim Torkildson spent 35 years working as a professional clown. His choice of career brought him immense joy and laughter year-round. But even as a clown, Torkildson wasn't immune to the struggles of everyday life.

Photo courtesy Tim Torkildson

Either by random chance or cosmic design, Tim Torkildson had his first opportunity to be a clown in kindergarten, and after that he was never the same.

He swiped his brother Bill’s pajamas and smeared his mother’s lipstick on his face, looking more like the victim of a head-on crash than a merrymaker.

Not having any scripted action besides the teacher’s admonition to “do something funny," Torkildson pranced around the classroom, stuck out his tongue at the indulgent group of parents and then stood as still as Lot’s wife — struck with the utter beauty of laughter and the dim premonition that the cost of generating such merriment could be terribly high.

"I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not want to make people laugh," Torkildson said.

He put cellophane tape over the projector lens when the teacher showed movies. He learned to make an immense number of embarrassing noises. He assiduously studied old Marx Brothers and Three Stooges movies on TV. He blew bubbles through his straw into his milk carton until it foamed over, and then slathered the foamy milk over his face so he could shave it off with a plastic butter knife.

The summer after high school graduation, Torkildson found an article about the Ringling Clown College within the pages of Life magazine. In a few months, he hitchhiked to Florida and enrolled in the program.

"I wanted to be (funny), but I wasn’t," Torkildson said. "I needed the training and the exposure that came with working with professional clowns."

Completing the Ringling Clown College program was no easy task for Torkildson. His family was embarrassed by his career choice, and he felt rejected by many of his fellow clowns. Despite this opposition, Torkildson became one of the top performers in his class, and graduated as one of only 12 students with an offer to perform with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

As his college days came to a close, Torkildson began to notice a classmate, Tim Holst, who stood out from the other students.

“This was the first time I’d ever been away from home,” Torkildson said. “I could do anything I wanted and I was considering my options. I noticed that Tim Holst … didn’t swear, didn’t drink (and) didn’t smoke.”

Torkildson realized perhaps there was greater purpose in his attending Ringling Clown College; perhaps he was more than just a juvenile jokester. He took the missionary discussions and was baptized soon after as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After a few years of working as a professional clown, Torkildson put his career on hold to serve an LDS mission in Bangkok, Thailand. Here he developed a love for spicy foods and even performed some of his clown routines for locals.

"I spent two-thirds of my mission performing as a clown," he said. "The church did not have a very good image in Thailand, (so) the mission president did a number of things to generate good public relations. One of the things I did was free clown shows. We would go visit hospitals, schools and jails. I would be introduced as a missionary for the church, and that is as much publicity as we did."

Torkildson was lucky enough to get his job back with the Ringling Brothers Circus after he returned home, but being the class clown came at a price. Though he spent years in the circus making families clap and cheer with excitement, his wife and eight children were not so enthusiastic about his career.

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