Growing up a class clown: The burdens of a professional circus performer
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.
"I sensed that my wife was falling away from me," he said. "This frightened me so I gave up the circus (and) I worked for the Utah State Tax Commission as a tax collector. I went from making people laugh to making them cry but I did it because I wanted to stay at home. It really didn’t help because by that time the marriage was dead. As soon as it was over, I quit that job and I went back to the circus. Obviously I was sad, I was heartbroken I had lost my family."
Torkildson finished out his career working as a clown, eventually becoming the ringmaster and then running publicity for the circus. However, arthritis kicked in and traveling with the circus became too difficult to continue.
After moving on from the circus and working several different jobs, Torkildson found himself struggling to make ends meet.
"Once my active clowning career ended, I felt a real sense of deflation, and it took me years to redefine myself as someone who has worth outside of his ability to make people laugh," he said. "I wound up living in a homeless shelter. I ran out of options. That happened just a year ago."
A good friend of Torkildson's took notice to his situation and invited him to come stay with his family in Provo. Torkildson lives there today, works part-time and expects to be in his own apartment by the end of the summer.
Now that he lives in Provo, Torkildson is closer to his children and grandchildren, and longs to spend time developing those relationships that may have suffered during his circus days.
"Anytime I can be with my children or grandchildren, that is extremely fulfilling for me," he said. "I haven’t experienced that with my children for many years, so it’s like a holiday."
Torkildson's clowning days may be over, but he'll never stop trying to make others smile.
"Writing is the thing I enjoy the most I have a lot of fun memories of Thailand and the circus, and I write about those things," he said. "Physical comedy is impossible for me to do, so I’m grateful I have a new outlet to be able to write and through the Internet be able to share that with people."
Through his trials, Torkildson is grateful for the influence of the LDS Church and how it has helped him stay hopeful toward the future.
"I feel that my best work is still ahead of me, and the reason I feel that way is because of my living testimony of the superb reality of the Savior and of his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he said. "I feel that each day is a gift and that it is my responsibility, and privilege, to find the wonder and awe in it, and to respond to that wonder and glory with all the creative resources at my command. And one way or another, it’s still going to be about laughter. I’m still going to be entertaining people. That’s my life."
Sara Phelps is graduate of Brigham Young University with a degree in communications. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org
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