Life With the Big Top and beyond.

Posted by Russ Kennedy on

John Winslow  With Ringling Bros. Circus

John Winslow
With Ringling Bros. Circus

Have you ever wanted to run away with the circus or dreamed of a life on the road as a professional performer? If you are like many clowns who perform mainly local venues I’m sure you wonder what it would be like to travel from town to town working as a full time clown. I had the opportunity to interview John Winslow former Ringling Clown about his life as a professional entertainer.

Born to clown:

Like many entertainers John felt drawn to his craft at a very early age and finding a book on clowning at his local library, which he borrowed frequently, sparked an interest in the art of clowning. He would use mom’s make up to practice clown faces on himself, like the examples shown in his favorite book. He was shy by nature but found that learning magic tricks helped him feel more comfortable around others and would often show his classmates his sleight of hand skills. A high school English teacher was impressed with John’s magic and asked if he would perform for her son’s Circus themed birthday party, John agreed and found himself down the path to become an entertainer. The life of a clown seemed to choose John as he shared the fact that children were drawn to him even at an early age, although he said this did hamper a young man’s style while trying to fetch the ladies.

Moving ahead a few years:

One day while at the local magic shop he frequented the shop owners wife suggested John audition to be a Ringling Clown, feeling he would be a natural. John wrote Ringling Brothers main office and requested an application, upon receiving the form he was surprised at the in depth detailed questions he had to answer. John was excepted to the Ringing Clown School in 1984 but unfortunately did not have the money for the initial fee at the time. However John received word from Ringling again in 1985 and began the 10 week clown school in Venice Florida. This clown school was no walk in the park with early morning exercise, physical acting classes, all day workshops and lectures, John recalled that even boot camp was not as difficult. “I wanted to try everything” John stated, “stilt walking, juggling, unicycle riding” if nothing more than to experience all the clowns had to offer. After completing this rigorous 10 week clown school one still had to audition for a part in the Ringling Brothers circus, John was awarded a spot in the Red show and began his time with Ringling, there were about 25 clowns in his troupe.

The Greatest Show on Earth!

A Ringling program with a picture of John.

A Ringling program with a picture of John.

John headed off to his new home, a room on the Ringling Circus train not much larger than the restaurant booth we were sitting in during the interview; as he stared into this glorified walk-in closet John thought to himself, “what did I just get myself into?” Also recalling that not even bedding was supplied and performers had to go purchase their own. John told of the long train rides and despite traveling all over the country most of the time was spent working and not sight seeing. As a “First of May” (circus newbie) you had to help unload equipment, make the soap and squibs for the clown gags and other chores that nobody else wanted to do. Your apprentice period lasted two years after which you were relieved of chore duty. One could earn “Chery Pie” (extra pay) by helping tear down the show before heading out to the next town, but this was not a requirement for the performers.

There are two tours with Ringling, the Rodeo tour which hit the smaller cities and towns and the Concert tour which played bigger cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit, John worked the latter.  The two shows Red and Blue split up the country and a third, the Gold show, toured Japan. Shows were written for each group and changed every two years so that patrons could return to the circus the following year and possibly see a different troupe doing a completely different show. John often would do the publicity shows that other clowns didn’t want to, feeling he wanted every opportunity to go work his craft.

John gets a rewarding hug from a wee fan.

John gets a rewarding hug from a wee fan.

John even got to meet his idol Ringling Legend Lou Jacobs. He describes Lou as giving, helpful and willing to take young clowns under his wing. When asked for critique on his makeup Lou literally gave John some hands on help as he showed him how to blend the grease paint for a more pleasing look. John described this event as “being touched by the hand of God.”

Moving on:

After 3 years with Ringling (1986-1989) John felt it was time for a change. As he bid farewell to the Big Top his path lead to involvement with clown ministry. This venture got off to a bumpy start, living in the basement of the preacher for whom he worked, getting paid very little and finding out his new employer was not living the life he preached to others. John eventually found the right church, a good minister and helped build a successful children’s ministry, even getting the chance to appear on some prominent TV ministry programs.

The circus life once again beckoned John as he met up with old circus pals ToTo Johnson and Rene Coker. They had been working for Cirkus Olympia in Sweden and informed John the owner of the show was looking for another American clown for the act. John joined his friends on the bill  in 1991, unfortunately only to be met by some of the worst weather conditions Sweden had seen in years. His tour was cold and very rainy only having about 2 weeks of warm weather the entire time. Despite the poor weather, John spoke highly of the experience and remarked how the people in Sweden flocked to the shows often overfilling capacity of the tent.

Back to the States:

While in Sweden, John had made some connections back in the U.S. which led to the next leg of his journey, cooperate entertainment. This position allowed John to live more comfortably and offered the stability of a regular paycheck and health insurance for he and his family. For the next couple of decades John worked his magic spreading joy to kids young and old, big and small from all walks of life. Unfortunately concept changes led to the termination of John’s specific roll with this corporation turning him once again to new opportunities. Currently John is building his own entertainment troupe ABC Circus in the Mid West hoping to bring circus style shows to local groups with his clown character “Rusty Bathwater” at the helm. I asked John if he could summarize how circus clowns and birthday party clowns differ, his explanation is; circus clowns are about skits, physical comedy and acting out a show where birthday clowns concentrate more on the balloon making, face paints and small magic shows. Not to say that birthday clowns were inferior, just played to a different setting.

In Closing:

My time spent with John Winslow was truly a treasured experience and my head was filled with so many great stories and interesting facts about circus life I didn’t want it to end. I walked away with so much great material we may have to visit John aging in another article. I can honestly say that John is a stellar clown after my kids and I saw him perform first hand. I wish him all the best and hope you enjoy his stories as much as I did bringing them to you.


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