Look into the face of a clown, and chances are very good you'll see something to make you smile.
That's no accident, says Ben Bolin, who has been a clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for just over a year. Being a clown is all about entertaining, about helping people have a good time.
Though Bolin is fairly new to the occupation, he can't think of anything else he'd rather do.
"This is it. This is me. I'm in it for life," the 24-year-old says.
The first time he put on a clown costume, he fell in love. "I like the freedom I have to explore who I am. I love to connect with the audience and bring them into the show. It's just me."
Yes, there are challenges. "You have to be fluid. You have to respond to what the audience does. It's never the same audience twice. But we don't want them to think they are out there watching TV. They are part of the show."
Unlike some, Bolin did not grow up with dreams of running away to join the circus. Where he lived in Oregon, "we didn't have a circus." But one came to town, and Bolin got a job working behind the scenes, setting up tents and doing the rigging. "The first circus I ever saw was the one I worked at. One of the clowns took me under his wing, told me how much fun it was to be a clown. He also told me the best place in the world to be a clown is with the Ringling Bros."
Bolin came up with a look, put together some photos and a resume, tried out and here he is. "It just kind of happened. I've always been fascinated by performers, and I love being one. I've found the place to be myself."
The Ringling/Barnum circus has 15 clowns 12 who occupy what is known as Clown Alley, and one headliner, who has his own support team.
Clowns are one of the most popular and endearing of circus acts a tradition that stretches back to the 18th century and beyond. If you count court jesters and such, clowns have been with us since the days of the Pharaohs. But the first actual circus clown appeared in England in the mid-1700s.
Bolin enjoys continuing that tradition. His character follows what is known as the Auguste style, as opposed to the common Whiteface mode. Auguste clowns are fools or jokers who have a hard time following directions which can lead to funny situations. "I fall down a lot," he says. "Clowning can actually be strenuous work."
The transformation from human to clown is actually a fairly smooth process, he says. He does his own makeup and, as you might expect, the "longer you do it, the shorter a time it takes. It used to take me about a half hour. Now, after about 800 shows, I think I could do it in five minutes if I had to."
It always starts with a shave. "Makeup doesn't like facial hair too much. You have to have a really nice razor," he jokes. Then, "you start with the lightest color first in my case, white." Next come the red for his nose and the black for his eyebrows.
Finding your own look is a bit of trial-and-error, he says. "You learn what works and doesn't work." Bolin goes with rather a simple look. "Makeup is not a mask. The idea is to accentuate your features, not to hide them. You want people to be able to see them up in the seats."
The smile is a big thing, he says. Most clowns have a defining smile. "Some clowns put on a fake red nose. I've always just painted mine. I don't really know why clowns have red noses. They just do."
After applying the makeup, Bolin hits it with a powder sock. The powder sets the makeup so that he then can add the finishing lines. His final touch is a dimple. "That's the money-maker," he says, with a smile that shows it off.
Each clown is in charge of his own makeup, shoes, hat and socks. The circus' wardrobe department supplies the costume, which is traditionally very colorful and always on the baggy side.
His shoes are also custom-made: size 12 on the inside and size 15 on the outside. Big feet yet another of those clown things.
So, on go the shoes, on goes the hat. And, oh yes, the tie. "I'm always forgetting my tie. It's the last to go on and the first to forget," he says.
Then it's showtime! Nowadays, the circus does a pre-show, where ticket holders can come down into the arena and meet some of the performers, watch them do tricks, ask questions, try on costumes and have a good time.
Bolin is always a part of that. He may juggle. He may do broom tricks. He may end up stuck in a red, plastic garbage can.
When the circus starts, Bolin and the others from Clown Alley are in several numbers, so there's lots of running around, interacting with each other and often some animals, a lot of zaniness, a lot of fun. There's also a lot of pleasing both young and old.
"Clowns are really cool," says 11-year-old Terra Ong. "They are so amazing and so funny."
"I love the clowns," says 83-year-old Helen Hunsaker. "I like the way they look, they way they dress." They make the rest of us look good, she jokes.
That's the really great thing about his job, says Bolin. "I get to look out there at people, see the eyes of a child light up, see the smile on someone's face. I do something that makes their entire day better. I help them make memories. It's amazing to think I can affect lives that way."Reason enough for the smiles you see in the face of a clown.
If you go
What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus
Where: EnergySolutions Arena
When: Saturday, 11 a.m., 3 p.m., 7:30 p.m.; Sunday 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$24; go to www.Ringling.com or call 801-325-7328Also: Animal open house 90 minutes prior; All-Access Pre-show, 60 minutes prior.
E-mail: [email protected]