Article about Clown College Reunion in Baraboo

World's top clowns gather in Baraboo for show tonight

By Brian D. Bridgeford / News Republic

Many of the world's best clowns will be in Baraboo this weekend as they hold a 40-year reunion of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College graduates at the Circus World Museum.

Tonight at 7 p.m., the clowns will perform a show called "40 Years of Laughter" in the museum's Hippodrome as a benefit for Circus World Museum.

On Tuesday afternoon, Baraboo professional clown Greg DeSanto and CWM volunteer Jeff Tobin were moving giant clown props around the museum's Elephant House as they set up exhibits on the history of the college and those who trained there. At least 165 clowns from the United States, Germany and Mexico are expected to attend the event, DeSanto said.

The Clown College was founded in Venice, Fla., in 1968, shortly after entertainment promoter Irvin Feld bought "The Greatest Show on Earth" from the descendants of Baraboo's five Ringing brothers, he said.

"When he looked at the show, there were 14 clowns working. They were great clowns, but the youngest clown was in his 50s, the oldest clown was in his 80s," DeSanto said. "(Feld) saw that the art form was dying."

Feld set up the College of Clowns, later changed to the Clown College, so new performers could learn the arts of clowning from the old masters, he said. The college received 2,000 applications each year, but only 50 performers were selected to participate.

The 10-week program ran six days a week. People learned about every aspect of being a clown — make-up, acrobatics and slapstick gags, even throwing pies, DeSanto said. A 23-year veteran performer, DeSanto said he attended Clown College in 1985 and also taught at the program.

The Clown College ran for 30 years, mostly in Florida, but also ran for three years in the early 1990s at Circus World Museum.

"It was the salvation of American-style circus clowning in America," DeSanto said. "I believe there were about 1,272 graduates from the college."

Even after the Clown College ended, various kinds of clown training programs continue around the United States, such as a clowning camp held periodically at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, DeSanto said.

Among the circus clown memorabilia that is part of CWM's legacy of the Clown College is a prop pizza oven painted with the words "DeSanto's Pizza." DeSanto said he first used it in 1985 to create a routine in Clown College that the managers of the Ringing Bros. Circus liked so much they had him perform it for two years on the road.

"At the end, I put my head in it and it explodes," he said. "A lot of kids remember it because there's a big explosion.

"A lot of drama and a lot of flying powder and pizza dough," DeSanto said.

New Jersey clown Pat Cashin said he graduated during the Clown College's final year in 1997. He was in town to help set up the reunion, but usually works with the Kelly-Miller Circus. It is owned by John Ringling-North II, a descendant of Baraboo's Ringling brothers.

Cashin said he loved the circus as a child, but it was at age 29 that he won admission to Clown College and started a whole new life performing. It is hard work setting up his show and the gags, but he enjoys it.

"It was the chance to start a whole new career," he said. "Once you get out in front of an audience, it's all worth it."

Greg DeSanto's wife, Baraboo professional clown Karen DeSanto, said she was a California resident who already had her own clowning business with several employees when she auditioned to come to chilly Wisconsin for the 1993 session of Clown College. The program began each year after CWM's performance season closed at the end of summer, and she remembers celebrating Halloween in Baraboo.

Clowns have to learn many of the circus skills to perform their gags, she said, but for her the toughest thing was learning acrobatics.

"I could never do a cartwheel as a kid," Karen said. "When they told me I had to fly on a trapeze, and I had to swing in a thing called a Russian swing and I had to do triple stand, stand on somebody's shoulders and somebody stand on my shoulders, I said 'you got to be kidding me.'"

Despite, not being "built for it," Karen said she learned those skills.

Clown College provided the foundation of her future life, DeSanto said. She and Greg lived for a time in New York City and have traveled around the world for clowning performances.

"It broadened my horizons. I've traveled the world doing this," she said. "The circus opened up a whole world of experiences and friendships."

Greg was an instructor at Clown College, and after the course both of them were selected to travel with the Ringling Brothers "Greatest Show on Earth." While working together, romance blossomed and they were eventually married.

"We both thought each other was funny, and you know what happens then," Karen said.

Cashin said people coming to "40 Years of Laughter" will be seeing some of the most talented, experienced clowns in the profession.

"There will be a greater collection of circus clowns here than anywhere in the world," he said.

Karen DeSanto agreed some of the best clowns in the world are in Baraboo this weekend.

"Clowns from all the years of Clown College who have worked in the business all these years will bring their talents to Baraboo to perform," she said. "It's going to be an outstandingly funny, great show."

If you go

What: "40 Years of Laughter" clown show

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Circus World Museum Hippodrome

Admission: $7

2 comments

  • Nice of em to mention Bill. Only the dude that started them out, gave them all his ideas on comedy freely, and booked them on their first jobs. How rude and small the Wisconsin clowns seem. It is really about getting laughs, entertaining paying customers, you know, not any of this pseudo religious crap. Ringling doesnt even have clowns anymore. Have you been to see the circus lately??? A real shame. It looks like a gym.

  • Nice of em to mention Bill. Only the dude that started them out, gave them all his ideas on comedy freely, and booked them on their first jobs.
    How rude and small the Wisconsin clowns seem. It is really about getting laughs, entertaining paying customers, you know, not any of this pseudo religious crap. Ringling doesnt even have clowns anymore. Have you been to see the circus lately??? A real shame. It looks like a gym.

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