Jackpotting with Jay

In case, you don’t know, Jackpotting is the circus term for sitting around and telling stories (mostly about the jackpots that you’ve gotten into and how you managed to escape them). I spent most of last night Jackpotting with my clown college roommate– Jay Stewart.

Me in my Ringling Agent Suit

In 1989, fresh out of the Trinity Rep Conservatory and having done a small series of regional theatre jobs that I was despairing about (I felt like I was doing a bunch of work I was uninterested in to pay my dues so that I could actually create theatre),  I realized that whatever Trinity Rep chance I had was going to change when Anne Bogart, new artistic director of the theatre, took over.  I was at the lowest rung at Trinity, and was pretty sure I wouldn’t get hired when she started using Conservatory students on the stage instead of former Conservatory students.

Casting about for another idea, I thought I should enhance my skill set.   I applied on a whim to Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College.  Although nearly 2000 people applied for one of the 54 places (making it statistically harder than getting into Harvard), I managed to get in without an audition.  I even got a materials scholarship!   I quit my day job, (lunch time waiter), finished by night show (playing Griever in Blue Window for Alias Stage, now The Gamm Theatre) packed up all my stuff, and moved to a little town in Florida called Venice.  From there, I spent 14 hours a day, 6 days a week in an un-airconditioned airplane hangar learning the craft of being a clown, and my whole idea about my life in the theatre changed dramatically, (and I think for the better)

Jay Stewart as a classic whiteface clown

My room mate was a southern guy from Atlanta who had been finishing up his Master’s thesis at Wake Forrest when he heard the call of the circus.  His name was Jay Stewart, and Jay and I spent many sleepless nights talking about theories of comedy, books, girls, and sharing lots of laughs about the travails of the day and the peculiar combination of fun and misery that we were sharing. He taught me to eat sardines, and I told him about the book A Confederacy of Dunces. (which he told me last night was one of his favorite books ever!) We had great fun together, and really made a strong connection.

After our final exam, Jay was offered a contract and I wasn’t. (Although I’d gone there with the express idea of not leaving with a contract, I was still a little disappointed.  I’d felt like I was one of the funnier guys in my class.  Overall, Ringling probably made the right decision, as I have a problem with following authority blindly, and probably would have jumped the show or been unhappy on the road. )

The Young Moe Howard.. Or is it Jay Stewart? I'm not telling!

We lost touch, although we’d connect once in a while via email and lately facebook.  While I was off learning the secrets of the flea circus and studying Czechoslovakian clowning and becoming the clown laureate of Greenbelt, Maryland, Jay spent a number of years with Ringling, becoming a teacher at Clown College, becoming the boss clown of the Ringling Red Unit, working on the Kinoshito Circus in Japan, working as Moe in a 3 Stooges show in Las Vegas, creating a troupe of Amusement park clowns in Myrtle Beach, SC, working for and supervising the Boston Big Apple Clown Care Unit, and lots of other stuff. He now lives in Cape Cod MA with his wife and two kids, and they’ve put together a whole family circus show that they tour around.

Jay’s in NY this week to teach makeup and classic clown routines with the NY Goofs, and last night, after not having seen each other for 21 years, we caught up. We had a great time drinking beer and eating buffalo burgers, and charming our delicious tattooed waitress into giving us a free beer (shh… don’t tell our wives!)

I think we were both amazed that we could pretty much pick up where we left off 21 years ago, and that we both had pursued similar ideas of clowning in vastly different venues.

It was great to re-connect with an old friend after so much time away, and we both agreed we need to stay better connected, and who knows maybe even do a show together.

So who was your clown college roommate?  Did you stay in touch with them?  What are they up to now?

Here’s a video of Jay and another clown college classmate Mike Smith performing a classic clown routine “The Washerwomen”

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2 comments

  • I went to the RBBB Clown College in 1985. MY roommate at the Venice Villas was John Winslow from Gloucester, Virginia. To make a long story short, we both toured with the RBBB Red unit (John through mid 1988 and me 'til the end of the 1989 season). John also toured with my (ex)wife Rene' and I on Cirkus Olympia in Sweden in 1991. John and his wife live in the Detroit area now. I see them from time to time…and after 25 years both John and I still clown full time.
    “Toto” Johnson

  • JimLa and I were Clown College roommates and then bunked next to each other on the train. He spent most of his nights at clown college out hustling suckers for drinks playing bar basketball – don't EVER play him unless you want to lose all your dukies! We see each other every couple of years and keep up through emails. Adam – I agree with you 100%… you were one of the funniest guys in our class, but I think we all knew RBBB wasn't in the market for a Kafka Klown as I remember you referring to yourself. Glad to hear of your expolits & success over all these years and hope to cut up some jackpots with you myself one of these days.

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