Circus performers clown around in Butler, Bellville

By Louise Swartzwalder -

Courtesy photo Skeeter the advanced clown talks with students before her the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus performance.

Courtesy photo Skeeter the advanced clown talks with students before her the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus performance.

The faces people see at a circus — that great big, fun show with big-smiled people and amazing animals — can sometimes seem bigger than life.

One person who has been in circus life since she was nine has been one of those white-faced clowns with grand ears and shoes.

Tina Bausch, an “advance clown” with the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus which performed in Butler Monday, said her job is to be with the circus 32 weeks a year. What she does now, greet school children and others in advance of the circus, is a bit different from the days she actually performed “under the big top.”

Then she was a “ring clown,” she said.

She can reach more people at schools — last week at the Butler and Bellville elementaries and the Clear Fork Christian Preschool — than do the clowns who perform under the circus tent. She said she reaches about 1,500 people, when the tent seats about 750.

Bausch, originally from Grove City, said she, an”educated fool” who studied at Otterbein University, started clowning at nine.

She went to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey clown college, which she described as a 12.5 week boot camp.

A clown must learn all jobs in a circus — balancing, juggling, acrobatics, trapeze — because if something happens to delay a certain segment of a performance, clowns must step in.

A clown is the “lifeguard of the circus,” she said.

She said “there is a lot of science in what the circus does.”

In one act girls climb up a gym rope which is covered with cloth. A handler is in charge of making the rope rotate and it is important that person do the job at the right speed. If not, the girl swinging on the rope can’t get her legs as close to perpendicular as necessary to make the act work, said Bausch.

The clown is the character most people remember from seeing circuses because their look is what some might describe as overstated: big nose, red bushy hair, sometimes big white collars, very big feet, padded bodies.

Clowns must learn to “manipulate” their face, she said.

A “good clown goes out and entertains with nothing but their selves,” she said.

Greasepaint make-up is put on in vivid colors or plain white. A clown has two instruments — facial expression and the body, — she said.

It “takes a second and a quarter for the eye to catch motion,” she said. This is why the makeup is so important, she said.

A clown puts on make-up two or three times a day.

Bausch said it takes her “less time to put on clown make-up than make-up for a date.”

When Bausch started clowning in 1967 and 1978, there were no women, she said. It wasn’t until 1972 that a woman got a contract with a circus, said Bausch.

Circus history shows that they have always been international: performers are Asian, African, Russian, from New Guinea, according to Bausch. Families get into circuses, and younger children learn the jobs early. Some families have third generation performers, she said.

If an older family member becomes injured in performing, he or she may shift to a less demanding job but stays with the circus.

“if you wish to do it, you”ll find a way,” said Bausch.

You have to “live it with respect: respect for kids, respect for animals, respect for mom and dads and the community,” she said.

Bausch said tried to get into Ringling circuses for nine years. There were 59 spots available and 6,000 applicants. When an applicant makes a presentation the interviewers might take two people, or 20, she said.

A person who gets into clowning gets to know many circus secrets.

Cream pies — those that get thrown into clowns’ faces — aren’t cream. They’re soap.

If they were made of banana cream, for instance, each could cost $12.50, said Bausch. That would add up to about $150 a performance. Those figures are assessed against the performing clown, said Bausch.

An enterprising first-timer clown figured out how to make them of soap, she said. That also works better because it doesn’t interfere so much with clown make-up, she said.

Bausch said there weren’t many women in circuses initially because they would be the people caring for children as the circus traveled.

People working in circuses travel to them now in their own vehicles — RVs, campers, tractor trailers.

The Culpepper-Merriweather circus had one ring — the standard now in circuses. People got to see this year’s ring clown, Leo, who is 36 or 37 and in the last graduating class of the Ringling college.

The show had lions, tigers, a Friesian stallion, people on unicycles, she said.

Bausch traveled to Butler and Bellville from Canal Winchester, she said.

Working with children in schools and at circuses now is different, she said, because there are so many performers aren’t allowed to do or to bring in.

There are “47 things” people can’t do now. Some people have latex allergies so certain types of balloons are forbidden. People have allergies to peanuts and popcorn, circus staples.

The circus performs in 243 towns in 32 weeks. This means there are different health departments in each area, so the circus tries to keep the menu of food offered simple, she said.

Bausch has been given the lifetime achievement award of laughter from the International Clown Hall of Fame, she said. Only three women have gotten that award, and she is the only advance clown.

Courtesy photo Skeeter the advanced clown talks with students before her the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus performance. photo Skeeter the advanced clown talks with students before her the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus performance.

By Louise Swartzwalder

Reach Louise at 419-886-2291 ext. 1982

Reach Louise at 419-886-2291 ext. 1982