Ron “Toto” Johnson
He started in 1977 at age 10 in his hometown of Naugatuck CT. He graduated Ringling Clown College in 1985. He has since worked in circuses, theme parks, casinos, riverboats, parades, carnivals, and just about every other venue you can think of.
He has performed all over the world, including Africa, China, Europe, South America, Japan, and Asia. For close to 20 years he was I’m not sure if he’s been to Antarctica, but I’m guessing if not, he will be going soon.
Awarded title of Master Clown from McDonald’s
From 1996-2017 ToTo was the Ronald McDonald Program Coordinator in eastern Iowa and western Illinois and was awarded the title of “Master Clown” by
McDonald’s in November 2016.
He currently lives in Davenport, IA with his rat terrier, where he continues to tour, teach, and perform.
Ron was recently the subject of an excellent article in the Moline Dispatch.
Read that article here: Moline Dispatch Article on Ron Johnson
You can find out more about Toto Johnson on his website: http://www.totojohnson.com
DAVENPORT — “Toto” Johnson has made a career out of making people smile, while getting to write off his large shoes and makeup on his taxes.Mr. Johnson lives in Davenport with Cooper, a rescued rat terrier that turned six in April.“He’s actually my second rat terrier,” Mr. Johnson said. “My first one, Jake, held the Guinness World Record for oldest living dog for a while. He was over 21 and the typical lifespan for rat terriers is 15-17 years.”He said he started his clown career path as a child, nurtured by the Naugatuck, Conn., community that encouraged participation in the arts.“The Parks & Recreation Department had a Youth Services Club that had all kinds of arts and dance classes, and there was a woman who taught a clown class,” he said. “I was in a gifted and talented class in elementary school, doing puppet work, movie making, all kinds of independent study work in this class.“We did science experiments, performing arts one day a week, so I got into the performing arts, like doing magic and puppets,” he said. “For the class graduation, we walked around during the town arts fair, performing.”“When he was 14, a magic shop opened near his home and he started hanging out there.“I met other local kids same age who had the same interests — like juggling and balloon sculpting — so we formed a group to do events,” he said. “That group had two groups to do smaller events: Colossal Clowns & the Masters of Madness. We did shows, parties and festivals and joined the local magic clubs the clown club.“One day there was a story in the newspaper that the Ringling Brothers were having auditions in Hartford for their clown college,” Mr. Johnson said. “That’s the only way to get into their circus; you have to attend their college. So imagine two 15-year olds, two 14-year olds (I was one of them) and a 13-year-old asking their parents for permission to skip school, ride a bus an hour one way to Hartford to audition for the circus and ride the bus back.”
Mr. Johnson said their parents agreed, but the clowning would stop if their grades fell.
“You have to keep in mind I was a straight A student and member of the National Honor Society at the time,” he said. “My parents supported me 100 percent from Day 1 about following my dreams.
“We were all too young to attend the college, but wanted to see what it was like,” he said. “It was great! We did improv exercises and learned how to move in the ring, and at the end we all showed off our skills.
“The next week, we did again, all over again in New Haven,” he said. “I did every year until I was a senior.”
Mr. Johnson said he and a classmate also auditioned for Class of 1984, answering questions such as “What is your favorite book?” and “What does a bird in the hand and two in the bush mean to you?”
More than 6,000 people applied; 60 got in. Mr. Johnson was one of them.
“I applied for practice, but got in and had to tell them I couldn’t because I was a senior in high school,” he said. “I re-applied the next year and was accepted again.
“I graduated from high school on June 9, 1985, and three hours later I was on a plane to Orlando to start working at Circus World Theme Park before starting college in the fall.”
Mr. Johnson called the college a “boot camp for clowns.” Graduation included displays of clown gags such as skits, stilt-walking and acrobatics.
“That was the audition for the circus and, out of my class, only 23 were auditioned for the circus, including me,” he said. “I spent the next four years doing 550 shows a year across the U.S. The first two years were spent doing shows in major cities; the next two years were doing smaller cities.
“I was married for a while to a woman I met at college and worked with at the circus,” he said. “We even had a circus wedding with elephant bridesmaids.”
After Ringling Brothers, Mr. Johnson worked at a circus in Sweden and then at a circus-themed restaurant in Tokyo. He moved to a show at Six Flags in Georgia, produced a magic show at a theme park in Massachusetts and finally worked at the Circus Circus Casino in Mississippi.
He came to the Quad-Cities when the Circus Circus boat changed themes, he said. He went to work for an entertainment booking firm, but that position recently was eliminated, he said. Now he’s looking for his next big challenge.
“I’ve worked in Mumbai, India, for festivals and six times in China for festivals in Shanghai,” he said. His career has taken him to Monaco, Holland, Northern Ireland and Portugal, among other stops. He also performs locally and teaches clowning through his website, totojohnson.com.
Getting ready for work is a lengthy process, he said, because of his preferred style.
“I have a detailed makeup,” he said.”I use a Ringling style called ‘Auguste clown,’ which is German slang that means silly/clumsy. It takes me about an hour and a half to go from street clothes to full clown makeup.”
Big shoes, makeup supplies and costumes known as “wardrobe,” custom-made by a former Ringling costume designer in Maple Lake, Minn., are all considered business expenses Mr. Johnson can write off on his income taxes.
“I’ve had the same guy doing my taxes for 21 years, so nothing surprises him anymore,” he said.
And while slacking off may also be called “clowning around,” Mr. Johnson said a lot of hard work that goes into the business.
“I’d like for people to realize that being a clown is much more than running out, being silly, and leaving,” he said. “When you see a Ringling Brothers show or another professional act, and they do a gag or performance, what you see on stage is maybe 2 percent of the time they spent getting that act ready.
“Anyone can run out, buy $5 worth of makeup and a costume and call themselves a clown,” he said. “You have to be completely dedicated to the art to really be a clown. I can put on a lab coat and a stethoscope and call myself a doctor, but I’m not a doctor.
“You have to believe in it 110 percent and you have to be wiling to put in all the work in rehearsals, writing, traveling,” he said. “There’s a lot to get to that 2 percent that the public sees.”
Mr. Johnson said he remains star struck by outstanding clown performers.
“I’d get the programs and study the acts,” he said. “I was so focused. I knew the acts and the makeup they used because they were my celebrities.
“My idols, my celebrities, my movie stars are my friends,” he said. How many professions do your idols become your friends? I’m seeing the children of my heroes getting into the business.
“Even after 33 years, I still get star struck, even though they’re friends of mine,” he said. “I still sit back and think I can’t believe this is happening. I’m completely, utterly blessed to do what I do.”